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Even before he threw his first pass in practice, Matt Barkley had earned merit badges from the head coach and the other quarterbacks.
On Monday, after just the first full-squad Organized Team Activities, head coach Chip Kelly praised Barkley’s first impressions and ability to transition quickly to a new environment.
Later, Mike Vick and Nick Foles, the lead candidates for the quarterback job, were likewise effusive in their assessment of the rookie, even though Barkley is buried behind them on the depth chart.
Despite tumbling into the fourth round of last month’s draft and coming off an injury-plagued senior year at USC that derailed his Heisman hopes and blurred him from elite prospect conversations, Barkley has insisted that he can push to be Kelly’s first starting quarterback.
Kelly hasn’t seen anything yet to disagree.
“Matt has been really good. We've had him for three days [for rookie camp],” Kelly said Monday. “Really thought he picked things up quickly. He's an extremely hard worker. He's here every morning at 6 a.m. working at whatever it is to work on.
“I mean, I think he's got a great football background first and foremost. He started four years in high school and four years in college and that's kind of rare, so he's been through a lot. It showed up when he got here. He's got a lot of experience even though he's a rookie. I've been real impressed with Matt in the three days now going into the fourth day that we've had him.”
Barkley and newcomer Dennis Dixon, who played for Kelly at Oregon, are considered dark horse candidates to usurp Vick and Foles on the depth chart, although Kelly has said each candidate will have the chance to prove himself.
Interestingly, Foles and Vick had no problem showering praise on someone who’s been threatening to jockey for their job. Barkley had recently said that Vick and Foles are teammates that he holds in high regard, but that he didn’t view them “as a fan” would. His strong words revealed his intention to challenge for the job.
Foles said he “was excited for this franchise” when the Eagles moved up three spots in the fourth round to draft Barkley, an unusually warm embrace given the competitive nature of the position.
“Hey, Matt’s a great player,” said Foles, who as Arizona's quarterback twice faced Barkley's USC Trojans in Pac-12 competition. “I thought he was going to be gone earlier in the draft. I’ve known Matt for a couple of years. I’ve played against him. I’ve seen him play. I’ve seen his leadership.
“Anytime you can add a player like that to a team it’s great for an organization. He brings that leadership to the field, to the quarterback room. We all work together. You want competition and he’s definitely gonna bring competition in. I know what kind of player he is and what kind of leader he is, so I’m excited to have him on the team.”
Some viewed the selection as another sign that Vick, who turns 33 next month, is closer to the exit than it would appear.
First-year head coaches infrequently hitch their careers to aging quarterbacks on the downside, and Kelly now has two young prospects in Foles and Barkley to choose from as he rebuilds the foundation of the franchise.
Vick didn’t seem fazed by Barkley’s assertion that he could challenge to be the starter by the season opener.
“I would say the same thing,” Vick said. “But we’ve all go to go out there and get the job done and compete and, at the same time, continue to compete amongst each other. The competition will never stop. Everybody will get their opportunities, and we're excited about that.”
Vick said Barkley is “another quarterback we have to mold” and “prepare and get ready to play ball,” which gave the impression that he viewed Barkley as an honest competitor for the job and someone who can realistically push him as they battle.
“That’s what this game is about, man,” Vick said. “There's always going to be guys getting drafted. There's always going to be guys behind you, or in front of you and you have to push them. So, that's the name of the game. You can't become complacent.”