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What the Giants are getting if they draft Sam Darnold

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Let’s finish off our series on the quarterbacks in this draft class

NCAA Football: Cotton Bowl-Ohio State vs Southern California Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

One of the most intriguing New York Giants off-seasons in years is very nearly in the books.

This year marks a first for the franchise as they move in an entirely new direction after firing both their head coach and general manager mid-season. They haven’t shifted radically in philosophy with the hiring of long-time Giant personnel man Dave Gettleman as general manager, but it does represent a break with history.

The team also has the second overall pick in the draft for just the second time in nearly 40 years. And with new leadership in the front office and coaching staff, as well as an aging franchise quarterback in Eli Manning, this represents a potentially transformative opportunity.

So far we have looked at 2017 third-round pick Davis Webb [Deep Dive], Oklahoma State’s Mason Rudolph [Deep Dive], Wyoming’s Josh Allen [Deep Dive], Louisville’s Lamar Jackson [Deep Dive], Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield [Deep Dive], and Josh Rosen [Deep Dive] of UCLA.

Finally, this week we take a close look at Sam Darnold of USC.

Measurables

Athleticism

Sam Darnold is an intriguing athlete on the field. He doesn’t have the same kind of raw athleticism as Josh Allen or Davis Webb, and certainly doesn’t compare to Lamar Jackson in that regard. However, his ability to scramble, extend the play, improvise, and play out of structure is impressive.

Darnold also has the ability to hurt defenses with his legs, either on read-option plays, designed quarterback runs, or after a play breaks down.

It doesn’t always work out, and there are certainly times where he will scramble only to (eventually) throw the ball away. However, his mobility, ability to make defenses pay by failing to keep contain, and put additional stress on a secondary are certainly useful weapons in his arsenal.

Arm talent

Arm strength

When it comes to pure arm strength, Darnold stacks up well to his competition. Like Baker Mayfield, he has the ability to create torque with his core and shoulders to generate velocity independently of his lower half. That, as well as his agility, is what allows him to still make throws even when on the move, off-balance, off-base, or out of the structure of the offense.

Mechanics

This is where things go sideways for Darnold.

First, and most noticeable, his throwing motion is an issue, and potentially problematic at the next level. It has been well documented that Darnold has an elongated, “loopy” throwing motion that sees him drop the ball down well below his elbow before circling back around over his shoulder and out. He completes the motion relatively quickly, but it is inherently inefficient and very much telegraphs his intentions to defenders. There were several instances where a defender was able to use his throwing motion to key on a pass and jump the route.

Moving on to his lower-body mechanics, Darnold varies between “Okay” and “A Hot Mess.”

Too often, Darnold’s lower-body mechanics look like this:

Darnold has a tendency to step away from the throw, sometimes having his feet and hips as much as ninety degrees off-target and fully perpendicular to the pass. Having his lower body going one way, and his upper body going another often prevents him from driving the ball as well as he is capable, while also negatively impacting his accuracy and ball placement.

Granted, in this case, there is late pressure in his face, but Darnold still steps to the side as the throws, rather than into his throw (which he does have time and room to do). The result is a ball that is under-thrown, and placed toward the middle of the field rather than over his receiver’s shoulder, basically gifting the interception.

But there are other instances where Darnold flashes the kind of throwing ability that make people believe he could be a franchise player and worth of a top pick.

Here we see Darnold execute his drop smoothly, hesitating a hair to give his tight end a chance to clear the official in the middle of the field. Darnold’s hips are pointing right to where the ball is intended to go, and are in sync with his upper body. The result is an accurate ball delivered on-time and with some anticipation.

Darnold has work to do as a passer, and refining his mechanics is a big part of it. He will need to put in legitimate work to get to the point where they are repeatable and dependable. However, if he is able to accomplish that, it will go a long way toward helping with his accuracy, placement, and turnover ratio.

Intangibles

Mental processing

Like with his mechanics, Darnold’s mental processes are interesting (and tough) to unravel.

He plays in a “Pro Style” (or at least influenced) offense. He is familiar with concepts he will see in the NFL, and executed them at a high level. However, there are also some simple, basic concepts by which he seems consistently flummoxed. For instance, Darnold struggles with the “Smash” concept, which forces a cornerback to decide between covering a receiver who runs a short route, and another who runs a deeper route. The concept has the quarterback throw to whichever receiver the corner doesn’t cover. However, Darnold repeatedly misreads this and goes for the deeper receiver.

Watching his tape, Darnold is consistently aggressive in his decision making, which might be part of this issue.

He rarely backs down from challenging tight windows and doesn’t seem to be rattled by big moments. That mentality has gotten him into trouble on more than a few occasions. In a given situation it is almost certain that Darnold will give his receiver a chance to try and make a play on the ball, and he won’t shy away from attempting passes in which he has to make an utterly perfect throw for it to have a chance.

With USC up by 11 points early in the third quarter, Darnold looks to stick the dagger and give his defense a three-possession lead. The aggressive mindset isn’t bad, in and of itself, but he would have to make a nearly perfect throw for it to pay off.

That Darnold picks this route to throw while having a pair of other routes open underneath — a curl route along the right sideline and a dig route over the middle — certainly speaks to his aggressive mindset.

The tight end running the fade route out of the slot — who Darnold targets — does manage to get behind the corner and has room to his right for Darnold to put the ball and make the catch.

However, Darnold’s mechanical issues rear their ugly head, and he slides to his right as he throws the ball, forcing a poorly-placed under throw, which is intercepted.

There isn’t anything inherently wrong with picking making the decision to attempt the high-risk throw. However, if you are going to attempt a pass that demands a perfect throw, you have to make a perfect throw. Otherwise, the best outcome is an incomplete pass.

Considering the coverage played by the defense (which did change from its pre-snap look), either the dig or curl routes would have been better decisions. Either were easier throws and certainly had a higher probability of keeping the offense on track.

Also of concern, is Darnold’s eye discipline. He stares this route down the whole way, never looking to another read or disguising his intentions at all. It is something he does fairly often. He does show enough of an understanding and ability to use his eyes to manipulate the defense to know that he can do it, but too often he fails to do so.

Darnold threw 12 interceptions in 2017, and I counted another 6-8 “should-a been” picks where defenders couldn’t quite hang on. While not all of them were (likely) Darnold’s fault, a majority of them could be chalked up to overly-aggressive decision making, poor eye discipline, and poor mechanics.

But if all that were all there was to Darnold, he wouldn’t be a top quarterbacking prospect. He also has plenty of throws that look like a franchise player.

Here we see Darnold against Ohio State in the Cotton Bowl.

Ohio State shows an aggressive blitz out of their 3-4 front, with man coverage under a Cover 1 shell (single high safety), and that is exactly what happens.

Darnold executes a clean drop, quickly dissecting the defense and recognizing that his slot corner has a step on the DB covering him. He is running a fade pattern and gets open with room for a well-placed pass. Despite having too much pressure in his face, Darnold is able to step into his throw enough to drive the ball and drop the ball over the receiver’s outside shoulder. The ball is a bit far in front of the receiver, but it is in a place where the only options are the receiver making the catch and the pass falling incomplete.

The receiver does make a diving grab to haul it in, getting the big gain and keeping the drive alive. It was a great catch and a great throw by Darnold.

Character

Darnold has no outstanding character concerns of which I am aware.

Coaches who have worked with Darnold tend to rave about his leadership and personality. He is regarded as a “Team First” player who is willing to do what he has to in order to help his team. In the media he is quick to deflect praise on to his teammates.

In fact, of all the tape I watched of Darnold, this might be my favorite play, and it has nothing to do with throwing the ball, but everything to do with his mentality.

If Darnold appeals to the Giants in particular above other quarterback options, it might have something to do with his personality. Darnold is regarded as a remarkably even-keeled player, who never gets too high or too low, moving on quickly from mistakes or big plays.

Given the ruthlessly aggressive nature of the New York Media, one of Eli Manning’s greatest strengths as the Giants’ quarterback is how his stoicism serves as armor against media members looking for angles at best, or hurling slings and arrows to elicit a reaction at worst.

That is a trait that Darnold seems to share.

“I’ve never heard this asked about Sam Darnold through the whole process” Daniel Jeremiah said, speaking to Darnold’s high school coach on the “Move The Sticks” podcast. “Does he have a sense of humor? Because he’s so quiet. Does he have a sense of humor, and can you give me an example of one time Sam Darnold made you laugh?”

“You know, he’s very stoic,” Jaime Ortiz, Darnold’s coach, replied. “I remember when he was being recruited, the recruiters called him the ‘Poker Player’ because he was very serious. But on the bright side with Sam, you remember an example at the Rose Bowl two years ago. During the entire game, he didn’t let his emotions show. And then once they kicked that field goal, he ran on the field smiling and laughing. He’s kind of sneaky, he does have a sneaky sense of humor. I’m trying to think of a time where he made me laugh. He has a dry sense of humor, he can be sarcastic at times. But I can’t think of one situation where he made me laugh. But I do know that he’s definitely opened up a lot more when he went to USC and being the leader of that program, basically being the king of L.A. he’s learned to talk more and be in that leadership role from a speaking standpoint.”

Ask the expert

Because of the importance of Giants’ decision regarding the second overall pick and the future of their quarterback position, I wanted a second opinion on these players.

I reached out to Mark Schofield of Inside The Pylon. Schofield is a former quarterback for Wesleyan University and provides expert, and excellent, film breakdowns for ITP. He was kind enough to consent to contributing his expert opinion to this series.

Here are his thoughts on Darnold:

Darnold is a fascinating case study. We can point to the turnovers, the mechanical flaws in both the upper and lower body, the repeated mistakes on some of his interceptions, and wonder why he is even talked about as a potential first-overall pick.

But something important to remember is his youth, and his relative inexperience playing the position. If - if - he were to start week one he would be the youngest quarterback in NFL history. Drew Bledsoe was 21 years and 203 days when he started his first game, and Darnold would be 21 years and 95 days or so, depending on the exact day of his first game. So there’s that. Plus, he’s also relatively new to the quarterback position. He did not start playing quarterback until his sophomore year in high school, and he’s an early entrant in the draft, so a lot of the mechanical issues are not set in stone with him.

So the upside potential with him is definitely present. When you pair that with some of the things he does well, even at an advanced level (maintaining aggression, making plays off-structure, making anticipation throws) it seems like a recipe for tremendous development in the NFL.

Summary

Sam Darnold has been a much-hyped prospect, something of the draft’s “Golden Boy” since taking over as USC’s starting quarterback and leading them to a thrilling win in the Rose Bowl two years ago.

His strengths are easy to point out: He has the prototypical size and frame for an NFL quarterback. He is tall and solidly built with plenty of athleticism to escape pressure, extend plays, and occasionally hurt defenses on his own. He has a strong arm and experience executing a Pro Style offense at a high level, and doesn’t seem much phased by pressure situations. Sweetening the deal, Darnold seems to have the kind of character and personality that teams want as the face of their franchise.

But for all that, there were voices calling for the 20-year-old red-shirt sophomore to stay in school at least another year. I was among them, and in all honesty, I stand by that assessment.

Darnold has issues, and I think that some of them are related to his age and relative inexperience. I still believe that another year, or two, in college would have helped him enter the NFL more ready to start right away.

At some points it is almost amazing that he is able to play well in spite of his issues, throwing accurate passes with anticipation and precision while being anything but “text book”.

Darnold’s “Eli Manning”-esque personality would certainly appeal to the Giants. but as a player, he reminds me most of Donovan McNabb for his ability to feel pressure, escape the pocket, and make plays on the move.

If Darnold is able to fix his issues with mechanics — shorten his throwing motion, build repeatable lower-body mechanics, and develop his eye discipline — he has the potential to be a “Franchise Quarterback”. However, he will need time, patience, and good coaching to reach his potential.