In June, a group of NFL personnel men stood on the sideline of Nicholls State University, having made the annual pilgrimage to watch the next wave of quarterback talent at the Manning Passing Academy. Watching from afar – and with players lacking names on their shirts – one player with prototypical tools and a lofty draft status began drawing steady criticism.
“Who’s the kid with the big windup?” one longtime NFL evaluator asked, settling among a group of friends and focusing on a reddish blonde camp counselor with a zippy arm and ideal frame.
“That’s [Sam] Darnold,” an NFC personnel man answered.
The two raised their eyebrows at each other. Darnold’s delivery was unquestionably long, dropping the football down and backward with regularity. It was adding fractions of time to his delivery, separating the USC star from the crowd based on a concerning mechanical flaw.
“You can have him,” the NFC personnel man concluded within the group. “Loopy motion. Bad face. Overrated.”
Months later, this Darnold deliberation is just getting started, epitomizing what will be another hotly debated NFL quarterback class. Yahoo Sports spoke to seven NFL evaluators who have either seen the quarterbacks live (in games or offseason camps), or watched tape on potential picks in the coming draft. The consensus of the group is that at least four quarterbacks will settle into the first round of the 2017 draft: Darnold (if he declares), UCLA’s Josh Rosen, Wyoming’s Josh Allen and Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield.
Asked to shape up the group, including a pecking order, this is how the potential 2017 crop of first-round picks ranks going into bowl season:
Rosen’s natural ability as a passer is universally loved. Two evaluators who knocked Darnold’s throwing motion after watching him firsthand in the Manning Passing Academy this past summer both raved about watching Rosen at the same event in June of 2016.
All seven evaluators shared one common thread with Rosen: His throwing motion and release are basically as elite as it gets for a prospect. They raved about his fluidity and how he spun the ball effortlessly. “He can really spin it” was said repeatedly.
There was agreement that Rosen’s footwork is sound with a clean pocket but that he can get loose in his discipline – both in decisions and mechanics – when he’s flushed out of the pocket or trying to make something happen. There also appeared to be universal agreement that Rosen is the likeliest “start from Day 1” guy in the class.
The negatives that came up were consistent: He has an underlying arrogance about him that can rub some the wrong way; he has a little bit of a party reputation off the field (though not to the point of serious concern); and his work habits and leadership have room to grow.
From a football perspective, there was concern about his penchant to force bad throws rather than just getting rid of the ball. But a few evaluators were very critical of the offensive talent around Rosen, suggesting it cornered and forced him to make things happen.
Darnold’s leadership, athleticism and improvisation were the key takeaways. Evaluators said it was clear that he makes a lot of plays based on his natural instincts and ability. But there was some immense concern about his throwing motion, which may take some work over a sustained period. Darnold worked on the motion in the offseason, but one evaluator said he has reverted to his long release and even with work, it may be what feels most natural to him. The same evaluator said Darnold’s release can work, so long as it’s not too slow – which, at this point, it doesn’t seem to be. It remains a solid point of contention between evaluators. Some think it’s a big deal. Others feel it’s workable.
Another evaluator believed Darnold had a penchant for bailing on the pocket too often, criticizing his “taking off” at the first opportunity.
The opinions on Darnold’s development were also scattered. A few evaluators thought he could be a first day starter, while others said he needs to have a bridge quarterback protecting him from having to come in and play immediately. But it was clear that all seven evaluators thought Darnold had a lot of development left ahead of him – meaning that the right coaching staff will be important.
As for whether he could still be the first quarterback taken over Rosen, one evaluator summed it up best: “He’s not a better pure passer than Rosen, but if Darnold goes [first in the class], it’s because someone fell in love with his athleticism and longer-term upside as a package. He’ll probably do really well in interviews with staffs.”
Allen is going to be a significant wild card in the mix. The consistency that evaluators rave about his size/arm/skills is striking. But there are a lot of “project” concerns, too. One evaluator called continued comparisons to Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz “insulting,” noting that Wentz had a mental acuity and “feel” that Allen doesn’t share. Another said Allen will be a top 20 lock largely because of his size and arm strength, similar to what floated Joe Flacco’s stock coming out of Delaware in 2008.
Overall impressions were that Allen has a future as a big downfield passer but tries to fire a cannon too often. He’s unpolished in the short or intermediate game and is more about power than perfect ball placement. But even with that, there is an aspect that everyone agreed could propel Allen into a real debate with Darnold and possibly Rosen at the top of the draft: When he throws in shorts, he has the ability to blow you away. He looks like a monster prospect in workouts because of his arm and ability to move at 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds. One evaluator said it was Allen – and not Darnold – who was the talk of the Manning Passing Academy in 2017.
“When I walked in [to the Manning Passing Academy], the first thing I heard was, ‘The most impressive guy here is Josh Allen.’”
There seems to be little debate that Allen could light a fire in the draft process, particularly if he can qualify for a Senior Bowl appearance and show well. But at least one evaluator had a frightening warning about getting too excited: “JaMarcus Russell looked like an All-Pro in his workout [at LSU], and Allen has some of those same physical abilities. He’s going to be eye-candy for guys who fall for the great workouts.”
Mayfield is going to have to work out well and ace his interviews – which will feature a lot of probing questions meant to test his maturity. Don’t be surprised if you persistently hear the Johnny Manziel comparison attached to Mayfield. In a half-compliment/half-swipe, one evaluator said, “I think he’s a lot like a physically built-up Johnny Manziel. That’s what he looks like when I watch him.”
That’s where some of the disagreements come in. Some like his football aptitude and throwing ability – not to mention that he can make the necessary NFL throws. Others were put off by Mayfield’s immaturity (his embarrassing drunken arrest video in which he ran from the police; the crotch-grabbing on national TV; the flag-planting against Ohio State; the trash-talking with opposing players).
Said one evaluator, “There’s a difference between being a fiery guy and being an emotional hothead. Mayfield is probably both. That could still be OK if he’s more of a leader and less of a hothead.”
Of the quartet, Mayfield will likely get the most off-field and locker room work when it comes to character (though to be fair, Rosen will get his share, too). Evaluators like his skills and smarts as a football player, and his leadership and work ethic all got positive reviews. But the height will continue to be a big hurdle, especially if there are any other perceived drawbacks. As one evaluator said, “There are more guys his size who have shown you can be successful starters [in the NFL], but let’s be honest: For every Russell Wilson, there are 100 guys who didn’t make it.”
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