When Matt Barkley returned to USC for his senior year, it was likely with visions of bagging a national championship and the Heisman Trophy before entering the NFL as the No. 1 pick in next April's draft. However, Barkley's subpar performance in this disappointing season that has ensued is threatening to send him plummeting down draft boards across the league.
The Trojans are sitting at 7-4 with just one game remaining in the regular season, and USC is out of contention in the Pac-12 race. Barkley doesn't have a chance of winning college's top individual prize, either, with playmakers like Kansas State QB Collin Klein, Texas A&M QB Johnny Manziel and Notre Dame LB Manti Te'o emerging as the main contenders.
Now, it is important to note that Barkley was not a lock to be a top-10 pick a season ago. In fact, scouts told me last spring that Barkley wasn't a cinch to be the third quarterback in the 2012 draft class, despite having a more impressive collegiate résumé than Texas A&M's Ryan Tannehill (who went to the Miami Dolphins with the eighth overall pick) and Oklahoma State's Brandon Weeden (drafted by the Cleveland Browns at 22nd overall). Evaluators cited Barkley's lack of elite physical tools (height, arm talent and athleticism) as major concerns. Although Barkley was listed at 6-foot-2, 230 pounds, scouts questioned whether he was tall enough to play the position at the next level, and worried that his lack of athleticism would make him a sitting duck in the pocket.
Scouts also worried about Barkley's lack of elite arm strength. Although he displayed the capacity to make short and intermediate throws with zip and velocity, he didn't blow evaluators away with his deep-ball range, accuracy or touch. Barkley routinely underthrew his receivers on vertical throws, relying on Marqise Lee and Robert Woods to make plays on the ball. Both playmakers are regarded as future elite NFL prospects; some wonder if Barkley's production is a byproduct of their remarkable skills.
With so many questions surrounding him, Barkley decided another year at the collegiate level would help him refine his game and make him a polished quarterback worthy of being selected at the top of the draft.
I've watched Barkley perform throughout his senior season. Here is my assessment of his game and whether he has a legitimate shot at hearing his name called first on draft day:
Barkley is a classic drop-back passer with sound throwing mechanics and a smooth delivery. He shows a compact windup and an over-the-top throwing motion with a quick release. Barkley displays good (but not great) arm strength on intermediate and deep throws. Although his balls tend to flutter on out-breaking routes that are longer than 15 yards, he shows adequate zip and velocity on his throws. Barkley can certainly fit balls into tight windows on intermediate throws inside the numbers, but he lacks the overpowering arm strength to complete the deep comeback from the opposite hash on a rope against tight coverage. The exceptional speed and quickness of NFL defensive backs will result in break-ups or interceptions, unless Barkley shows extraordinary timing and anticipation, releasing the ball well before the receiver comes out of his break.
On deep throws, Barkley shows a throwing range of about 50 to 55 yards. He has routinely connected with Lee and Nelson Agholor on vertical routes down the field. While most of those completions have resulted from his exceptional timing and anticipation, Barkley has shown the arm strength to throw the ball over the top of the defense when defenders squat on routes. This was particularly evident against Oregon on Nov. 3, when he connected on 75- and 76-yard touchdowns on deep post routes to Lee and Agholor, respectively. In my mind, these throws certainly squelched some of the concern about his deep-ball ability. However, the fallout from "Inflate Gate" could alter that opinion. (A USC ball boy was reprimanded following that game for deflating footballs, which he later admitted to doing; the use of underinflated balls makes it easier for quarterbacks to throw the ball down the field with greater zip and velocity.)
With the arm talent to make most of the throws at the next level, Barkley shouldn't have a problem succeeding as a starting quarterback, if he plays to his strengths.
Barkley is not the kind of explosive athlete who can beat defenders with his legs on the perimeter. However, he flashes enough mobility and movement skills to be effective within the pocket. Barkley will routinely climb the pocket to avoid penetrating rushers, and his efficient footwork allows him to make accurate throws under duress. When the pocket completely crumbles, Barkley will attempt to escape, but he lacks the speed and quickness to run away from defenders on the perimeter.
As a passer on the move, Barkley is nimble enough to make accurate throws on bootlegs and rollouts. He shows the ability to deliver on the run without losing balance, which would allow him to make the most of the movement-based throws in West Coast offensive systems. Given the fact that Houston Texans quarterback Matt Schaub and Oakland Raiders quarterback Carson Palmer have succeeded in passing games that feature extensive movement in the backfield, Barkley's athleticism shouldn't impact his ability to start in most systems.
Barkley will enter the NFL with 47 games of starting experience at the major college level. The wealth of knowledge accumulated in those contests will ease Barkley's transition to the pro game, and allow him to quickly adjust to the speed and complexity of NFL defenses. Looking at Barkley's career arc, I've been impressed with the way that he manages the game at the line of scrimmage. He has been exposed to hot reads and sight adjustments, and has also utilized audibles to counter potential defensive looks.
In addition, Barkley has called plays from the line of scrimmage in no-huddle and two-minute situations, showcasing his mastery of the offense and knowledge of coverage. The utilization of the hurry-up approach also reflects his keen understanding of game situations and circumstances.
From a decision-making standpoint, Barkley has been mildly disappointing. He has made several errors in big games, leading to a high number of turnovers. While his touchdown-to-interception ratio is a respectable 36:15, the fact that he has thrown two or more picks in six games is disturbing. A quarterback with Barkley's experience should understand the importance of ball security, and he should avoid making risky throws. More importantly, Barkley should understand that tight coverage up the field means a check-down or safety valve is available underneath. Elite NFL quarterbacks operate that way; he has enough experience to know this strategy produces winning results. With nine interceptions in the Trojans' last four games, Barkley hasn't performed as expected; that will certainly affect his grade on draft boards across the league.
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Quarterbacks are ultimately judged on their ability to win big games. Barkley was outstanding in the Trojans' biggest games in 2011, but he has underwhelmed in such showdowns this season. In the Trojans' four losses, Barkley completed just 58.2 percent of his passes, recording 11 touchdowns and eight interceptions. More importantly, he has made poor decisions in the opening moments of games, putting his team in an early hole. The most disappointing aspect of his performance is his inability to recognize pressure and coverage prior to the snap. For a senior with four years of starting experience, Barkley should display more poise under pressure and perform better in big games. Scouts will go back to the 2011 game tape to see if Barkley's problems are a trend, but his lackluster play in meaningful contests this season will give evaluators some pause when considering his prospects as a franchise quarterback.
Barkley was considered a strong possibility as a top-15 pick a year ago, but elected to return to school to hone his game for the pros. He has shown progress in some areas, but he is not the elite quarterback prospect some thought he'd be prior to the season. He is not in the same class as current young standouts Cam Newton (Carolina Panthers), Andrew Luck (Indianapolis Colts) and Robert Griffin III (Washington Redskins), but he has enough polish and potential to still merit consideration as a pick in the latter half of the first round. Given the number of teams that are desperate for a quarterback, though, I expect Barkley will come off the board within the first 20 selections of the 2013 NFL Draft.