LOS ANGELES -- While USC quarterback Matt Barkley ran a 40-yard dash and participated in agility drills during the school's Wednesday pro day at Cromwell field, that was about as insignificant as it could be for the NFL teams in attendance. All 32 teams were expected to make an appearance from their coaching and/or scouting staffs, and most certainly did -- there were especially heavy groups from the Jacksonville Jaguars and New York Jets organizations, though a lot of the shot-callers in the league were at LSU's pro day. What those in attendance wanted to see was how well Barkley would throw the ball after a November, 2012 shoulder injury that ended his season, and prevented him from participating in pre-draft processes like the Senior Bowl and scouting combine -- at least, as a pure thrower.
"It was a great day to come out and just throw the ball around," Barkley said when his performance was done. "It feels good to be back and SC's campus like this -- that was a good day. You always strive to be perfect, especially on a day like this, but I'm pleased with how the guys ran routes, and how the ball came out."
With performance coach Chris Weinke in tow, Barkley took to the field with his cadre of homegrown receivers at around 1:00 p.m. and proceeded to fling the ball around. He started with quick 10-yard in-seam and out throws to a four-across array of receivers, showing that he could at least get the ball out of his hand with the same velocity he had before. And in that sense, Wednesday was a big win for Barkley -- wherever teams had him graded as far as overall arm strength is about where he is now.
The bad news, we suppose, would be for anyone expecting his work with Weinke or Dr. James Andrews to provide a new level of sauce on his longer passes. On deeper sideline throws, especially those he threw outside the pocket on designed rollouts, Barkley tended to struggle with the kind of quick and precise timing needed to make those plays happen in game situations. While he can clearly sing the ball with optimal arc to any depth, his receivers (including Robert Woods, who drew a lot of applause from those in attendance) had to come back and otherwise adjust on about half of his long passes. The actual stats -- many would estimate five or six incompletions in a total of 62 throws -- were not as important as the kinds of passes Barkley threw incomplete, and the completions his receivers had to make for him.
That said, and where Barkley's been undersold to date, is in his control and command of the little things. In my opinion, he has by far the best footwork, ball flight (ability to put the right amount of air under the ball), anticipation, and sense of play action of any quarterback in this draft class. When I talked to Weinke about Barkley's positive traits, footwork and anticipation came up more than once. It's clear to me that Barkley has developed his sense of anticipation as an adaptive strategy to compensate for the deep arm deficiency.
Weinke told me that Barkley came to him after rehabbing his shoulder with Dr. Andrews on January 20, and the two have been working on getting Barkley back to full strength ever since. Barkley was at about 50 percent, Weinke estimated, when he showed up, about 80 percent two weeks ago, and ready to let it fly on Wednesday.
"The ultimate goal was getting to today and being able to make all the throws," Weinke told me. "He feels comfortable with where his shoulder is, and with making every throw, and looking back, he's glad he did follow the plan."
Weinke also had a ready answer for those concerned with Barkley's velocity.
"Here's the deal -- everybody gets enamored with arm strength," he said. "The key for me when coaching quarterbacks, whether it's a veteran or a younger guy, is to understand that the most important thing is obviously accuracy. Along with that is being able to have the ability to process information and deliver the ball with anticipation. Very rarely in the National Football League do we drop back and throw the ball 70 yards. The great quarterbacks don't have to have a cannon for an arm -- they've got to be able to make all the throws physically, and to get the ball out on time."
Weinke is convinced that Barkley is such a quarterback, and Barkley, though fairly taciturn after his throwing session, is clearly convinced as well.
"I don't know -- that's not my job," he said, when asked if he had something to prove today. "I do what I do, and if it's proof enough for someone else, so be it. But I don't think that was my goal today."
Barkley's goal today was to show the NFL what he could do up close and in person, and to that end, his pro day was an unqualified success. When NFL teams go back to the tape, they'll see what they saw in Los Angeles -- both good and bad.There are worse things to be than Matt Barkley at his best -- we just have to remember that with some players, "best" isn't always what we want it to be.
After a great deal of drama, it turns out that Matt Barkley is, in the immortal words of Dennis Green. who we thought he was.
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