2017: 303-of-480 (63.1 percent) for 4,143 yards (8.4 YPA), 26 TDs, and 13 INTs
2016: 246-of-366 (67.2 percent) for 3,086 yards (8.6 YPA), 31 TDs, and 9 INTs
As a redshirt freshman, Sam Darnold actually lost the USC quarterback competition to Max Browne and started the year as the backup. But after USC started 1-2, Browne was benched and Darnold took over for good. After losing to a tough Utah squad in his first start, he led the Trojans to 9 straight wins including an epic comeback over Penn State in the Rose Bowl. He ended 2016 with an impressive 3 to 1 touchdown to INT ratio, completed over two-thirds of his passes and averaged over 300 passing yards a game. Not draft eligible until 2018, expectations were outrageously high for his Sophomore season, and Darnold didn't quite meet the hype. He had an up and down year, showing flashes of brilliance followed by mental miscues. His stats regressed and he turned the ball over too often, but was hampered by a below average offensive line and numerous injuries to the USC offense. With a high upside, and the ability to make all of the throws, Darnold will be in the conversation for the first overall pick in the draft.
To start, Sam Darnold has the prototypical size that evaluators want in their NFL quarterback. At 6'4", 225, he can take hits and has surprising speed and athleticism, even out running some linebackers in the second level. He is a pocket passer with excellent arm strength, an ability to make any throw the route tree requires, and fits the ball in tight windows. He has great accuracy and anticipation, leading wide receivers into open areas. He also uses his athleticism well, moving in the pocket or escaping it to create extra time. While maneuvering, Darnold does a good job keeping his eyes down field. And though they are tough to judge, by all accounts Darnold is well liked by teammates and an excellent leader. These are important traits for a player who may be asked to play immediately on a weak team.
While unorthodox passing styles concern me less than most, it is worth noting that Darnold has a bit of a hitch in his throw. He takes longer than you would like to bring the ball around, drops it below his waist, and can get a bit sidearm. NFL teams will likely look to tighten up the mechanics. Darnold's greatest concern is ball security. He had 11 fumbles, losing 7 of them in 2017, and threw 4 more picks in three fewer games. He needs to up his awareness and cut down on turnovers to perform in the NFL. As mentioned above, he is adept at creating extra time to throw, but can get a bit bouncy in the pocket and doesn't always set his feet. The offensive line struggles likely caused some of this, but it's something to watch.
All the quarterbacks in this draft have their flaws, but realistically the battle for first quarterback off the board comes down to Sam Darnold vs. Josh Rosen. Despite inconsistencies in both of their games, I'm partial to Darnold. He has minor mechanic issues, and was up and down last year, but has the ability to make all of the throws and was a gamer on an injury plagued USC squad. He is well worth a high first round dynasty pick as a franchise quarterback in the making, and with how many teams need quarterbacks, I would guess he will be starting before the end of the 2018 season.
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