By Marc Sluis, Staff Writer
As we head into the college football season it’s always nice to have a preliminary evaluation of the top players and where they stand in terms of the NFL Draft. Which college studs are poised to make the transition from Saturdays to Sundays? At this point it in the process, is not much more than an educated guess.
Here is this year’s cream of the crop when it comes to the all-important quarterback position.
1. Matt Barkley, USC
Strengths: Barkley has terrific mechanics with a consistent delivery and a quick release. He possesses enough arm strength to make all the throws, demonstrated by his ability to complete the deep vertical routes prevalent in the USC offense. Barkley has been a starter since his freshman year and been reliable and successful since Day 1. The Trojan signal-caller shows the necessary patience to go through his progressions and check it down when nothing is open down field. He is very savvy and moves well within the pocket to avoid pressure and utilizes pump fakes to keep defenders guessing. He throws a very catch-able ball and uses the proper velocity depending on the situation. Barkley is a polished product with the mental fortitude and acumen needed of a pro.
Weaknesses: His borderline height is a concern, and may have trouble seeing over his lineman. He played with terrific talent and speed at USC and behind a great O-line, and didn’t face much pass rush. His overall athleticism is average, and not a real threat to run. His tools aren’t elite or special enough to blow you away and may have a limited upside.
The Take Home: Barkley has superb mechanics and clearly has been coached-up well by Lane Kiffin’s staff. He has experience in a pro-style system, which is rare in today’s college ball and will make his transition to the NFL much smoother. Not only that, but his quarterbacking skills are very refined so his game lacks the inherent risk associated with less developed raw prospects. His learning curve will be smaller and should be able to grasp an NFL playbook and schemes relatively quickly. He’s a great kid with solid leadership abilities and no off-the-field concerns while being a great teammate. A devout Christian with great grades and upbringing, Barkley is the model student-athlete. On the field he benefited from an offense at USC with speedy receivers and weak PAC-12 defenses.
With the likes of Matt Kalil protecting his blindside, he didn’t face consistent pressure, but had big time production, 39/7 (TD/INT) in 2011. While not as athletically gifted as freaks Logan Thomas or EJ Manuel, he can certainly escape pressure and pick up yardage, as well as throw accurately on the run. He’s not a superior “arm talent” but has above average arm strength and consistently gets it done. His terrific mechanics may dampen the height issue, but height is still a real concern (needs to register at 6’2 or higher). His unmatched experience is arguably his best attribute and distinguishes him from the pack and makes him a safe selection.
Overall, Barkley is a super teammate with all the NFL tools you look for without completely blowing you away. He has a high floor and is a low risk prospect who should at worst be an average starter for ten years in the league. He may not have the upside of some prospects but clearly a top QB in this year’s class and projects as a great pro who is NFL ready.
2. Logan Thomas, Virginia Tech
Strengths: Thomas has terrific height and a strong build with impressive bulk. He’s a dual-threat college quarterback who was a four-star recruit and the #1 TE prospect in his class. He is physical enough to take defenders head-on when picking up yards on the run downfield and is a true short yardage and red zone weapon. He displays surprisingly good poise in the pocket with good footwork and he stands tall and makes throws in traffic. He has a very strong arm with a fluid throwing motion that loses no velocity on the move and keeps his eyes downfield and can throw effectively against his body. He’s a tough customer and a load to bring down with terrific raw ability.
Weaknesses: He tends to be careless with the football when on the move. He needs to improve his accuracy level, especially the pin-point precision necessary for bubble screens and quick hitters to run seamlessly.
The Take Home: Thomas possesses the strong and long build of a tight end that doubles as a great body for a durable NFL quarterback. His height allows him to easily see over his line and locate defenders. His strength allows him to stand in the pocket and take hits while being nearly impossible to bring down with one man. As a great athlete he is comfortable in the open field whether escaping pressure or picking up yards down field. He has no shortage of arm strength and can make every throw a pro scout looks for.
It’s not just his outstanding height, bulk, athleticism, or arm strength that made me fall in love; it’s his poise and composure in the pocket that I really think is special. He just doesn’t panic, and when you have the build of a linebacker (or any defender for that matter) don’t scare you.
While not a carbon copy, he compares favorably to Big Ben in several respects. Both stand in traffic willing to take a hit, but even with their build they have the necessary athleticism to make plays and beat defenses on the move. Neither has a shortage of arm strength and both are more than accurate enough to make all the throws without being known as deadly accurate. Both are also criticized for holding on to the ball too long, but get away with it due to their refusal to go down.
Thomas needs to sure up the ins and outs of his passing game before he has the success Ben had, but he is talented enough to become an elite NFL signal caller. It sure sounds like he’s a top tier can’t miss prospect right? Yes and no. From a physical standpoint he has everything one could desire. However, being a former tight end and great athlete doesn’t preclude you from doing the dirty work every successful NFL QB does every day in training camp, practice, and games. He still needs to become consistently accurate and limit turnovers. The potential is scary, but it hasn’t translated into elite quarterbacking yet. He has only been the starter under center for one full year and with modest production: 3,013 yards, a 59.5% completion rate and a 19-10 TD-INT ratio. Look for a big jump in 2012, which could launch him into the #1 overall pick discussion by year’s end.
Tyler Wilson, Arkansas
Strengths:Wilson can really spin it and excels in threading it to receivers down field on the deep post and go-routes. He has a live arm, throws a tight spiral and shows great accuracy on the deep ball. He has fluid throwing mechanics with nice footwork and steps into throws to create the proper velocity.
Weaknesses: Whether a product of his height and having trouble seeing over his lineman or his gunslinger mentality he gets himself in trouble throwing over the middle at times and loses track of defenders who are more than willing to take it the other the way. He also gets happy feet with pressure up the middle.
The Take Home:Wilson has a great arm and when given time to set his feet he throws a frozen rope on target. He excels when receivers run vertical or post routes down the field and he can step into the throw. He was able to step in effectively for an injured Mallet with solid play, which is even more impressive because he did it against notoriously physical SEC defenses. He didn’t light up the scoreboard when coming in off the bench and had four TD paired with 3 picks, but he showed toughness, resolve and a rocket arm.
This past year when he became the starter his numbers dramatically increased. He threw for 3,638 yards with 24 TD and only 6 INT. He has solid bulk and is tough enough to get knocked around and stay aggressive. While listed at 6’3, scouts will want to make sure he measures at at least 6’2 at the combine. He is not a standout athlete by any means but has some mobility and can escape pressure effectively.Wilson is not completely polished at this point in his development, but has some Brett Favre qualities and produces a couple plays every game that really look really special.
4. Tyler Bray Tennessee
Strengths: Bray has a great arm and has no trouble putting some mustard on his throws. Prototypical 6’6 height and moves around reasonably well for his height.
Weaknesses: He needs to add bulk to his paper thin frame. His mechanics tend to break down at times and he side arms a lot of throws, leading to some accuracy issues.
The Take Home: Bray has the skills that coaches can’t teach: height and arm strength. He is a bit thin literally, and in the maturity department. He has no shortage of confidence and needs to channel that into leadership. As a thrower he needs to improve his accuracy and decision making. He’s generally a pocket passer with limited mobility; although he is not a complete stiff. There may be some scouts that will dislike his throwing mechanics, but he seems to make it work. He will get a chance to refine his game against the nation’s best competition and has some great receivers to throw to. He could and should take the next step and has all the tools to bloom into an NFL talent.
5. Geno Smith WVU
Strengths: Smith has a good arm with a quick release and gets good zip on the ball. He has excellent speed and above average agility and change of direction to pick up yards on a broken play.
Weaknesses: His slight build creates durability concerns. When under pressure his decision making will break down at times.
The Take Home: Smith’s game is nearly perfect for Dana Holgorsen’s up-tempo attack. He has enough arm strength to make every throw, but more importantly his quick release and ability to process information and make fast reads allows him to get rid of the ball quickly and into the hands of play-makers. His arm isn’t elite and his accuracy breaks down at times when faced with pressure, but has a solid overall talent level and had impressive production last year with 4,385 yards 31-7 (TD-INT). His completion percentage has been steady around 65% in 2010 and 2011.
He has the important ability to escape pressure and can turn a near sack into a 10 yard gain with ease. He might not be the flashiest QB physically but look for him to put up pinball numbers this season. In today’s NFL where games are won through the air, he is more than comfortable slinging it all over the field and throwing 40+ times a game.
6. Landry Jones OU
Strengths: Jones has the frame, 6’4 229, and effortless arm strength of a typical pocket passing pro prospect. The ball flies of his hand and shows the ability to throw quickly and with enough velocity to receivers running out-routes or wide at the sideline and across the field, which is an indication of great arm strength.
Weaknesses: He has very limited mobility and is not a threat to take off and run downfield with any great success. Jones had a disappointing year and regressed numbers wise from last year going from 38/12 to 29/15 (TD-INT). He mainly worked out of the shotgun and his lack of athleticism may make the transition to taking snaps under center even more difficult.
The Take Home: Landry Jones has the height, frame and excellent arm strength of a pro pocket passer. However, he also has the limited mobility and lack of athleticism associated with such traditional quarterbacks. His game is very hot and cold. He impresses with a fluid release and effortless arm strength, but also misses receivers and fails to deliver in the clutch.
If given time he can sling it with the best of them, but no offensive line can guarantee that on every play. Like the entire Sooners squad from a year ago, he left most fans and scouts very disappointed as expectations were high. There is no question he has the tools, but his limitations are also glaring. He might be the prospect who is most judged on this year’s performance and could potentially may a big rise up draft boards.