Can Sam Darnold Save the Cleveland Browns?

Southern California quarterback Sam Darnold (14) throws a pass with teammates providing blocking against Ohio State during the first half of the Cotton Bowl NCAA college football game in Arlington, Texas, Friday, Dec. 29, 2017. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

LM Otero/Associated Press

In every NFL draft, there’s one quarterback prospect who rises above the fray, either by performance or hype—or both. The draft-industrial complex must have a “winner” at the position every year, so attributes are enhanced, liabilities are minimized, and accurate player profiles can get thrown aside in the wake of all that storytelling.

It’s clear USC quarterback Sam Darnold is becoming that guy. After a pro day in which he threw balls to receivers in the rain without pressure or coverage—gosh!—the general consensus seemed to be that, despite any flaws in his delivery or kinks in his on-field performance, he became a sure thing for the No. 1 pick in the 2018 draft.

“He’s going No. 1,” one AFC executive said, per Albert Breer of The MMQB. “Everyone out there [Wednesday] saw the Browns’ franchise quarterback.”

The Cleveland Browns, of course, have the first overall pick in this draft. And B/R’s own Matt Miller, who’s as dialed in as anyone in football media, had this to say:

The 2018 quarterback class is a group without an alpha. Whether you’re talking about Baker Mayfield, Josh Rosen, Josh Allen or Lamar Jackson, there are dings in every prospect. There is no Andrew Luck or Peyton Manning—a college quarterback so well-developed as a player and thinker that his transition to the NFL is seen as a sure thing.

Perhaps Darnold is the safest bet. He played in a “pro-style offense,” to revive that old scouting chestnut, though the lines between NFL and college offenses blur evermore by the day, and the version of the USC offense was far from old-school. At 6’3″ and 220 pounds, he fits the size requirement, and he has his share of frameable moments, whether it’s the 2017 Rose Bowl comeback against Penn State or the games he put together against Texas, Arizona and Stanford.

The overtime throws against the Longhorns were among the best I’ve seen by any quarterback prospect in this class. He has a plus arm, and he’s working to correct the mechanical flaws that could upend him in the NFL. Additionally, Darnold’s pro day performance seemed to eliminate any issues that might have stuck to him after he didn’t throw at the scouting combine.

In two seasons as the Trojans’ starter, Darnold completed 549 passes in 846 attempts (64.9 percent) for 7,229 yards and 57 touchdowns with 22 interceptions. He did that despite the mechanical problems, especially with his lower body, that need to be fixed. Darnold will have to work to throw with more than just his arm on intermediate to deep passes—he’ll need to develop consistent velocity from the lower body up—and his slow and almost clumsy footwork at times gets in the way of his success, especially when he’s throwing on the move.

I’ve watched six games of Darnold’s tape, but for this piece, I wanted to focus on how Darnold fared against the best defenses he faced in 2017. That left Texas and Ohio State, per Football Outsiders’ opponent-adjusted metrics.

The point at which Darnold switches from upper-body power to full-body power seems to be when he takes more than a three-step drop and generally when he’s throwing the ball 15 or more yards. He has a good sense of his arm velocity, which has allowed him to adjust his short and intermediate passes accordingly. As long as he keeps these guidelines in mind, he doesn’t run into trouble. Things get dicey when Darnold fails to generate torque with his lower body, gets gummed up in the pocket by his footwork or when his timing is affected by his loopy throwing motion.

Darnold has moments when he throws well on the run, but he has peaks and valleys in this department, and that will be the case until and unless he cuts down on excessive movement with his footwork and throwing motion. He has flashed more physical efficiency, but he can’t count on that just yet.

When Darnold does align his upper and lower body, the results can be impressive. This throw to receiver Deontay Burnett early in the first quarter against Ohio State in the Cotton Bowl is a play any NFL quarterback would be proud of. Darnold feels the pressure, adjusts his pocket to find free space and makes a throw that Burnett has to reach for but is solid.

This two-play sequence from the second quarter against the Buckeyes shows two things. First, Darnold has the velocity to confidently make one of the toughest throws in any quarterback’s arsenal: cross-body to the opposite sideline. He does this despite clunky footwork as he’s dropping back, but it’s a really nice throw he can build on.

Second, Darnold doesn’t always read the field well—there were multiple examples in my observation in which he read converging defenses late—and this throw into triple coverage was inexcusable. It should have been intercepted by linebacker Chris Worley. In the NFL, this is the kind of throw that will get you benched.

This completion from the fourth quarter of the Ohio State game is one in which Darnold shows a better throw on the run than usual—generally, his slow feet and choppy footwork get in the way of his ability to become a consistently effective thrower on rollouts. But this time, he bails out of the pocket and has a nice throwing motion to get the ball where it needs to go.

This, on the other hand, is what a lot of Darnold’s rollout throws look like. He’s throwing with all arm, he doesn’t square his shoulder to the target, and as a result, he probably doesn’t have an idea of how to fit the ball into a tight window or even where it’s going. The ability to put together a reliable boot-action game is mandatory for any young quarterback in the NFL, and Darnold’s coaches will need to work with him on this.

This is unquestionably the best throw I’ve seen Darnold make, and when you string enough of these together, you begin to see how he could be appealing to whichever team winds up with the first overall pick. Yes, he throws off an uneven platform as he often does, but it’s out of necessity, as he’s moving out of the pocket, and the anticipation and accuracy are top-level no matter the competition.

This fourth-quarter throw illustrates issues shared by any quarterback who doesn’t drive the ball into tight windows with lower-body torque and support. Here, Darnold lets go of the ball flat-footed, he overthrows tight end Tyler Petite, and safety DeShon Elliott makes an easy pick.

These two passes Darnold threw in the win show everything you want in a franchise quarterback. He reacts well to pressure. He throws with anticipation and appropriate velocity for the routes and timing of his receivers. And he throws from reasonable platforms. If this is the Darnold his NFL team will get after he irons out his weaknesses, he’s an ideal option as the first quarterback off the board.

To his credit, Darnold seems aware of the things he needs to fix. He spoke at the combine about his work with quarterback coach Jordan Palmer.

“He’s working on a lot of stuff mechanically,” Darnold said. “For me, it’s being able to bring my hip through. If you look on tape, I like to throw in some situations with all arm, which isn’t ideal in the certain situations that I’m put in. Being able to or needing to drive the ball … down the field. And obviously, he’s working on us on the board, being able to just get smarter at football. He’s really helping in that regard.”

If the Browns deem him worthy of the first overall pick, Darnold might just prove to be the savior quarterback the franchise has been looking for since it re-entered the NFL in 1999.