Wednesday’s pro day has come and gone, and with it the bulk of the gauntlet that is NFL draft preparation is now, for the most part, finished.
Sure, interviews and private team meetings remain, but for Matt Barkley and the rest of the USC prospects, the case has been made as to where they deserve to be drafted come April.
Ever since USC’s 2012 season mercifully came to an end, no prospect not named Manti Te’o has been combed over and dissected more than Barkley, whose shoulder injury and relatively shaky senior season have casted doubt as to whether he’s deserving of being the top-ranked quarterback prospect or even a first-round draft pick.
So where does Barkley deserve to go? His career definitely ended on a downward trend, but his 2012 numbers rank among the top 20 in most categories, including passer rating and touchdowns.
But those same numbers were drastically worse across the board in comparison to those from his junior season, particularly in the interception department, where Barkley posted a career-worst 15 picks last season.
Still, for all the flak Barkley received because of last year’s performance, this is the Pac-12’s most productive quarterback, and nearly every other school would love its signal-caller to have a season like Barkley had last year. USC fans might have been too spoiled with his superb junior season to fully appreciate all he did last year.
So where should Barkley go in the draft? Many scouts currently rank West Virginia’s Geno Smith ahead of Barkley, though both are ranked no higher than 15th among all prospects. Smith’s perceived edge over Barkley comes from his mobility and his arm strength. Though he wasn’t a runner in college, Smith’s 40 time of 4.59 is miles ahead of Barkley’s, which floats somewhere near five seconds.
To me, what separates the two is competition. Smith played his first two seasons as a starter in the Big East, which ranked No. 8 in ESPN ’s final 2011 conference power rankings. The Pac-12 finished No. 2 that year. Last season, West Virginia competed in the Big XII, which ranked No. 3 in the final regular season power rankings, one spot behind the Pac-12.
Furthermore, in the last two NFL drafts, the Big East had 21 defensive players chosen. By comparison, the Pac-12 saw 31 of its defensive players taken in the last two years, evidence that Barkley, a four-year starter, faced more top-tier talent across the line of scrimmage during his career than Smith, who started his last three seasons in Morgantown.
To me, Barkley is the clear choice as the top quarterback prospect. The scouts may never come to terms with his relatively short 6-foot-2 ½ or his less-than-stellar arm strength and questionable decision-making at times, but few college players went through more adversity and scrutiny than Barkley did over the course of his career. And, Barkley will undoubtedly wow coaches and executives during the interview process in the coming weeks, which will surely boost his stock even further.
Then there is the chaos that is draft day. Teams always get antsy in the minutes leading up to their pick, making their decisions particularly unpredictable. Coaches and general managers are always looking for a franchise quarterback, and it would not surprise me in the least if a team fell in love with the idea of making Barkley the face of the franchise enough to trade up and use a mid-to-high first-round pick on him.
Teams like Minnesota and Cleveland come to mind, franchises whose current starting quarterbacks are on thin ice and haven’t experienced much success of late. But another possibility is a team like the Houston Texans, whose starting quarterback, Matt Schaub, will be 32 when next season begins and was solid but unspectacular last season.
The Texans are a run-oriented team, and many analysts believe the only thing that separated them from the NFL elites is a good quarterback. In the 2012 NFL postseason, many pundits asserted that Schaub’s inability to pose a threat to opposing defenses was the reason the Texans were eliminated in the AFC divisional round.
Barkley might just be the guy they are missing, and with Schaub signed through the next four seasons, the Texans would not have to rush Barkley into a starting role prematurely.
All this is speculation, of course, and when the Chiefs go on the clock with the No. 1 pick on April 25, mayhem could ensue, throwing all this speculation out the window. Wherever Barkley lands, be it Buffalo or Arizona or anywhere else, my guess is that he’ll make whichever coach who takes a chance on him look like a very smart man when all is said and done.
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