CHARLOTTE (N.C.) — The 2011 NFL Draft was less than 48 hours away.They were all huddled in a room near Bank of America Stadium. As Ron Rivera, first-year coach of Auburn, and his staff debated whether Auburn quarterback should be chosen, tension was palpable. All the boxes were checked to make the final pick.
It was, as one person described it, “very volatile.’’
There were many who doubted whether Newton was the right choice despite months of homework and private workouts. There were those who questioned whether Newton’s unique style as a dual-threat quarterback could lead to success.
“As we were going back and forth, and I kept listening to all this bashing, I got pissed off,’’ recalled Rivera, now the coach of the. “I said, ‘Let me f—ing tell you something. All I’ve heard is what he can’t do. I get it. Tell me, however, what he can do. Tell me what he is best at. That’s what I f—ing wanted to know.
“I mean, I was really pissed off because I felt like this guy was going to get us to the Super Bowl.’’
Newton was named league MVP in 2015 and led Carolina to Super Bowl 50.
Under the microscope
Every position has its own vetting process, but the quarterback is the most rigorous. The organization wants to make sure that the player is as talented as the game. He will most likely become the face and face of the franchise.
“No doubt,’’ saidgeneral manager Brandon Beane, Carolina’s director of football operations in 2011. “It’s such a pivotal thing. When you’re going to take a quarterback, there’s a lot moreAt stake.’’
This year’s quarterback class, much like the 2011 class, isn’t considered particularly strong. ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr., who had Newton ranked 12th on his big board 11 years ago, doesn’t have a quarterback in this year’s class ranked higher than Liberty’sat .
That’s why teams searching for a franchise quarterback are spending countless hours vetting Willis, Pittsburgh’s, Ole Miss’ Other.
“The quarterback is a position that almost feels presidential or some level of royalty,’’ said former Carolina scout Khari Darlington, whose job from mid-January 2011 through the April draft was to shadow Newton. “So yeah, a lot of work goes into it.
“But I’d be hard-pressed to believe that it ever would extend to the level of intensity that came along with evaluating Cam.’’
Start the project
Darlington tried to think of the best way of describing the room during one of his first draft meetings.
“People were passionate with their yeses and their nos. … It was almost like a sequestered jury,’’ he said. “When it came to Cam, that No. The debate heated up.
“There weren’t very many people in the room that wanted Cam from the very beginning, which is how I got the assignment from the jump.’’
Marty Hurney, general manager of the company, pointed out the magnet on the large board that was used to prioritize players. He asked if anyone would be interested in Newton No. 1.
“The room was basically silent,’’ Darlington said. “After all the grumbling and silence, I just stuck my head up and said, ‘I can’t say I wouldn’t.'”
Hurney approached Darlington after the meeting and asked him if he meant his words. Darlington responded, “'Absolutely,' and he just shook his head and said, ‘Yeah,’ and left.’’
Rivera called Darlington later that day and gave him the assignment.
“I don’t think I evaluated somebody my entire career who was more polarizing,’’ Darlington said. “You had guys on the side of the fence that loved everything about him. And then other guys that, for whatever reason, weren’t on board and didn’t like him as an individual.
“There was salacious and hurtful information about the guy. And so it was having to chase down all the ghosts out there.’’
Darlington and the organization talked to Newton’s coaches, teammates and friends at the colleges he attended: Florida, Blinn Junior College and Auburn. They investigated the 2008 arrest of Newton on charges including.
They also did the same with regard to allegations thatTo secure Newton's participation for Mississippi State.
“It was all hands on deck,’’ Beane recalled.
The combine, pro day
When top college prospects visited Indianapolis for the annual combine, the intensity increased.
Newton was clearly the best option for quarterback at No. 1 in a class that included Washington’s Jake Locker, Missouri’s Blaine Gabbert, Florida State’s Christian Ponder, TCU’sand Nevada’s Colin Kaepernick.
“Every opportunity we got, we tried to keep an eye on him,’’ Rivera said of Newton. “S—, I followed the quarterback group one day so I could just see him as he was interacting.’’
There was more of the same at Auburn’s pro day. Rivera had arrived on campus the day before and wanted to explore the campus and speak to as many people as possible. At one point, he ran into a stadium security guard who was aware Newton was inside preparing for the pro day and let him in “without telling anybody I’m there.’’
“You could see he was pretty much running everything,’’ Rivera said of Newton.
Rivera and Hurney met the quarterback the next morning.
“He had a bottle of water with him,’’ Rivera recalled. “By the time he was done, he had chewed the cap of the bottle off. He had taken the cap off the bottle, where you drink. He had broken it up, twisted it and mangled it. He was very fidgety.
“But his answers were great.’’
Meet the family
It wasn’t until Rivera and Hurney went separately to Atlanta to meet with Newton and his family the week before the draft that they got a deeper understanding of the player.
“By the time they came back, I felt like they had their mind all the way made up this was the direction we were going to go in,’’ Darlington recalled.
Rivera decided to watch Newton and his younger brother on ESPN highlights.
“I noticed over in the corner, the Heisman Trophy was on the floor,’’ he said. “It was mixed around what looked to be like 100 trophies. And it was just another one of the trophies, which I found to be very humbling.’’
“Speak now or forever maintain your peace.”
Darlington calls Rivera “Big Coach’’ because, at 6-foot-3, the former NFL linebacker is indeed big. He was even bigger at the final draft meeting.
“When he gets dialed in and pissed off, there’s a real presence about the man, even without his size,’’ Darlington said. “When he came into that meeting — I call it D-Day — and spun his chair around and addressed everybody in the room and said, ‘I’m tired of hearing the bulls—, speak now or forever hold your peace,’ it all happened.
“Because everybody was so passionate, man, it was like guns were being drawn.’’
Newton was compared to JaMarcus Russ, Vince Young and Michael Vick, who were all Black quarterbacks who had failed or had off the field problems. Darlington resolutely fought every problem.
“This was something you didn’t want to mess up,’’ he said. “Like, this was high pressure. You were busy with all the ‘Scam Newton’ stuff, including the laptop stuff. It was madness. Everybody’s opinion, to them, became law.’’
Beane went through a rigorous vetting processHe was the No. 7 overall pick in 2018. 7 overall pick in 2018 with the Bills, hadn’t seen anything like the vetting of Newton before or since.
“Even when he was selected, there was a lot of national criticism,’’ he said of Newton. “There were definitely people in the building that had bought into that stuff. If you wanted to not like Cam Newton, there was plenty of people you could talk to.’’
Newton was right on the edge of being in the first social media class for quarterbacks.
“It’s acceptable to be that loud of a guy when you’re a wide receiver or defensive back or whatever else,’’ Darlington said. “But when you’re a quarterback … there was a lot that came along with Cam as well. Yeah, it was a time.’’
It was time for Newton to be drafted by Rivera and the Panthers.
2022 quarterback class
The 2022 class doesn’t have a quarterback as controversial or high profile as Newton, but teams are still doing all the extra evaluation work.
The Panthers used seven of their 30 official visits on quarterbacks and brought North Carolina’sThis is unusual. They sent most of the top brass to the pro days, and they also conducted private workouts.
One source close to the situation stated that the team wanted information on how they would handle success and failure.
coach Mike Tomlin spent a week visiting Pickett, Willis, Corral and Cincinnati’s He did this for consecutive days. He took Willis and Ridder to dinner, something he doesn’t do with all prospects.
Willis' coach at Liberty, Hugh Freeze, who had eight non-quarterbacks drafted (three in the first round) while coaching at Ole Miss, said the process of vetting Willis has been “absolutely more intense.’’
“Conversations are a lot longer about quarterback play,’’ he said. “The meetings Malik has had are more detailed. Can he function in running an offense, which those other positions don’t have to do.’’
Beane said: “It’s such a pivotal thing. You may not vet a guy that you’re taking in the fifth or sixth round more than you’re vetting a third-round receiver. But if there’s three quarterbacks I’m looking at, whatever number it is, I’m going to know these guys up and down.’’
Rivera has never done that much work on another position. He may never be able to vet another quarterback the way he did Newton.
“The guy’s going to be the face of the franchise,’’ he said. “He’s going to lead and impact every play on the offensive side of the ball, and he’ll impact the game on the defensive side.
“You better get that one right.’’