Coming off of a very strong junior season, it was thought USC quarterback Matt Barkley could have challenged Stanford’s Andrew Luck and Baylor’s Robert Griffin III to be a top-two pick in the 2012 NFL draft, or would have at least been a player worth trading up for in the top five picks.
Although he's coming off of a disappointing senior season, Barkley now has a shot to be the second or even first quarterback selected in the 2013 NFL draft class, rather than the likely third he would have been in the 2012 class.
Unlike last year’s draft, where Luck and Griffin were locks to go in the top two as elite quarterback prospects with superstar potential (potential both already showed as rookies), the quarterback battle in the 2013 draft class remains wide open.
While West Virginia’s Geno Smith remains the odds-on favorite to be the first quarterback drafted, he has many flaws in his game in his own right and faces steep competition from Barkley and a number of other quarterbacks.
Coming into the season, Barkley’s draft stock didn’t need to climb; it just needed to maintain. However, after a senior year filled with mistakes and defined by a significant decline in performance, Barkley went from being the projected No. 1 overall pick to now potentially falling to Day 2 of the draft.
While Barkley is highly unlikely to end up rising back to the No. 1 spot in any mock drafts (the Kansas City Chiefs’ trade for Alex Smith all but eliminated the possibility they will draft a quarterback at the top of the draft), his stock has been getting more positive buzz as of late than it was during his senior season.
In a class with no quarterback standout, Barkley still has a very good chance of being the first quarterback drafted and a top-10 overall pick.
How high will Matt Barkley end up being selected in the 2013 NFL draft? We’ll explore that, but first, let’s break down Barkley’s game as an NFL quarterback prospect.
Scouting Barkley as an NFL Quarterback Prospect
Barkley isn’t a No. 1 overall talent or even a surefire first-round pick, but he has the skill set to be a very good NFL starting quarterback for many years to come and could easily be the best quarterback out of the 2013 draft class.
Many critics of Barkley’s game focus on his physical limitations, but those may be overstated.
Physically, Barkley is fairly comparable to Tom Brady. Brady certainly throws a better deep ball than Barkley, but while Barkley does not have a great arm by NFL standards, he has the ability to make every throw on the field he needs to make. He has good size (6’2”, 227 pounds), and while he does not have fast feet, he moves well inside the pocket.
What makes Brady great, though, is his ability to read defenses, his composure under pressure and his consistent accuracy at every passing level. Those are all areas where Barkley needs to improve significantly, and it is because of those flaws that his physical limitations have been exposed.
Barkley is an intelligent young man who impressed numerous teams in his interviews at the NFL Scouting Combine, according to FOX Sports’ Peter Schrager. The tape, however, shows flaws in his ability to read defenses.
His rise in turnovers in his senior season was in large part due to this deficiency in his game. Too often, he stared down his initial read, telegraphing where he was going to throw the ball. This allowed opposing defensive backs to make a play on the ball, as is the case in the following example:
On the other hand, he failed at times to sense where defensive backs or pass-rushers were on the field and threw passes into coverage or took sacks for a significant loss as a result. He also has a habit of forcing passes into coverage too often, especially when his team is trailing late in a game.
Barkley can put any throw under 20 yards on a dime and can hit the deep ball as well—when he has time to throw. Under pressure, however, his accuracy really suffers at every level, from screen passes to intermediate routes and deep balls.
At the next level, where he will face heavier pass rush than he did in college, he will have to improve at standing tall under pressure and hitting his targets downfield.
On a positive note, Barkley has the best in-pocket footwork of any quarterback in the 2013 draft class.
His drops from under center are very clean, and he does a great job of setting and resetting his feet in the pocket and stepping into passing lanes.
One area he struggles with, however, is avoiding sacks. Barkley does a good job rolling out of the pocket to throw, but does not have the speed to run away from many NFL pass-rushers. In the pocket, he tends to hold on to the ball too long, taking sacks and not knowing when it is time to throw the ball away, such as in this sequence leading up to a strip sack:
Mechanically, Barkley is very sound. He grips the ball well, has a clean release and efficient delivery, stands tall as a passer and throws a tight spiral.
Where Barkley Stacks Up with the Quarterback Class
In a class of quarterbacks who all have multiple major flaws, Barkley is the most fundamentally sound, with very good mechanics and footwork.
He has a great level of experience as a four-year starter in a pro-style offense, and was consistently among the nation’s best quarterbacks in college football.
Barkley’s inconsistency with accuracy and timing on his throws needs to improve, but he has the most well-rounded skill set of any quarterback in the draft class. He has displayed he can complete a strong variety of routes as a passer.
His lack of read-shifting, struggles with passing under pressure and inconsistent accuracy are all issues that could be corrected over the next two or three years through coaching and development. They are also flaws that he shares with nearly all of the draft class’ top quarterback prospects.
Much of Barkley’s falling draft stock, in comparison to other quarterbacks, is the result of a disappointing senior season for him and USC as a whole. But where he falls short of the other top quarterbacks, comparatively, is in physical upside.
While Barkley has the skills and tools needed to succeed as a pocket passer, he does not have great arm strength or athleticism. Due to that, his ceiling as a quarterback prospect is lower than that of players such as Geno Smith or Syracuse’s Ryan Nassib, and he still has flaws in his game that could hold him back from even being a successful starter at all.
Overall, though, Barkley is among the best quarterback prospects in this year’s draft class.
There is reason to believe he could be the best long-term quarterback option out of this year’s draft class, and he could very well be the top quarterback on many teams’ draft boards.
I personally grade Barkley as an early-second-round talent, but have the other two top quarterback prospects in the draft class (Smith and Arkansas’ Tyler Wilson) in that same range.
Considering the importance of the quarterback position in the NFL, it is likely that two or three will be selected much earlier than Round 2.
Barkley has a legitimate shot at being a top-10 draft pick. Bleacher Report’s own Matt Miller tweeted Feb. 24 that Barkley is not expected to be on the board long this April, according to an NFL scout.
That scout’s word may or may not be true, but he could certainly be in play for the quarterback-needy Cardinals. Barkley is also an attractive option for the two teams directly following the Cardinals in the draft order, the Buffalo Bills and New York Jets.
If Barkley is to be selected that high on the board, it will come down to team preference of quarterback and whether any of those teams grade Barkley high enough to deem him worthy of a top-10 selection.
Although Smith is favored to be the first quarterback drafted, that could easily end up being Barkley.
However, Barkley could also drop behind a number of other quarterbacks, including Wilson, Nassib and North Carolina State’s Mike Glennon.
It wouldn’t come as a big surprise if Barkley falls out of the first round entirely, but I don’t see him falling far into Round 2.
Assuming the Jacksonville Jaguars go with a defensive player at No. 2 overall, Barkley would be a very logical choice for them with the first pick of the second round (No. 33 overall) as a potential upgrade over Blaine Gabbert under center.
Dan Hope is an NFL Draft Featured Columnist at Bleacher Report.