- In the days leading up to the 2018 NFL Draft,* our editorial staff will profile some of the top prospects in the Class including quarterbacks Josh Allen (Wyoming) , Sam Darnold (USC), Lamar Jackson (Louisville), Baker Mayfield (Oklahoma) and Josh Rosen (UCLA). We will also take a look at Saquon Barkley (Penn State), Bradley Chubb (NC State) and Quenton Nelson (Notre Dame).
Sam Darnold won't legally be able to purchase a drink until June, but he is certain to be toasted by the NFL in two weeks.* *The University of Southern California signal caller could be the No. 1 overall selection in the 2018 NFL Draft and the vast majority of league pundits are certain the 20-year-old will be a top-five pick.
"Talking to Sam Darnold and being around Sam Darnold, I think you don't get the impression that this is a young guy, that this is a naïve or immature guy," said Sam Farmer, who covers the NFL for The Los Angeles Times. "In fact, you get the opposite impression like, 'Wow, he's only 20-years-old. It seems like I'm talking to a 25-year-old or older. I wish I was that mature at age 20."
Plan to DevelopFormer Jets quarterback Chad Pennington, who was the 18th selection in the 2000 draft, sees the talent in Darnold. But he has a cautionary tale about Alex Smith, who experienced plenty of struggles early in his career in San Francisco after the 49ers pegged the Utah product with the top overall pick in 2005.
"There's no doubt there's arm talent there. I think when you draft a quarterback as young as Sam Darnold, you have to really take a page of history and look at the Alex Smith situation and see you do not want to place him in a situation where he has to handle the organization that young," Pennington said. "You can't put the organization on him at 20. It's just not going to work. If you draft a Sam Darnold, you have to have a plan where you want to develop him, take your time and be patient with him."
Protect the FootballA two-year starter at USC, Darnold led the Trojans to a 20-4 mark. His numbers were better in 2016 as he threw for 3,086 yards with 31 touchdowns and nine interceptions. Passing for more yards last season (4,143), Darnold's completion percentage dropped (67.2 to 63.1) while his interception total increased (13). In two collegiate seasons, Darnold was charged with 22 interceptions and 21 fumbles.
"The No. 1 priority of a quarterback is to protect the football,'' said Darnold, whose hands measured 9 3/8 inches at the NFL Combine in February. "I'm aware of that and I'm aware of how much I turn the ball over and that it's not okay. I've been addressing it this offseason and 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."
From January to March, Darnold and Wyoming prospect Josh Allen were mentored by former pro backup Jordan Palmer. Darnold was repeatedly instructed to become left-hand dominant in order to change his habits in the pocket.
"He did a lot of the stuff only with his left hand — not at the pro day but working up to the pro day — just to remind himself to keep two hands on the football and really grip it," Farmer said. "And if you look at the pictures, he is clearly making a concerted effort to keep his left hand on the football."
Comfortable on the GoThere is a lot to like about Darnold. He can make positive plays off script and he is impressive when throwing on the move. The 6'4", 220-pounder also played linebacker at San Clemente (CA) HS and he's known for his grit.
"Darnold doesn't need to have the perfect pocket or conditions to make a throw, possessing the ability to slide in the pocket and make incredibly accurate throws when off balance," said NFLDraftScout.com's Dane Brugler, who had Darnold going No. 1 to Cleveland in his latest mock draft.
As speculation swirls and while people search amidst the smoke, many wonder if Darnold still be on the board when the Jets go on the clock with the third overall selection.
"I don't know it would be unlikely at all," said Farmer, who like Brugler has Cleveland taking Darnold at No. 1. "This is the season of lying. If you think there is misdirection and deception that goes on, on the field, it's in hyper mode now. Teams are going to send out all kinds of signals."
California ComparisonAlbeit different players, Farmer compares Darnold's draft situation to Jared Goff. While Goff impressed the Rams with a private workout in the Northern California rain and ultimately became the overall pick in the 2016 draft, Darnold recently shined at his pro day despite a rare downpour in Southern California. Goff, also dogged by questions about his hand size and propensity for fumbles, completed 62.1% of his passes last season for 3,804 yards with 28 touchdowns and just seven interceptions as the Rams claimed the NFC West. Goff was 21 when he was drafted, but Darnold will still be 20 when he hears his name called.
"Look at the miles of road out in front of them and the endless possibilities and not oh geez, we're taking on this headache who's not even legally old enough to drink. But he's done X, Y and Z," Famer said. "For Sam Darnold, I think it's a positive."