In preparation for the Tostitos BCS National Championship Game between Auburn and Oregon (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN), I took a closer look at three of Auburn QB Cam Newton's games from the 2010 regular season -- Clemson, South Carolina and LSU -- and got a much better feel for him as a prospect.
Newton (Scouts Inc. grade: 90) has been the most dominant college football player in the nation this season, and there's no doubt that his impressive size (6-foot-5.5, 248 pounds), deceptive speed, elite agility and powerful running style are big reasons for his success.
He also has the height to scan the field in the passing game and the release and arm strength to make a lot of throws without setting his feet. However, because of the scheme he plays in, Newton will enter the NFL as a developmental project.
The first question I have about his game is his footwork. Newton rarely lines up under center, and when he does, the play is most often a handoff to a running back. He spends most of his time running the option and will have to work hard on dropping back from under center.
Newton's footwork development will be even more difficult because he will be forced to make much more complicated passing reads and decisions in the NFL. Right now, he frequently sees opposing defenses in one-high safety looks or even with no safety deep in order to get a numbers advantage against the run, but even then, Newton sometimes struggles to read the defense.
Against Clemson, for example, he threw two interceptions after hanging balls up in the air down the middle of the field and allowing defenders to break on the ball. Newton also threw what should have been a third interception when he failed to see a cornerback undercutting a crossing route by WR Darvin Adams, and only Adams' fantastic catch bailed him out.
You have to wonder how long it will take Newton to learn to read defenses while dropping from under center with proper footwork, go through his progressions and make quicker decisions in order to fit the ball into much tighter passing windows in the NFL.
Finally, teams considering paying Newton millions of dollars will have to consider the red flags surrounding his character and do their homework where his off-the-field issues are concerned.
Newton was arrested while at Florida on a charge of possessing a stolen laptop computer; there have been rumblings that he had academic issues while with the Gators; and the NCAA investigation surrounding his recruitment out of Blinn College and the fact that his father was attempting to solicit large sums of money in return for Cam attending Mississippi State will all be investigated thoroughly by NFL teams.
The NCAA has cleared Cam Newton of any wrongdoing in the recruitment scandal, but the influence of his father will be a consideration for NFL decision-makers.
In the end, if I were working for an NFL team, I would not put a first-round grade on Newton. He is simply too much of a developmental project in terms of passing skills and comes with too much character baggage for my liking.
He gets a fringe first-round grade from the Scouts Inc. group as a whole based on his potential, and it's likely some team will fall in love with his athleticism, measurables and arm strength, but for my money, Newton is a second-round pick. Of course, he is a junior and could always return to Auburn for another year, but that seems like a long shot for a guy who's already won the Heisman Trophy.
Other noteworthy title game prospects
As far as NFL talent goes, this year's BCS title game comes up short compared to recent championship games.
Only three senior prospects playing in this year's game have received invitations to the annual NFL Scouting Combine and that includes Oregon DT Brandon Bair, who is a fringe prospect in our rankings.
The previous eight national title games have seen an average of 13 players from those games drafted the following April. That includes 17 each from the 2006 Texas-USC and 2007 Florida-Ohio State games. And consider the the 2009 Florida-Oklahoma game, which produced eight picks in the '09 draft but featured nine Gators who were drafted in 2010 and three Sooners (Sam Bradford, Gerald McCoy, Jermaine Gresham) who were first-rounders in '10.
Below is a look at the prospects in this year's title game -- other than Newton -- who recieve at least a late-round grade from Scouts Inc., with underclassmen noted with an asterisk.
Auburn DT Nick Fairley* (97)
The most dominant interior defensive lineman in the country this season, Fairley has quick feet and hands and is explosive at the point of attack. He plays with a good motor and can get into the offensive backfield to disrupt plays. Fairley carries an early-first-round grade at this point, but a dominant showing in the title game could help him lock down a top-five selection.
Oregon RB LaMichael James* (73)
He's undersized (5-8.5, 185) but is a tough runner who shows the balance to bounce off contact in traffic and make yards between the tackles. He also has the second gear to exploit the smallest of creases and the vision to set up his blocks well. James has been nicked up at times, though, and because of his size and durability concerns, he'll never be a full-time back in the NFL. However, James' ability to contribute as a change-of-pace back makes him worthy of a third-round grade.
Auburn DT Lee Ziemba (70)
He is not a natural athlete and struggles to bend at the knees, but Ziemba is technically sound and takes good angles to the point of attack. He is also strong and tough enough to open creases in the running game when he gets into good position. Ziemba has good enough feet to slide and mirror in pass protection, but because he is a bit of a waist-bender, he will get off balance at times and struggle to recover against double moves. Overall, he has enough tools to be on the fringe of Day 2.
Auburn RB Mario Fannin (42) -- Fannin has taken a back seat to Michael Dyer and Onterio McCalebb this season but he has good size (5-10⅜, 230) and short-area burst. Fannin does not have elite lateral quickness, and his film reveals some ball-security issues, but I like his ability to contribute as a runner and receiver, and he takes pride in his pass-blocking. He's a late-round prospect at this point but has the tools to eventually develop into a contributor at the next level.
Oregon OLB Casey Matthews (39)
Matthews is not as athletically gifted as his older brother, Green Bay Packers LB Clay Matthews, but he has impressive instincts and is almost always in good position to make a play. Matthews also times blitzes well, but he does struggle to change directions quickly and does not always break down well as an open-field tackler. However, he makes up for his lack of range and natural athleticism with a nose for the ball and is the kind of player who can get on the back end of a roster as a late-round pick and contribute as a reserve on defense and on special teams.