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Newton is a risk, but he's worth it at No.1

With the first pick of the 2011 NFL draft, the Carolina Panthers should select Cam Newton.

We're 16 days from the start of that draft, and the rumors are everywhere. The Panthers might trade down. They might take Missouri quarterback Blaine Gabbert or Louisiana State cornerback Patrick Peterson or Georgia receiver A.J. Green instead.

But there should be no ifs, ands or buts about what the Panthers should do. Carolina has a chance to restructure a pathetic offense by drafting a rare athlete who can throw a football through a piece of plywood or run over a linebacker.

You can't pass that up.

Gabbert is probably the more polished quarterback right now, but I think Newton can be taught how to read defenses. Gabbert, however, can't be taught Newton's athleticism.

Jimmy Clausen, remember, was supposed to be well ahead of the game as a rookie because he had played in a pro-style offense at Notre Dame, and look where that got him in 2010.

While ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. continues to insist Clausen could be the answer for the Panthers and the team would be better served by trading down and getting some defensive line help, I disagree.

Clausen is smart and he tries his best. But we all saw that 1-9 record as a starter and all those check-down passes and the way he would hit the turf when a defensive end sideswiped him with one arm.

I'm fine with Clausen as a backup, but he's never going to be an elite NFL quarterback, and the Panthers desperately need one of those. My Observer columnist colleague Tom Sorensen and I don't agree too often, but we agree about this one - draft Newton.

To me, the starting quarterback counts for at least 40 percent of any NFL team. Without a good one, you are lost.

Defense is great but it only takes you so far in the NFL - you've got to be able to score 20 points a game regularly to win. (The Panthers scored 20 or more twice in 2010; they were dead last in the NFL in scoring.)

Peterson and Green could be Pro Bowlers, but they don't play positions that allow them to affect a game as significantly as Newton.

The No.1 choice Carolina earned with its 2-14 record would have been easy to make had Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck declared for the draft. I think Luck is another Peyton Manning waiting to happen. His decision to stay in school - while laudable on many fronts - hurt the Panthers badly.

But Newton has a chance at being in Luck's league in the NFL.

I say there are no "ifs" about what the Panthers should do, but of course there are a lot of "ifs" about how good Newton can be. He could be great if he can keep his wild-card father in check, if he can keep his off-field problems in the past, if he can win over his teammates and if he can learn a far more complicated playbook than the one he ran at Auburn.

Those are four very big "ifs," yes. But Newton is the risk worth taking - I see more Michael Vick than JaMarcus Russell in him.

You don't get an opportunity to dictate the draft from the top very often. And if you need a quarterback, you're picking No.1 and a remarkably athletic Heisman Trophy quarterback coming off a national championship is sitting there, you take him.

This isn't complicated.

Grab Newton at No.1.

Groom him. Don't start him as a rookie unless you are absolutely forced to. Instead, find a veteran quarterback to rent for a season or two.

And then, in a couple of years, let Newton jog out to the huddle and tell your fans to set their DVRs. Because eventually, a lot of what Newton does in the NFL will need to be seen twice to be believed.

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