Over the last few weeks, we've been taking an in-depth look at the players the Jets drafted last month. Today we conclude with a look at the third overall pick, quarterback Sam Darnold.
The 20-year-old Darnold is listed at 6-foot-3, 225 pounds, and went to college at USC. He was a starter for two seasons, passing for over 7,000 yards and 57 touchdowns, but also threw 22 interceptions.
Darnold started out as a linebacker and wide receiver in high school, in addition to also playing basketball and baseball. Then he missed most of his junior year, so his time at quarterback was limited, hurting his chances of getting recruited.
However, he ended up at USC and, having taken a redshirt year in 2015, progressed to the point where the number two quarterback transferred leaving Darnold to take over the starting job a month into his redshirt freshman season.
Darnold was a sensation in 2016, as USC won all nine of his starts to bounce back from a 1-3 start and win the Rose Bowl over Penn State, behind Darnold's 453 yards and five touchdowns. Entering 2017, he was receiving Heisman buzz and USC were considered potential contenders for the BCS playoffs. Darnold was also considered a likely number one overall pick.
Unfortunately, he got off to an inconsistent start. Although USC won their first four games, he hadn't looked as good as expected. When they lost badly against Washington State and then lost again a few weeks later against Notre Dame, the Heisman and playoff buzz had fizzled out.
Darnold himself was proving that he perhaps wasn't the sure thing some media sources had been portraying him as. Issues with his ball security, technique, decision making and accuracy plagued him through a difficult stretch of games where the Trojans had to rely heavily on Ronald Jones to keep the offense working.
However, Darnold and the Trojans bounced back by closing out their regular season with five straight wins. Darnold threw just three interceptions in the last six games of the regular season, having thrown nine in the first six. However, he threw a bad pick-six in their bowl game loss to Ohio State, although he did pass for over 350 yards against probably the closest thing he saw to a pro-level defense all season.
After the season, Darnold deliberated over whether to stay in school but eventually announced he would enter the draft. After controversially opting not to throw at the combine, he performed well at his pro day and the Jets were happy to select him with the third overall pick.
Let's move onto some further analysis of what Darnold brings to the table, based on in-depth research and film study.
Darnold comes from a family where many of his relatives have been successful athletes. He is a solid but unspectacular athlete, as you can see from his mixed bag in terms of combine numbers:
He had decent size, but there was concern over his hand size, especially since he led the nation in fumbles in 2017. Hand size is believed by some to be an asset in terms of ball security, so there is concern that quarterbacks with small hands might struggle in cold weather.
As you can see, Darnold's number is below average and it was smaller than the likes of Josh Rosen and Josh Allen. However, it was bigger than Baker Mayfield. Then again, Mayfield didn't have the same issues with fumbling.
We need to talk about footwork and technique first because it's something that underpins basically every single section of this review.
"Atrocious", "A cow on ice" and "Clumsy" are among some of the reviews his footwork has received from draft analysts online. He's acknowledged that "lower half mechanics" are a weakness and has been working with Jordan Palmer on improving these since before the 2016 season.
It would be nice to be able to paint a positive picture about his development in that area, but the criticism is warranted. Moreover, he seemed to regress rather than improve during the 2017 season.
Darnold's biggest issue is that it looks like his top half is anticipating things but the message doesn't get from his brain to his legs in time, so he doesn't manage to get his lower body positioned in the right direction and isn't able to step into his throw.
He's still able to have success because he has so much arm talent that he can still get the ball there even with all the emphasis coming from his upper torso. However, when there are mistakes, where he doesn't quite get enough juice on a throw or it's slightly off the mark, this is nearly always attributable to him not stepping into the throw. On such plays, you'll note that his feet are often parallel to the line of scrimmage on his release - and if they're not, it usually means he's throwing off his back foot.
Darnold's footwork issues don't end there. In the pocket, he has a habit of hopping up and down on the spot which can place limits on how quickly he can get into position to get the ball out efficiently. He also has a similar issue on his deep throws where it's rare that he'll rotate his right hip through on the release.
The good news is that if these issues are apparent on all his mistakes and he is working specifically on these issues, then fixing those flaws might pay massive dividends.
When Darnold throws on the move, he's usually pretty accurate and this can help him because if he's moving in the direction of the throw, then he'll automatically be stepping into the throw in a way he won't be when throwing from the pocket.
Here's Darnold making an accurate throw on the roll-out, but even here you can see, he's fading away and falling backwards as he lets fly:
Here's an example of a misfire on the move. Again you can see how he doesn't whip his right leg through and isn't throwing from a strong base:
Darnold's footwork is not his only issue. His release has also been the subject of much debate. He has an elongated throwing motion and a tendency to bring the ball down low where it can potentially be stripped by pass rushers.
Darnold has already stated that he doesn't intend to change his release and has noted that he is able to shorten up the release when necessary and that he naturally gets rid of the ball quickly and, to be fair, there is truth to both of these comments. Todd Bowles backed these comments up, basically saying that they don't intend to mess around with his release too much.
In spite of his less-than-ideal technique, Darnold throws with good velocity and his passes are usually thrown with a tight spiral. It's rare that he'll throw a wobbly duck, which - as we all know too well - can lead to passes fluttering dangerously in the cold New Jersey winds.
Darnold can make all the throws, including the long out, putting good zip on the ball when throwing into tight windows. He trusts his arm and will throw into traffic without a second thought. Here's an example:
On deep balls, Darnold has an ability to throw over the top with good touch but will underthrow his target from time to time. He does well to get enough on this throw though, because a slight underthrow would almost certainly have been intercepted:
Again, the fact he stepped up as he threw this pass helped him because it meant he was naturally stepping into the throw in a way he doesn't usually do.
Darnold's accuracy in terms of completion percentage dropped from 67 percent in his first season to 63 percent last year as he had five games where he completed less than 60 percent of his passes, having had none the previous year.
Completion percentage perhaps isn't the best gauge of Darnold's accuracy anyway, as he throws a lot of short high-percentage passes on RPO-style plays. To his credit though, his consistency in terms of timing and ball placement is really good on these and they could form the basis of a conservative quick-passing game if he ends up in a situation where he's called into action before he's completely ready.
The situation wasn't really helped by the fact he lost his best receiver from 2016 when Juju Smith-Schuster got drafted and the offensive line was a mess all year with several injuries up front. Where he missed throws, his inconsistent base was usually to blame though.
Here's an example of a throw that's slightly behind his tight end coming over the middle. It perhaps didn't help that he wasn't able to look off the safety adequately, putting pressure on Darnold not to lead the receiver into him.
You might struggle to find a more accurate downfield throw than this though, with Darnold again throwing on the move and with excellent touch:
Former Arizona State linebacker Christian Sam - who was drafted by New England in the sixth round - said before the draft that Darnold might be even better when he's under pressure.
That's an interesting comment, but Sam only elaborated so far as to say that their gameplan for other quarterbacks was to create as much pressure as possible, but that this was ineffective against Darnold.
There are a few reasons why this makes sense. First off all, Darnold's quick-release and adeptness in a short-passing game is an immediate antidote to a blitzing defense, especially when he's able to process information quickly to anticipate the pressure.
In addition, Darnold's ability to create on the move is one of his biggest strengths and getting pressure on him enables him to have success in doing so. He's also very calm and poised, seems to sense the pressure and doesn't tend to panic.
Darnold feels pressure well and can move around within the pocket or roll out to avoid it. He also has the ability to stand in and can duck his shoulder to avoid pressure off the edge, or shrug off tacklers when stepping up, as he does here:
He took more sacks in 2017 though, which would have only been partially attributable to the struggle on the offensive line. At times, he tried to do too much, waiting for a route to develop instead of getting rid of the ball to a safe outlet. Another factor was that he started to take on responsibility for setting the protection, which he didn't always get right:
As noted, fumbles have been a concern, as he had 11 in 2017 to lead the nation. However, he didn't have many within the pocket, despite the concerns over him not keeping the ball protected (which he has acknowledged he needs to work at). A handful of the fumbles were on bad snaps, which was something USC's center(s) had real problems with and actually Darnold probably rescued more potential fumbles than he ended up losing.
This was Darnold's first pass of the entire season and it shows almost everything you'd have wanted to see from him. You can see how he goes through his progressions quickly and then makes an anticipatory throw right on the money to his receiver beyond the marker. Not many 20-year old college quarterbacks can do that kind of thing to this level. After that you were tempted to pack and go home, safe in the knowledge that he's your number one pick:
However, flash forward to the end of the season and here he makes the kind of throw that leaves you scratching your head as to what he must have been seeing:
Darnold's turnover numbers are a concern but it's worth noting that - in addition to the reduction in interceptions over the second half of the year that we already mentioned - he never threw interceptions on consecutive possessions. Darnold might make a mistake once in a while, but he shows an ability to make corrections and doesn't make the same mistakes over and over again.
His ability to see the field is impressive and it's something he attributes to his past as a point guard in basketball. However, playing at linebacker in high school should also have had its benefits in terms of understanding how defenses operate and using this to read defensive sets.
Darnold's mindset is aggressive and intuitive and he won't usually lock onto one receiver, but he does have lapses and inconsistencies in terms of his field vision at times.
Watching Darnold's high school film is enlightening. Back then he was a dual-threat quarterback who rarely threw from the pocket. While he's not the kind of athlete you'd use as a running option more than you needed to, these running abilities do manifest themselves from time to time and USC would sometimes run read option plays with him as a ball carrying threat:
Officially, Darnold rushed for 332 yards at USC, but as we know, that includes sack yardage. He actually contributed closer to 600 yards and scored seven touchdowns. Of course his main weakness is ball security and he really needs to learn to slide more.
Perhaps more important than his mobility is his maneuverability within and outside of the pocket. Darnold's ability to extend plays adds a dimension to the offense. Here he displays how well he keeps his eyes down the field as he steps up:
Darnold clearly has the ability to process information at a pro level and can be groomed to run an NFL scheme without the need to dumb things down for him. His ability to effectively run a quick-passing attack is ideal for a west coast system as is his ability to make the correct read. When you add high-level arm talent and creative abilities on top of that, you have everything you need for a diverse passing attack. He would just need to ensure he didn't make too many mistakes.
Some scouts have said that Darnold's issues in terms of his footwork could make him less effective in a timing-based offense. It may be good news that the Jets no longer run an Erhardt-Perkins scheme.
Darnold has one former teammate on the current Jets roster. Claude Pelon was still there during Darnold's redshirt year.
Injuries haven't been a major issue for Darnold, other than when he broke his foot in high school and missed all but two games of his junior year. He also had a broken finger in high school and was knocked out of a game last year with an ankle injury but did start the following week.
Darnold has been praised for his toughness, leadership and poise. He's said to be stoic and likeable, with quiet confidence. He's apparently a stern, direct leader on a one-to-one basis. The Trojans did want him to become more of a vocal leader though.
It seems like Darnold is all-business, maybe even to the point of being somewhat boring, and recently said that he doesn't care about individual accolades; he just wants to win. His legacy at USC was very important to him though.
Darnold scored an above-average 28 in the Wonderlic test at the combine and was a communications major in college.
We've had to reset our expectations on Darnold several times over the past few years. After one year of starting some people thought he was the next Mark Sanchez, while others felt he was the surest thing since Andrew Luck. During his midseason struggles last year, he wasn't even playing like a first rounder, let alone a top pick, but he rebounded nicely and looked certain to be off the board before he fell to the Jets.
So, what did the Jets end up with? Ultimately, that remains to be seen, but a lot of experts and former players and coaches seem certain that he's going to be a good player at worst, with the chance to be great.
Make no mistake though, he is not the finished article and there are things he needs to work at. Several experts have suggested he'd probably benefit from a year as a back-up so that he can iron out his technical flaws and learn how to run the offense inside-out.
That makes sense, but the Jets fanbase will be eager to see him sooner rather than later. Hopefully the team will manage this smartly because there's no question Darnold is a talented kid who could finally be that long-term franchise quarterback the Jets have been seeking for so long.