|Quarterback Matt Barkley announced Thursday he will return to USC for his senior season next fall.|
Matt Barkley's bypassing of the 2012 NFL Draft might have cost him millions in the short term, but the decision to spend another year at USC could make him the No. 1 pick in 2013.
Barkley already was listed as the third quarterback on my top 10 list of college quarterbacks and was highly regarded in the scouting community.
From a scout's perspective, Barkley is best described as a classic pocket passer with an extraordinary football IQ. He complements his superb instincts and awareness with a refined set of fundamentals that allows him to make all of the throws from the pocket. His pinpoint accuracy and ball placement is exceptional for a third-year player. He routinely places the ball within the strike zone of his intended target, which leads to valuable yardage after the catch. Against the blitz, he shows courage standing and delivering and is adept at hitting the hot read.
In looking at his flaws, I would point to his lack of elite arm strength and athleticism. He doesn't possess the big arm of a Jay Cutler or Matthew Stafford, but he is capable of making accurate deep throws due to his excellent anticipation and timing. As an athlete, he lacks the speed and quickness to make plays outside of the pocket as a runner, but is an accurate passer on the move capable of being effective on movement passes like bootlegs and waggle passes.
With another year to hone his skills as a passer and playmaker, Barkley will undoubtedly enter the preseason as the top quarterback prospect in a 2013 draft class that could include Florida State's E.J. Manuel, West Virginia's Geno Smith and Arkansas Tyler Wilson.
Here are some areas Barkley can work on in 2012 to cement his status as the top quarterback prospect:
Barkley's decision to return to USC will provide scouts and coaches with another year to assess his leadership skills. He will enter the season regarded as the top quarterback in college football, and performing under those lofty expectations will give evaluators a glimpse at his ability to handle the pressure of being a franchise quarterback.
Much like Andrew Luck endured during his final season at Stanford, Barkley's performance will be critiqued on a weekly basis. Observers will scrutinize each and every throw, and the constant chatter regarding his game could affect his focus and performance. However, if he is able to thrive under the intense spotlight, scouts will certainly not questions his confidence, poise or mental toughness.
On the field, Barkley can display the leadership skills scouts covet by guiding a loaded USC squad into national championship contention. Although that would appear to be an easy task with an offensive lineup featuring the very talented Robert Woods and Marquise Lee at wide receiver, Barkley's ability to maximize those talents and while managing the game would cement his status as a leader.
Playing quarterback as a pro is more mental than physical. The best at the position are able to defeat opponents with their ability to decipher coverage prior to the snap and make the right adjustment to exploit the defense. While Barkley has certainly demonstrated this trait during his time at USC, he could still improve significantly in this area.
From making the proper audible against the blitz to switching sides of a designated run play to better exploit a numerical advantage at the point of attack, Barkley can continue to develop his football acumen to become an exceptional quarterback from a mental standpoint. Lane Kiffin can further his development by granting him more freedom at the line of scrimmage to prepare him for the next level. For instance, Andrew Luck started calling some of his own plays during the last half of the season at Stanford, which undoubtedly will make him better prepared to run the game from the line of scrimmage as a pro. If Kiffin gave Barkley more ownership of the play calls and adjustments, he could give his star quarterback invaluable experience that will help him make a smooth transition to the pro game.
Outside of expanding his football knowledge, Barkley can continue to improve his decisions within the pocket. Although his touchdown-to-interception ratio was exceptional (39 touchdowns against only seven picks), he can take his game to another level by learning to utilize all of the options within the route to put further stress on the defense. Part of the reason Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees have been consistently productive despite facing a myriad of defensive tactics has been their ability to identify and target the open checkdown. If Barkley can develop and refine this skill as a collegian, he will enter the league as a more polished player than many of his counterparts.
Barkley is one of the most accomplished passers in college football, but his arm strength and athleticism doesn't rate superior based on pro standards. To compensate for his perceived deficiencies, he has to demonstrate exceptional instincts and awareness for the position.
While Matthew Stafford and Michael Vick are able to rely on their extraordinary physical gifts to make up for late reads, Barkley must be able to win with his ability to anticipate open windows. He must master the art of throwing his receivers open with pinpoint tosses routinely delivered before his receivers come out of their breaks. In addition, he has to continue to develop a sense of awareness that allows him to deliver balls into the open areas of coverage before his receiver run through the zone.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks