Kiper believes the Panthers would be best served trading out of the top spot and taking a defensive lineman rather than using the pick on Auburn quarterback Cam Newton, who wrapped up his two-day visit with the Panthers on Wednesday.

Kiper, who had Panthers quarterback Jimmy Clausen rated higher than the other prominent draft analysts last year, lauded Newton’s physical skills but questioned his character and his work ethic.

He thinks the safe play for the Panthers would be to trade down and address another need.

“They need defensive line help in the worst way. That’s the best position in this draft. You can move down anywhere you want and get a pretty good defensive lineman,” Kiper said Wednesday during a conference call with reporters.

“So if I’m Carolina and I get an offer, I’d move out of there. Then move down and get a Nick Fairley, who’s going to be somewhere in that top eight overall. If you want to move down a little further than that you can. … Down to 18, you’re going to get a highly rated defensive lineman.”

The Panthers’ defensive tackle rotation in 2010 – Nick Hayden, Derek Landri and Ed Johnson – produced just four of the team’s 31 sacks.

Clausen’s production was equally poor. The former Notre Dame standout, whom the Panthers took in the second round with the 48th overall pick, went 1-9 as a starter and was the NFL’s lowest-rated passer for a team that finished 2-14.

But Kiper pointed to several factors that contributed to Clausen’s struggles – from a lack of proven receivers other than Steve Smith to the lame-duck status of John Fox and predictable play-calling.

“They put him in the worst possible scenario you can every time they threw the ball, which was on the most obvious downs. They were behind ultra-conservative, which I guess they thought was helping him but in reality it hurt him,” Kiper said.

“So Jimmy Clausen is supposed to be written off as a reject? I don’t buy it,” Kiper added. “But remember, a lot of people didn’t like Clausen. I was one of the few that liked Clausen. … I was on that island last year all by myself almost. Find me another person in this evaluation business that liked Clausen. I don’t know of any. So I’m out there. I’m staying. If I’m wrong, I’m wrong.”

In a Sports Illustrated article last October, a former sports agent accused Kiper of inflating the rankings for players represented by Gary Wichard, who was Clausen’s agent before dying last month of pancreatic cancer. Kiper has denied the allegations.

Kiper characterized the 6-5, 248-pound Newton’s skill set as “off the charts,” but is uncertain about his intangibles. While Kiper’s Newton criticism was less scathing than that of Pro Football Weekly’s Nolan Nawrocki, Kiper wondered whether Newton would do the necessary film study and other off-the-field commitments to be a franchise quarterback.

“College and the NFL are different. What you have to do to be successful in the NFL is different. You can get away with ability in college. You can’t get away with just ability in the NFL. It’s a completely different ball game,” Kiper said. “Things came very easy to Cam Newton. I hope he doesn’t think it’ll come that easy in the NFL. He’s won wherever he’s been. He never lost much. He never lost at Blinn (Junior College), never lost at Auburn.”

Newton won national championships in one-year stints at Blinn and Auburn after leaving Florida, where he was found with a stolen laptop and allegedly was involved in academic fraud. Newton won the Heisman Trophy and led Auburn to the BCS title last fall amidst allegations Newton’s father had offered his son to Mississippi State for $180,000.

The NCAA said Cam Newton had no knowledge of the pay-for-play scheme.

Kiper said there are risks should the Panthers decide to draft Newton or Missouri quarterback Blaine Gabbert to compete with Clausen, who signed a four-year deal with $2.53 million in guarantees last summer. Clausen’s deal paled in comparison to St. Louis quarterback Sam Bradford, who received $50 million in guaranteed money after the Rams drafted him No. 1 overall.

And though a rookie wage scale is expected to be part of the league’s new collective bargaining agreement, Kiper said the Panthers still could be stuck with a sizable contract if Clausen holds on to the starting job.

“Jimmy Clausen was a second-round pick. He’s not getting a fortune. So the other guy (who) goes No. 1 may not get top dollar like guys like Stafford and Bradford did. But they’re going to get good money. So the risk there is, is Clausen better than that other guy?” Kiper said. “If Clausen’s better, the guy’s basically a wasted pick. Because what kind of value are you going to get back for the No. 1 pick when Clausen beats him out?”

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