Bills 2018 quarterback watch, Part I: Sam Darnold
While Sam Darnold may not have the elite arm strength of Josh Allen or the effortless motion of Josh Rosen, he is the front-runner to be the first quarterback drafted in 2018. I don’t think a less than stellar performance (289 passing yards with one rushing touchdown, zero passing touchdowns and two interceptions) last weekend changes that.
Daniel Jeremiah of NFL.com said Darnold was the talk of the Combine among executives at the 2017 event. That’s when you know you are dealing with someone special.
Having said that, it will be interesting to see how he handles entering his junior year as the unquestioned starter, as opposed to being the replacement on a struggling team a month into the season like he was as a sophomore. All eyes will be on him, and that offense lost a ton of pieces, especially up front. It will be up to him to not only shoulder more responsibility but also do it with lofty expectations already being associated with his NFL future.
The mental side of the game is what sets Darnold apart from the field. He plays with an awareness and understanding of the game that is rare for a college quarterback. While a player like Josh Allen struggles to keep his eyes down the field when he is rushed, Darnold excels at it. He maneuvers with ease in the pocket while staying in his progressions.
He has a surprising amount of athleticism for a player his size that makes him outstanding at extending the play. He also attacks the middle of the field like few do in the collegiate game. The perimeter offers much more space for quarterbacks to make throws but Darnold is comfortable throwing between the hashes.
He routinely throws into windows, and he shows an advanced ability at manipulating both his receivers and the defense. When throwing into a window between defenders, it’s important to understand that the second your eyes hit the window, it will start to close. He looks defenders off well to create windows, and more importantly, he understands when to protect his receivers. I’ve seen him put touch on passes directly to slow his receiver down and keep him from running full speed into a defensive back. He also shows good anticipation on his throws, often releasing the ball before the receiver has gotten his head around or come open. His ball placement tends to help protect his receivers, as well as give them the best opportunity to make the play.
As I mentioned, his arm strength is not elite like Allen’s, but it is more than capable of making any throw necessary. He has a bit of a wind up that elongates his motion, but it isn’t a necessity for him. Most players have a wind up so they can put a little extra zip on their pass. Darnold has the requisite arm strength. He just needs to clean up his technique in this case. He has great size for the position, and more importantly a sturdy build. He also has experience under center and is asked to read the full field more often than most quarterbacks at that level.
He has a bit of a gunslinger mentality, but he tends to make much better decisions than Allen or Rosen do in those spots. Given the much greater speed of NFL defenses, some of the throws could be poor decisions at the professional level. He, like the others I mentioned, will need to understand when taking a sack or throwing the ball away is the appropriate decision.
Darnold only has 11 starts under his belt, and almost all of those came with a veteran group of offensive linemen and pass-catchers. Many of those guys have moved on to the NFL. I’m not so much worried about him taking on a leadership role as much as I am him doing so with less talent around him.
With the added responsibility, it’ll be easy for him to think that more struggles mean his arm needs to take on that responsibility. It’s hard to understand that the decision-making process remains the same. Sometimes, a receiver’s feet have to make the play, and it’s solely the quarterback’s responsibility to get him the ball and trust that he can make one man miss. That doesn’t change just because the receiver you’re throwing to now is less capable of making that happen. In other words, I don’t want to see him turn into more of a gunslinger simply because his team needs a playmaker. He’s best when he plays with a cerebral approach.
At the end of the day, Darnold already looks like a professional quarterback. The throws he makes, his maturity, and even the system he plays in put him ahead of most of his peers. He seems to have not only the ability to command a huddle but also the temperament to lead in the hard spots. He doesn’t get rattled, and when he makes a play, he looks like he’s made it 100 times before.
When I first started scouting Darnold, I didn’t want to give in to those who had compared him to Andrew Luck, but that association is fairly accurate. The one thing that still gives me pause is the 11 starts. But if this is the player we continue to see over the 2017 season, along with a few improvements, we are talking about a guy that is both the favorite to be taken first overall, and unlike recent quarterbacks, also the best prospect in the draft.
Compares to (Current NFL Player): Andrew Luck (Indianapolis Colts)
– Great arm strength
– Prototypical size and build for a quarterback
– Impressive athlete for his size
– Cerebral player, calm and poised
– Displays NFL quarterback traits (anticipation, ball placement, reads full field, maneuvers in pocket without dropping his eyes)
– Limited experience
– A bit of a wind up in his motion
– Occasional gunslinger mentality