Panthers Pick Newton As No. 1 NFL Draft Choice

The Carolina Panthers got to choose first in Thursday night's NFL draft. They selected Auburn quarterback Cam Newton, who led the Tigers to the national championship. That's despite an NCAA investigation that his father was involved in a pay-for-play scheme during his recruitment.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

By definition the NFL draft is a time of uncertainty. Usually good uncertainty - anticipation, excitement, hope for a better season. So far this year, the NFL has been characterized by bad uncertainty - recriminations, anxiety, angst. But last night in New York City's Radio City Music Hall, the NFL draft took place against a backdrop of what seems to be an improving labor situation. NPR's Mike Pesca has more.

Unidentified Man: With the first pick...

MIKE PESCA: The league puffs its chest, the fans hold their breath.

Unidentified Man: ...in the 2011 NFL draft...

Mr. DANIEL EATON: Honestly, I'm nervous as hell right now.

Unidentified Man: ...the Carolina Panthers select...

Mr. CAM NEWTON (Quarterback, Auburn University): I'm just going to do what I can control. And I can control what I do.

Unidentified Man: ...Cam Newton, quarterback, Auburn.

(Soundbite of cheering and applause)

PESCA: Panther fan Daniel Eaton knew it'd be the Heisman Trophy winner. And Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton knew that as much as the pressure seems off, now that he's entitled to take money for playing football, the pressure is on more than ever before.

Mr. NEWTON: And I understand today that everybody's not just going to stop and say, all right, that's Cam, he's the number one pick, now we can leave him alone. More than anything, the floodgates has opened officially.

PESCA: The floodgates, sure. The NFL season not quite officially. But in the last couple of days, a series of court rulings, all favoring the players, look to have turned the possibility of no football next year into the probability of an NFL season.

Texas A&M linebacker Von Miller allowed his name to be listed as one of the plaintiffs against the NFL. He seemed less nervous about the legal suit than who was getting the call as the second overall pick.

Mr. VON MILLER (Football Player): I was watching my phone and my phone didn't ring. So I was like, you know, maybe it's not my pick. And I looked over to my dad's phone, and his phone had the 303 area code on it.

PESCA: A linebacker's got to read the field, and Miller knew that 303 meant Denver. He was thrilled to go there.

Number three pick Marcell Dareus of Alabama was thrilled to go to Buffalo and further thrilled to go anywhere Buffalo told him to go.

Mr. MARCELL DAREUS (Football Player): I can play anywhere they want me to play. Wherever they want me, I'm there. If I'm not the best at it, I promise you, give me a couple of weeks, I will.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: Football is a brutal game. The draft, for those selected, is a joyous night. Ask the draftees and every team's a great fit, every coaching staff wise and just. They know they'll love their new homes, even if they don't know much about the places they'll soon call home. Here's number four pick A.J. Green asked about his knowledge of the city of Cincinnati.

Mr. A.J. GREEN: I know they've got a great amusement park, so that's about it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: But they know, just know, that their dreams have come true.

Of course when a player's dream comes true, 20 or 30 picks before all the experts thought it would come true, fans are often perplexed.

Unidentified Man: The Minnesota Vikings select Christian Ponder, quarterback, Florida State.

(Soundbite of cheering)

PESCA: Fitting that Ponder was the big head scratcher of the evening. Lou Byrouty, wearing a Vikings jersey, couldn't believe his team's number 12 overall pick.

Mr. LOU BYROUTY: I don't know. I don't know why they didn't do their trade back or just take him in the second round if they really liked him that much. I don't like it at all.

PESCA: But a few seats away, a different Vikings fan with a different take. Morris Davidman.

Mr. MORRIS DAVIDMAN: Well, it surprised me. But, you know, now that I've listened to the analysts, this guy is a better West Coast offense quarterback. And that's what we run. And so I think I'm OK now.

PESCA: Davidman actually lives in Minnesota. Byrouty is a New Jerseyian who happens to like the Vikings. That could explain the differences in attitudes.

As the draft answers one set of questions - where will these players go - it leaves open the more important set. Will they be any good? Only games can answer that. And it does seem more and more likely that, yes, those games will be played.

Mike Pesca, NPR News, New York.

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