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2018 QB spotlight: The good and the bad of Sam Darnold

Could USC star be the Giants’ pick at No. 2 in the draft?

Goodyear Cotton Bowl - USC v Ohio State Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

The New York Giants have the second overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. More likely than not, that pick will be used on a quarterback to find the eventual successor to Eli Manning. There’s a solid group of quarterbacks in this draft class, but no obvious top prospect. Because of that, we’ll take a look into a few aspects of the quarterbacks and how they might fit with the Giants.

Previously: Baker Mayfield, Josh Rosen

Next quarterback up is USC’s Sam Darnold.

Sam Darnold’s NFL Draft stock is in the eye of the beholder. The USC quarterback has a lot of fans in NFL circles. He looks the part of an NFL quarterback — listed at 6’4”, 220 lbs. — and he acts the part of an NFL quarterback — there’s no “personality concerns” like there are with other quarterbacks in this group, namely Mayfield and Rosen. It’s not difficult to see why Darnold is routinely ranked as the top quarterback in this class based on what evaluators look for in a prospect.

But at the same time, it’s not difficult to look at the same quarterback and see one that needs more development time than a slam dunk No. 1 overall pick would typically need. It’s because of this that Darnold could have one of the most volatile range of outcomes among this class of quarterbacks.

As we flesh out this idea, let me take you inside my process of how I’ve been looking at these quarterbacks. There’s no right way to do it and no one giving informed analysis of these prospects go about it the same way. Some start with the best and worst games of a quarterback’s season to look into why those games played out the way they did. Lately I’ve been wanting to dig into games against the best defenses a quarterback faced first — I want to know what they did against the toughest competition. For that, I use pass defense ranks by S&P+ — a college football metric developed by Bill Connelly, who now runs Football Study Hall, among other things.

This isn’t exactly the best place to jump in on Darnold if you want to see the highlight plays many will show leading up to the draft. But it is a good thing to see to get an idea of what Darnold might immediately look like against NFL level defenders.

Overall, Darnold’s year wasn’t as bad as his high number of interceptions would suggest. He threw 13 interceptions — good for a 2.71 percent interception rate — but still threw for 8.6 yards per attempt and 8.5 adjusted yards per attempt while he completed 63.1 percent of his passes. Against, that top competition, though, his performance wasn’t nearly as favorable.

Darnold had four games against teams ranked in the top-16 of pass defense by S&P+. In those games, he completed under 60 percent of his passes and had as many interceptions (five) as he did touchdowns. Here’s his full stats from those four games:

Sam Darnold vs top-16 S&P+ Pass Defense

Opponent Comp Att Comp% Yards YPA TD/INT
Opponent Comp Att Comp% Yards YPA TD/INT
Texas (16th) 28 49 57.1% 397 8.1 3/2
Notre Dame (7th) 20 28 71.4% 229 8.2 2/1
Wash St (11th) 15 29 51.7% 164 5.7 0/1
Ohio St (12th) 26 45 57.8% 356 7.9 0/1
Total 89 151 58.9% 1146 7.6 5/5

We did a similar exercise with Baker Mayfield, who also had four games in the top-16. He had a similar drop in Darnold in completion percentage and yards per attempt, but Mayfield’s starting point was already much higher and the touchdown to interception ratio did not take nearly as big of a hit. Here are Mayfield’s numbers again:

Baker Mayfield vs top-16 S&P+ Pass Defense

Opponent Comp Att Comp% Yards YPA TD/INT
Opponent Comp Att Comp% Yards YPA TD/INT
Ohio St (12th) 27 35 77.1% 386 11.0 3/0
Texas (16th) 17 27 63.0% 302 11.2 2/1
TCU (15th) 18 27 66.7% 333 12.3 3/0
UGA (13th) 23 35 65.7% 287 8.2 2/1
Total 85 124 68.5% 1308 10.5 8/2

Among the other knocks on Mayfield were the amount of screen or short passes thrown at the line of scrimmage — 23.5 percent of his passes. Darnold doesn’t get knocked for that but watching the USC offense, there’s a lot of screens involved to get the quarterback in a groove early and charting backs that up — 22.8 percent of Darnold’s throws came at or behind the line of scrimmage in 2017.

The big knock on Darnold is the interception totals, but really it’s the process and decision making that leads to those turnovers.

Darnold can get himself into trouble by rushing his footwork and locking onto reads. On this play against Washington State, Darnold was always going to throw the comeback to his left. He felt some pressure coming around his right and opened his hips to throw outside, which took needed velocity off the ball. That allowed the cornerback to jump the route for an easy interception.

A similar play happened in the game against Notre Dame. Tyler Vaughns (21) lined up to the outside left and he was Darnold’s target from the start. With the quarterback’s focus to the left, he saw his left tackle start to lose a battle with a defensive end. Instead of stepping up into the middle of the pocket, Darnold again opened up his hips to throw. With only his arm to get the throw off, it lacked the zip to hit the hole of the defense and allowed the trail defender to make up ground and come down with an interception.

Let’s take a closer look at that release. I’m not going to pretend to be a mechanics or footwork expert — we won’t even get into Darnold’s long, looping delivery — but it’s not difficult to point out bad footwork when it happens. This is not the base you’d like to see from a quarterback at the start of his throw, yet it’s one seen from Darnold much too often:

Against Ohio State, Darnold was baited into an interception off a run-pass option (RPO). The read was the slot defender (35) who lined up between the two inside receivers on the trips side. At the snap, the defender drifted towards the middle receiver, so Darnold pulled the ball from the running back to throw the slant to receiver Deontay Burnett (80). But Darnold did not account for safety Damon Webb (7) who crept down into the throwing lane and was in position for a clear pick-6.

But of course there are the plays that make Darnold look like a first overall pick in the draft. There are plays where the footwork and the mechanics just don’t matter because things happen. This is the quarterback who threw a jump pass in final 30 seconds of a game against Texas with his team down a field goal.

Darnold does have the athleticism to move and navigate the pocket. When he does that and resets his feet on the run, he can make plays happen down the field. Look at the difference in his lower body here:

Earlier in the game against Texas, Darnold made an impressive throw on the move. He came off his first read to his left, shifted his focus, moved to his right, and fired a dart to the back of the end zone for a touchdown.

These plays aren’t rare for Darnold, but it would be nice to see them with more consistency. Perhaps nothing captures the ups and downs of the quarterback more than these back-to-back throws against Ohio State. On the first, he dropped back just beyond midfield, looked to his left, turned back to his right, and threw a strike down the sideline to hit his receiver in stride. He followed it up inside the 20 with a rushed throw against pressure that was coming, but still controlled. The throw came with an open base and he floated a pass over the head of a wide open receiver heading to the corner of the end zone.

How he fits with the Giants

The Giants would give Darnold something he needs and something not a lot of teams drafting him highly would be able to give — the ability to sit and develop at the start of his career. A high-upside prospect like Darnold is the type of player the Giants could afford to draft and develop while Eli Manning stays in control of the starting job.

What the Giants would need to discuss and be sure of is how much of Darnold’s decision making and mechanical issues can be fixed by coaching and much of them could be a hard habit to break. We hear a lot about quarterbacks who fix their motion during the offseason, only for their old motion to come back as soon as a defender comes in their face. Dave Gettleman, Pat Shurmur, and Mike Shula would need to have a plan in place to get Darnold the practice reps he would need to fix these issues on the field — a plan much more detailed than what the last regime schemed for Davis Webb.

At his best, Darnold has shown he can be as good or better than the other quarterbacks in this class. The question for the Giants will be in how confident they’d be to get the best out of him on a more consistent basis.