With the 2012 NFL season in the books, and the scouting combine in the rear-view, it's time to take a closer look at the 50 players we think will be the biggest difference-makers at the next level from this draft class. To that end, we're happy to continue this year's Shutdown 50 scouting reports (Hint: There may actually be more than 50). You can read last year's group here. The final 50 players were chosen and ranked based on game tape, combine and Pro Day results, overall positional value, and attributes and liabilities on and off the field.
#34: Matt Barkley, QB, USC
We continue this year's series with USC quarterback Matt Barkley. The four-year starter at the highly-regarded Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, Calif., was the first freshman quarterback to start there since Todd Marinovich. Fortunately for Barkley, that's the only comparison there. He committed to Pete Carroll's USC program as one of the highest-ranked prospects at the position in recent years, and started all four years for the Trojans. Barkley's willingness to stay at the school through USC's recent history of recruiting violations, scholarship limitations, and bowl bans speaks well of his character, especially as some thought him to be a top prospect had he come out for the 2012 NFL draft.
Barkley's best year was indeed 2011, when he completed 308 passes in 446 attempts for 3,528 yards, 39 touchdowns, and seven interceptions. His senior season, abbreviated as it was by injury, was nearly as impressive in some ways -- despite the departure of left tackle Matt Kalil to the NFL and the subsequent protection issues, he completed 246 passes in 387 attempts for 3.273 yards, 36 touchdowns, and 15 interceptions in just 11 games. Barkley was doing more and more as the season went along, and whether he was asked to or he took the initiative, things didn't go well. He threw nine of his 15 picks in his last four games for the Trojans, and this may be the fundamental issue with Barkley when projecting him to the next level.
As much as his intangibles are attributes, and as productive as he has been (1,001 completions in 1,562 attempts for 12,327 yards, 116 touchdowns, and 48 interceptions in four seasons), Barkley has an "in the box" nature to his game that he may not be able to transcend.
Pros: Starting experience at the high school and college level has given Barkley a comprehensive and obvious grasp of many of the "little things" that correlate with NFL success - he throws very well with anticipation, runs play-action and boot-action, and evades pressure in short spaces. Has a mechanically sound and quick release with a consistent launch point that allows him to throw the ball all across the field. Processes multiple reads and has a growing ability to look defenders off before he throws. Extremely adept at timing with his receivers on slants and drags. Throws on the run as well as he does from the pocket -- he's displayed a pro-level ability to roll out quickly and hit the screen receiver at the right time. Reads and understands coverage concepts quickly in games.
Natural leader who actually called USC recruits on his own after the school's NCAA violations in to try and convince them to stay. Could be more expansive in an offense better-tailored to his strengths -- 2012 tape shows an offensive play-designer in head coach Lane Kiffin who would frequently fail to set up formation advantages for his quarterback. 2012 season ended early with a separated shoulder against UCLA on November 17, but Barkley showed that he had all his velocity back (such as it is) at his March pro day.
Cons: Barkley's oft-discussed arm strength issues are real, and the limitations show up on tape all the time. Aims the ball well on vertical routes, and has a good ball arc on deeper throws, but can't zing it on a rope consistently over 15 yards in the air. Benefitted from two elite receivers (Robert Woods, Marqise Lee) who made plays downfield on balls lesser receivers would not have. Deeper passes tend to wobble and lose velocity; this would be a major concern were Barkley to be selected by a team playing outdoors in a less-than-hospitable environs. Does not consistently make throws from 12-20 yards in the air into tight windows, and those windows will be much tighter in the NFL when he faces more complex coverages and better pure athletes. Tends to throw from his ass when corking one deep and accuracy is occasionally affected as a result.
Loses even more arm strength when pressured -- doesn't have the zip to throw intermediate passes with rushers in his face, and will have to throw balls away instead. Needs to be ideally mechanically inclined for all his throws to work -- he's not a guy who's going to look great throwing off his back foot or from weird angles ... and top-level NFL quarterbacks need to be able to make those throws.
Conclusion: To me, Barkley's main problem is that he's coming into the NFL about 10 years too late. The ideal quarterback for a West Coast offense used to be Barkley's type -- the smart leader who wouldn't wow you with his arm, but could do enough when protected to help the right kind of team attain consistent success. Think of Matt Hasselbeck or Jeff Garcia. But these days, far more is required of the quarterback position at the NFL level from an athletic perspective. Even in WCO structures, teams are employing more vertical routes with burner receivers to keep up with the Joneses. Barkley may be able to acquire more arm strength over time -- Drew Brees and Tom Brady are two who have improved their velocity exponentially from their college days -- but it's also possible that he's maxed out from that perspective. And if that's the case, the "he is what he is" argument may not hold water when projecting him as a starter.
I'm reminded of the San Francisco 49ers' choice to stick with Colin Kaepernick even after Alex Smith had recovered from a mid-season concussion. Smith was the safe choice, with many of Barkley's attributes and limitations, but Jim Harbaugh saw a much higher ceiling in Kaepernick, though he had far less experience. Look at the Seattle Seahawks' decision to put the relatively "safe" Matt Flynn on the bench even after signing him to a lucrative contract, because third-round rookie Russell Wilson could do so much more. Few moves better indicate where the NFL is headed, and Barkley's very much on the wrong end of that curve.
NFL Comparison: Matt Hasselbeck, Seattle Seahawks, 2004-2007