There were doubts, this time last year, about Cam Newton as the No. 1 pick, about Newton as an NFL-ready starting quarterback, but they were all external. In the offices of the Carolina Panthers, who had taken Newton with the first pick in the draft, any and all doubts were outlawed. Newton was their guy, and they were all-in on him. After a rookie season in which he threw for 4,051 yards, ran for 706 and totaled 35 touchdowns, they have no regrets.
"He brings so much to you -- his accurate passing, his mobility, his leadership, his desire to win, his approach to the game, his enthusiasm for the game and his desire to be the best," Carolina general manager Marty Hurney said in March at the NFL owners meetings. "That all combines into an excellent young quarterback with a future that has tremendous upside."
Upside is one thing, but Newton is pretty good right now. If you don't think that's important in today's NFL, look around. We asked 20 coaches and general managers at the owners meetings which player 25 years old or younger they'd like to have on their team, and we got 13 different answers.
Newton got the most votes in this incredibly informal and unscientific poll, with four. Denver linebacker Von Miller, who went second in last year's draft, got three. 2011 rookies Patrick Peterson of Arizona and Torrey Smith of Baltimore were each named twice.
But the more interesting names are those of the players whose draft slot isn't fresh in everyone's mind. One general manager named New York Giants wide receiver Hakeem Nicks, who is only 24 yet has established himself as one of the best and most reliable receivers in the league. Philadelphia Eagles running back LeSean McCoy, named by one coach, turns 24 next week. Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford, who surpassed 5,000 yards passing in 2011, is only 24. And when one coach picked Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice, it was startling to realize he is only 25. Some of these guys seem as though they've been dominating the league for years, and it's no accident.
"I think the game is getting younger," said Texans coach Gary Kubiak, who picked his 2011 first-rounder, J.J. Watt. "These kids that are drafted nowadays, they're playing right away and contributing right away. They just seem to be a little more mature and caught up and ready to go now than maybe back a few years ago. Nowadays, with the cap and the way teams change, when you get a guy in the first round or early in the second round, he's going straight on the field."
The 32 players picked in the first round of the 2011 draft played an average of 13 games in the 2011 season. That counts those who missed time because of injury, such as Prince Amukamara, and project quarterback Jake Locker, who played sparingly in only five games. Half of those 32 players started at least 14 games as rookies, and 10 started all 16.
What this tells you is that when you evaluate a player you're considering taking in the first round, you're asking yourself all of the normal questions about whether he can play, learn, behave and lead, and you're also asking whether he can do it right away.
"I think the way the system is, or the way the system has been, you have to play your young players," Chiefs coach Romeo Crennel said. "We have the salary cap, and with the rookie contracts, if you don't play a guy, then you end up losing a guy when he becomes a free agent. And then you just trained him for somebody else. So you might as well get some value for him while you've got him, and that's why I think a lot of the young guys have been put into the fire sooner."
What it has done is put a premium on figuring out if that young, talented college stud you're considering has what it takes, mentally and physically, to handle what the NFL throws at him while he is still young. That's why pre-draft interviews have become such a major part of the process. No longer are teams willing to use those first-round picks on raw talent they think they can develop. There's no time to develop them. A first-round pick has to be the whole package. Like Newton in Carolina. Or Miller in Denver, who was (no surprise) the pick of Broncos coach John Fox.
"First of all, he's got a lot of God-given ability," Fox said of Miller. "He's very explosive, strong for his size, got good flexibility. That combination of explosiveness and flexibility makes him pretty dynamic as a pass-rusher. And the fact that he's a good young man and he's not afraid to work hard. He wants to do it."
So in other words, NFL teams don't want much out of their young players these days -- just everything.
"It's a young man's game," Fox said. "There's no question that you need any influx of young players. You see it with every team, and the teams that are doing well are the teams that are getting production from that 25-and-under group -- young guys, but already kind of established. And I don't think that's going to change any time soon."