Welcome, Buffalo Bills fans, to 2013 NFL Draft week. In a little more than three short days, the first round will be underway and we'll be waiting on tenterhooks to see if an off-season of quarterback talk will yield the Bills' first first-round signal caller since J.P. Losman was picked in 2004.
The debate of the week - which has been debated for nearly a week already thanks to GM Buddy Nix's commentary at last week's pre-draft luncheon - is whether the team will prefer Matt Barkley of USC or Ryan Nassib of Syracuse if they decide to take a quarterback in the first round. ESPN's Todd McShay hears the Bills prefer Barkley, while his colleague Chris Mortensen says that the league thinks the Bills are leaning towards Nassib.
We'll know later this week which is true - or if the Bills prefer a different quarterback, or if the months-long quarterback rhetoric has been a massively elaborate smokescreen laid to hide interest in a non-quarterback. Either way, I wanted to spend the weekend cutting through the fog and confusion to focus on answering the most important question for myself: between Barkley and Nassib, which projects as the better passer in the NFL?
Greg Cosell of NFL Films breaks down the quarterback position better than anyone that's not in the league, keying on specific attributes in doing so. I watched six of Barkley's games (twice) and five of Nassib's (twice) from 2012 to try to get as thorough a read on those attributes as possible. Keep in mind that I wasn't watching coaches' film, which makes evaluating more difficult; by no means should this be treated as gospel. If you'd like to watch what I watched (and had watched more than once prior to this weekend, as well), be sure to stop by the excellent site DraftBreakdown.com, which has pages of videos dedicated to Barkley, Nassib and dozens of other prospects.
No. 1: Accuracy
Being accurate with the football is critical to quarterbacking success, and ball placement is especially critical in an offense like Doug Marrone's and Nathaniel Hackett's, which utilizes West Coast concepts and relies on yards after the catch. A quarterback in that system needs to put the ball in precise locations to maximize the yardage potential of each throw.
Barkley displays a high level of accuracy on shorter throws. He's also got a very underrated deep game; he can hit receivers in stride 50 yards down the field, and also throws a nice fade. Where he seemed to struggle to me was on intermediate throws, where his ball placement was spottier than in other areas of the field. Seam routes, in particular, were problematic from what I saw. His accuracy also dips when he's on the move, though not dramatically; he can still make throws while rolling out.
With Nassib, it's a little bit different. He's accurate on shorter throws - who isn't? - but will often have deflected passes or force his receivers to make tough catches because he puts so much mustard on those throws. He needs to develop better touch in that area of the field. So, too, does he need to tidy up his deep game; it seemed like once or twice per game (of those I watched), Nassib was missing someone wide open down the field or badly under-throwing a deep ball. He does, however, show solid accuracy on the move - and he's even better in the intermediate game, where his zippy throws are frequently on target in an offense tailor-made to exploit defenses with seam routes. Those throws are where Nassib truly shines.
Advantage: Push. Both quarterbacks were spotty at times and brilliant at others in the accuracy department. Pick your preference: do you like a thrower that can hurt you underneath and on deeper throws, or do you like a quarterback that can zip passes up the seam and make stick throws on the run? Right now, that's the delineation; Barkley needs to improve his intermediate game, while Nassib needs to work on his touch and deep ball. Barkley's ball placement can improve, while Nassib must develop more consistency at all levels of the field.
No. 2: Pocket presence
NFL quarterbacks need to be capable pocket passers, regardless of what else they can bring to the table. To be a good pocket passer, one must be able to hang in against pressure and make tough throws, and also slide to avoid pressure and keep plays alive. It's worth pointing out here that Barkley spent a lot of time under center executing five- and seven-step drops, while nearly every throw I saw Nassib make came out of the shotgun, which makes comparing the two somewhat difficult in an evaluation.
Even still, Barkley and Nassib are quite similar in this department. Both are tough players that will take a hit to make a throw. Both can sense pressure, dodge a pass rusher, reset their feet and deliver a strike. Neither is a great athlete and can only evade one rusher - or two, on some occasions - before the inevitable occurs. There are, however, three distinct advantages that favor Nassib in this area.
Advantage: Nassib. Barkley is thoroughly underwhelming athletically, whereas Nassib is slightly athletic; Jon Gruden referred to him as a "nuisance runner," and while that may not be the case at the NFL level, it speaks to Nassib being a niftier, lighter-footed player than Barkley. Nassib typically has an easier time keeping plays alive than Barkley does. More importantly, Barkley is a riskier player in the face of pressure; he'll often try to do too much, whether it be throwing the ball away wildly or forcing a pass, and it led to some ugly turnovers. Nassib did a bit of that as well, but in general he took better care of the football. That's obviously something Barkley can (and probably will) clean up, but that doesn't change the fact that the more athletic Nassib is the better bet maneuvering in the pocket. Lastly, Nassib is better than Barkley when it comes to changing his arm angle to make throws with velocity in the face of pressure; this could be a critical difference between the two at the pro level.
No. 3: Making tough, professional throws
Cosell factors a lot of attributes into this part of the evaluation. It starts with arm strength - obviously, it's easier to fit a football into tight windows if you've got a strong arm - but also involves the ability to anticipate routes and throw players open. Here's where I point out that it's much tougher to evaluate Barkley in this particular area than it is Nassib, because Barkley was playing in a problematic offensive system run by Lane Kiffin.
Basically, USC's offense would give Barkley the freedom to audible out of run plays to bubble screens and short throws as essentially an extended running play, and they'd mix in play-action to get Barkley on the move playing behind a terrible offensive line. The attack was successful mostly because Barkley's a good point guard and USC's receivers are ridiculously talented, but it also led to Barkley having a much smaller sample size of tight-window throws than Nassib had.
Barkley struggles to throw with velocity. His arm strength is thoroughly average, and Kiffin's offense didn't ask him to anticipate routes or throw people open too often. I saw him do it - and despite his average arm talent, he certainly trusts his arm enough to try those throws when they're there; he's hit his fair share of them - but it's tough to get comfortable about him being able to consistently fit the ball into a tight window at the NFL level. He must improve his ability to anticipate routes coming open, because he'll need to be elite in that area to overcome his average arm strength.
Nassib does not have the strongest of arms, but his throws have more pep to them, particularly on the back end. There are moments where he struggles with velocity, as well, though they are much less frequent than with Barkley. Syracuse's offense routinely asked him to make throws into tight windows, and his strong grasp of Hackett's offensive concepts led to a fair amount of great anticipation throws. He's got a live arm that he trusts, and had a surprising amount of success making NFL-caliber reads.
Advantage: Nassib. He's the better arm talent, and Syracuse's offense developed more anticipation in Nassib than USC's did in Barkley. I won't deny Barkley's potential here, but I've seen Nassib do it. This, to me, is the biggest difference between the two players as prospects (with Barkley's deep ball accuracy coming in second).
No. 4: Decision-making
This one's fairly straightforward: does the quarterback make the right decisions with the football? Again, it's worth pointing out that Barkley played in a more conservative passing attack, which makes his evaluation here more difficult - and that's problematic, considering that this is the toughest part of the evaluation process.
I don't believe that Barkley will be turnover-happy at the NFL level, but he was in his senior season at USC. We've already covered his tendency to make silly decisions trying to do too much in the face of pressure. I also saw him make a few late throws that led to turnovers, or near-turnovers. In general, Barkley strikes me as the type of player that will be more risk-averse as a pro, but he was decidedly not that in 2012, even in Kiffin's conservative offense. When it's drawn up right, Barkley can be deadly; when the play or his protection breaks down, it's a different story.
Nassib was asked to do more pre-snap than Barkley, and is therefore better in that department. He typically knows where to go with the football and, more often than not, gets it there. There were occasions where he got greedy and ignored an easy throw for something that wasn't there - he got away with some bad throws - but in general the ball was in and out of his hands headed in the direction of the right read. He can, of course, always get better with his reads and his decision-making, and he'll have to to be a consistent NFL thrower.
Advantage: Nassib. It'll be interesting to see how Barkley's decision-making changes at the NFL level, particularly when the pocket breaks down or he's asked to stand in, make a throw and take a hit. I doubt he'll press the way he did in his senior season, so I don't anticipate another slew of turnovers. Nassib, however, is more deliberate pre-snap and with his reads. He has less to clean up than his Trojan counterpart.
I've watched a lot of both of these players. It's not difficult to project both as future solid pros. Both are good fits for the West Coast offense; Barkley can unleash some deadly deep throws and has stretches where he is devastatingly efficient, while Nassib has a live arm, is more aggressive without being sloppy with the football, and can rip off some beautiful passes up the seam. That said, there's enough not to like about both - whether it be Barkley's limited arm strength (and by extension upside), or Nassib's maddening inconsistency and deep ball struggles - that it's tough to advocate for either with a Top 10 pick. In fact, let me be perfectly clear about this: if I were making the call, I wouldn't draft either player with the No. 8 pick.
That said, if the Bills are really deciding between these two players, I favor Nassib in a landslide - and that's before even factoring in his ties to the team's coaching staff. He is the better physical talent with more upside, and I saw more NFL-quality traits in the five games I watched than I saw in Barkley's six. Beyond what we just covered above, when you add in his connections to Marrone and Hackett, it's a no-brainer, in my opinion.
The best part about these kinds of evaluations is that someone completely reasonable can watch the same footage and see things entirely differently. It all depends on which attributes you believe are most important in projecting a college passer to the NFL passing game. I know for a fact that there are readers here that spent their weekend poring over whatever video they could scrounge up on these two players, and I'm betting that there will be plenty of people willing to go to bat for Barkley in the comments section below. Let the debate begin (or in this case, continue) - but after as extensive a review process as a fan can muster, consider me firmly in Camp Nassib.