NFL teams know what they want in a quarterback these days. It’s pretty obvious when you think about it. The vertical passing game is dominating the league and the best athletes in America are playing defensive end. The feeling is you need someone who can avoid pressure and throw the ball accurately with good velocity.
In the last two drafts, seven quarterbacks have been taken within the top-15 picks. Each player has very similar characteristics – arm strength, mobility, size. If you’re big, strong and athletic – you have a chance to be a top-15 pick in the NFL draft. You don’t even have to be close to the finished article, because upside will make up for anything. This is the NFL in 2012.
Cam Newton, Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Jake Locker, Ryan Tannehill, Blaine Gabbert and Christian Ponder. They can all move around to avoid pressure. Everyone except Ponder can throw the ball downfield with real velocity. Each player had enough upside to persuade a team they had to take them early. All featured in one way or another as a rookie and in year two, every player is a NFL starter.
These are the kind of quarterbacks every team is looking for these days. As mentioned – the best athletes all play defensive end or rush linebacker. Offensive coaches are really concerned about the growing difference in talent and athleticism between players rushing the passer and trying to defend the quarterback. There just aren’t any offensive tackles out there who can compare to DeMarcus Ware, Jason Pierre-Paul or Clay Matthews as pure athletes. Pass protection is no longer just about one great blind side blocker, greater responsibility also lies with the quarterback. He needs to be evasive, he needs to be able to make plays on the run as he’s being chased by J.J. Watt or Von Miller. The demands on a quarterback are extreme and it’s becoming a position that requires not just a degree of intelligence, but also real athleticism.
So how does Matt Barkley fit into the modern NFL?
Regular visitors last year will know I’m a fan of USC’s quarterback. He’s lost some momentum this year after a disappointing defeat to Stanford and his performances so far in 2012 haven’t matched his brilliant end to last season. He has five interceptions in four games this year, after throwing just seven in an entire season in 2011. If you’re the kind of person looking for an excuse to downgrade a prospect, there’s your foot in the door. Forget that he also he’s been sacked seven times already (he had just eight sacks in 2011) and is working without last year’s left tackle (#4 overall pick Matt Kalil) and his starting center (Khaled Holmes – struggling through injury). People look at the fact he’s lost a game and the numbers aren’t quite what we expected and the bandwagon leaves the city.
There’s still time – and certainly enough big games – for Barkley to get people talking about him again like they were at the end of last year. After all, twelve months ago the national pundits like Todd McShay graded him as a borderline first round pick. Barkley entered the year #1 on McShay’s board for 2013. So things can change dramatically.
Barkley’s mechanics are elite, he has an excellent grasp of making the correct reads at the line and going through progressions. He stands tall in the pocket and basically runs the USC offense on a game day. Lane Kiffin trusts him to get the job done and he’s been rewarded on more than one occasion for that decision. We mentioned intelligence earlier and Barkley has it in spades – he is without doubt one of the best quarterbacks anyone will ever see when it comes to field IQ, decision making and understanding of his role in the USC offense.
I still believe he has a legitimate chance to go first overall next April, but we must also consider that he’s a different player to the seven quarterbacks who have been top-15 picks the last two years. He isn’t big (a shade over 6-2), he isn’t very elusive, he isn’t a great ‘pure’ athlete and he doesn’t have a great arm. The quarterbacks drafted early in the last two years are all very different, but Barkley is on an island in comparison. The big question is – can he compensate for a lack of pure athleticism with the other things he brings to the table such as accuracy and smarts?
It would be a departure from what we’ve seen the last two years if he did go as early as a lot of people expect – myself included. One of the reasons Logan Thomas was pushed so much this off-season is purely down to the fact he fits perfectly into what NFL teams are looking for. Nobody covered the size/speed/arm strength angle better than Thomas. Yet he’s struggled – seemingly after putting so much pressure on himself – and now looks destined to enter the 2014 draft instead. Barkley is left to challenge with the Geno Smith’s of this world (himself not the biggest, strongest or most athletic quarterback – but still ahead of Barkley physically).
What could help USC’s quarterback is the misfortune of the other potential high draft picks at the position. Smith has been electric so far at West Virginia but faces tougher tests on the horizon and has had off-days in the past that have exposed some weaknesses. Virginia Tech’s Thomas is a near certainty to return for his senior year after a dreadful start to the 2012 season. Tyler Wilson has had an even worse start at Arkansas, with the team descending into farce recently. Aaron Murray has started well at Georgia, but will face question marks about his own height (around 6-0), athleticism and arm strength. Barkley could be the #1 by default and the best quarterback in any given draft class will always have a shot to go very early.
Yet scouts, GM’s, head coaches and fans get very nit-picky when it comes to senior quarterbacks (particularly those in their fourth year of starting). Invariably the negatives are focused on and totted up over such a large sample size, where perhaps people would’ve zoned in more on the Oregon win last year and other such displays had he declared for 2012. And I come back to the fact he isn’t that big, tall, elusive signal caller with the big arm – the kind of quarterback that has been going early the last two years.
We’ve never assumed Barkley would be the #1 pick in 2013 and have touched on possible scenarios where he would drop. There aren’t a ton of teams in the NFL left with a ‘young quarterback vacancy’. Teams like Kansas City, Arizona, Oakland and Buffalo may consider it (Seattle too) – but when seven teams go early on a quarterback in two years, you’ve got to expect a drop off somewhere. That could be 2013, especially given the emerging depth on defense (Jarvis Jones, Dee Milliner and many others). I’m going to update my mock draft tomorrow to show what we could see next April. In the meantime, check out Matt Barkley vs Oregon from 2011 as referred to in this piece. I recommend the throw at the 2:00 mark – nobody threw a better pass last season.