2012 QB landscape hinges on Barkley

The 2011 quarterback draft class exceeded expectations.

Cam Newton is setting rookie quarterback records for the Carolina Panthers. Andy Dalton has the Bengals in the wild-card hunt. Christian Ponder and Blaine Gabbert are getting playing experience on bad teams. T.J. Yates is trying to salvage the Texans' first playoff season. Jake Locker and Colin Kaepernick are quarterbacks of the future in Tennessee and San Francisco.

On the veteran side, the Raiders traded for and locked up Carson Palmer to a long-term deal, and the Bills decided Ryan Fitzpatrick is their franchise quarterback.

So what does that leave for next season?

The key to the 2012 draft is the decision by USC quarterback Matt Barkley to turn pro or stay in college another year. If Barkley comes out, plenty of teams will have a chance to take care of their quarterbacking needs. If not, things get dicey.

Worried about Peyton Manning's neck, the Colts will draft a quarterback, but owner Jim Irsay wants the best of all worlds. He's willing to give Manning his $28 million option bonus if he's healthy enough to play next year AND he wants to draft a quarterback, most likely Andrew Luck of Stanford.

The Redskins, Dolphins, Seahawks, Broncos and possibly the Browns are the teams in the market for quarterbacks. Barkley could satisfy the Redskins' need if he turns pro. Robert Griffin III of Baylor would be the next option, but it's too early to say whether he would be the right fit for the Redskins. The Dolphins would be the next team in the draft order, and depending on whom they have at head coach, Griffin might be Miami's choice.

The quarterback situation gets tricky after that. The Browns would have to decide whether they like Ryan Tannehill of Texas A&M or Landry Jones of Oklahoma more than Colt McCoy. There's no secret about Seattle's desire to get a quarterback. Tannehill and Jones might be options to challenge Tarvaris Jackson.

The Browns have two first-round picks, so they may consider quarterback as an option. The only other team in the second half of the first round looking for a quarterback is John Elway and the Denver Broncos. Jones or Tannehill might be good enough for Elway if they fall past Seattle and the second Cleveland pick, which came from the Atlanta Falcons.

As long as Barkley comes out, there might be enough young quarterbacks to fill all the needs. That would leave free-agent veterans such as Kyle Orton, Donovan McNabb and others scrambling for potential backup jobs.

From the inbox

Q: Big Browns fan here. A friend of mine and I endlessly debate the state of the Browns and draft strategy. Lately we're wondering whether Colt McCoy has shown enough this year. The Browns desperately need playmakers, and playmakers could help McCoy take another step forward. But the Browns' best chance at drafting a playmaker (their first pick in the 1st round) is the same pick they'd potentially use on a Landry/Barkley. What do you think?

Matt in Columbus, Ohio

A: You may be right. If there is a slam-dunk quarterback for the Browns to draft, they should do it. But I don't get the feeling they are going to get Andrew Luck or Matt Barkley. Is Robert Griffin III or Landry Jones that much better than McCoy? Good question. They might be better served to get a wide receiver with some deep speed. As great as Andy Dalton has been for the Bengals, he's having a great rookie season thanks to A.J. Green. That is the type of playmaker needed for the Browns.

Q: I have serious concerns about the Saints' defense. The Saints give up a ton of yards, and it seems they get burned by big pass plays. Is the problem that Gregg Williams calls so many blitzes, especially from the safety position, that the corners are outnumbered? Or do you think the problem is the corners are not very good?

Bill in Laplace, La.

A: Williams blitzes so much because they aren't getting the pass rush out of the defensive line. Will Smith has slowed down. They aren't getting great push from the defensive tackles. I have no problem with Roman Harper blitzing. At least he's getting to the quarterback. I like their corners. The situation isn't that much different than the one in Green Bay. Both offenses are lethal, so opponents have to take more chances on offense to keep up with Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees. Despite the problems both teams are having on defense, it still looks like they are heading for a showdown in the NFC title game.

Q: With the rookie salary cap in place I can see a very plausible scenario of a team selecting someone such as Andrew Luck with the intention of him riding the bench for a few years. The financial pressure to see immediate returns will be gone. The top spots are no longer "poison picks" and might be a bit more contested on trades. Why trade Peyton Manning when he can spend 2-3 years teaching Luck what he knows? I think Manning's football brain is worth more than the draft pick you'll get in a trade.

Steve in Minneapolis

A: Cam Newton got a four-year, $26 million contract. Luck isn't going to get that much more. That's why the Colts will lean toward drafting Luck and seeing whether Manning can come back. If there is a delay in Manning's recovery, he may be willing to delay the decision on the $28 million option bonus until it's clear he's able to come back. It would be sad not to see Luck play in the next couple of seasons, but that strategy worked for Aaron Rodgers, Philip Rivers and others when it wasn't as affordable.

Q: I am curious of your opinion on the labeling of the Detroit Lions as dirty. The NFL glamorizes the history of the Oakland/L.A. Raiders and they are often considered the dirtiest teams in the history of the NFL. The Baltimore Ravens of the late '90s and early 2000s were questionable at best, but no one condemns Ray Lewis. Why the hypocrisy? Why not embrace the Motor City image and embrace an up-and-coming team?

Michael in Monroe, Ga.

A: At this point in the season, the Lions have become more sloppy than dirty. Sure, they love to make the big, intimidating type of hits, but they are getting too carried away. I don't have the fine numbers in front of me, but the Steelers get more fines than the Lions. Sure, the Lions could morph into being a dirty team, but they aren't there yet. They just have to play smarter. Those penalties are only hurting the team.

Q: I'm a huge Jets fan and my question is why is Brian Schottenheimer is still the offensive coordinator. He clearly doesn't have the guts to open up the offense. Conservative will only get you so far in this league. Also, why should we stick with QB Mark Sanchez when he turns the ball over way too much?

Hogan in Clinton, Tenn.

A: The Schottenheimer situation will be addressed after the season. If he gets a head-coaching job, you won't have to worry about it. I get the feeling there might be a coordinator change. What I don't see is a quarterback change. Sanchez makes too many mistakes, but he wins. He does well in fourth quarters and in playoff games. Plus, he's Rex Ryan's guy. He'll have quite a résumé if he helps the team make the playoffs for a third consecutive year.

Q: How committed are the Chiefs to Matt Cassel? I feel like the claiming of Kyle Orton may have tipped their hand that they aren't sold on Cassel for the future.

Jon in Hays, Kan.

A: The commitment will be strong if the Chiefs decide to change coaches and go after Josh McDaniels to be the head coach. Remember, McDaniels wanted Cassel in Denver, and that desire cost him Jay Cutler. He got the most out of Cassel when he was with the Patriots.

Q: Big Giants fan here. I believe Jerry Reese's goodwill from the 2007 draft has run dry. I know that the team has had a lot of injuries, but he has neglected the O-line and linebacker position for too long, and it's biting the Giants hard this year. If Giants ownership decides to go in a new direction for head coach and Bill Cowher wants the job, are they likely to cut Reese loose as well since Cowher wants decision-making power when it comes to personnel?

Jeremy in Rockland County, N.Y.

A: Cowher wouldn't come to the Giants unless there was a change at general manager. If the Giants fire Coughlin, they probably will stay with Reese as the general manager. There is no question the organization let the offensive line get too old. It is paying the price now. Linebacker has been a hole in the defense for several years. Don't write off the Giants yet. They still have two games against the Cowboys. But if they lose Sunday night, the chances of making the playoffs aren't good, and that means a coaching change.

Q: What are your thoughts on potential realignment?

Rob D in Ann Arbor, Mich.

A: I think the Chargers could move to Los Angeles if they can't secure a downtown stadium in San Diego. I don't see Jacksonville moving. It takes too long to get out of their lease and the Jags don't offer the buzz to be attractive to a Los Angeles fan base. People in St. Louis might have to worry about the Rams being a second team to move into Los Angeles. If they do, realignment wouldn't be needed. You'd have the Los Angeles Chargers in the AFC West and the Los Angeles Rams in the NFC West. If Jacksonville does eventually have to move, it could fill a void in St. Louis if the Rams depart.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Follow Clayton on Twitter