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An Early Look at Potential Jets Prospect Sam Darnold

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Rose Bowl Game presented by Northwestern Mutual - USC v Penn State Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Obviously we have a full season between now and the 2018 NFL Draft, but Sam Darnold is a name on the radar of a number of Jets fans. A spectacular performance in the Rose Bowl against Penn State created a ton of NFL buzz a year before he even became Draft eligible.

I’m not suggesting the Jets having a top three pick is a guarantee. I’m also not suggesting Darnold going in the top three is a guarantee. Much football must be played. At this point, Darnold is one of the biggest stories to watch for the Jets, though. That could change or it could grow during the season. For now, he is a player to watch.

With that in mind, I wanted to study him a bit deeper. As always, I bring quite a bit of humility to analyzing a player. I don’t know the playcall or how these guys have been coached. Studying college players is even trickier because we lack the all 22 film to see the entire field. There are some college stadiums where Darnold played that gave enough of a view of the whole field to provide an evaluation.

Like most people, I was quite impressed by Darnold’s Rose Bowl. The feats of one game do not always carry into others, however. Was Darnold as impressive in other games?

My answer was a resounding yes. I found myself surprised by how much I liked him.

Usually with a prospect, one or two things sticks out to me either positively or negatively. What I saw with Darnold was a guy who was really good at making reads.

On this play there is a vertical route that goes out of the picture (pink), a curl (orange), and a route to the flat (yellow).

The defense seems to be rushing five. That leaves six defenders in zone coverage. The look seems to be a Cover 3 with both the underneath and deep parts of the field divided into thirds by zone defenders.

Darnold’s execution here is really top notch.

The vertical receiver draws the attention of the middle underneath defender. The flat receiver draws the attention of the top underneath defender. That leaves the top deep defender to take the curl route, but he’s backpedaling to guard against the deep pass and in no position to defend the curl.

The first read appears to be the vertical receiver who is covered, but things are opening up. The zone is drawing the top underneath defender to the flat, opening up the throwing lane to the curl receiver. The only defender who can take the curl receiver has a deep zone, which prevents him from being in position to defend the curl.

Darnold is ready to get to his second read and deliver the ball as the window opens up.

This brings me to something I noticed about Darnold’s game that I really like. It’s his ability to see what happens before it happens. I saw a number of examples of this in his play.

On this play Darnold’s first read appears to be the receiver at the top of the picture. He is taking his route into the end zone with a defender sitting it. That isn’t going to be there. His second guy seems to be the receiver in the middle of the field.

That receiver is going to go into the end zone after he sits down. Part of the reason might be to get the timing right. In the red zone, there isn’t much room to work. He’ll run out of the end zone by the time Darnold moves to his second read if he doesn’t stop.

The receiver is getting over the top of the underneath defenders, and his route is taking him between the zones of the deep defenders. Look at where he is when Darnold is throwing the ball.

There is a defender right next to the receiver, but the defender’s zone will keep him in place while the receiver’s route is taking him to an open spot on the field.

Here is another example against a cover two zone. Darnold is throwing as the receiver is covered. But the defender’s zone responsibility will keep him in place. Meanwhile the receiver is running to an unoccupied area too shallow for the two deep defenders to cover him.

The reason I point plays like this out is they are a big deal. In the NFL quarterbacks frequently aren’t throwing to an open receiver. They are throwing to the spot where the receiver is going to be open in the future. That requires knowing what the defense is doing and meshing it with the route run.

If you recall some of my comments during this year’s Draft process, this was one of my concerns about Mitchell Trubisky. It wasn’t necessarily that he couldn’t do this. It was that I hadn’t seen him do this a whole lot so I wasn’t sure whether he could do it. Again, maybe I missed something with him since we don’t get a ton of great video to evaluate quarterbacks, but it was my concern. I see Darnold do it more frequently than any of the top rated 2017 quarterbacks.

I also came away impressed by how Darnold handled pressure. That is another key component of NFL success. Pro Football Focus has the numbers.

Darnold was outstanding under pressure, ranking sixth in the nation with a passer rating of 101.0 when pressured and, perhaps even more impressive, only 6.8 percent of his pressured snaps became sacks, second-best out of 133 qualifiers.

Poise when guys are bearing down on you is a very positive thing.

I think the ability to make plays within the pocket takes precedence, but you also need a guy with some playmaking capabilities when things break down, and Darnold has passed that test so far.

I even detected a bit of Darnold playing cat and mouse with the defense.

On this play, he doesn’t see anything he likes on the top of the picture, but he knows he has a one on one matchup he likes at the bottom.

He’s keeping his eyes in the middle of the field, though, to prevent a the rangy Marcus Williams (not pictured deep middle) from getting a jump on the play at the bottom, keeping that one on one matchup in place.

I find this stuff very impressive for any college quarterback but particularly so for a 19 year old freshman. There are some mechanical things about his game I don’t love. His release is a bit long, and he’s inconsistent with his feet, but I’m falling into comparing him with NFL quarterbacks when I say that rather than his peers, 19 year old freshmen. There is plenty of time to grow.

One thing I must make clear is I stand by some of my earlier caution about Darnold. I have warned against crowning him the next great quarterback too early. When I say that I don’t mean I think Darnold stinks as a prospect. If you have read this article, you should realize my views are far to the contrary. What I mean is there is still plenty of football to be played. We have all seen quarterbacks who look like the next great NFL prospect regress. Darnold doesn’t have a full season under his belt. We need to see him maintain his level of play and grow now that he is dealing with expectations, the media glare, and opposing coaching staffs who have had an offseason to try and figure out how to stop him.

Will Darnold succeed? Quite possibly he will. I would even say I believe he will. That isn’t a guaranteed, though. We still need to see what happens.

What I will say is he is off to a tremendous start. There are things I love about this game. The crazy thing is as good as he looks to me, I’m still not even sure I like him better than Josh Allen or Josh Rosen at this early point. There is still a long way to go, but this could be one heck of a quarterback class.