If you told me a year ago that Matt Barkley wasn’t going to throw at the NFL Scouting Combine, I wouldn’t have batted an eye. Former top picks Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III also decided against showing off their arms at the league’s annual scouting bonanza, and it has been a popular choice among quarterbacks in past years to refrain as well.
But when news came out this weekend that Barkley’s record-setting right arm would be out of commission, I couldn’t help but shake my head.
Barkley still hasn’t fully healed from a separated right shoulder, casting further doubt on his status as an NFL prospect. Though he was once a lock to be the first pick in the draft, most analysts don’t rank the Pac-12’s all-time leader in touchdown passes among this year’s top-30 prospects.
What a difference a year makes.
Perhaps the All-American can recover from this setback and have a prosperous NFL career. Last season notwithstanding, Barkley excelled throughout his high school and college playing days and surely has the potential to do so at the professional level.
But when a player’s draft stock falls as far as Barkley’s has, one has to wonder whether or not he will serve as a cautionary tale against turning down millions to return to school instead of bolting for the NFL.
Barkley had many noble reasons to return to school last winter. He wanted a chance to play in a bowl game, to finish what he started in resurrecting a program that had been hammered by sanctions. He wanted to win a national championship, and he decided that the NFL could wait.
Call it bad luck, but since making that decision, every potential risk has become a reality: USC had one of the worst seasons as a team in recent memory and, even before his injury, Barkley’s play slipped enough to cause a noticeable dip in his draft evaluation. By the end of the season, you would be hard-pressed to find anybody who thought his decision to return was a smart one.
I understand that had USC won more games and Barkley played better, his choice would be viewed differently. But in hindsight, I don’t see how any player can turn down the type of sure-fire money that Barkley did in future years. It seems that this line of thinking is at least beginning to creep into the minds of some potential future top prospects.
Recently, rumors began to spread that University of South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney had considered sitting out next season in order to prepare for the 2014 NFL draft and avoid the risk of getting injured. Clowney is currently a sophomore and therefore ineligible for this year’s draft, though many believe that, if he were eligible, he would be the consensus first pick.
This idea of getting out while you can is nothing new. Last year’s draft saw a record 65 players declare early, eclipsing the previous record of 56, which was set in 2011. In 2004, Ohio State running back Maurice Clarett and USC wide receiver Mike Williams attempted to declare for the draft after their sophomore seasons and were disallowed. Because the pair had already signed agents, they were also deemed ineligible to play their junior seasons of college football.
Now, most would counter these examples with the infamous JaMarcus Russell, the first pick in the 2007 NFL draft and one of the most notable draft “busts” of all time. Russell left Lousiana State University one year early and made just 25 career starts in the NFL before being released.
To most, his case is evidence that players should not leave college until they’re ready, and this idea definitely makes sense. But the way I see it, JaMarcus Russell was never going to be ready to play in the NFL. At least he made that clear only after signing his $61-million contract.
I know the benefits of returning to school instead of going to the draft: the possibility of BCS glory, the chance to refine your skills and just one more year of being the big man on campus are all enticing. But to me, the risk outweighs the reward.
Barkley’s decision to come back was, in many ways, a selfless act. But because he chose to return, the lasting image of Barkley at USC will be of him standing on the sidelines in street clothes as the team that he turned down millions to play for embarrassed itself against Georgia Tech in El Paso, Texas. He deserved better than that, and I hope that the cautionary tale of Barkley will someday turn into a comeback story for the ages.
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