Sam Darnold is one of the most exciting quarterbacks in the 2018 NFL Draft, and a candidate for the first overall pick. What makes the redshirt sophomore from the University of Southern California so enticing to scouts? Let’s break down Darnold’s on-field skillset.
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.
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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