2018 Rookie Class: An Early Look at Sam Darnold

Travis May

The 2018 quarterback class looks to be full of potential. There are prototypical pocket passers, mobile monsters, insane producers, and maybe a player or two who simply looks the part. Out of all the top prospects though, Sam Darnold seems to be the wild card who has a little bit of everything.

NCAA Career

Sam Darnold began his collegiate career sitting on the bench in 2015 because Cody Kessler (current Cleveland Browns backup quarterback) was still lighting it up for the USC Trojans. Even in 2016, the coaches at USC thought it best to start Max Browne over him to begin the season. However, as I talked about in my JuJu Smith-Schuster article last year, that was a horrible idea. Browne managed just two touchdowns and two interceptions, and less than 500 total yards through three games – so began Sam Darnold’s career.

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Sam started off a little slow in his first significant action against Utah, going completing 18 of 26 passes for 253 yards and no touchdowns. The Trojans lost that game, dropping them to 1-3 overall. The 2016 season was not looking good in southern California. But then, Sam Darnold put together one of the best nine-game stretches in recent college football memory.

Darnold led USC on a nine-game win streak down the stretch, throwing for about 2700 yards and 25 scores. The final game in that streak was possibly his most impressive though. Darnold threw for 453 yards and five touchdowns against a Penn State team that had just barely missed making the college football playoffs. After that, the remaining portion of Darnold’s career seemed like a formality, as he would most assuredly one day grace the NFL with his talents.

However, 2017 proved to be more difficult for Darnold as USC rode the roller coaster of his inconsistencies early on. He threw two interceptions against Western Michigan, then three and four touchdowns against Stanford and Texas. Then, he managed just just 164 yards with zero touchdowns and a pick against Washington State, but absolutely stomped Utah for 358 and three scores. It was definitely hard to predict which Sam Darnold was going to show up on any given Saturday. But the truth is that Sam Darnold has already posted a solid overall career at USC. He’s 20-3 as the USC quarterback’s primary passer and will likely be an early selection should he choose to leave for the NFL.

As A Recruit

USC has a habit of recruiting some decent quarterbacks and Sam Darnold was no exception. Despite their efforts to keep him benched, Darnold’s recruiting pedigree was quite impressive. According to the 247Sports composite recruiting rankings (which is an amazing resource for Devy and Dynasty leagues) Darnold was the fifth-best dual threat quarterback in the nation. He was a solid four-star stud who stood about 6’4” 210 with all of the physical makings of a future star. Darnold could have played for nine other top college programs, but he chose to go compete with a handful of other four star quarterback talents at USC. It was clear Sam was not afraid of challenge.

Athletic Profile

One thing that many people don’t realize or notice with Darnold is that he is actually quite athletic for a quarterback. As I already mentioned, he was considered a top “dual threat” guy coming out of high school. In fact, very early on in Sam’s recruiting process a few schools even looked at him as a potential college linebacker.

While most people just want to ramble on about how Sam Darnold’s goofy throwing motion (reminiscent of the Blake Bortles windmill-like release), the savvy dynasty owners and NFL Draft aficionados will take note of how his athleticism shows up in every game. Is he Lamar Jackson fast or mobile? No. That’s not what I’m talking about.

However, you’ll be hard pressed to find a game where Sam Darnold’s combination of speed, strength, and agility don’t lead to him making an absolutely ridiculous play. When the defense thinks they have him for a sack, Darnold just shakes a defensive lineman or linebacker in space and finishes with a clutch throw for a first down. It will be interesting to see how he tests as the NFL Combine, but his positive results may be surprising to some.

Draft Projection

Ever since Darnold found himself on the cover of ESPN the magazine it’s been hard not to expect greatness. While it’s still up for debate as to where he truly ranks in this above average quarterback class, the expectation is that a first round selection may (or should) be in his near future.

Should he choose to leave college after only a season and a half of starting experience, Darnold could end up being a top ten pick in the NFL Draft. If this happens, dynasty fantasy football owners should invest early and with confidence. If he drops to the late first round for some reason, Darnold may end up being a solid rookie draft value across all formats.

My Thoughts

Sam Darnold, like any quarterback with a smaller sample size, is a tough prospect to nail down. As I already mentioned, his inconsistencies in decision-making make it tough to go all in even if his overall skill set is enticing. However, what Darnold was able to do as USC right out of the gate cannot be ignored. He has potential to continue developing beyond where he is now, and is already considered a first round talent. Yes, his throwing motion is a little wonky, but don’t let that fool you into thinking he can’t sling it with the best of them.

If you’re looking for a professional comparison, imagine what Matthew Stafford and Blake Bortles would be if you mixed them together. Darnold has the mobility to escape the pocket and scramble for extra yards, but he won’t run for many big plays. He has the big body and strength to stand in the pocket and finish throws even when contacted. Plus Darnold has the ability to create on his own when things break down or he needs to make a tight window throw like Stafford frequently does.

Overall I am excited for Darnold’s future. Let’s just hope that his inconsistencies fade into the distance as his true potential bursts forth into the making of a future NFL star.