2018 NFL Draft preseason evaluations: Sam Darnold, QB, USC

PASADENA, CA - JANUARY 02: Quarterback Sam Darnold
PASADENA, CA - JANUARY 02: Quarterback Sam Darnold /

Sam Darnold is seen by most analysts as the top quarterback prospect in the 2018 NFL Draft. What does he need to do in 2017 to solidify his standing?

There’s no guarantee that USC Trojans quarterback Sam Darnold will declare for the 2018 NFL Draft. But even though he’s spent just one season as a starting quarterback at the collegiate level, the buzz surrounding him is already high. Darnold is an early favorite to hear his name called with the first overall pick, presumably by the New York Jets, meaning that he is rated above other impressive quarterback prospects like Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson and UCLA’s Josh Rosen.

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Darnold himself may be considering staying in school for at least one more season, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he decided to do this. Aside from the fact that he may feel inclined to finish his degree and lead the Trojans locker room, Darnold seems like the type of athlete who wants to do whatever he can to improve. He’s spent time this offseason tweaking his throwing motion, which some analysts have criticized for being inefficient and potentially making it more likely for him to be injured.

When watching Darnold’s film, the fact that he was just a redshirt freshman must be taken into account, and it falls in line with the report that he may choose to stay in school. On film, Darnold is like most young quarterbacks with limited starting experience, in the sense that he doesn’t even fully understand his strengths and limitations as a passer yet.

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Darnold has enough arm talent to make risky throws from an unbalanced platform when under pressure, and he’s mobile enough to make plays on his own. You can call him Ricky Steamboat, because this leads to him attempting too many cross-body throws, most of which are ill-advised.

At the same time, Darnold can appear to be too hesitant in the pocket. More often than not, he will decide to whip a throw into a tight window over the middle of the field, and he is at his best as an intermediate passer. The issue is that he doesn’t use the same anticipation and approach when attempting deeper passes, particularly when facing the blitz. He’ll often hesitate for a split second, which allows the defender to close a previously open window, allows a pass rusher to disrupt the throwing lane, or causes a sack.

There’s also the inexperience factor, which is obvious. Darnold almost never misses a pass because he lacks arm strength or accuracy, so most of his errors come from misreading the play or not quite understanding who he is as a passer. The cases of misidentification are more important, because the self-awareness will come with experience.


If you look at this play against UCLA, Darnold missed a golden opportunity at a long pass play and ended up with an intentional grounding penalty. He should have noticed that he’d have his tight end wide-open, because there would be nobody covering him over the middle of the field, especially since the only man who could have been responsible for covering the tight end was blitzing. This should have been an easy case of recognition and pitch-and-catch, and these are the kinds of plays Darnold can’t leave on the field.

It’s an example of the type of play experience can solve, but and it’s also an example of his issues pre-snap. Darnold does an excellent job of reading through his progressions, which is why he’s so much more capable of carving defenses in the 8-15 yard range than most young quarterbacks. The issue is that his work pre-snap leaves a lot to be desired. He doesn’t spend enough time thinking about how the players on defense are lined up, and this is the case because of how often he stares down his checkdown option to start the play.

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If he knows who is blitzing, where the linebackers are, and how the cornerbacks and safeties are partitioning their assignments, he should be able to do a better job of reading defenses from “top-down”. This would also help him when he’s under pressure, because he’ll lock his eyes on the deepest option down the field when he’s rolling out after the pocket breaks down. This prevents him from seeking the safest option in front of him, and it led to some head-scratching decisions in the Oregon game (don’t get schooled by Brenden Schooler).

The fact that Darnold is the consensus No. 1 quarterback before the upcoming college football season isn’t a big surprise by any means. He does fit all the boxes in terms of physical tools, and I was impressed with how mobile he is. Darnold must do a better job of using his mobility, but he doesn’t shy away from taking big hits while standing in the pocket either. Although I am frustrated with some of the poor decisions he makes, I am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, simply because he’s such an accurate passer otherwise. In 2017, I want to see him become more confident, more self-aware, and less reliant on being a “rhythm passer”.

Your impressions on Darnold’s film last season will depend on how you view the quarterback position. If you look at his tape on its own merits and judge it for what it is, you might come away incredibly disappointed with the dangerous decision-making that is atypical of many consensus top passers. These throws are offset by some “wow” plays, but those aren’t as common as they were with other top gunslingers at the position, such as Jameis Winston.

However, if you judge his freshman film on traits and view it as a way of projecting what he could do in the future, it’s hard not to come away impressed with his accuracy and command of the USC offense. The throws that he makes are translatable to the pros, and he has the right mix of mobility and pocket presence. He’ll have to learn how to reset his base better in 2017, but all of the issues are those he can fix next season.

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These flaws are easy to solve, but they also make me hesitant to anoint him as a future star until we see them corrected on the field first. In other words, Darnold should be a special quarterback, but he isn’t one yet. Not an earth-shattering statement, but it’s important to keep that in mind when so many people are willing to rank him as the clear-cut top passer in 2018 already. I will say that because he’s so lethal on intermediate throws, his floor is much higher than most quarterback prospects, especially those with just 366 passing attempts to their name.