- Steve Muench, Scouts Inc.
Regardless of how you feel about the controversial noncall that ended the game, New England-Carolina lived up to its prime-time billing and provided plenty of food for thought when it comes to the NFL draft.
Here are a handful of things that jumped out at me:
Panthers QB Cam Newton
Newton's intermediate accuracy and touch are still inconsistent. He also got away with a couple of poor decisions that could have easily turned into interceptions as he faced a Patriots secondary depleted by injuries.
That said, he is making strides as a passer in his third year. And remember, he faced a steeper learning curve than some other quarterbacks after playing in an Auburn scheme that ran the ball more than twice as much as it passed his senior year. At the end of the day, he threw a touchdown pass to three different receivers, completed 67.9 percent of his passes and led the Panthers' on a 13-play, 83-yard game-winning drive late in the fourth quarter. It was a strong showing any way you look at it.
Newton also rushed for 62 yards on seven carries and exhausted New England's pass rush with his ability to buy time. His ability to sidestep pressure and break would-be sacks, in addition to his ability to accelerate when he decides to run, is rare for a 6-foot-5, 245-pound player.
Yet there is a quarterback with a similar frame and mobility in 2014 draft class. That's Virginia Tech's Logan Thomas, and he's a polarizing prospect.
Thomas is unlikely to run a 4.59-second 40-yard dash as Newton did at the 2011 combine, but he could, at 6-6, 257 pounds, run in the 4.6s. In addition, both players have cannons for arms and throw great deep balls. I'm not suggesting making Thomas the first overall pick as Carolina did with Newton. Newton did a far better job of protecting the football and showed better accuracy against tougher competition in the SEC than Thomas has in the ACC.
I'm not even suggesting taking Thomas in the first round. He will have to make great strides in terms of his footwork and decision-making -- not to mention rebuild his confidence following two disappointing seasons -- to succeed in the NFL. Still, it will be interesting to see how much his stock rises once he works out for teams and when a team decides the risk is worth the reward come May.
Versatile tight ends
It's no surprise that Carolina had a hard time dealing with New England tight end Rob Gronkowski's blend of size, speed and athletic ability. He wasn't the only tight end making plays, though, as Greg Olsen finished the game with similar stats. While he's not the same kind of physical specimen as Gronkowski, Olsen does a nice job of getting off the line, runs crisp routes and catches the ball well. At 6-5 and 250 pounds, Olsen, like Gronkowski, is an effective run-blocker. Carolina has enough faith in him to overload one side of the offensive line, line Olsen up at tackle on the weak side and run behind him.
North Carolina's Eric Ebron is the top-ranked tight end on our board and is a tough blocker for his size, but at 6-4 and 245 pounds, he's more of an F- or move tight end than he is a Y- or traditional in-line tight end. On the other hand, Washington's Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Texas Tech's Jace Amaro and Iowa's C.J. Fiedorowicz have the frames to hold their own working against NFL defensive linemen in the run game and the athletic ability to make plays in the passing game.
Carolina's rookie defensive tackles
Carolina's decision to take former Utah defensive tackle Star Lotulelei with the 14th overall pick and Kawann Short with the 44th overall pick in general manager Dave Gettleman's first draft has solidified the Panthers' defensive front.
Lotulelei is a difference-maker who is tough against the run and capable of providing pressure up the middle. Short has been a disruptive No. 3 DT, and the Panthers don't skip a beat when he gets into the game. The Panthers deserve a lot of credit for taking both players where they did, considering Lotulelei's heart condition that doctors discovered at the combine may have scared teams away from him and that there were concerns about Short's effort coming out.
Panthers' MLB Luke Kuechly
Kuechly's instincts, ability to fight off blocks, range and tackling ability all stood out. As impressive as his skill set is, his effort is just as impressive, and describing him as relentless isn't hyperbole.
He has more than justified Carolina's decision to take him with the ninth overall pick in 2012, even though it's rare to take an inside linebacker that early. He would be a productive player regardless of the scheme, but he wouldn't be as effective on third down in a scheme that asked him to regularly match up in man coverage. While he does a great job of reading quarterbacks and breaking on the ball, he's not nearly as effective when he's forced to turn. That's not a surprise. One of the few concerns about Kuechly coming out of Boston College was his ability to match up in man coverage.
New England RB Stevan Ridley has had problems holding the ball the past two seasons, and the talented 2011 third-round pick coughed it up in the red zone in the second quarter. Ridley didn't get another carry until late in the third and watched power back LeGarrette Blount and 2011 second-round pick Shane Vereen get the bulk of the snaps in the fourth. Ridley is the Patriots' best pure runner thanks to his blend of vision, quickness, balance and power, but it gets tougher to trust him with each fumble.
We take ball security seriously when we evaluate backs, and it can have a significant impact on a back's grade. Kansas City Chiefs 2013 third-round pick and former Arkansas back Knile Davis is an excellent example. At 5-10 and 227 pounds, Davis ran a 4.37 40 at the combine. We still gave him a late-fifth-round grade. His injury history and lack of production in 2012 played roles in that grade, but his ball security played just as big a role considering he fumbled eight times in 123 touches in 2012.
449dTodd McShay, Steve Muench and Kevin Weidl