I assume some NFL teams, when they started to study the tape on USC quarterback Sam Darnold, were bothered by a few things.
Darnold has a delivery that’s longer than desired, and poor lower-body mechanics. There’s a lot of moving parts in his delivery that result in Darnold being a hurried, uncomfortable thrower. Then there’s a reckless, undisciplined element to his game that led to more turnovers than you’d like, and that’s another concern.
In 2016, you saw the lack of precision from the pocket from Darnold, but it was his first year as a starter. What worked his redshirt freshman season was his vision on the move and ability to make accurate throws out of structure. You figured Darnold would play with much better pocket efficiency and refinement as a sophomore in 2017. While you still could see his playmaking ability last season, flaws in his game from the pocket remained.
Darnold will be an interesting evaluation for teams because there are a lot of things to like, but also areas that need significant improvement.
Darnold did make some strides as a pocket quarterback last season
What I liked seeing from Darnold was he had a good command of the USC offense and where he should go with the ball. While we’ll spend some time on what I didn’t like from Darnold in the pocket, he made enough good throws from the pocket within structure to lead you to believe there’s something to work with. And he showed more comfort in the pocket later in the season.
I thought USC’s game against Colorado in particular showed some progression, especially at the deep and intermediate levels. Here are a few throws Darnold made in rhythm and with good accuracy.
The second-reaction ability after the initial play breaks down stands out more than Darnold’s pocket play. He can make throws from different platforms and arm angles, and has good vision on the move. He’s an aggressive, confident thrower willing to turn it loose when the situation demands — there can be a fine line in which a quarterback can be too aggressive and confident, but in general it’s a good trait.
Here’s a play from that Colorado game in which Darnold escapes the rush, keeps looking downfield and makes a good throw while on the move. He has a good touch not only from the pocket but on the move as well. These types of plays are definitely part of his game.
There are things to like about Darnold, and that’s why he’s in play for the first overall pick. He throws with excellent pace and touch when the throw demanded it. He can make tight-window throws between the hashes. He’s a good seam thrower with the necessary firm touch. He’s effective in the boot game to his right and his left, with consistent accuracy on the move. The second-reaction playmaking is obvious too.
There’s a playmaking dimension to Darnold’s game as a passer and a runner. Still, he needs work in a few areas.
A lot of work on Darnold’s mechanics await as he enters the NFL
A play from the Rose Bowl two seasons ago is a microcosm of Darnold. He didn’t step into the throw. He dropped the ball below his waist. These are things you don’t want to see a quarterback do, and they are habits that showed up consistently with Darnold. Yet, he threw a precisely accurate 13-yard touchdown to JuJu Smith-Schuster.
The result is there. But can he continue to have these habits in the NFL and still deliver success? Or do these things need to be coached out of him? You can get away with things in college that NFL defenders will take advantage of.
Some teams are going to look at Darnold’s long delivery and his poor lower body mechanics and have concerns. There are mechanical issues that teams will try to work on, perhaps including the delivery.
He’s not fundamentally sound when he moves within the pocket. He has a tendency to throw off his back foot, which causes some of his throws to lose energy on the back end. Darnold’s feet do not consistently move with his eyes, leading to many off-balance throws. He can be overly reactive to perceived pressure, which causes him to break down in the pocket prematurely. Darnold’s vision at times is an issue, as he struggles to eliminate what’s not there and isolate what’s available to him.
Darnold’s turnovers have been discussed a lot in the pre-draft process. Here’s one that’s on him: Two seasons ago, against UCLA, he doesn’t recognize that UCLA is in “Cover 2” zone. Cornerback Fabian Moreau, sitting in his zone, was able to jump the route and get an interception.
When you watch Darnold, there were too many off-schedule plays and too many inaccurate throws. This all adds up to an undisciplined, arhythmic element to his play that’s concerning.
That’s not to say these things can’t be worked on. Darnold is still a very young, inexperienced quarterback. But when we’re talking about a player who will go early in the first round, and maybe first overall. He has tendencies that a team like Cleveland, which has the first pick, will have to look very closely at.
Draft Darnold on what he can be, not what he is now
When an NFL team drafts Darnold, the coaching staff will have a lot to work on.
Darnold’s delivery, from top to bottom, needs retooling. His mechanics and fundamentals need work. His balance needs major adjusting to play with disciplined feet and a consistently firm base.
An offensive coordinator will have to work with his scheme to mitigate Darnold’s cavalier decision-making and, at times, inaccuracy. In that way, Darnold could be comparable to Jameis Winston’s sometimes loose and undisciplined tendencies (or perhaps Darnold could be a bigger, more talented Tony Romo?). Darnold might need someone like Jim Bob Cooter, the Detroit Lions offensive coordinator who got Matthew Stafford to channel his undisciplined tendencies.
At this point in Darnold’s career you’re not banking on his precision, because there’s not a lot there, but his size, the movement ability and developing more of the pocket throws in which you did see outstanding intuition. Darnold is an exciting, tantalizing prospect, but you’re drafting him on what you can believe he can become, not on his inconsistent USC tape from last season.
GREG COSELL’S PREVIOUS DRAFT BREAKDOWNS
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NFL analyst and NFL Films senior producer Greg Cosell watches as much NFL game film as anyone. Before the NFL draft, Cosell will join Yahoo Sports to share his observations on some of the top prospects.