Rookie Review: Sam Darnold

(Photo by Matthew Visinsky/Icon Sportswire)

New to QB List, we’ll be taking a look at the profiles of NFL rookies and breaking down their college tape to get a better understanding of their skill set and how it will translate to the NFL and your fantasy teams, both redraft, and dynasty. This will be an ongoing series where I’m hoping to cover all the relevant rookie players, and I encourage you to comment below and let me know which rookie you would like to see profiled next! Let’s get started

Sam Darnold (QB, New York Jets)

Darnold is listed at 6 foot 3, 221 pounds which is a fairly prototypical size for a QB, and that along with 2 strong years of play at USC where he was both thrilling and frustrating at times led to him being the #3 overall pick in the 2018 NFL draft. Here are his college stats:

Year Att. Comp. Completion% Yards TDs INT Carries Rushing Yds Rush TDs
2016 366 246 67.2 3,086 31 9 62 250 2
2017 480 303 63.1 4,136 26 13 75 82 5

Darnold arrived at USC as a relative star after being named a high-school All-American, and being ranked a 4-star recruit by Rivals.com as well as the 8th best dual-threat QB in the 2015 class. He redshirted his freshman year as he was behind upperclassmen Kody Kessler and Max Browne on the depth chart. He got his chance in 2016, taking over for Max Browne in week 4 and never relinquished the role afterward. After a scoreless 1st start, Darnold tossed 2+ TD passes in each of the final 9 contests of the 2016 season, averaging 3.4 TDs a week. He finished the campaign 9th in the country in passing efficiency. He was awarded the Archie Griffin Award after the season which recognizes college football’s most valuable player to his team throughout the season, it’s an award that no other freshman had previously won before.

This success as a freshman led to high expectations for Darnold entering his redshirt sophomore season as he was considered a pre-season Heisman candidate and a likely high 1st round NFL draft pick. His 2017 season, unfortunately, didn’t start off as planned for Darnold as he threw as many interceptions in the first 6 games of the season as he did in his entire 2016 season. To be fair, he did lose top WR Juju Smith-Schuster, but the poor start really highlighted some of the question marks surrounding Darnold’s ability to protect the ball. Darnold ended up leading the conference with 13 INTs and 22 total turnovers (9 lost fumbles among 11 total). The good news is he started to show better awareness over the second half of the year by throwing just 7 INTs over the final 11 contests. Despite the ball security questions, Darnold was awarded 1st-team All-Pac-12 honors from the coaches, leading the league in passing yards and yards per attempt and ranking 2nd in passing efficiency.

Let’s take a look at some game tape and see some of the good and bad with Sam Darnold:

This play seems to sum up Sam Darnold pretty well. You start with the snap of the ball and a terrific fake handoff that gets the Stanford defender #80 to go after the RB rather than the QB which gives Darnold the time to roll out into space to his right. Then you see Darnold show off his mobility outside the pocket while scanning multiple options downfield. He decides against the safe throw to the outside WR #4 which would have been a decent short gain on 1st and 10 with 52 seconds left in the half. He then shows off incredible arm talent and moxie with a downfield throw into a very tight window while not setting his feet and is able to place it in a spot that only his receiver could make a play on it. This really was an incredible play by Darnold, and yes it took a terrific catch on the other end, but coverage dictated that Darnold couldn’t throw that ball any shorter, deeper or further from the sideline and he made the throw. The concern is that the windows in the NFL are that much smaller and he’s going to have to make safer decisions at times to avoid turnovers becoming an issue.

The downside of that aggressive mentality and trust in his arm to make any throw, as shown above, is he can force things which cause plays to end up like this:

Now let’s take a look at some of Darnold’s physical tools, and we’ll start with his arm strength. Here is a great example against Texas in which he throws a dart deep over the middle for a TD without even setting his feet properly:

Here is another example in a game against UCLA in which he throws a lob pass about 27 yards or so while being fairly flat-footed post pump fake. Note that the pump fake got multiple defenders to commit which opened up room over the top for the lob to the open receiver.

Last up is an example from a game against Colorado in which he is able to successfully split a pair of DBs with a deep strike to the back shoulder of the receiver and away from the defenders. This ball is thrown from roughly his own 27-yard line and the receiver catches it at the opposite 33-yard line on the other end of the field.

Sam Darnold also displays very good accuracy, ball placement, and timing all over the field:

All 3 are gorgeous throws, the 2nd one, in particular, catches my eye as a terrific play in which Darnold is able to beat zone coverage with perfect ball placement just past the defender’s reach, while also timing it just right to give his receiver a chance to do something with the ball in his hands despite the defence closing in quickly.

You also may have noticed in a few of these clips the mobility of Darnold, he is very mobile in the pocket and despite a drop in rushing production last year in college, he should be able to provide some fantasy value with his legs. Take a look:

Overall, when watching the tape, I couldn’t help but see all the necessary tools to succeed. He’s got a strong arm, can make pretty well every throw, he is able to process multiple options downfield and read defenses without locking onto a receiver, and he is mobile in the pocket and athletic enough to scramble when the time calls for it. The question is his ability to limit turnovers and mitigate risk in his decision making as he has been known to trust his arm perhaps too much to make extraordinary plays. The result is a QB that will likely have great days and likely have some tough days too.

Fantasy wise in redraft leagues, Darnold should get an opportunity to start games at some point this year. However, New York has a poor offensive line and an intriguing yet not great set of skill position players. In his first season in the league, Darnold projects to be more of a game manager on a team that wants to keep game score in line. I don’t see him starting in Week 1, and when/if he gets a starting opportunity, he likely will be a below-par Fantasy option. For dynasty purposes, I think he has probably the best combination of upside and floor of the 2018 NFL draft QB class as he has better passing skills than Lamar Jackson and Josh Allen and he is more mobile than Josh Rosen.

Adam Garland

Adam is a marketing professional 9-5, but an avid sports fan and fantasy sports player 24/7. He writes for Pitcher List about MLB prospects but he also is a Buffalo Bills and NFL Draft fan. He plays in multiple leagues of varying sizes, and he hopes he can help with yours! He's also always up to talk football/prospects with anyone, so please don't hesitate to strike up a conversation!

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