Size: Barkley is listed at 6’2”, 220 pounds but that is probably a little generous. He is probably closer to 6’1” if I had to guess. While he certainly isn’t skinny, Barkley won’t be mistaken by anyone for a quarterback with elite size.
Arm Strength: Barkley’s arm strength is something plenty of talent evaluators are going to disagree on. He clearly doesn’t have “elite” arm strength, and I would even hesitate to describe his arm strength as “good”. If I had to put a label on it I would call his arm strength “above-average.” He has enough arm strength to play in the NFL, but he can’t make every throw with appropriate velocity, especially on throws outside the numbers. He struggles to make throws from the opposite hash to the far sideline as his passes tend to have a little air under them, which will allow NFL caliber corners and safeties to make plays on those passes. Lane Kiffin and USC clearly realize Barkley’s arm strength is not what makes him a good or great quarterback, and use plenty of short passes, bootlegs and screens to highlight Barkley’s abilities. His arm strength translates much better on throws down the middle as his velocity is better. He can make intermediate throws 15-20 yards downfield down the middle, and can put enough velocity on 10 yard curls to complete them at the next level. He can throw the deep ball as well, though his passes have plenty of air under them. He often only connects on deep passes when he quickly reads single coverage for either Robert Woods or Marqise Lee and throws the deep ball with plenty of air under it so they can run under it. What is troubling is that even though he doesn’t have good or great arm strength he doesn’t consistently throw deep passes in stride; some will be accurate, in stride catches, but plenty are either overthrown by a couple yards or underthrown, requiring the receiver to make a difficult adjustment to catch the ball. Luckily for Barkley, Woods and Lee are two of the best in the country at making these adjustments, so his deep ball statistics may be deceiving. It was also interesting to evaluate Barkley in a collapsing pocket or with defenders bearing down on him. He doesn’t have the arm strength to make intermediate throws off of his back foot with quality velocity, and doesn’t spin the ball as cleanly off of his back foot. However, he flashes enough accuracy to make a NFL throw if the player is wide open in the intermediate range where his lack of arm strength wouldn’t be a significant problem. Barkley’s arm strength may not be elite, but he may have just enough to be a NFL starter. However, he is somewhat reliant on a clean pocket to succeed, as he doesn’t have the arm to get quality velocity without stepping into his throws. Unfortunately, his overall his arm strength will limit what his NFL offensive coordinator will be able to do schematically.
Accuracy: Barkley’s accuracy is definitely one of his strengths, but I don’t think it is elite or great either. His accuracy on short and intermediate routes is consistent, but like any quarterback he has his misses. He consistently throws passes in stride and to the correct shoulder of the receiver, which allows Woods and Lee to take advantage of yards after catch opportunities. He also has pretty good accuracy when throwing off his back foot in the face of pressure. However, his ball placement isn’t elite, it just looks like it sometimes because his receivers both catch the ball so well outside of their frames. His ball placement on deep passes and fade routes leaves something to be desired. His deep passes are routinely either underthrown or overthrown, leaving his receivers attempting difficult adjustments on short throws and diving (often unsuccessfully) to get a hand on overthrows. Obviously deep passes are the most difficult to complete, but I worry about how often he will be able to complete these passes at the next level if he is struggling to complete them with two clearly NFL caliber receivers at USC.
Mechanics: Barkley’s mechanics are another one of his strengths. I wouldn’t call them elite, but they are certainly very good. He has a quick, efficient release with little wasted movement that allows him to get the ball out quickly in the face of pressure. His release point isn’t elite due to his size, but he has an over the top release that projects well to the NFL. Barkley’s footwork has improved significantly since he has been at USC, and at this point I would say he has very good footwork. He flashes very impressive footwork in the pocket side-stepping the rush, climbing the pocket, and buying time without leaving the pocket. However, at times he will throw off his back foot unnecessarily, which negatively impacts his pass velocity and how cleanly he spins the ball. He has plenty of experience under center and in shotgun, and his footwork on his drop-backs are quick and clean. His mechanics are well polished, which is to be expected considering he is a 4th year senior who is returning for his 4th full year as the starting quarterback for USC.
Athleticism: Barkley doesn’t have game-breaking athleticism but he is certainly athletic enough to avoid pressure in the pocket, scramble outside to buy more time, and pick up yardage if the defense takes away his passing options and there is some open field in front of him. He won’t be making highlight reel runs, but he isn’t a poor athlete by any means.
Pre/Post-Snap Reads: Pre-snap reads are one of Barkley’s strengths. He has a lot of experience as a starting quarterback so he has obviously seen a lot of different blitz packages, coverages, and defensive alignments, both pre and post snap. He frequently makes adjustments at the line of scrimmage and has good enough awareness to make a quick throw when corners are playing with big cushion even if he has a run play called. Barkley’s anticipation also may be his most elite characteristic as he frequently throws receivers open by releasing the ball as they are making their breaks. He might be the best in the country when it comes to making throws with that kind of anticipation. However, despite his great anticipation, I’m not convinced that he is elite when going through his progressions and reading the defense. Too many times he throws passes against quality 1 on 1 or double coverage for me to be convinced of that. He doesn’t panic under pressure which is good, and he certainly has shown that he will scan the field from left to right and vice versa when given the opportunity to do so, but he also has a tendency to lock onto Woods or Lee at times. That allows defenders to key on those throws and make plays on the ball. So while I love his pre-snap reads and his anticipation I still have some issues with his post-snap reads due to forced throws into coverage as well as his habit of locking onto his primary receiver a little too often. And while I realize this often has to do with play design, there are way too many times Barkley locks on to a receiver in the flat or a running back on a swing pass and doesn’t even scan the field, tosses an easy throw to them, and either gets free yardage or a tackle for loss. They aren’t NFL throws, aren’t even close to NFL reads, and they don’t translate to the NFL at all. I don’t know why the play design would require him to throw to the flat as his primary read, but if that’s the play design then his offense isn’t preparing him as well for the NFL as many might assume.
Decision Making: Barkley’s decision making has certainly improved a lot since his freshman year, but it still has room for improvement in my opinion. He still forces throws against good coverage when he should look elsewhere or check down too much for my liking. Not only that, at times he makes throws that he can get away with in college but in the NFL they could easily be incompletions or interceptions. Even some big downfield plays that he got were a result of his receivers bailing him out with great plays on underthrown passes. Every quarterback needs that at times, so I realize I am being a little harsh, but it is more of a pattern with Barkley than you would like from a franchise caliber quarterback and potential top 5 pick. His interceptions also dropped this year as he set a career high for touchdowns, so I realize I am getting picky here, but he is not an elite decision maker yet despite his very impressive statistics last year.
Intangibles: Barkley has impressive intangibles without a doubt. He was named a captain of USC’s football team as a sophomore, the first time that has ever happened as far as I know, and he was USC’s starting quarterback as a freshman, another first for the prestigious program. He is clearly the leader of the team and he showed a lot of leadership by coming back for his senior year to try to lead his team to a BCS Bowl Game and potentially a National Championship. He has also matured enough to not let interceptions noticeably rattle him, and he has shown that he can bounce back from turnovers and still make good throws. Additionally, there may not be a quarterback in the country who does a better job keeping defenses off balance with his cadence before the snap. Without fail Barkley gets defenders to either jump offsides or jump and recover, multiple times a game. That is a sign of his veteran experience as well as his football IQ. However, I don’t think Barkley is a “franchise” quarterback. I don’t think he elevates the play of the players around him, I think his performance has a lot to do with the talent around him. While he has improved both as a leader and as a player over the past three years, the caliber of players around him on offense was very impressive this year (save for a couple spots on the offensive line) and he had his best season. I’m not implying he is simply a product of his supporting cast, but it certainly has an impact. Barkley also has a pretty impressive football IQ, though I’m not ready to call it elite due to some of the issues I have mentioned previously.
Character: Barkley is a very good football player as well as a very good person, and is well known for his charity work off the field. He’s an easy kid to root for on the field and off of it, and you love to see that.
Overall: I have been a Matt Barkley fan since he walked onto campus at USC and began competing for the starting job. He may not have elite size or arm strength, but he’s a quality player and a quality person. Unfortunately, I don’t love him as much as a NFL prospect as I had previously expected, and I don’t see any way he will end up being the #1 overall pick come next April. Even with a terrific senior season he won’t improve his stock significantly unless he shows improved decision making, better accuracy on deep passes, and better production when throwing from a collapsing pocket and off of his back foot when under pressure. That may not sound fair, but NFL teams don’t make draft picks based on fairness. He is a very polished player, which is certainly a positive, but the downside is he doesn’t have a lot of mystery to his game and what you see is more than likely what you are going to get at the next level, even if he continues to improve a bit as a senior. His arm strength isn’t going to go from above-average to great between now and the draft, his accuracy isn’t likely to go from good to elite by April, and he probably won’t grow a couple inches to alleviate concerns about his height in the next 10 months. He’s a good college quarterback, but I don’t think he will ever be much more than a solid NFL starter due to his arm strength limitations. His accuracy and anticipation will give him a chance to start at the next level, but he is not a franchise quarterback and should not be a top 5 or 10 pick in my opinion.
Projection: Late 1st, Early 2nd. It doesn’t feel right to put him this low, but right now I can’t say he’s a top 10 pick. I just don’t think he has the raw talent to be a great NFL starter, and may have a similar career arc to Mark Sanchez. He has a better football IQ, and I don’t think players will have issues following him like some of his teammates seem to be having with Sanchez, but I think he will need a strong run game and defense to go deep into the playoffs much like Sanchez has.
Thanks for reading! I’ll have scouting reports up on Robert Woods, Khaled Holmes and Curtis McNeal shortly.