Matt Barkley was supposed to be the golden boy of the 2013 NFL Draft. Many believed he would have been a top-10 selection had he entered the draft following his junior year, making him the heavy favorite to go number-one overall this upcoming April.
But with the spotlight shining bright on Barkley throughout his senior year, he was exposed as a flawed prospect who may have to fight just to earn a spot in the first round.
Let's take a look a few key ares of Barkley's game which will influence his place on draft boards.
Arm strength/downfield accuracy
A common criticism of Barkley is his lack of arm strength. But while he doesn't possess a Joe Flacco-like cannon, he certainly has the ability to get the ball down the field. Even when he's on the run Barkley rarely struggles to get the ball to his intended target.
However, what Barkley does lack is the ability to get the ball down the field with accuracy. USC turned in their fair share of big plays this season, but primarily due to the playmaking ability of Marqise Lee and Robert Woods after the catch. When they tried to stretch the field, Barkley's throws were scattered all over the field. And he doesn't just miss by an arms length either—the number of throws which miss by three yards or more raise some serious concerns.
In my preseason review of Barkley, I highlighted a few examples of Barkley's downfield struggles (here and here) and it was an issue that didn't improve significantly in 2012. In fact, the USC coaching staff seemed to attempt to compensate for Barkley's lack of downfield accuracy by featuring an increased number of short and intermediate passes.
A prime example of this game plan came against Syracuse earlier this season. Against the Orange, Barkley completed 23 passes, 16 of which were at or behind the line of scrimmage.
To date, I have charted five of Barkley's games from the past two seasons. In these five games he has completed just 18 of 49 passes (36.7 percent) beyond 15 yards down the field.
The short and intermediate throws designed to mask Barkley's deficiencies in accuracy also mask his issues with decision making. USC's quick-strike passing attack is entirely based on timing, and requires limited processing of the defense on the part of the quarterback. While Barkley has demonstrated the ability to sit in the pocket and go through his progressions, he is relatively inexperienced in this area of the game due to the system he runs.
As a result, when Barkley faces pressure he gets flustered. This is an issue that every rookie quarterback faces at the next level, and something that can be fixed with experience, but it will affect the offense a team is capable of running with Barkley at the helm in 2013.
The Redskins handling of Robert Griffin III is a great example of how a team will need to design an offense around Barkley's skill set. While Griffin has the ability to throw the ball down the field, he lacks the experience and the field awareness to consistently sit in the pocket in the face of a dangerous pass rush and pick apart a defense. As a result, the Redskins have designed a creative quick-strike attack that allows him to move around and get rid of the ball quickly.
On the flip side is Andrew Luck, who is playing in a more traditional system in Indianapolis. While his stats don't quite match up to RG3's, his performance has arguably been more impressive due to the fact that he is being asked to shoulder more of the load in terms of decision making and leading the team on the field.
Barkley could potentially excel in a system designed around his skill set, much like Griffin in Washington. But Barkley would flounder if asked to step into a role similar to Andrew Luck.
What this all means
While I've highlighted two of the biggest question marks regarding Barkley's NFL future, he does have the basic skills necessary to play at the next level. And for that reason there is still a strong possibility that someone calls his name in the first round of the draft, and possibly even in the top 10. But whoever selects Barkley will need to be prepared to design a system that fits his skill set and masks these deficiencies.
Barkley is not a Matthew Stafford or Aaron Rodgers who can sit in the pocket, read the defense and launch the ball down the field. He needs to be treated more like a Chad Pennington or a Matt Hasselbeck, a guy who can lead a simplified offense and who is destined to be labeled a "game manager."