Late last week, a lot of our blog content centered around Auburn quarterback Cam Newton, Buffalo Bills GM Buddy Nix's reported interest in him, and the media workout that has re-booted his prominence among 2011 NFL Draft discussions.
Newton, naturally, is among this year's most highly-debated prospects. Off-field concerns, a clearly money-hungry family, and only one year of Division I college experience have many Bills fans - and general NFL fans, for that matter - turned off by Newton as a prospect. Unusual size, arm strength and athleticism, coupled with a casual 50 touchdowns in 14 games last year (!), have many more fans and talent evaluators smitten with his enormous potential.
There are many logical reasons for fans to cite in building their case for the Bills to avoid Newton. One of the most-cited reasons is the fact that Newton won't be ready to play right away; that lack of immediate impact turns off some fans almost instantly.
This is just my opinion, but on a purely philosophical level, ignoring a player's potential for the "sure thing" prospect - viewed through the lens of the Bills - is about as misguided as it gets.
For me, this debate boils down to your answer to one question: why do NFL teams employ scouts? Maybe your answer is to find players that can come in and play right away. That's not my answer to the question. NFL teams employ scouts to project college athletes to the game of professional football. They are paid not to point out which college players have the best stats, or who has the most question marks, but to weed out as many players as they can - whether they produced in college or not - that can succeed in the NFL. That's why scouting is hard, and it's why scouts are so often wrong.
"Potential" is a scary word to NFL fans, but it holds particular terror for Bills fans, who have seen that term repeatedly backfire in prominent draft choices such as Mike Williams and J.P. Losman - among many others - over the past decade. The fact of the matter, however, is that potential is a factor with every single NFL Draft prospect every year, because the process is about more than finding good college players - it's about projecting talent to a league that constantly craves it, and has very specific demands for it.
In short, scouting is about much, much more than simply finding guys that can come in and play right away. At its core, it is about finding football players, whether they can play immediately or not.
Nix selected running back C.J. Spiller in the first round last year. Many Bills fans working the opposite side of the argument (the one I'm advocating here) routinely bring up Spiller's year one lack of impact as a reason to avoid taking the "sure thing" - because no player fits that bill. There is a degree of truth to that sentiment, but fundamentally, it contains one inaccuracy: Nix didn't take Spiller to have "instant impact". He took him because he'd be able to play right away - and even though Spiller struggled mightily in 2010, he still had a defined role on the team. Nix doesn't draft for "instant impact," just as he doesn't draft for "BPA" - he wanted a high-upside guy who could play right away, and that's exactly what he got, and still has, in Spiller. Too often, Bills fans are quick to paint Nix into a corner after one draft; that, too, is misguided.
Is it nice when your first-round draft pick is immediately an excellent football player? Of course it is. Obviously. It's happening more and more frequently, too, with the NFL's elite talent pool constantly thinning, and with more and more injuries creating opportunities for young players. Drafting for instant impact has thus gained in notoriety over the years, because obviously, if a player pans out right away, it helps your team in the short and long run. But that should not be the focal point of the draft process. At any given pick, finding the best football player - a player that will help your team achieve the ultimate goal - should be the priority.
(People will invariably read "finding the best football player" as a BPA advocation, but that's not what I mean. Perhaps "finding the right football player" is the correct term - a player that fits your philosophy and can be a part of a successful organization. If he plays right away and fills a critical need, all the better.)
Which brings us back to Newton. Again, I am speaking philosophically, but Newton is just such a perfect and current example that it's easy to bring him back into this thing. Buffalo needs a franchise quarterback. I'm as big a fan of Ryan Fitzpatrick as the next guy - he has a lot of qualities that not only make him a good fit for Chan Gailey, but endear him to our blue-collar fan base - but he is not the future of the organization. This team isn't winning championships with Fitz under center.
Buffalo has a lot of needs, and yes, there are certain to be several players available at the No. 3 pick that possess enormous upside and the ability to play right away. That's the luxury of being a crappy football team and picking early. But quarterback is a different animal. If you don't have a franchise quarterback, you don't pass on a guy you believe in. Period.
At any position other than quarterback, instant impact versus potential carries a bit more weight - and even then, sometimes grading with that criteria in mind can be misguided. With quarterbacks, whether or not a player can play right away should not be a consideration. I don't believe it will be for most NFL teams, and that is particularly true for the Bills, who like their starting quarterback and believe they can be a playoff team with him. Newton can't play right away. He needs to sit and learn. That fact will not preclude a smart NFL team that believes in Newton from taking him very early in the first round.
Nix knows this. Gailey knows this. I don't think anyone with a shred of rationality questions Newton's talents or upside. This is the only logical conclusion to draw: if Nix and the Bills like Newton enough in April, they'll take him, no questions asked - even if they agree that he can't play right away. If they don't like him enough, their hesitancy will revolve around his character and their belief on his future as a pro signal caller - and whether or not he will be able to play right away will not be a factor at all.
Beyond the quarterback position - say, if the Bills are choosing between two defensive linemen, or two pass rushers - this argument, again, holds more merit. But as we harped on the week after the Super Bowl, the Bills need elite players if they plan on emerging from the NFL's cellar. If they target elite talent, whether or not that player can be elite immediately shouldn't be a relevant factor. I don't believe it will be, either.