Analysis  

 

No. 1 in 2013? How USC's Matt Barkley can cement draft status

Ben Liebenberg/NFL
As a junior last season at USC, Matt Barkley threw for 3,528 yards with 39 touchdowns and seven interceptions.

Matt Barkley will be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft.

That is my expectation after conducting a preliminary evaluation on USC's star quarterback.

At 6-foot-2, 220 pounds, Barkley is a classic pocket passer with an extraordinary football IQ. He complements superb instincts and awareness with a refined set of fundamentals that allow him to make all the throws from the pocket. Barkley shows exceptional accuracy and ball placement, particularly on short and intermediate routes thrown inside the numbers. He consistently tosses tight spirals within the strike zone of his intended target, leading to valuable yardage after the catch.

Barkley is efficient and effective against the blitz. He routinely identifies the pressure during his pre-snap read and quickly gets the ball to his designated hot receiver. When he isn't able to unload the ball prior to the pressure, he displays courage and toughness while standing and delivering against the onslaught.

In assessing Barkley's flaws, I would point to his lack of elite arm strength and mediocre athleticism. Although he is capable of delivering accurate strikes to all areas of the field, Barkley doesn't possess the stellar arm of a Jay Cutler or Matthew Stafford. He overcomes this deficiency with excellent timing and anticipation. He throws receivers open with his pinpoint passes and doesn't get enough credit for fitting balls into tight windows.

Barkley is not a top-tier athlete, but is very comfortable throwing on the move. He consistently rifles strikes to receivers on crossing routes following bootleg and waggle action. With the majority of offensive systems featuring a variety of movement passes, Barkley's ability to throw on the run enhances his value to several teams in the league.

Barkley will enter the preseason as the consensus No. 1 prospect on most boards, but he still needs to work on a few areas of his game to cement his status atop the chart in next year's draft. Here are three areas Barkley should concentrate on this fall:

Leadership

Barkley's decision to return to USC for his senior campaign 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 about his game could affect his focus and performance. However, if he is able to thrive under the intense spotlight, scouts certainly will 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 title contention. Although that would appear to be an easy task with an offensive lineup featuring the very talented Robert Woods and Marqise Lee at wide receiver, Barkley's ability to maximize those talents while managing the game would cement his status as a leader.

Game management

Playing quarterback as a pro is more mental than physical. The best at the position are able to defeat opponents by deciphering coverage prior to the snap and making the right adjustment to exploit the defense. While Barkley has demonstrated this trait during his time at USC, he could still improve significantly in this area.

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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 second half of his final 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 decision-making within the pocket. Although his touchdown-to-interception ratio was exceptional in 2011 (39 touchdowns against only seven picks), he can take his game to another level by learning to utilize all of the options within a play to put further stress on the defense. Part of the reason Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees have consistently produced despite facing a myriad of defensive tactics, is 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 most of his counterparts.

Anticipation

Barkley is one of the most accomplished passers in college football, but his arm strength and athleticism don'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 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 receivers run through the zone.

Quarterbacks like Matt Ryan and Eli Manning are able to thrive in this manner, so Barkley can certainly be an exceptional player at the next level if he masters this skill.

(Editor's Note: A version of this article originally appeared Dec. 22, 2011.)

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks

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