CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The 2011 NFL draft was less than 48 hours away, and the Carolina Panthers were huddled in a room at Bank of America Stadium. Tension was palpable as first-year head coach Ron Rivera and his staff debated whether Auburn quarterback Cam Newton checked all of the boxes to be the first overall pick.
It was, as one person described it, “very volatile.’’
Despite months of homework, private workouts, meetings only a select few knew about and a scout dedicated to talking to Newton almost daily, there were those who questioned whether the 2010 Heisman Trophy winner was the right fit and had questions about his decision making on and off the field. 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 Washington Commanders. “I said, ‘Let me f---ing tell you something. All I’ve heard is what he can’t do. I get it. But tell me what he can do. Tell me what he does best.' 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.’’
In 2015, Newton was the league MVP and led Carolina to Super Bowl 50.
Under the microscope
The vetting process is intense for all positions, but none like quarterback. Organizations want to make sure the player is as good of a person as he is a player, because he likely will become the face of the franchise.
“No doubt,’’ said Buffalo Bills general 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 more at 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’s Malik Willis at No. 16.
That’s why teams searching for a franchise quarterback are spending countless hours vetting Willis, Pittsburgh’s Kenny Pickett, Ole Miss’ Matt Corral and others.
“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.’’
Kicking off the project
Darlington hemmed and hawed, thinking of the best way to describe the room for one of the 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. 1 decision got heated.
“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.’’
Near the end of the meeting, general manager Marty Hurney pointed at the magnet on the big board used to prioritize players and asked if anybody would consider taking 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.'"
After the meeting, Hurney approached Darlington and asked if he meant what he said. Darlington responded, “'Absolutely,' and he just shook his head and said, ‘Yeah,’ and left.’’
Later that day, Rivera called Darlington to his office and gave him his 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 dug deep into Newton being arrested in 2008 on charges of stealing another student’s laptop at Florida.
They did the same regarding allegations that a six-figure payment was sought to secure Newton to play for Mississippi State.
“It was all hands on deck,’’ Beane recalled.
The combine, pro day
The intensity ramped up when the top college prospects arrived in Indianapolis for the annual scouting combine.
It was clear Newton was the only quarterback option at No. 1 in a class that included Washington’s Jake Locker, Missouri’s Blaine Gabbert, Florida State’s Christian Ponder, TCU’s Andy Dalton and 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 arrived the day before to walk around campus and talk to anyone he could find. 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.
The next morning, Rivera and Hurney met with the quarterback.
“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 chewed the part where you drink from on the bottle. He had crushed it, mangled it, twisted it. He was very fidgety.
“But his answers were great.’’
Meeting 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 made up his mind observing Newton and his younger brother watching 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 hold your peace'
Darlington calls Rivera “Big Coach’’ because, at 6-foot-3, the former NFL linebacker is indeed big. And he never loomed bigger than 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 being compared to Michael Vick, JaMarcus Russell and Vince Young, other Black quarterbacks who had either failed or had off-the-field troubles. Darlington chased down every concern.
“This was something you didn’t want to mess up,’’ he said. “Like, this was high pressure. You had all the 'Scam Newton' stuff going on, the laptop stuff. It was just madness. Everybody’s opinion, to them, became law.’’
Beane, who went through an intense vetting of Josh Allen before selecting him with the No. 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.’’
That Newton was on the cusp of being in one of the first social media quarterback classes made it even bigger.
“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.’’
For Rivera and the Panthers, it was time to draft Newton.
2022 quarterback class
The 2022 class doesn’t have a quarterback as 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’s Sam Howell back for a second visit, which is unusual. They sent the top brass to most of the pro days and conducted private workouts.
As one source close to the situation said, the team wanted to know if they could handle the pressure and success, as well as failure.
Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin spent a week visiting Pickett, Willis, Corral and Cincinnati’s Desmond Ridder on 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 vetted another position to that extent. And he may never vet another quarterback as much as 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.’’