Sam Darnold has already been pegged as USC's next golden boy. Although he's only started 10 games in his college careers, everyone, their mother and their dog expects the redshirt sophomore to light college football on fire this season. Bovada made Darnold its Heisman favorite back in January at 9-1, and as of Aug. 22 his odds are 4-1.
But not only is he expected to be the best player in college football, he's already being widely projected as the top quarterback taken in the 2018 NFL draft, even with the possibility of him remaining in school another year. Across early mock drafts by Sports Illustrated, ESPN, CBS Sports, Bleacher Report and Fox Sports, Darnold's average draft position is 2.6, with only one projection putting him outside the top two picks.
Heck, there's even a #SuckForSam campaign being spearheaded by New York Jets beat writers and fans.
But is this too much too soon? Does Darnold's tape actually warrant this kind of hype? I decided to blow the conch shell and assemble the news team of football writers in order to find out.
I spoke with Kyle Crabbs of NDT Scouting, Luke Easterling of The Draft Wire, Derrik Klassen of Bleacher Report and TwoQBs, Justis Mosqueda of Setting the Edge, FootballGuys, and Bleacher Report, and Mark Schofield of Inside the Pylon. All gave condensed scouting reports of both Darnold's strengths and weaknesses, as well as where they have him ranked on their 2018 QB big board. Darnold himself also offered his thoughts on the strong points of his game as well as where he can improve heading into the 2017 season.
Darnold shows some pretty rare situational maturity as a passer. In spite of just 10 career starts, Darnold showed a great mastery of making big plays in essential moments in 2016. For example, the red zone is a constant "X-factor" for any offense at any level. Darnold was exceptional in the red zone in 2016, with 23 of his 32 completions in that area of the field registering as touchdowns. That frequency eclipsed any of the 2016 first-round quarterbacks. Another essential for any offensive coach is converting on third down, and yet again Darnold was terrific. On third and long (seven or more yards to gain), Darnold completed 60 percent of his passes. 75 percent of those completions went for first downs. His 45 percent conversion of third and long was tied with Patrick Mahomes II for the best of a group of 2016 college passers that included the Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson, all three first round Quarterback selections and fellow 2018 eligible passers Josh Allen and Mason Rudolph.
Beyond the statistics, Darnold has a great grasp on timing. He understands when to throw to his receivers out of their breaks and shows touch and accuracy when doing so. That timing and ball placement is essential, as he isn't the most powerful thrower. What makes Darnold such a delight to watch, and a potentially special prospect, is how good he is between the ears while still being very green at the college level.
It didn't take long last season to see Darnold has that "it" factor all great quarterbacks possess; the ability to rise to the occasion in big moments, to bring your team up to another level of play. He has all the physical tools, from an NFL frame and arm strength to the athleticism to make plays outside the pocket when things break down. His ability to extend plays puts added pressure on opposing defenses to stay in coverage longer, allowing big plays to break open.
Sam Darnold's exciting play style has intrigued the masses. Once USC gave the reigns to Darnold a few games into the season, he rejuvenated the team. His command, confidence, and playmaking ability gave USC's offense an energy that they did not have with their original starter, Max Browne.
Despite being just a redshirt freshman, Darnold showed understanding of the offense's quick game passing concepts and RPOs (run-pass options). He is quick to pull the trigger and few of his mistakes root in quick passing concepts. Recognizing open "alert" routes and identifying advantageous one-on-one matchups are a key part of Darnold's arsenal. His accuracy in the short area is excellent, especially on slants, drags, and stick routes. Darnold also excels throwing down the middle of the field. His touch down the seam is also impressive, as is his feel for intermediate crossing routes. It's clear that his best routes involve moving targets, rather than stationary targets or rigid timing routes.
Creativity and playmaking are high notes for Darnold, as well. Darnold plays comfortably out of pocket and off-script. He tends to break plays earlier rather than later, but his vision through all the chaos often prevails. Darnold usually has the arm strength and accuracy to place accurate passes on the move, though deeper throws can get away from him.
He has a strong arm and is young. He's not there yet. He can be, he's just not there yet.
USC quarterback Sam Darnold was the talk of the most recent NFL combine, despite the fact he was not yet eligible for the draft and may not even enter the next draft. But watching him on tape, it is easy to see why scouts and evaluators are excited about his potential. Despite his relative inexperience, Darnold already shows traits of a more veteran quarterback. The ability to make anticipation throws is a skill that translates well to the next level, and Darnold can make these plays in big spots. Kyle Crabbs at NDTScouting did a great job breaking down one of my favorite throws from Darnold, a third and goal play on the road against Washington. In the fourth quarter with a 4-point lead, you might expect Darnold to simply check this down to his running back and take the 3 points to extend the lead. But Darnold makes an aggressive decision here, attacking the middle of the field against a Cover 2 look and releasing the ball just as his target starts to clear the second-level defenders. This one play encapsulates the promise of Darnold.
That isn't to say he lacks other strengths. Right now Darnold does a solid job of fighting in the pocket when pressure starts to get home, while maintaining his downfield vision in those situations. He shows good processing speed, and can make full field reads when asked to by the coaches or on certain plays. He's fairly athletic as well and can extend plays with his feet and also has enough play strength to stay upright in the pocket and fight off a potential sack or two.
Darnold's biggest strength is his ability to succeed in chaos after the play has broken down. Maybe it's due to his basketball background, maybe it's due to his always-calm demeanor, it probably doesn't matter. What does matter, is he seems to thrive in a "backyard football" environment, which could become even more important this season when USC's offensive line is being completely retooled.
Additionally, whether you believe in the "it" factor or not, Darnold seems to have it. You can call it "overcoming adversity" if you prefer, but Darnold has an uncanny ability to make big plays in big moments. The two biggest examples are the Washington game and Penn State games, by far Darnold's two biggest starts. In both games he started slowly, turning the ball over, but came back with a vengeance and threw some incredible touch passes for touchdowns over the middle to win each game.
"My competitiveness. Just being able to compete no matter what. I can always come out here and compete, I think that's probably my biggest strength."
Darnold will automatically face two criticisms: his experience and his throwing motion. Yes, his timing masks many of his issues, but such a prolonged delivery will be difficult to overlook. His large hook exposes the ball for pass rushers who may be within arm's length and also prolongs his decision to throw, which could allow defensive backs to jump his passes. Very rarely will you see a quarterback successfully overhaul his delivery. Once you reach this level of competition, one is usually always going to have the same mechanics. There are a number of passers, like Tim Tebow and Blake Bortles, who were documented every off-season to try to improve their windup, with no success. Teams considering Darnold will have to feel strongly that his decision making, mental aptitude and arm strength can minimize the issue.
The other gripe with Darnold, experience, should be marginalized in 2017. Entering the season as the established starter, Darnold will be poised to perform against a fairly underwhelming schedule. The Trojans consistently have terrific talent, so Darnold may be the trump card that puts them in position to win the Pac-12. On the field, Darnold was caught at times with trap coverages. Getting those disguised defenses diagnosed earlier and with greater consistency will be the big leap for Darnold to take this season.
He's working to improve his throwing motion, which I think will be important at the next level. The speed is so different in the NFL, and just the slightest fraction of time will allow pro defenders enough time to close on the ball. Outside of that, it's difficult to find a glaring flaw in his game outside of the fact that we just haven't seen enough of him yet. His limited body of work has been impressive, but it will be interesting to see if he can sustain that success, keep developing and maximizing those physical tools and living up to the high expectations.
Darnold needs to prove to be a more consistent down-to-down player. His youth gives him a bit of leeway, but Darnold looked uncomfortable when tasked with longer, more thorough reads last season. He did not display the anticipation for late-developing windows, nor did he have the patience and calm footwork to remain in the pocket for too long. The longer Darnold was in the pocket, the more uncomfortable he looked. Darnold often bailed pockets too early, as a result.
Additionally, Darnold's arm strength and deep passing are question marks. Darnold often leaves too much air under his intermediate-to-deep passes, allowing for defensive backs to catch up to the ball. Aside from raw arm talent, Darnold lacked the decisiveness on deep routes, also giving defensive backs time to catch up to open receivers.
Darnold's mechanics and footwork also need tuning. Darnold has a low, clunky windup that tends to leave his arm coming around behind his torso, which leads to sailing passes. He is not currently able to drive on the ball consistently. Likewise, his feet often get away from him. He is known to drift his feet away from his target rather than toward him. The combination of a clunky windup and messy footwork is not a favorable one.
As he is right now, Darnold is best fit for a West Coast system that will feature his quick game proficiency and athleticism. He needs to develop more, both mentally and physically, in order to become a proper first-round quarterback.
I think that we're putting Sam Darnold on a pedestal that I'm not sure he truly deserves at this point. He's a young player with a live arm, but we really need to remember what we saw from the redshirt freshman last year. He had 313 pass attempts during the 2016 regular season. Of those pass attempts, only 111 came against teams that made a bowl game. Against those teams, he threw five touchdowns and four interceptions. Against non-bowl teams last regular season, Darnold threw for 21 touchdowns and four interceptions. That's a significant split. Against Penn State, Darnold threw as many touchdowns as he did against bowl teams in the entire 2016 regular season.
We're working with small sample sizes. Josh Rosen, the crosstown quarterback from UCLA, threw 113 passes against bowl-level competition, despite missing the majority of his 2016 season with an injury. Josh Allen, against Mountain West competition, threw 196 regular season passes against eventual bowl teams. It's fine to get excited about a young quarterback, but I don't know how much stock you should put into evaluations against the 2016 defenses of Utah State, Arizona State, Arizona, California, Oregon, UCLA and Notre Dame. Nearly two-thirds of his regular season passes came against those defenses. Only two of those seven programs (UCLA and Notre Dame) had even a single defender drafted in 2017. Notre Dame's lone defender drafted was the Isaac Rochell, the 225th overall pick in the seventh round. This is why the Rose Bowl game against Penn State is brought up in every single one of his evaluations. One game does not make a first overall quarterback.
There are few perfect quarterback prospects, and Darnold is no exception. Yet, at least. But right now his mechanics are wonky at best. His upper and lower bodies are often out of sync, which can lead to some accuracy and/or velocity issues. He has a very elongated, windmill-esque throwing motion that is reminiscent of Tim Tebow. Now, if you've followed my work you'll know that I'm of the mind that mechanics are not a problem until they're a problem. This is something I preached regarding Patrick Mahomes II in this past draft cycle. Right now, his mechanics are not a fatal flaw for him, because he has enough velocity on his throws that, when combined with his ability to anticipate, the mechanics and elongated delivery do not get him into trouble. But that could change once he faces quicker defenses, faster defenders and tighter throwing lanes in the NFL. Then the mechanics become a problem. So I'm interested to see if he cleans that up in the season ahead.
Additionally, Darnold has a tendency to stare down the first route in his progression, locking onto his initial target and giving defenses a chance to read his eyes and break on throws. His accuracy tends to dip when he gets to later reads in his progressions, so I'm looking to see if that improves in 2017. Finally, Darnold won't get the chance to sneak up on anybody this season, so I'm curious to see what happens now that defensive coordinators have a year of tape on him, and how the young QB adjusts to their adjustments.
Mechanics and progressing through all of his reads. As has been detailed, Darnold's throwing motion isn't exactly perfect. But what's more worrying is his sometimes-shaky footwork. He has a tendency not to set his feet properly, which he often overcomes with pure arm talent, but can at times cause inaccurate throws.
Darnold also sometimes has trouble getting through all of his reads. When his first read is open, he's dynamite. But when he is forced to progress through his other options, he seems to lose some of that confidence in the pocket. That often results in Darnold leaving the pocket, which, as I described in the strengths portion, is usually a strength. But he still needs to get better at moving through all of his reads, and not rely so much on his legs, if he wants to be a complete quarterback prospect.
"Just being patient, letting the offense come to me. There's a fine line between trying to do too much and also staying instinctive out there and trying to play my game. I think we'll find a happy medium in there."
As of now, Darnold is my No. 1 draft-eligible quarterback for 2017. He's got special mental makeup and poise to go along with quality physical skills. As a result, I'm not especially bothered by his delivery because the ball gets to the target on time. A strong 2017 season while eliminating some misdiagnosed coverages would firmly entrench Darnold as a franchise quarterback prospect.
Current rank: QB1
– Lamar Jackson
– Mason Rudolph
– Josh Rosen
– Sam Darnold
– Baker Mayfield
(Haven't seen enough of Francois, Ferguson, Fitzgerald, or Stidham)
T-1st with Baker Mayfield and Mason Rudolph.
No rankings to this point.
No rankings to this point.
While what is gathered from watching football game tape is often different from scout to scout, there is some basic consensus on what Darnold does and doesn't do well. He's good in the quick passing game and succeeds outside of the pocket, but he's extremely inexperienced and has an unorthodox throwing motion.
The inexperience question will be answered by default this season, for good or bad. But even if he speeds up his windup a little bit, it's unlikely he "fixes" it completely. So NFL teams will have to decide if this particular unconventional motion will result in something closer to Tim Tebow or Philip Rivers.
With the amount of talent USC possesses on both sides of the ball, Darnold is likely the captain of his fate. If he continues to tear up opposing defenses and strike fear into opposing defensive coordinators, the Trojans have a great chance to make the College Football Playoff and Darnold would likely play himself into a top-5 pick in the 2018 NFL Draft.