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Dynasty: Is Matt Barkley a Buying Opportunity?
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After the 2011 college football season, I waited with anticipation for USC’s Matt Barkley to declare himself eligible for the 2012 NFL Draft—not because I wanted him on my fantasy rosters, but because I wanted other people in my leagues to draft what I considered to be an overvalued prospect in a flooded QB market. But then Barkley decided to return to USC for his senior year, and what followed in his 2012 season was the inevitable regression to something resembling high-grade mediocrity.

Now, with Barkley’s once-scorching value cooled off, those who like to shop for discounts may have—gulp, I almost hate to say it—a buying opportunity. Depending on which team drafts him (and the round in which he is drafted), Barkley may just be an undervalued and investible asset in both dynasty and redraft leagues.

In general, before even attempting to determine the relationship between a player’s market and intrinsic values, I ask myself this question: “If this guy is on my roster, will he ever be good enough to start?”—not “will I need to start him,” but “will he be good enough.” Market value is important, but intrinsic value is ultimately what determines whether a player ends up on my roster or not: “If this guy is on my roster, will he ever be good enough to start?”

When one considers Matt Barkley, the primary question is whether he is likely ever to be good enough to start as a fantasy QB. Although some people have some reservations about the Lewin Career Forecast (Version 2.0) as it appears on Football Outsiders, last year it proved—with its high scores for Russell Wilson, Robert Griffin III, and Andrew Luck—to have a valuable predictive quality. While this year’s QB cohort generally grades lower than last year’s, the 2013 LCF gives a very solid score of 1812 DYAR (Defense-Adjusted Yards Above Replacement) to Matt Barkley, projecting that in Years 3-5 of his NFL career he will be 1812 passing yards “better” than the average QB. In fact, Barkley’s score of 1812 DYAR is better than solid. Since 1998, that ranks as the eighth highest.

With this information in hand, one can run a backtest to see how other players with similar scores have fared in their first 5 years in the league. Using a range of 1612-2012 DYAR, I have compiled this complete list of LCF QBs (those drafted in the first three rounds) back to 1998, sorted by descending LCF, with the positional ranks of their first five NFL seasons provided by (Note that in the averages I do not include Palmer and Pennington’s positional rankings from their years as backups, partially because Palmer recorded no statistics as a rookie and partially because they were not treated as starters—and what I want to know is how these QBs performed once they were every-week players.)

Player Draft Year Draft Round Draft Pick LCF Y1 Rank Y2 Rank Y3 Rank Y4 Rank Y5 Rank Total Avg
Carson Palmer 2003 1 1 1973 Backup 23 1 4 9 9.25
Peyton Manning 1998 1 1 1784 9 4 3 6 4 5.2
Andrew Luck 2012 1 1 1749 10 10
Chad Pennington 2000 1 18 1678 Backup Backup 13 24 21 19.33
Andy Dalton 2011 2 35 1616 15 12 13.5
Averages 1.2 11.2 1760 11.33 13 5.67 11.33 11.33 11.46

This list of five QBs I think quite impressively fits the range of possibilities for Barkley’s future. The average round in which they were drafted is “1.2,” right on the cusp of the first round, which is exactly where Andy Dalton was drafted and roughly where Barkley’s draft stock is currently situated—he is now thought of as a fringe first-rounder. Palmer, Manning, and Luck were all the top overall picks in their drafts, and heading into the 2012 college football season Barkley was considered a frontrunner for the Heisman and the first pick in the 2013 draft. In a sense, Palmer, Manning, and Luck represent the potential Barkley failed to reach in his last collegiate season, and Barkley’s LCF score of 1812 fits right in a group with their scores, behind Palmer’s and just before Manning’s and Luck’s.

The average draft pick for the five QBs is near pick 11, not far from Pennington’s actual draft spot and potentially close to where Barkley will be chosen after the probable pre-draft hype that could elevate his stock. In sum, these QBs likely represent to a startlingly degree what Barkley’s probable paths are. His downside is Chad Pennington, his most realistic and comparable prospect is Andy Dalton, and his upside is—if not Palmer, Manning, or Luck—the hypothetical Matt Barkley he flashed glimpses of in his junior year but failed to develop into as a senior.

Imagine this scenario: Barkley returned to USC and as a senior put up exactly the same numbers he did as a junior. What is the result? Barkley probably wins the Heisman Trophy. He probably is the top consensus QB, if not the top overall pick in the 2013 draft. And we know that he has the potential to produce those numbers because he has already done so. Now imagine this hypothetical Barkley as an NFL starter, likely nestled into the small space between the tier that holds Manning and Luck and the tier that holds (young) Palmer and Matt Ryan. This hypothetical Barkley—he is the real Barkley’s upside. And as steady as Dalton has been, Barkley’s upside is higher than Dalton’s—and Dalton within his first two years has already been a top-12 QB, worthy of starting in many leagues. And, with Dalton as Barkley’s most probabilistic outcome, an answer to the first question regarding Matt Barkley is within reach: “Is he likely ever to be good enough to start as a fantasy QB?” According to the implications of the Lewin Career Forecast, the answer is yes.

While Palmer and Pennington served as rookie backups, the other three QBs scored a first-year average positional ranking of 11.33. Yes, if Barkley is given a starting job as a rookie, he has the strong potential to be a low-end startable fantasy QB—right away. And considering that he will be ignored by many players in both redraft and dynasty leagues, Barkley is starting to present himself as a potential undervalued commodity . . . just as Andy Dalton did two years ago. If you draft Barkley in a late round of your rookie draft, and he turns into Dalton’s fantasy doppelgänger, you are unlikely to be displeased with your investment.

Given the consistency that is exhibited across this sample of QBs (in three of the five years the average positional ranking is 11.33), and given the upside potential of the cohort as a whole (the average positional ranking for the third year is a strong 5.67, and the averages for the later years will improve as Luck and Dalton’s performances diminish the weight of Pennington’s subpar seasons)—given all of that, if Barkley falls below a certain spot in drafts, wise fantasy players will grab him. In a deep dynasty league, he could make a fantastic value investment as a QB3, and in redraft leagues he could be an ideal QB2 to pick in the final rounds, given his low-end QB1 upside.

Yes, not only is Matt Barkley likely to produce top-12 seasons during his career, but he is likely to be available for cheap. He is now officially on the “buying opportunity” watch list.

Of course, people could raise several objections to this analysis. To some, the Lewin Career Forecast could be a questionable foundation on which to base a projection of Barkley’s future. I think, however, that the LCF’s strong predictive performance with the 2012 rookie QBs provides a measure of assurance.

For others, Barkley’s senior year regression is troubling. No one likes seeing a prospect play worse as he “develops.” And yet, even with his senior-year stumble, Barkley managed to post an all-time top-10 LCF score. (Then again, so did Landry Jones, but his odds of qualifying as an LCF QB by being drafted in the top three rounds are not strong—of course, Jerry Jones is still alive and always looking for ways to burn draft picks.) Barkley’s regression is problematic, but it does not limit his upside, which we glimpsed in his junior year. In fact, Barkley’s subpar 2012 season could be viewed—from a certain perspective—as a great development, for the people who acquire Barkley at a discount.

Perhaps most people who dislike Barkley do so not because of his recent performance but because of the horrid displays of ineptitude provided by other USC QBs: Mark Sanchez, Matt Leinart, and even Carson Palmer. This bias against USC QBS, while understandable, is also completely exploitable. Barkley, according to the LCF, is not Sanchez or Leinart. Neither produced scores in the neighborhood of Barkley’s score. And Palmer, who has admittedly underperformed in the second half of his career, was fantastic for a three-year stretch in the first half and was well worth starting in all leagues, and, as their similar LCF scores suggest, Palmer (not Sanchez or Leinart) is the USC QB to whom Barkley should be compared.

Bias against recent USC QBs is reasonable, but not because they went to USC. Rather, people should be biased against Barkley’s most recent predecessors because they were not strong prospects entering the league. Lumping Barkley in with those two QBs, based solely on their shared “educational” institution, is an error in judgment—and an opportunity for shrewd fantasy players to take advantage of a market misvaluation and to acquire Barkley at a price below his intrinsic value.

Finally, outside of any sort of statistical analysis, people may look at Barkley himself, his style of play, his weak arm, and the games he played in 2012, and then say: “Look, I’ve seen the guy play—he can’t play!” Frankly, before I looked at the numbers, I was (sort of) one these people. I have misgivings about Barkley’s physical attributes and skillset, as does Matt Waldman in this piece at Football Outsiders, and Waldman (this almost need not be said) is much better at analyzing prospects than I am.

But people also had these same reservations about Andy Dalton, and he has performed more than satisfactorily, even if he has failed to set the fantasy world ablaze. Admittedly, part of Dalton’s success is linked to A.J. Green’s galactic playmaking ability—and perhaps Barkley, too, will find himself as happily situated. If he is handpicked by a coach who has a plan to minimize his deficiencies and drafted to a team with a WR who can bail him out on occasion, then he has a strong chance of providing, at a minimum, Dalton-esque production to his fantasy investors early in his career.

In the end, just as important as Barkley’s promising LCF score will be the situation into which he is drafted. If selected by a team with an imaginative offensive coaching staff and hopefully an above-average receiving corps, Barkley will be positioned to provide strong value to the fantasy teams bold enough to select him late in drafts and roster him as bench depth. In all probability, Barkley’s 2012 decline will lead to substantial value in 2013 for many fantasy players.

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