The Jets took Sam Darnold with the third pick of the NFL Draft on Thursday. The former USC quarterback’s NFL journey is officially underway. He instantly becomes the quarterback of the future (and maybe the now) for a team that’s been starved at that position.
Darnold is a drop-back passer who’s also a good athlete.
He’s not a running quarterback, per se. He played in a pro-style system at USC and is accustomed to dropping back, sitting in the pocket, and firing. But he’s a natural athlete and can get himself out of the pocket when he’s in trouble, or on occasional designed runs. He makes a lot of throws that are, uh, confident. He measured 6’3, 222 pounds at the NFL Combine, giving him pretty ordinary quarterback size. He did a nice job in throwing drills.
Darnold is a system quarterback, but he’s a system quarterback with talent:
Darnold has been the most physically talented QB yet in USC’s system, which helps make QBs look good with simplified reads, a dangerous run game, and versatile weapons. The Eagles just won a Super Bowl in an offense along those lines, so perhaps with time and the right fit, Darnold can master the game at a high enough level to make his special attributes matter.
None of his drill numbers at the combine were all that special, but Darnold plays athletically. He looks smooth in pads, and that’s what’s most important in the NFL.
The biggest concern with Darnold is turnovers.
In 14 games in 2017, Darnold threw 13 interceptions and fumbled 12 times. (The Trojans lost nine of those fumbles.) That’s a whole lot of giving the ball to the other team.
“In regards to turning the ball over, the No. 1 priority of a quarterback is to protect the football,” Darnold told a big crowd of reporters at the NFL Combine in March.
“I’m aware of that, and I’m aware how much I turn the ball over and that it’s not OK. I’ve been addressing it this offseason. I’ve been working on keeping two hands (on the ball) in the pocket at all times. The only time I let go of the ball is to throw it. That’s something I’ve really been working on. And also keeping it tight whenever I tuck it and run.”
In Darnold’s defense, USC’s offensive line didn’t do a great job of protecting him — he was sacked 29 times last season.
Darnold is a former basketball star, and his multi-sport past helped shape him into the NFL quarterback he’s now become.
His basketball coach at San Clemente (California) High School, Marc Popovich, told me in 2016 that Darnold was the best player he’d coached in his 15 years doing the job:
“Basketball, a lot of times, especially with our style of play, was kind of free-flowing in a way,” Popovich said. “There was not necessarily something set every single time down, so he had to get used to playing that way. I think that definitely helped in football. He’d had those things where he’s had bad snaps and he’s rolled out and completed a 32-yard pass, and kind of ridiculous stuff like that. And I think in those improvising situations, the basketball really helps. The ability to read defenses, to see where your teammates are, all that stuff really translates.”
On the hardwood, Darnold was an athletic improvisor who could make something out of nothing. He’s carried that trait with him during his football career.