Sam Darnold fits the old school mold for an ideal college quarterback perfectly. Went to USC, won a Rose Bowl, has a big arm that he uses with confidence and has had absolutely zero off-field incidents during his college career.
But how good is he?
Darnold completed 64% of his passes last season, along with 26 touchdowns and over 4,000 yards. He also threw a whopping 13 interceptions and was a dud in a few high profile games.
While he did have a few flops on the big stage, Darnold’s numbers against some of the top teams in college football are similar to how he performed against some of the bottom teams.
His 8.6 yards per attempt was 11th in the country last season which makes him an exciting prospect for any team looking for a quarterback. He was fourth among power five quarterbacks in interceptions, which may make teams scared to take him on at the next level.
So what can we expect from Darnold?
USC runs one of the more interesting offenses in the country. It is a run first offense where repeated runs between the tackles are used to pull the defense into the box. The defense is forced to account for the run, which opens the horizontal passing game. It is an interesting version of the spread offense that you see so often in college football. Unlike a majority of other college QB’s, though, Darnold had to regularly take snaps from under center rather than just lining up in shotgun.
This offense would not be deemed “pro-style” but it does draw some similarities to how the Philadelphia Eagles ran their offense when Nick Foles replaced an injured Carson Wentz.
Darnold as rarely expected to properly make a read of the defense in front of him, and his decision making when he had to struggled. He made a terrible read on what was arguably his worst play of the 2017 season, throwing a pick 6 against Ohio State.
*Off of an RPO, Darnold’s read is an Ohio State linebacker that shows a blitz on the play. The linebacker leaves an area free behind him, and a safety creeps into it. Darnold keeps the ball to pass and there is a miscommunication between the quarterback and the receiver and the ball is thrown right into the path of the defensive back who snatches it for a pick 6.*
Darnold failing to make a proper read of the defense hindered him all year. Even when the quarterback had a clean pocket he would still throw terrible passes into coverage. He seemed to lock on to a receiver, stare him down, and lob passes to the receiver he was pre-determined to throw to. The coverage or the number of defensive backs draping the receiver did not matter, he was still going to throw the pass he wanted.
This is legitimately troubling. HE doesn’t take care of the ball as well as you’d hope from an NFL quarterback, and has a lot to learn before he is ready to start at the next level.
Darnold had a clean pocket on all of those plays. When he was put under pressure he was even worse.
The quarterback seems to panic at the first sign of pressure. He often walks himself into sacks stepping up into the pocket when he doesn’t need to. When he drops back further, he goes way too far back and puts himself in an inescapable position. His eyes drop, and he gives up on looking downfield for an open man even when he still has a chance to make a pass before the pressure gets him. He is not willing to stand strong in the pocket and release the ball right before he takes a hit. When he does manage to escape the pressure, some of the issues he has when throwing from a clean pocket show up again. Darnold usually just throws a pass to whichever receiver he see’s first, no matter how well he is covered.
Even when the quarterback does make a proper read, his accuracy can be anywhere. He misses open receivers long and short. Ball placement often fails him when throwing to open teammates.
So why are teams so high on Darnold? Despite some of his failures reading defenses, and occasional missed pass, the passes he does hit are incredible.
He can put touch on balls to float them into a spot right between two defenders. He can put passes on a rope and get them to his receiver before the defense can even react. The quarterback can make throws on the run and can hit passes off balance. The arm talent is there, he just needs to learn how to reign it in. At his peak, Darnold has potential to be one of the best passers in the NFL.
The quarterback is also great on the move. While he does occasionally panic and make bad decisions while under pressure when the defense opens a chasm in front of him he is not scared to take off on his feet.
He isn’t a tree in the pocket and does have a high level of athleticism. Darnold isn’t the fastest guy but he’s fast enough to make plays. The quarterback is a smart runner and knows how to avoid hits and when not to risk his body for an extra yard.
The USC quarterback isn’t the best player today, but his ceiling is extremely high. He has a lot of natural talent and a strong arm. Darnold should not be a starter day one but if he is properly developed he has potential to be a star.
Rumors link him to the Cleveland Browns as the first overall pick, and at worst within the top three. I believe that may be a little high for him as he will need time and a great coaching staff in order to be ready to lead an NFL offense. I would love to see him sit behind Sam Bradford in Arizona for the first half of the season at pick 15, or maybe even a long-term replacement to Tom Brady in New England at pick 31.
No matter where he goes, Darnold will need time and a coaching staff willing to properly develop him in order for him to succeed. They should not just throw him into the fire unprepared (like the Browns did last season to DeShone Kizer) as it could have terrible long-term effects on his play.
*corrected: initial paragraph seemed to absolve blame from the receiver on the play*
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