With the college football season kicking off, it’s time to look at the top prospects for next year’s draft, beginning with the most important position in the game. The most highly recognized and widely discussed QB prospect in the nation is USC's Matt Barkley, whom many around the league expected to be the second quarterback drafted a year ago — ahead of Robert Griffin III — had he declared for the draft.
The selection of Jake Locker and Ryan Tannehill in the eighth overall slot the past two years bodes well for Barkley’s draft status in 2013, and he is regarded as a surefire top-10 talent heading into the season.
However, there are a lot of reasons why evaluators have expressed concern.
“From what I looked at last year, he does not have a big arm,” one NFL personnel director said. ”He was surrounded by a lot of high-quality players."
“He has some accuracy to his ball, but he did not have a lot of velocity. I think his arm strength is average. They have a good offensive line and a good tight end and he throws the ball on time and got better last year. He can start in the league. I just don’t think he is a franchise-type guy."
Three of five personnel men that PFW surveyed were not convinced Barkley would be a franchise passer. By returning for his senior season, it opens Barkley up to more criticism and nitpicking from NFL scouts, who will have a full season to dissect him from every angle instead of the three months they basically would have had to prepare had he departed early. Other concerns that will come into play are his size, stature and mobility. He measured at 6-1 7/8, 228 pounds at his spring pro-day workout and is not fleet-footed outside the pocket.
In a quarterback-starved league, however, the question, as one GM posed, remains: “Who else is there?”
To Barkley’s credit, he is a four-year starter in a pro-style offense and the first three-time team captain in the history of the USC program with a top work ethic. He has a knack for feeling pressure, sliding in the pocket and getting rid of the ball in rhythm and would fit very well in a precision-style passing game.
Program sources say a big part of Barkley’s decision to stay in school hinged on his family situation, with a brother and sister involved in athletics on campus and a strong desire to be around them. Coming from an affluent family with a father who is a USC alum and the lingering hopes of capturing a national championship also played roles, as did, the way we hear it, his desire to be the top quarterback drafted.
At this stage, he is still the front-runner, but nipping at his heels are Florida State’s excellent-sized, fire-balling E.J. Manuel, Arkansas’ loose-armed, pocket-moving passer Tyler Wilson and North Carolina State’s pro-style, pocket-passing Mike Glennon, as well as Virginia Tech’s physically gifted junior QB Logan Thomas, who still stands to mature greatly.
Quarterbacks have been selected first in 12 of the last 15 drafts. The only three times since 1998 that a passer was not selected first came in 2008, when the Dolphins made Michigan OT Jake Long their top overall pick, in 2006, when the Texans selected DE Mario Williams over Reggie Bush and Vince Young and in 2000 when the Browns took DE Courtney Brown over OLB LaVar Arrington, his Penn State teammate.
From the early looks of next year’s draft, premium blind-side protectors and elite pass-rushing talent both could challenge the QB position for the top spot, with Michigan boasting another bona fide OLT prospect in a similar mold as Long in junior Taylor Lewan, who will be a three-year starter in the Big Ten Conference, wears the same No. 77 jersey as Long and though not as strong, appears lighter on his feet and better suited to handle edge speed than Long, a four-time Pro Bowler.
LSU, stacked with enough talent to make another strong run for a national championship, features one of the deepest defenses in the country, marked by a stellar front four on the defensive line. Junior DE Sam Montgomery is the Tigers’ most established end, but teammate Barkevious "KeKe" Mingo possesses the most sheer upside, with freakish athletic ability, burst, bend and closing speed to become an easy double-digit sack producer in the NFL.
The defensive line crop figures to be a strength in next year’s draft as it has been in recent years, headlined by Utah’s dancing bear DL Star Lotulelei, Purdue’s powerful hand technician Kawann Short and North Carolina’s versatile, hardworking, run-stuffing Sylvester Williams.
Alabama is very distinguished on the offensive line, where OG Chance Warmack has shown flashes of dominance, versatile OLT Barrett Jones could prove to becoming the nation’s top center after adjusting inside and ORT D.J. Fluker possesses physically imposing mass to move the line.
Notre Dame MLB Manti Te’o returned to the Irish for his senior season after battling injuries a year ago and has instant-impact starter potential in the NFL. On the outside, Georgia junior Jarvis Jones returns after establishing his presence as an outside rusher in the Bulldogs’ "30" front a year ago and will be coveted as a rush ’backer.
After nabbing an ACC-record and nation's-best 13 interceptions as a sophomore, North Carolina State’s rangy, ballhawking CB David Amerson enters his junior season atop the class along with LSU instinctive junior center fielder Eric Reid. The Minnesota Vikings traded up to land Notre Dame S Harrison Smith in the back of the first round a year ago, and the Irish could potentially place another defensive back there with the versatile Jamoris Slaughter entering the fall as the most aggressive striker and secure tackler in this year’s senior crop.
Offensive skill talent continues to dry up fast in the college ranks as more runners and receivers have departed for the NFL early in recent years. Two juniors running backs — Arkansas’ Knile Davis (broken ankle) and South Carolina’s Marcus Lattimore (ACL) have their sights on the NFL after being sidelined by injuries, but both run square with tight hips that could always lend themselves to injury in the pro game.
Michigan State bruising junior Le’Veon Bell could emerge after claiming playing time from Edwin Baker last year. Wisconsin senior Montee Ball returns with a chip on his shoulder after not receiving a first-round grade from the NFL advisory panel last spring and having a tumultuous offseason that included a trespassing arrest and concussion sustained from being jumped by five unknown attackers.
At receiver, Virginia Tech’s Marcus Davis looks chiseled from granite at 6-3, 230 pounds and a possesses a 44-inch vertical jump and athletic ability that could allow him to blossom as a senior. West Virginia’s Tavon Austin is a lightning-in-a-bottle-type, creative utility runner who fits in the same mold as Darren Sproles and Dexter McCluster. If he can stay healthy with a diminutive frame, he has elite big-play potential to spark an NFL offense.
Notre Dame’s Tyler Eifert, who might have been the top tight end drafted in 2012 had he departed as a third-year sophomore, already has decided to forego his senior season. The junior has the hand-eye coordination and body control to become a legitimate “F” receiver in the pros.