Sam Darnold all but cemented himself as the number one overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft amidst pouring conditions at his pro day in usually sunny Southern California. I’m not much of a believer in Combine or pro day successes or failures having much of an impact in the decision making process for teams. However, it’s seemingly clear Darnold is the QB the Cleveland Browns have their eyes set on as the draft approaches.
Darnold is a polarizing prospect. Evaluators that have him graded at or near the top of their QB rankings point to his ability to make special things happen with the ball in his hands. Conversely, evaluators who are not as confident in his ability believe his mechanics and decision making could potentially be detrimental to how he develops as a pro.
Both sides of the spectrum make compelling and valid arguments. Ultimately my personal evaluation is heavily dependent on scheme fit, environment and projection. After evaluating eight games in total – Darnold graded out as my QB2 behind UCLA’s Josh Rosen.
Throughout my evaluation I consistently note Darnold must refine and develop aspects of his game to become the QB I believe he can be when everything comes together. As my friend Mark Schofield stated in one of his Check With Me columns – Darnold hasn’t been playing the position very long. There are a lot of nuances to the position that he has yet to learn, and it’s apparent on tape – most notably in his lower body mechanics and how he reads coverages.
The good news for Darnold and the NFL franchise that drafts him is that these issues can be fixed. How quickly the present problems can be fixed is another variable in the developmental equation. Darnold’s ideal landing spot would allow him to sit for his rookie season to work on his mechanics and learn how NFL coverages are going to attack him. Luckily for Darnold the first two teams selecting in the draft have structures in place that would allow him to sit and learn behind an experienced veteran. Those veterans being Cleveland’s recent acquisition, QB Tyrod Taylor, and New York’s Eli Manning.
There are traits Darnold can attain and improve on as he develops his quarterbacking abilities in the next 18+ months. In addition, there are also innate traits that cannot be changed, or are at least difficult to learn, that make Darnold such an appealing prospect despite the need for development.
Lower Half Mechanics
Let’s begin with Darnold’s throwing base. A valid issue critics point to when voicing their concerns for Darnold’s NFL career are his lower half mechanics. The USC QB is a mess mechanically and that stems from how awkward his lower half plays when aligning himself to throw. Darnold doesn’t always properly transfer his weight in the direction of his target as he steps into his throw with his base being completely parallel at times. Mark Schofield calls this mechanical flaw “stepping in the bucket” and it results in a lack of velocity on throws. Depending on the type of throw – like an intermediate/deep out from the opposite hash – it can lead to interceptions as highlighted on this play against Washington State.
Darnold doesn’t effectively transfer his weight on this pass. As he completes this throw his left leg finishes parallel with his right leg which shifts his weight toward the left boundary instead of in the direction of his receiver. In addition, Darnold’s throw is mainly coming from his arm. His lower half mechanics do not allow him to create torque by getting his hip through. The poor weight transfer and lack of trunk rotation causes the ball to lose velocity, allowing the CB to cut underneath the receiver for the interception.
If you haven’t yet, I’d advise you to check out Mark Schofield’s Interception Series. He broke down this play by Darnold and I’ll be using a couple other plays in this piece later on that he broke down as well.
Darnold can learn to fix his lower half mechanics and he’s been working on that with his personal instructor, Jordan Palmer, in preparation for his draft workouts. It appears Darnold made strides with his lower body mechanics at his pro day and he likely has, but it’s important to note that he wasn’t in a game environment. In a game environment with pressure in his face he’ll resort back to poor habits that he’s been relying on at USC. It takes more than an off-season worth of reps to dissolve poorly ingrained habits.
Darnold can still be a successful starting NFL QB without completely changing this mechanical flaw, but it will limit the types of offenses he can run and throws he can consistently make. A conversation I’ve had with Mark is whether or not Darnold is scheme diverse. He could be, but as Mark wisely points out, Darnold’s lower half is going to impact his timing and that wouldn’t mix well in an Erhardt-Perkins offense.
There are flashes of hope for Darnold to run a timing style offense, although, it’s not his best fit. Against Notre Dame late in the second quarter he hits the back of his three step drop and throws a perfect anticipatory quick out to his receiver for a first down.
The footwork is not perfect on this play by any means. And again, Darnold throws with his base parallel. Only this time the play works out for him. The potential is there to believe he can run a timing style offense, but it heavily depends on his ability to fix his footwork.
Throwing Motion/Release Time
Generally speaking, a QB’s throwing motion can be tweaked, but not completely overhauled. Players like Tom Brady make slight changes to how they throw the ball to increase accuracy and adjust for the pocket environment they’re in. This might not be pertinent for Darnold as he’s already decided that he’s not going to change his throwing motion.
“I’m not trying to change my throwing motion at all. I think I get the ball off pretty quick. There is kind of a wind-up, but I think I get it off quick and that’s what matters…
“The motion I have is what got me to this point, and I really haven’t gotten into trouble with it. It doesn’t change how fast I get the ball out. If I need to shorten up and get the ball in right now, I’m able to shorten my release and get it to them,” he said. “But if I need to throw it downfield, I’ve had a tendency of really cocking back and trying to let it go, where I just have to get my hip through more. That’s something I’ve been working on, but I don’t think it’s changing. My throwing motion is fine.”
Overall, he’s right about how quick he gets the ball off and I’ll touch more on that in a moment, but despite his ability to get the ball out quickly – his elongated motion leaves him vulnerable to strip sacks. It’s something he may have to learn the hard way at the next level before he makes tweaks.
On the other hand, release time is not something a QB can attain. Having a quick release is an inherent trait, as it involves shoulder flexibility and how a QB times ups the sequence of his throws. The reason Darnold and players like Wilson and Wentz before him don’t have to completely change their throwing motion is because they have such a quick release. As Darnold said at the Combine while defending his throwing mechanics – his windup motion doesn’t change how fast he gets the ball out. That’s due to his naturally quick release.
Arm talent has different definitions. It can be described as pure arm strength, but for the purposes of this piece it’s the ability to combine arm strength with touch. Or as Ted Nguyen explains it, “Arm strength plus the ability to throw the ball effortlessly where you want to.” To put it simply arm talent is the feel you have for throwing the ball.
Darnold possesses a very high level of arm talent. His arm talent and ability to make accurate throws from different platforms are why he’s considered a very promising QB prospect. He consistently makes pinpoint accurate throws to all levels of the field. Not many QBs are able to learn how to internally process how much velocity they need to take off or put on on their throws in real time.
There isn’t a better example of Darnold’s arm talent than this RB wheel throw to Ronald Jones III against Arizona. This throw checks all the boxes combining touch, accuracy, trajectory control and ability to throw off platform.
While rolling to his left Darnold is able to drop a perfect bucket throw over Jones III’s outside shoulder along the sideline. Darnold displays a clear understanding of how much power and touch he needs to put on this pass as well as where he needs to place it. Doing it while on the run makes it all the more impressive.
Reading a Defense
It’s possible for a QB to learn how to read defenses and different coverages given he’s already doing it at a good level. In Darnold’s case – he hasn’t been playing QB very long and thus isn’t as experienced with all the types of coverages that are going to be thrown his way. Yet, he exemplifies very good processing speed – the innate trait that ties in with reading a defense in the post-snap phase – via his excellent anticipation ability.
Cal is in a Cover 2 look to begin, but they change the coverage when calling a CB blitz off the edge. Cal rotates the strong safety to defend the receiver that is left open by the CB blitz and according to Mark in his Interception Series, Cal now plays a Cover 3 match type coverage with a FS in the middle of the field. Darnold makes the mistake of locking onto his receiver once he receives the snap and not moving the FS. This causes Darnold to throw into a tighter window than he would have to if he had moved the FS with his eyes. He now has to make the perfect throw and the ball is slightly under thrown, resulting in an interception.
Yet, a good sign for Darnold is that he does have the propensity to learn from his mistakes.
Later in that same game USC ran a similar passing concept involving an inside vertical route. Darnold once again had to look off the FS in the middle of the field to create space over the top to throw his receiver open. As he drops back Darnold eyes the FS before throwing to the outermost slot receiver. This freezes the FS in the middle of the field, causing him to be late to arrive to defend the vertical route. The pass winds up incomplete off Deontay Burnett’s hands, but despite the result of the play Darnold was able to make good on his earlier mistake and give his receiver a chance to make a play by moving the safety with his eyes and recognizing the coverage.
Anticipating throwing windows that aren’t yet open is a trait that some of the best QBs in the NFL possess. Darnold displays very good anticipation on his throws in part because of how quick he processes the coverages defenses put in front of him. Here’s an example of Darnold’s ridiculous anticipatory skills from the 2016 season.
On this 2 and 11 play in the red zone USC is tied with Washington 3-3. The Huskies play a Cover 4 defense, dropping seven defenders in coverage while rushing four up front. The original coverage does a good job of defending the USC receivers, but Darnold is protected well and is in no immediate hurry to get rid of the ball. He rolls to his right to create a better throwing angle and wait for one of his receivers to work across the zone coverage into a voided area. Darnold recognizes one of his receivers streaking behind the defense and throws the anticipatory pass.
Notice how the ball is out of Darnold’s hand despite the receiver having yet to cross the safety.
The throw is perfectly timed up and placed for a touchdown in the back of the end zone.
Poise in the Pocket
A QB must possess poise in the pocket if he wants to have a long and successful NFL career. Pocket poise can be described as keeping calm and the ability to feel oncoming pressure, all while keeping your eyes downfield. Against Ohio State in the Cotton Bowl, Darnold displayed a high level of poise en route to completing a pass to his slot receiver.
Darnold receives the snap and faces immediate discomfort off the edge. Feeling the pressure he steps up into the pocket to create a better pass protecting angle for his RT. Darnold maintains his eyes downfield as the rush begins to pressure the interior of the pocket. He slides to his right to avoid the right defensive end rushing inside. His receiver is able to deviate from his original route to get himself open in the middle of the field. Darnold quickly surveys his options and stands his ground with the rush in his face making a perfect throw while being hit by two defensive linemen.
Experience helps in the decision making area of a QB’s game. Being able to recall particular situations that a player has been through is an invaluable resource that a QB can gain only by playing. Consistency is the key to being a good decision maker. That requires making the right decision play after play. This is usually in the form of check downs and throwing the ball away when there are no receivers open downfield.
Darnold has some decision making problems that he needs to clean up as he adapts to the NFL game. His aggressiveness sometimes gets him in trouble as he tries to fit near impossible throws into tight throwing windows.
Against Arizona on 2nd and Goal with USC leading 7-0, Darnold makes a crucial error trying to make a difficult throw by lobbing a touch pass over three defenders. The pass is not close to where it needed to be and was intercepted in the back of the end zone.
A play like this is an example of where Darnold needs to tone down his aggression and learn to fight another day. It’s also 2nd down – meaning if he throws it out of the end zone he has another down to work with. Then if USC can’t punch it in on 3rd and Goal the offense at least set up the team for points to make it a two possession game with a field goal.
Throughout the early seasons in Darnold’s career he’ll throw maddening interceptions like this one. It’s often said that teams rather have an aggressive QB than a naturally passive one because they can learn to tone it down. A common comparison for Darnold this draft season is recently retired Dallas Cowboys‘ QB, Tony Romo. Like Darnold, Romo made some incredibly infuriating decisions with the ball. As his career advanced forward, however, Romo became increasingly mindful of his decision making and took less risks in key situations.
Teams want their QBs to believe they can make any throw from any platform. The great thing about a player like Romo was in spite of the few frustrating throws he made from time to time he also made a handful of magical ones. And it wouldn’t be possible without the mindset that he could make any throw on the field. That level of competitive toughness and self-confidence are what allow certain QBs to make plays like this one…
On 1st and 10 inside the Penn State 30 yard line, USC trails 49-42 with 1:27 remaining in the Rose Bowl. Considering the context of the situation Darnold probably shouldn’t be testing the three defenders in the Penn State secondary like he did on this play. Yet, Darnold recognizes his receiver running the deep post towards a soft spot in the middle of the field. He then proceeds to step up in the pocket and rips a perfectly placed ball between the defenders in the Penn State secondary for a late touchdown to tie the game at 49. USC would later win the game 52-49 on a field goal. The clutch moments are where Darnold excels the most.
In spite of inexperience playing the position and glaring mechanical flaws – Darnold possesses exceptional traits that cannot simply be attained through hard work. Traits like quick release, arm talent, quick processing speed, poise in the pocket and competitive toughness do not come easily to everyone who plays the QB position. Should Cleveland, or whichever team drafts Darnold, allow him to sit for a year to develop his mechanics and learn how to better recognize coverages they’ll reap the benefits in year two and beyond.
Special thanks to Ted Nguyen of The Athletic SF for explaining the different inherent and attainable QB traits.