When the 2017 college football season was dubbed "The Year of the Quarterback", a lot of the hype surrounding the QB class could be traced to the expected performance of USC's Sam Darnold.
The hype train was in full effect after the young gunslinger led the Trojans to a dramatic come-from-behind win in the 2017 Rose Bowl to cap off a season where the team reeled off nine straight wins under his direction.
Scouts and analysts spent the offseason telling the football world that the redshirt sophomore was the next great player at the position. Observers expected the 2017 season to be a coronation for Darnold on his way to claiming the Heisman Trophy and eventually securing his spot as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 draft.
With those lofty expectations hanging over his head, Darnold didn't consistently play up to the standard with his completion percentage and touchdown-to-interception ratio taking a dip in his second season as a starter. Throw in his ghastly turnover numbers, and the hype train came to a screeching halt for the USC star by the end of the season.
While his staunchest supporters continue to tout his exceptional intangibles and improvisational playmaking skills as support for his candidacy to be the No. 1 overall pick, Darnold's critics question whether he is a refined passer worthy of being viewed as the best player in the draft. Given some time to study the tape and talk to a few executives about his game, here is The Book on the USC star.
What I'm hearing
"The kid is a winner. I love his poise, arm talent and improvisational skills. He can win from the pocket or on the move with his legs. I worry about the turnovers, particularly the fumbles and streakiness from the pocket. ... Turnovers kill you at this level and it's harder to protect the ball when you're facing more heat and better disguises. That scares me a little, but he is such a gamer that I'm willing to live with it because I believe he knows how to win." -- AFC college scouting director
"I like the intangibles more than the raw talent. He's built to play the position from a mental standpoint, but I don't think he has elite arm talent. He wins because of his poise, grit and leadership skills. ... He might've been a little overhyped heading into the season, but I think he will be a solid starter in the league." -- NFC scout
"I love Darnold. He's got poise, toughness and grit. When it's time to step up and make things happen, he gets it done. The kid's a winner, too. That matters." -- AFC personnel executive
"I'm baffled by his humility and humbleness. ... He's always so worried about the team success rather than his own individual success and that's a special thing, especially at (quarterback). ... He truly believes individual success is a byproduct of team success. It just filters down to the other guys. When your leader, the guy who has the ball in his hands on every down, has that mentality, it filters down to the rest of the team." -- USC head coach Clay Helton
What I'm seeing
Darnold is the ultimate competitor that every coach and scout covets at quarterback. As a relentless playmaker with an infectious competitive spirit, he exudes the kind of confidence that's needed to be a QB1 in the league. Although he's a little streaky as a passer with a sandlot-like playing style, he's a winner with a resume full of hero moments as a field general. In a league where winning matters, Darnold's experience bringing USC back to prominence as the leader of the offense makes him a strong candidate to thrive as a franchise quarterback at the next level.
As a passer, he's an exceptional timing and anticipation thrower. He has outstanding range and arm talent. He's one of the few passers capable of throwing with zip, velocity, touch, timing and a range of trajectories. Despite a long windup that makes some scouts cringe, Darnold gets the ball out of his hand quickly and with plenty of juice. He shows exceptional release quickness firing the ball out to receivers on the perimeter, and displays outstanding anticipation/timing. His ability to throw receivers open is impressive for a young passer, particularly one with only two years of major college experience.
Darnold is at his best throwing rhythm passes (quicks, screens, run-pass options and isolation routes) that allow him to fire the ball to a receiver or a designated spot without hesitation, but he's also good with anticipation routes (seams and skinny posts) inside the numbers. He releases the ball well before his receiver makes his break or clears the final defender in the zone, which gives the intended pass-catcher enough time to make a move and pick up yardage after the catch.
On the move, Darnold is a fairly accurate passer rolling to either side of the field. He's capable of hitting the deep comeback along the boundary with a laser-like toss or floating a feathery "soft" ball to a receiver on an intermediate crossing route. In fact, Darnold's ability to make precise passes on the move might be his biggest strength as a mobile playmaker, particularly when he's extending plays as a scrambler as the pocket breaks down. He shows incredible instincts and awareness on the run, which is why interested offensive coordinators must have an extensive movement-passing package in the playbook for him.
To that point, Darnold's mobility, athleticism, and improvisational skills make him a spectacular late-game performer. He has a knack for delivering in key moments and most of his highlight plays in the clutch are on impromptu plays (see jump pass against Texas). He repeatedly finds a way to make the play when his team needs it at a critical moment. Whether it's scripted or unscripted, No. 14 finds a way to get it done with his athleticism and mobility frequently playing a role in his success.
From a critical standpoint, Darnold is not a finished product. He's a streaky passer prone to missing a few layups in the passing game due to his shoddy footwork in the pocket. He misfires on too many easy throws for a player of his caliber and those misses outside of the strike zone, particularly on deep throws, are troubling for evaluators looking for a refined passer at the position.
In addition, he is careless with the ball and has way too many turnovers for a franchise-caliber QB. Darnold finished 2017 with 24 giveaways (13 interceptions; 11 fumbles) in 14 games. While the interceptions are bothersome due to the poor decisions on several of the miscues, the fumbles are a major concern. He's too careless with the ball in traffic and the repeated strips suggest that he is unaware of his recklessness within the pocket.
Granted, ball security can be corrected through hard coaching, but the turnovers, particularly the interceptions, are always going to be a part of his game. He is going to push the envelope as a playmaker and his coaches must be able to live with the turnovers that come along with the big plays.
Overall, Darnold is a big-time player with outstanding potential as a QB1. He's a gunslinger with a sandlot game who exhibits outstanding poise in critical moments. Although he needs to refine his footwork and fundamentals, he has the swagger to make plays despite his deficiencies. If I could describe him in basketball terms, I would say he is a scorer who knows how to get buckets without a consistent jumper. Darnold's game isn't always pretty, but he gets Ws, which is all that matters at the end of the day.
This comparison might look like an odd pairing based on their vastly different personalities, but stylistically, Darnold and Winston couldn't be more similar. Each player is a fierce competitor with an aggressive mentality, which allows them to thrive in critical moments. However, those same traits also lead to turnovers on high-risk, high-reward plays from the pocket. Although NFL coaches can tolerate some mistakes that occur when a fearless quarterback attempts to make a play in a key situation, the careless turnovers from the pocket (forced fumbles and bad-decision interceptions) drive offensive coordinators crazy when they're trying to control the game with careful play calls.
After looking at Darnold's game and development over the past two years, I believe he exhibits some of the same qualities that Winston displayed during his time at Florida State and his first three seasons in the league. The former Heisman Trophy winner played at his best in his team's biggest games, showcasing outstanding confidence, poise and playmaking ability with the game on the line. Although his games were littered with inexplicable turnovers and gaffes, Winston showed remarkable resiliency and confidence bouncing back from early mistakes to make hero plays.
The fourth-year veteran has continued to display those traits as a pro, as evidenced by his gradual improvement as a passer over his first three seasons. Winston has steadily improved his completion percentage (58.3 to 60.8 to 63.8) and passer ratings (84.2 to 86.1 to 92.2) each year while learning how to play winning football at the position. He isn't a finished product at this point, but his steady progression should coincide with the franchise winning more games behind the former No. 1 overall pick.
In Darnold, I would expect a similar progression as he harnesses his game under the tutelage of a respected QB guru. He has all of the traits to be a winner at the position (arm talent, athleticism, confidence, football intelligence, grit and improvisational skills) but he needs to learn how to manage his gunslinging ways to win games consistently as a pro. If he masters the game-management part of playing the position, he can win at a high level as a QB1.
Where he should be picked
Coaches and scouts rave about Darnold's traits and intangibles. He's built to be a franchise quarterback from his mentality and competitive spirit to his toughness and spectacular game. Although he's not a finished product, he has the potential to grow into a top-tier playmaker at the position with the capacity to carry a team to a championship as the driving force of the offense.
I would give the USC star a late-first-round grade based on his potential as an NFL starter. At his best, he could become a top-five player at the position, but he should be at least a mid-level starter if he doesn't refine his game.
Naturally, there are pros and cons to every situation, but Darnold's mentality and competitive spirit would serve him well in any of those situations, particularly in Cleveland, where the franchise needs a QB1 with the confidence and grit to engineer a franchise turnaround. He's built to put a team on his back. His presence, leadership skills, and clutch playmaking ability would give the franchise hope for the first time since Brian Sipe and Bernie Kosar were at the helm.
With the New York Jets, Darnold's spectacular game and experience as a star player at USC would serve him well as the new QB1 on Broadway. He seems unfazed by the heavy attention that comes with playing the position, and that could help him deal with the pressure of performing on a big stage. On the field, his improvisational skills would add a spark to an offense that lacks premier playmakers on the perimeter. Although playing as a "run-around" specialist would stunt his growth as a QB1, Darnold could help the Jets win games while he gets some on-the-job training as a starter.