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April 13, 2012

Quarterback U.: Quantity or quality?

Deciding which school leads all FBS programs in sending quarterbacks to the NFL left us with a dilemma: Do we reward quantity or quality?

In this case, we went with quantity.

USC's active pro quarterbacks haven't found stardom in the NFL. With one notable exception, they've enjoyed much more success in college than the pro ranks thus far.

QUARTERBACK U. 2012
Our choice: USC.
Who they've sent: Matt Cassel (Kansas City Chiefs), Matt Leinart (free agent), Carson Palmer (Oakland Raiders), Mark Sanchez (New York Jets).
Who's next: Matt Barkley is the likely No. 1 overall pick in next year's draft.
Why we picked them: While none of the former USC quarterbacks on NFL rosters can be considered a current star, all of them started at least one game last year and all but Leinart is a likely starter in 2012. Cassel and Palmer are former Pro Bowl picks.
Other finalists: Boston College (Tennessee's Matt Hasselbeck and Atlanta's Matt Ryan), Michigan (New England's Tom Brady and Jacksonville's Chad Henne), Purdue (New Orleans' Drew Brees, Dallas' Kyle Orton, free agent Curtis Painter).
Candidate you might not have considered: Fresno State
But the fact remains that four former USC quarterbacks started at least one game in the 2012 NFL season.

Carson Palmer, the 2002 winner of the Heisman Trophy, has thrown for 25,447 yards and 167 touchdowns in a 10-year pro career that included back-to-back Pro Bowl invitations in 2005 and 2006. Palmer, now the starter for the Oakland Raiders, was named the AFC player of the year in 2005 when he was with the Cincinnati Bengals.

Mark Sanchez has been entrenched as the New York Jets' starter ever since he started his pro career in 2009. Although Sanchez is coming off a disappointing year in which the Jets missed the postseason, he helped his team reach the AFC championship game in each of his first two years.

Matt Cassel wasn't even a starter at USC - he spent his college career backing up Palmer and 2004 Heisman winner Matt Leinart - yet he has spent the last three seasons as the Kansas City Chiefs' first-string quarterback after starting for most of 2008 in new England after Tom Brady was injured. Cassel made the Pro Bowl in 2010, though an injury to his throwing hand limited him to nine games last season.

Leinart admittedly hasn't come close to living up to the expectations that accompanied his arrival in the NFL as the No. 10 overall pick in the 2006 draft, but he did start one game in place of an injured Matt Schaub for the Houston Texans last season before a fractured collarbone knocked him out for the remainder of the season. Leinart, a former starting quarterback for the Arizona Cardinals, got released by the Texans last month and currently is a free agent.

The fact that four of its former quarterbacks started at least one NFL game last season made USC the pick over a few other schools that had more star power.

When we last did this Position U. series in 2006, Michigan was our pick at quarterback. At the time, former Michigan quarterbacks Todd Collins, Brian Griese, Drew Henson and John Navarre were still on NFL rosters.

All four of those quarterbacks have since ended their NFL careers, but the Wolverines were considered again this time. Tom Brady is a future Hall of Famer and remains of the league's top overall players - as he was in 2006 - while Chad Henne started four games for the Miami Dolphins last season before getting placed on injured reserve.

WHAT'S POSITION U.?


The Position U. series is our attempt to determine which schools provide the most NFL talent at each position. We will analyze a different position just about every day up until the April 26 start of the NFL Draft. For the purpose of this series, we only took into consideration players who were still active as of last season.
April 13: Quarterbacks
April 14: Running backs
April 16: Wide receivers and tight ends
April 17: Offensive tackles
April 18: Guards/Centers
April 19: Defensive tackles and DE/OLB
April 21: Linebackers
April 23: Cornerbacks
April 24: Safeties
April 25: Kickers and punters
USC and Michigan weren't the only possibilities.

Boston College had a pair of quarterbacks who were full-time NFL starters last year in Tennessee's Matt Hasselbeck and Atlanta's Matt Ryan. Hasselbeck has been selected to three career Pro Bowls, and Ryan earned a Pro Bowl invitation in 2010.

Purdue also would have been a reasonable pick. Drew Brees set an NFL single-season record by accumulating 5,476 passing yards for the New Orleans Saints. Kyle Orton made a combined eight starts for the Denver Broncos and Kansas City Chiefs last season, and Curtis Painter made eight starts in place of an injured Peyton Manning.

And the 2012 season opened with two former Auburn quarterbacks holding down starting jobs in the NFL. Carolina's Cam Newton made the Pro Bowl last year after having one of the most productive rookie seasons of any quarterback in NFL history. Jason Campbell began the year as Oakland's first-team quarterback before breaking his collarbone and eventually losing his starting job to Palmer. Campbell has since moved on to the Chicago Bears to serve as Jay Cutler's backup.

Brady and Brees undoubtedly are much better NFL players than any of the USC guys we've mentioned. You could make a pretty strong argument that Hasselbeck and Ryan have both done more than Palmer, the most accomplished of the former USC quarterbacks. Newton certainly has a brighter future than the former USC quarterbacks.

If Michigan, Boston College or even Auburn had a third NFL quarterback earning significant playing time last season, perhaps we would have gone with one of those schools instead. Purdue did have three quarterbacks earn starts last year, but Orton lost his job in Denver and Painter also was benched late in the season. And it's tough to ignore the fact that USC had three starting quarterbacks in the NFL last season as well as a former starter performing backup duty.

USC's quarterback presence in the NFL should grow even stronger in future seasons.

Matt Barkley would have been drafted early in the first round this year, but he chose instead to return to school for one more season. He heads into his senior year as a Heisman Trophy front-runner and the likely No. 1 overall pick in the 2013 draft.

The Trojans also just received a verbal commitment from Sammamish (Wash.) Skyline junior Max Browne, the No. 1 quarterback and No. 8 overall prospect in the 2013 recruiting class. Browne had a lunch conversation with Barkley before making his college choice.

"That's one of the things Matt said - one of the reasons he picked SC was the pro-style offense, it gives you a great opportunity to go to the next level," Browne told USCfootball.com. "That's always [been] a dream of mine.''

USC was a tough pick as Quarterback U. this time around. If we're doing this project again five or six years from now, the Trojans could be a much easier choice.


Steve Megargee is the national college columnist for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.



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