CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The Carolina Panthers selected Auburn quarterback Cam Newton with the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft Thursday night, gambling the Heisman Trophy winner will overcome questions about his character and work ethic to become the team's first franchise quarterback.
A year after going 2-14 with the NFL's worst offense, the Panthers bypassed safer choices such as Alabama defensive tackle Marcell Dareus, LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson and Georgia receiver A.J. Green for Newton, who dazzled in his only season playing major college football.
"He has special qualities," general manager Marty Hurney said. "We've had a strong feeling for some time that he was the person who we felt could come in and have the most impact on our football team."
At the draft headquarters in New York, Newton said he got a call from Hurney and new coach Ron Rivera just before the selection was announced. As Newton hugged his family, the selection was met with enthusiasm and chants of "Cam! Cam! Cam!" from fans attending a draft party at Bank of America Stadium.
"It was like a shock went through my body," said Newton, wearing a blue Panthers' cap. "I'm just blessed. ... I can't wait to get to my new hometown of Charlotte."
At 6-foot-5 and 248 pounds, Newton combined brute strength to barrel over defenders on the run with a strong, accurate arm. He accounted for 50 touchdowns, a 14-0 record, won the Heisman Trophy and led the Tigers to the national championship.
But Newton carries baggage and questions, making him likely the riskiest pick in Carolina's 17 seasons.
The College Park, Ga., native started college at Florida but left amid reports he was about to be disciplined for academic cheating. That came after an 2008 arrest involving a stolen laptop, a charge that was later dropped when he completed a pretrial intervention program for first-time offenders.
A Mississippi State booster later claimed Newton's father tried to get the Bulldogs to pay $180,000 for his son to play for them. Newton ended up at Auburn and was dominate despite an NCAA investigation which eventually determined Newton didn't know of his father's pay-for-play scheme.
Rivera said they did tireless research talking with former coaches and teammates.
"I can tell you he's the most researched player I've ever been around," Rivera said.
Moments before the Auburn quarterback's name was called by Roger Goodell, frustrated fans showered the NFL commissioner with chants of "We want football. We want football."
Goodell responded with a smile, saying, "I hear you. So do I."
Newton led Auburn to an undefeated season and its first national championship since 1957. Carolina was 2-14 last year, using four quarterbacks, two of them rookies.
"Man, it's a great feeling to be up here," said Newton, the third straight quarterback taken first overall. "It's a great feeling to be a Carolina Panther."
Things got a little more surreal when Texas A&M linebacker Von Miller became the second pick, selected by Denver. Miller, a plaintiff in the antitrust lawsuit players filed to block the lockout, strode across the stage with tears in his eyes and hugged Goodell.
"I didn't have a clue about what would happen," Miller said, referring to winding up with the Broncos.
It was a strange opening for what normally is a festive occasion.
In this offseason of labor strife, the league's first work stoppage since 1987 temporarily ends Friday. The 32 teams will resume business in compliance with U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson's order to lift the lockout.
But the lockout could be back in place if the NFL wins an appeal. If that happens, Newton, Miller and all the players chosen Thursday night would be thrown back into a labor limbo.