Posted December 22, 2011

Matt Barkley’s decision huge blow to 2012 QB draft class

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Matt Barkley threw 39 touchdowns and just seven interceptions this year, leading USC to a 10-2 record. (Louis Lopez/Cal Sport Media)

As usual, plenty of teams will head into April’s draft in search of a franchise quarterback. The problem is, aside from Andrew Luck, the pickings are starting to look increasingly thin.

Matt Barkley’s announcement Thursday that he would return to USC for his senior season robbed the draft of a top-10 pick. That leaves Luck, Baylor’s Robert Griffin III and Oklahoma’s Landry Jones as the only sure-fire first-round prospects — and neither Griffin nor Jones has announced his intention to turn pro.

If they follow Barkley’s footsteps back to college, a thin QB draft class would be reduced to Luck and a handful of fringe prospects.

Speaking of Luck, Barkley’s choice is reminiscent of the Stanford star’s from last season. Luck was coming off a season that resulted in a Heisman Trophy runner-up finish and BCS bowl appearance. When he headed back to Stanford, he immediately became the Heisman favorite, while the Cardinal secured a spot as a national title contender.

Barkley’s in a similar boat in a lot of ways, mainly that he’ll be the Heisman frontrunner heading into the 2012 NCAA season. Unlike Luck, though, Barkley has not had the opportunity to play on the BCS stage yet — USC has been banned from bowl games for the last couple of years because of an NCAA punishment.

Not only will the Trojans be eligible to go to the postseason again next year, they’ll be expected to contend for the Pac-12 and national titles.

But those topics will be discussed at length between now and September.

The more pressing matter revolves around the upcoming NFL Draft. The Colts currently hold the top spot in that draft. Without a solid fallback option, they would be 100 percent locked in on Luck, as opposed to a scenario where they trade down and take a Barkley, Griffin or Jones.

On the other hand, Barkley’s absence in the 2012 draft class could substantially raise the stakes for any team hoping to trade up and draft a QB. Let’s just say, hypothetically, that only one of the Griffin-Jones duo winds up heading to the pros. How much would that quarterback be worth to Washington, Miami, Cleveland or any other team hoping for a top-flight signal caller?

We’re talking about an all-out bidding war the likes of which the NFL Draft rarely sees.

The potential 2012 QB class looks even less impressive when compared to 2011. Last April brought Cam Newton, Andy Dalton, T.J. Yates, Jake Locker, Christian Ponder and Blaine Gabbert into the league. All of them but Locker have started this season, and the Titans rookie has gotten meaningful playing time.

Aside from Luck, if Griffin and Jones fail to make the jump, there may not be another quarterback capable of playing the pro game in the next 12 months. Ryan Tannehill? Brandon Weeden? Kirk Cousins? Just about every other possible quarterback prospect comes with substantial question marks.

On the flip side, it’s worth wondering if Barkley’s announcement will push Griffin or Jones to head to the NFL. Both players’ stock gets a bump in light of Barkley’s move. That’s especially true for a guy like Jones, who could now make the jump from a top-25 selection into the top 10 or 15.

As for Barkley, the man putting all these scenarios in motion, he puts himself in position to be the 2013 version of Luck. Every struggling team this season was considered in the “Suck for Luck” sweepstakes — Barkley could carry similar momentum into next spring, even if he’s playing a risky game here.

For every Luck success story, there is one like that of Matt Leinart, another USC quarterback. Leinart might have been the top pick had he entered the draft after his redshirt junior season. Instead, he headed back to USC, slipped to the No. 10 pick and never found his footing in the NFL.

We’re a long way from seeing Barkley’s pro fate decided, however.

For now, Barkley’s headed back to USC, and the NFL awaits word from Griffin and Jones. If they decided to ride out their college days too, an average 2012 QB class will have even less potential.

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