The 2018 NFL Draft is this week and Sam Darnold is one of the top prospects, expected to be taken in the first three picks. With that in mind, here’s our complete scouting report on the former USC Trojans quarterback.
Sam Darnold is a 20-year-old from Capistrano Beach in Orange County, California. During his time at USC he’s been majoring in communications, a common major for athletes, especially those trying to transfer into broadcast after they retire.
Darnold wasn’t the star quarterback his entire time in high school. In fact, he originally played wide receiver and linebacker, coming in to play QB in one game when the starter got injured, but moving right back to receiver the next week. He eventually took over as full time QB as a junior. In fact, some USC coaches even wanted him to play LB when he first got to college, but he declined.
Darnold was rated as a four-star recruit by all the major sites coming out of high school, but didn’t attend many prospect camps, which equated to fewer offers from colleges. He received offers from Oregon, Utah, Duke and Northwestern before eventually gaining an offer from the Trojans after coaches saw him throwing at one of the few camps he attended.
Darnold has a sister who currently plays volleyball at the University of Rhode Island.
As a redshirt freshman at USC, Darnold made a name for himself that put him in the front seat as the number one pick in the 2018 NFL draft. In 13 games in the 2016 season, Darnold threw for 3,086 yards with, 31 touchdowns, and 9 interceptions all while managing to complete 67.3% of his passes. In USC’s bowl game against Penn State that season, Darnold went 33/53 for 453 yards, 5 touchdowns, and an interception in a game in which the Trojans won.
In Darnold’s final season as a redshirt sophomore he was put under a spotlight because of his draft eligibility and the likelihood of him being the most sought-after quarterback in the class. His production as a whole took a hit in 2017. While his passing yards increased to 4,143, his touchdowns declined to 26 and his interceptions increased to 13. Darnold also attempted 114 more passes in 2017 which is a factor in the increase in interceptions and yards but is a hindrance on his decline in touchdowns. The Trojans lost their bowl game in 2017 where Darnold struggled against Ohio State. He went 26/45 with 356 yards, no touchdowns, and an interception.
Standing 6’3” and 221 pounds, Darnold is a well-sized, athletic quarterback. He ran a 6.96 three cone drill at the Combine, evidence of his elusiveness. Darnold has a strong arm, capable of hitting all levels of the field, even if he’s throwing from an awkward position.
Among the top six or seven quarterbacks in this year’s draft, Darnold probably has the worst throwing mechanics. Yes, that includes everyone’s whipping boy, Josh Allen. While most quarterback prospects will have some issue with aligning their feet or following through, Darnold is a special brand of inconsistency that will be tough to fix.
The first piece that stands out is his windup. The shape and size is entirely arbitrary. On any given play, Darnold may make an abbreviated throw at textbook height, or drop the ball to his waist before delivering.
I noted that even when Darnold made a loopy windup, he generally completed the motion quick enough for it to not affect the outcome of the play. He may be able to make it work, in a way that Blake Bortles and Russell Wilson have at times. If it starts to slow down, though, it’s ripe for picking.
The bigger issue underlying Darnold’s inconsistent mechanics is his footwork. Darnold’s feet are all over the place. When he sets his feet appropriately and drops back to throw, he delivers darts with precision. On any given play, though, he’ll land his lead foot all over the map, causing passes to sail too far. Sometimes he’ll even throw with his feet parallel to the line of scrimmage.
When Darnold’s feet aren’t set as he moves through the pocket, he won’t be in a position to complete a throw. This is the first challenge for the team that drafts Darnold: find a way to dial in his footwork. If you manage that, you unlock so much of his potential.
One area that stands out in a positive way for Darnold is his arsenal of fakes. Darnold can employ multiple intensities of pump fakes, and he makes great use of them to buy time in the pocket or open up a route. He’s one of the best in this class with that.
As I mentioned above, much of Darnold’s accuracy is tied to his footwork. When it’s clean, he’s deadly. Darnold’s strong arm is capable of placing throws even when his feet aren’t set, or when he’s on the run. Darnold’s comfort with throwing from outside the pocket is evident, and he can deliver some beautiful passes while weaving between defenders.
Darnold has no problem successfully completing short passes. He shows an understanding of how to take heat off the ball and throw an arcing pass with touch, to lob it outside the reach of a defender.
Processing speed and decision-making
Few quarterback prospects are as effective at processing the state of a play as it unfolds as Darnold. He successfully navigates the waves of pass rushers and sideline coverage on his way to delivering the ball to his teammates. If a defender can’t sack him at the first flash of a jersey, he’s about to witness Darnold climbing the pocket and delivering a 20-yard strike.
Darnold is an extremely aggressive player, one who always wants to maximize the opportunities on any given play, and one who sometimes overestimates his ability to complete a pass. This will play out to his detriment, as he signs checks he can’t cash, throwing interceptions on difficult options or fumbling the ball because he tried escaping an inescapable situation. His 22 interceptions and 20 fumbles in two years as a starter must not be overlooked.
Darnold also occasionally shows blindness to underneath defenders. Regardless of the defender’s positioning pre- or post-snap, Darnold will think he has a receiver in the short zone, and deliver the ball right to his opponent. At this moment in his career, Darnold is a pick-six waiting to happen.
The case for and against Sam Darnold
The case for Darnold
There’s a reason Darnold was originally recruited as a linebacker. He is a solidly built 6’3”, 221-pound prospect with athletic testing numbers that match up with players like Kirk Cousins and Andy Dalton. He’s never missed a game due to injury. Despite not being the most experienced prospect at the position, he’s battle-tested, having completed a multitude of second-half and fourth-quarter comebacks. As a passer, his movement and elusiveness in the pocket allows him to extend plays enough for his receivers to shake loose from coverage. His accuracy in the short and intermediate areas of the field is deadly. At USC, he often threw for completions despite locked-down coverage. He’s able to quickly deliver the ball despite wonky mechanics both in the pocket and while on the run. Overall, he’s decisive and fearless with the football.
Darnold would likely be a strong fit for the offense that new Buffalo Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll would like to run. Daboll is rumored to be bringing a version of the Erhardt-Perkins (E-P) offense, possibly with some college zone-read concepts. The E-P system is predicated on post-snap recognition, accuracy and decisiveness from its quarterbacks, which is good news for a player like Darnold. USC also ran some zone-read concepts as well.
The case against Sam Darnold
After declaring in January, Darnold enters the draft with the least amount of starting experience compared to his peers, having only started 24 college games. His inexperience and gunslinger mentality often leads to him being needlessly reckless with the ball, and resulted in 22 total turnovers in 2017. His decisiveness can backfire as he occasionally is too quick to abandon a clean pocket if his first option is not open. Darnold is not really known for his deep passing ability. On tape, his long throws have a tenancy to flutter. He was somewhat of a rhythm passer in college and incompletions would come in bunches. On quick slants or quick outs, Darnold needs to do a better job on his pre-snap reads and on staring down his targets.
(By Dan Lavoie)
Sam Darnold is one of the most gifted quarterbacks in this year’s draft, and it’s understandable that a team might look at him and think they’re getting the best player on the board when they draft him. From the moment he grabbed the reins at USC, he started elevating his roster with clutch multifaceted play. When his mechanics are in-sync, his throwing precision is outstanding, and he is just as effective throwing on the run as he is from the pocket.
That said, while he could probably start as a rookie, Darnold would also benefit from a coaching staff or a scheme that would protect him from his flaws. Focusing on shorter throws would allow him to drill his mechanics on lower-risk opportunities, and a scheme that puts him on the run or utilizes lots of play-action would play to his strengths with fakes and throwing on the move. He also needs to learn that it’s okay to accept the lesser outcome on a play, and live to fight another day.
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