Panthers' Hurney struggling to create Newton market

Posted April 20, 2011 @ 3:09 p.m.
Posted By Eric Edholm

It's hard to blame the Panthers for the things that have been out of their control this offseason, or rather this lockout-frozen state of existence.

First of all, it's not a great draft. There's no clear-cut No. 1 pick. The Panthers had no idea they would be in a position to select first and possibly face picking a quarterback in Cam Newton a year after they took Jimmy Clausen with their top choice.

The lockout also makes it tougher for teams that draft a quarterback and expect them to contribute in Year One. We have no idea when football-related activities — the ones that happen on the field, anyway — will resume. Throw in the fact that the Panthers have a new head coach and offensive coordinator, and it's all the more tricky.

And, oh yeah, the Panthers can't even negotiate with the top pick like teams normally can in times of labor harmony.

It's not an easy deal here.

But that doesn't mean that the Panthers couldn't have played their hand a little better in the days leading up to the draft. It's clear that Newton is the buzz player, the X-factor in this crop. He's this year's Tim Tebow in terms of intrigue and sex appeal, really a jacked-up version of Tebow because Newton's upside is seen as much higher.

There should be a market for him at No. 1. Not the kind of market that No. 1 picks had a generation ago before salaries and signing bonuses for first-rounders went berserk. But some teams will view Newton as a franchise changer.

And maybe the Panthers are one of those teams. They have lacked a buzz-worthy quarterback for years, and he's the kind of player who really could bring a lot of mojo to a team sorely in need of it.

But I don't believe they fully are solid on Newton at No. 1, despite his near-lock status on a lot of folks' mock drafts. I believe that GM Marty Hurney sees Newton as the player with the most potential but also the biggest potential pitfall selection.

Hurney is not a risk taker by trade in the draft, at least not in terms of the players he goes after early. He generally has made sound, safe choices in his reign as the Panthers' chief decision maker, and most of his first-round picks have been respectable ones. They typically are high-character players with a little higher floors and a little lower ceilings than the players drafted in the same vicinity as his picks. Newton would be his biggest gamble ever.

But what Hurney has done, I believe, is failed to juice up the buzz on this player. Most league insiders know Hurney's reputation and draft tendencies and that he's not often wont to go for a player like Newton, who carries a lot of baggage along with that intriguing talent. New head coach Ron Rivera went out of his way to praise Newton at the NFL Scouting Combine and owners' meetings, but there have been a lot of tumbleweeds since. It has been mostly radio silence from the Panthers' draft brass in recent days with just about a week to go before Draft Day.

Hurney should be hyping up Newton as a potentially revolutionary player, with a rare mix of skill and on-field leadership. He should be far more public about his love of the quarterback to create a market for Newton at No. 1.

It's a fail-safe approach no matter what course the Panthers choose to take. If they want Newton, they can have him and make a few other teams jealous in the process. If they decide not to take him, then maybe they can get a team in the top 7-8 picks to move up. Even if they don't get market value on the pick, they still could add a much-needed defensive tackle or another skilled player and pick up some additional ammo.

The Panthers are hamstrung by the fact they lack a crucial draft piece: the first pick of the second round. The trade Hurney made last season no doubt burns him to this day. Even if Armanti Edwards turns out to be a decent, serviceable player, it was bad business. The Bobby Beathard method of mortgaging next year's higher picks for immediate returns is a risky play, and it has proven faulty in many cases in recent years.

There's a good chance there will be a rookie cap of some sort written into the new labor agreement, whenever that is agreed upon, and the Panthers need to take advantage of that likelihood. Dealing up to No. 1 has been far too financially unwieldy for teams in recent years, and thrifty owners such as the Bills' Ralph Wilson, the Cardinals' Bidwill family and the Titans' Bud Adams would have nothing to do with a player likely to command more than $50 million guaranteed based on the prior financial structure. But what if the number is more like $20 million or $25 million? That's the bottom-line starting point for young, talented quarterbacks who are not top-10 picks. Those teams would have to consider that price tag.

Maybe Hurney, a former journalist who should understand how to generate buzz, is keeping quiet because he likes Newton and wants to take him. He has no need to yap about how great his future QB will be. But why not subtly hint that the pick might, just might, be for sale to the highest bidder? The Rams honestly were stunned at a few last-minute offers they received last year by teams such as the Redskins for the opportunity to take Sam Bradford with the No. 1 pick. With the right PR approach, the Panthers could stir up a similar market.

But they had better get going if that is their aim. The draft is bearing down.