NFL draft profile — No. 9: USC QB Sam Darnold
Each day leading up to the 2018 NFL draft, I’ll break down one of my top 50 prospects. In some cases, we had to make tough omissions because of injuries, poor pre-draft workouts or incomplete information. For more complete scouting reports on all the prospects, check out the Pro Football Weekly 2018 Draft Guide, which is available for order now.
9. USC QB Sam Darnold
6-foot-3, 221 pounds
Key stats: Over his final 20 starts, Darnold threw for 44 touchdowns and 20 interceptions and ran for five more scores but also fumbled 14 times.
The skinny: You won’t find too many families that have better athletic DNA than Darnold’s. His parents both played college athletics — father, Mike, played offensive guard at Redlands College and mother, Chris, played volleyball at Long Beach City College. Darnold’s sister, Franki, played volleyball at Rhode Island, and his uncle and three of his cousins also played college volleyball. On top of that, Darnold’s grandfather, Dick Hammer, played basketball at USC, was an Olympic volleyball player and was best known as the former “Marlboro Man.”
Darnold started only 18 prep games but was a four-star recruit, top-200 Rivals recruit and listed as the No. 8 dual-threat QB in the country coming out of San Clemente, Calif., along with being a star prep baseball and basketball player. He committed to USC and redshirted his freshman year of 2015.
Although Max Browne won the starting job for the Trojans to start the 2016 season, Darnold took over in the fourth game of the year (after getting mop-up action in the first three games) and played well in his first start at Utah despite USC losing. Darnold held the job the remainder of his redshirt freshman year, starting the final nine games and earning all-Pac-12 honorable mention in throwing for 3,086 yards (67.2 completion percentage), 31 touchdowns and nine interceptions. He also ran 62 times for 250 yards and two TDs, capping his season with an incredible Rose Bowl performance in the 52-49 win over Penn State (33-of-53 passing, 453 yards, five TDs, one INT) that included TD drives of 83 and 80 yards to overcome a 14-point deficit in the final nine minutes.
As a redshirt sophomore in 2017, Darnold was named first-team all-Pac 12 in throwing for 4,143 yards (63.1 percent), 26 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. Darnold, who turns 21 in June, declared for the 2018 NFL draft. He performed all the athletic testing at the NFL scouting combing but opted not to throw there, preferring to wait for USC’s pro day. Also came back for second pro day to throw for RB Ronald Jones.
Upside: Thick, NFL-grade build. No true physical shortcomings. Terrific athletic genes. Can make almost any throw on the route tree. Moves well within and out of the pocket. Not afraid to take off if nothing is there. Has a pretty good knack for throwing it away when he has no other choice. Good in the red zone — only one INT each season down there. Good goal-line runner and short-yardage sneaker — seems to have a knack for sneaking through small cracks and powering through hits in tight spaces. Productive — only failed to reach 200 yards passing in one start.
Works through his progressions well and will look off safeties. High-end mental processor. Has instincts that really can’t be taught. Doesn’t need perfect footwork to be accurate — can overcome some technical flaws to get the job done. Able to throw from odd and awkward arm angles and off-balance and still deliver catchable ball. Off-script marvel who extends plays and can frustrate defenses that carry out their assignments almost perfectly.
Watch here late in the Texas game as Darnold has pressure coming from his back side, forcing him to step up quickly, hurry his throw — a jump pass, no less — and loft the ball to what really was his only option on the play. The Longhorns are in tight man coverage on the outside, taking away any sideline options, and Darnold lays the ball up there to his receiver, who is singled up against a linebacker for a fine play when the Trojans (down a field goal with 30 seconds left) absolutely had to have it:
Shows outstanding poise and ability to step up amid pressure and climb the pocket to make plays. Can carve up straight zones. Has great sense of timing and touch to throw to spots where his receivers can go get it — throws them open. Short and intermediate accuracy can be excellent — can bullet the slant and the quick out beautifully. Nice downfield touch, too. Fades and back-shoulder throws are usually pretty. Throws confidently and in rhythm on the move. Only completed below 60 percent of his passes in six of his 27 games, and none below 50 percent.
A reminder of that Rose Bowl greatness — this is a 19-year-old making this throw down a touchdown with 90 seconds remaining:
Another view … I mean, come on:
Young — and still has a high ceiling he hasn’t reached. Clean medical history. Smart and tough. Humble and driven. Doesn’t operate with fear — invites pressure and doesn’t dwell on mistakes. Holds teammates accountable. Poised leader who will make a good face of the franchise. At worst, he should be a solid starter if healthy.
Downside: Some of his physical traits are somewhat ordinary. Low testing numbers at combine (vertical and broad jump especially) put him on the Chad Henne-Matt Flynn spectrum. Per Pro Football Focus, 57 percent of his pass attempts were 9 yards in the air or shorter (or behind the line of scrimmage). Wasn’t held back by abnormally high drop rate. Played with elite-level skill players — Juju Smith-Schuster in 2016, Ronald Jones in 2017 — and yardage totals were boosted by high YAC production.
Footwork can be sloppy and sketchy — not always square when delivering the ball. Arm talent isn’t special enough for him to get away with some of his poor-mechanic throws. Doesn’t throw as well rolling to his left. Can rifle easy passes too hard. Puts too many balls up for grabs — makes a few heart-attack throws per game. Twenty interceptions in his final 20 starts.
Fumbles (11) were a problem last season, including a few bizarre ones without contact — see fourth quarter of the Colorado game last season. Small hands could be an issue, especially for colder-weather teams. Accuracy waned in second season with more reps and more chances taken. Hit the skids a bit around midseason last year and took a step back with his ball security.
Unusual throwing mechanics and elongated windup — brings the ball down to (or below) his hip and windmills it forward. Brett Favre got away with that, but will Darnold? Release time slowed by inefficient and extra motion in some throws, which need to be tightened up in the NFL. Has the vision to locate open receivers but doesn’t always deliver the ball efficiently before those windows close. Can revert to bad muscle memory with flaws in the heat of the moment, especially when pressure is caving in from the middle.
Watch this play from the first meeting vs. Stanford (a game in which Darnold made a few plays like this), where he just throws one up for grabs. It’s 2nd-and-8, USC has an 11-point lead early in the second half, and they’re just outside field-goal range. Want to be aggressive here? No problem with that. But this just isn’t a great idea, throwing the ball (with poor mechanics) almost 40 yards in the air against a vertical bracket coverage with a safety over the top and the corner lurking underneath. It would have taken a near-perfect throw to avoid this interception:
Best-suited destination: Darnold is gifted enough to play for any NFL team and would be a good fit in a variety of schemes, although the more precise the system, the more time he might need to hone his mechanical shortcomings. Because he almost certainly won’t get out of the top handful of picks, you’re talking about the Cleveland Browns, New York Giants and New York Jets as the teams most likely to land him, short of a team trading up into the upper reaches of the draft. We feel that Darnold has the mental maturity to handle going to a QB-starved team such as the Browns or Jets where his timetable would be shorter or sitting and learning for a year or so behind a veteran such as Eli Manning.
Quotable: “Because of fit, I would take Sam Darnold if I were the Cleveland Browns. I think [he has] that blue-collar, gritty attitude. I think his teammates will love him. I think the city will love him. He’ll say the right things. He’ll come in and represent well. I think he kind of represents what Cleveland is.” — former UCLA coach Jim Mora (who coached fellow top QB prospect, Josh Rosen), to NFL Network
Player comp: Philip Rivers in terms of mechanics and physical traits, Favre in terms of grit and improvisation skill
Expected draft range: Top-3 pick