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What do Sam Darnold’s college turnover issues tell us about his future?

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Colorado v USC Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

For all of the wonderful traits that Sam Darnold possesses that made him worthy of the #3 pick in the 2018 Draft, he wasn’t without question marks, as is the case with every prospect. Perhaps the knock he has received most often from evaluators, both professional and amateur, is for his turnover propensity.

Across his 27 college games over two seasons, Darnold amassed a whopping 36 turnovers. He lost 14 fumbles out of a total of 20, and threw 22 interceptions on 846 attempts (2.6%). After losing 5 fumbles and throwing 9 interceptions in 2016, Darnold lost 9 fumbles and threw 13 interceptions in 2017 as he threw 114 more passes.

What does this mean for Darnold’s future? Let’s dig in.

Plenty of successful quarterbacks have been turnover prone in college and went on to have success. Ben Roethlisberger threw 21 interceptions over his last two college seasons. Drew Brees threw 24. Matt Ryan threw 29. Matt Stafford, Kirk Cousins and Eli Manning both had higher college interception rates over their final two seasons than Darnold. The list goes on and on.

In terms of Darnold’s interceptions, as I begun to hit on in the previous paragraph, there is little need to worry. Among qualified starting quarterbacks in 2017, the closest comparisons to Darnold in terms of interception rate over their final two college seasons (within .15%) were Tom Brady, Cam Newton, Carson Palmer, Kirk Cousins, Carson Wentz, Eli Manning, DeShone Kizer, Stafford, and Ryan. All of those players have been legitimate top-ten producers for multiple seasons in their careers except Kizer, and five of them have been to Super Bowls.

I also went back and compared the college interception rates (over their final two seasons) of each 2017 qualifying NFL quarterback to see if there was a correlation between limiting interceptions in college and producing at an efficient level as a passer in the modern NFL.

There was no relation. In fact, at least in 2017, a lower college interception rate actually tended slightly towards a worse quarterback rating - demonstrated by the blue line in the chart above.

Interceptions weren’t a major problem at all for Darnold especially considering his offensive line issues, gunslinger mentality and other supporting cast problems. In fact, the interception rate he posted considering all of those factors is actually impressively fair.


Now, let’s move on to a more daunting subject - Darnold’s fumbles. He fumbled the ball 20 times at USC, losing 14 of them.

Though he nearly doubled his lost fumble total in his second year as a starter, jumping from 5 to 9, Darnold only fumbled the ball a total of 2 more times in 2017, jumping from 9 to 11. Considering that he threw 114 more passes and had 13 more “rushing attempts” (includes sacks in college charting), Darnold actually slightly improved his ball handling in his second season. He averaged a fumble every 47.6 “touches” (pass attempts + rushes) in 2016 compared to every 50.5 touches in 2017. It’s nice to see the improvement, however slight.

The question is, have fumbles had predictive value for quarterbacks in the past? I went back and looked at quarterbacks drafted in the first round since 2007, and looked for the correlation between fumbles in the quarterback’s final season and their average wins as a starter accrued per year in the NFL.

Fortunately for Darnold, like interceptions, there was little correlation between fumbles and future success in the NFL, as demonstrated by the blue line in the chart above. A few quarterbacks with few to no fumbles but no success, such as Brandon Weeden and Johnny Manziel, helped to balance the predictive value.

Now, that was the good news. Here is the bad news - Darnold’s 11 fumbles in 2017 were more than any first round quarterback since 2007 had in their final college season. Robert Griffin was the previous leader with 10 fumbles in his 2011 season at Baylor.

Here are the quarterbacks in the group with 8 fumbles or more in their final college season; Griffin, JaMarcus Russell, Curtis Ponder, Jake Locker, Blake Bortles, and Blaine Gabbert.


All in all, I think turnovers are going to always be a consequence of Sam’s aggressive play style to an extent. If he can keep his interception rate around the same level without sacrificing any playmaking or daredevil-mentality, that would be perfectly fine. Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, Brett Favre, Tony Romo, Kirk Cousins, Cam Newton, Troy Aikman, Dan Marino, and John Elway have all been very successful quarterbacks over the past two decades with an equal or higher interception rate than Darnold’s in college.

The fumbles must go down - but many coaches and scouts discussing Darnold in the media have attested that part of quarterbacking to being a fixable issue. We shall see.

So, what do you think? Will Sam’s turnover issues translate to the NFL? Were they even actually an “issue”? What can he fix, and what will he fix?

Poll

Thoughts on Sam Darnold’s turnover propensity in college?

This poll is closed

  • 23%
    Not concerned at all
    (154 votes)
  • 36%
    Slightly concerned
    (244 votes)
  • 20%
    Needs to bring fumbles down, but perfectly OK with interceptions
    (136 votes)
  • 19%
    Really needs to bring both fumbles and interceptions down
    (131 votes)
665 votes total Vote Now