By Charlie Campbell
Summary: Darnold took college football by storm during the 2016 season, and even though he wasn’t eligible for the 2017 NFL Draft, the redshirt freshman had scouts buzzing about his pro potential. After a 1-2 start to the 2016 season for USC, Darnold was made the starting quarterback. For his debut season, he was an extremely efficient passer who led the Trojans to a 10-3 record. Darnold lost his first-ever start against a good Utah team, but after that he led his team to ripping off a nine-game win streak to close out the year, including impressive wins over Colorado, Washington, and a comeback Rose Bowl win over Penn State. Darnold completed 67 percent of his passes in 2016 for 3,086 yards with 31 touchdowns and nine interceptions.
The 2017 season was more of a mixed bag for Darnold. The redshirt sophomore completed 63 percent of his passes for 4,143 yards with 26 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. He had an up-and-down season with too many turnovers – fumbles were a particular issue beyond the interceptions. Darnold also made some beautiful anticipatory throws with excellent accuracy in just about every game.
There is a lot to like about Darnold as a future starter in the NFL. First and foremost, he is an accurate pocket passer who throws with good ball placement and is very precise in the short to intermediate part of the field. Darnold has excellent anticipation to know when and where receivers are going open. With his feel and timing, Darnold hits receivers on the run, leading them to picking up yards after the catch. He also regularly will throw receivers open and help them to find space to beat tight coverage. Darnold is a natural rhythm thrower who would fit best in a West Coast system to maximize his ability to throw accurately in the short to intermediate part of the field. He is a smooth precision passer who can be deadly when he gets into a good groove.
Darnold is comfortable in the pocket, but also has the ability to move around to buy time. While he is not a running quarterback, he is functional to avoid sacks and will move around to help his offensive line and receivers. Darnold made a number of really nice plays during the past two years when things went off script as he got creative to move the ball for his offense. Routinely, Darnold would buy time with his feet and then make an accurate throw downfield with the rush closing in on him. Regularly, Darnold displayed good poise to keep plays alive. In every game at USC, Darnold would make some impressive throws that were very rare for a college quarterback.
Darnold’s throwing motion is a bit unorthodox, but it isn’t a serious concern. One general manager who has scouted quarterbacks extremely well in his career told me that they didn’t think there was anything wrong with Darnold’s mechanics or arm strength. That general manager said with his throwing motion and arm strength, Darnold is similar to Philip Rivers. Darnold has a good build with size and athleticism for the pro game. A rare trait that Darnold possess is the ability to accelerate his throwing motion to get the ball out when he’s under pressure. There are plenty of NFL starters who haven’t developed the ability to speed up their throwing motions, so Darnold’s skill there is impressive.
The negatives with Darnold are well known. His ball security in 2017 was poor, including both issues with fumbles and throwing too many interceptions. He admitted to having some confidence issues in the early portion of the 2017 season, but that seemed to be rectified during the year. There were plays on which Darnold showed good field vision to work through progressions, but eye movement was an issue on some of his interceptions. Thus, he needs to get more consistent there, and pro coaching could help him with that.
Of the top quarterback prospects for the 2018 NFL Draft, Darnold has the best intangibles and the most “it factor.” There is no doubt that Darnold has a lot of moxie. He is a gamer who doesn’t quit and pushed his team to wins. Darnold is said to have very good intangibles off the field and football character with leadership. Sources from a variety of NFL teams have spoken positively about him in that regard. Darnold isn’t loudest player or a huge “rah-rah” kind of quarterback, but he has a calm presence that leads by example.
In speaking to two general managers of quarterback-needy teams, they felt that Darnold was worthy of being a high first-round pick and franchise quarterback. Over the evolution of the draft process, Darnold is the consensus top quarterback and is the favorite to be the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NFL Draft.
Player Comparison: Philip Rivers. There are a lot of similarities between Darnold and Rivers. They have similar builds with hitches in their throwing motions that make them a bit unorthodox. Both are pocket passers who throw the ball accurately with timing and precision. Both also are known to be good leaders, workers and teammates. One difference is in their styles of leadership; Rivers is more loud and vocal whereas Darnold is quieter. Still, their playing styles are similar and both have excellent intangibles, but of a different nature. Rivers was a top-five pick in the 2004 NFL Draft, and Darnold could easily be a top-five pick in the 2018 NFL Draft.
NFL Matches: Cleveland, New York Giants, New York Jets, Denver and Buffalo
There are a lot of quarterback-needy teams in the NFL, and Darnold should be gone quickly in the top-four picks. The Browns need a franchise quarterback, and Darnold is a favorite to be their selection with the No. 1-overall pick.
If Cleveland passes on Darnold, the Giants could be a fit for Darnold with the No. 2-overall pick. They could use a young franchise quarterback with Eli Manning aging.
Staying in New York, the Jets traded up in the first round to get a franchise quarterback, and Darnold would be a no-brainer pick for them if he gets to the No. 3 spot.
The Broncos and Bills are also in the market for a franchise quarterback, but they will have to trade up to land Darnold and it isn’t clear that either the Giants at No. 2 or the Browns at No.4 are interested in trading down from those spots.
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