The New York Jets picked Sam Darnold in the 2018 NFL Draft, which has rejuvenated the fanbase. Darnold was widely considered the favorite choice for the No. 1 pick with the Cleveland Browns, but he fell into the lap of Mike Maccagnan. We’ll take a look at some of the film from Sam Darnold at USC. In this article, we’re looking at NFL caliber throws.
The first throw to notice here is this perfect throw and catch with receiver Tyler Vaughns down the sideline. In the NFL, this essentially works as a back-shoulder pass because the defender has his hips turned away from the QB. Notice how Darnold places the ball towards the back shoulder of the receiver, but he’s slowed down by initiating contact with the defender in the second angle. If he maintains his initial speed, this is a perfectly good back shoulder pass. For years in the past, you’ve heard scouting reports on QBs and their ability to throw receivers open. Well in this case, the receiver is well covered but Darnold places the ball perfectly to get the pass completed. The back-shoulder throw is one of the hardest throws to defend in the game, so it’s definitely a positive to see these types of throws.
First of all, this is a great catch from the receiver. However, there are a couple of things to notice here. Notice the Buckeyes are in a single high safety slanted towards the right side of the formation look, with a blitz from the linebackers. Darnold recognizes the blitz and turns to the left side of the formation, but the safety is hanging over the top, while the cornerback is trailing by a step with inside leverage. It’s a bad situation, because this is an almost perfect defense, which forces Darnold to only have one option here. He has to clear the pass over the defensive back’s head, while still allowing the receiver to catch it before it crosses into the safety’s zone. He places this ball perfectly, and allows just his receiver to make a play on the ball. This is a top tier NFL QB caliber throw, and one that guys like Paxton Lynch can’t make.
Why is this a great throw? It’s the adjustment in the pocket with guys around him, which reminds me a lot of Andrew Luck on this play. The Buckeyes bring a blitz on 3rd and 17, and they play single high safety with defenders playing back. As you can see from the pre-snap motion, it’s man coverage, but the defender is backing away because the offense needs to get 17 yards. The offensive line gets destroyed on this play, Darnold moves to his left, into a Bermuda Triangle of defenders and then throws a laser to the receiver. The NFL caliber aspect of this throw is the ability to reset his feet in traffic, throw from a crowded pocket, and hit the receiver in stride. I’ll write another article on footwork, because Darnold doesn’t have perfect feet, and sometimes tends to throw off-balance. However, unlike Hackenberg, Darnold can be very accurate without setting his feet, which should only help as he cleans up his mechanics. There are plenty of examples in college with strong armed QBs moving to their weak-side and throwing across their body for laser throws, but it’s rare to see it in a crowded pocket.
This pass may not seem like a completed pass, but it was allowed. While it’s a great throw, it’s the set up that really impresses me. Notice the defense is in a single high safety look, with press man coverage. However, pay attention to what Darnold does with play prior to the throw. He holds the safety in the middle, then notice the head turn and shoulder turn to the left side of the field. It’s a very subtle move but it absolutely removes the safety from the go route to the outside on the right side of the formation. The receiver doesn’t have much separation down the field (partially because OSU is loaded at every position) but Darnold places this ball in a great location. It’s floating a bit to the outside, but this is just a great set up from Darnold. The whole idea of a pro-style offense is a myth, as most colleges use RPO and spread offense concepts, but this is a pro-style tactic with Darnold manipulating the safety with his eyes, head, and shoulders. I would have probably placed this example here, even if the pass was deemed incomplete.
I’m not going to say much on this one, but Darnold has excellent footwork here. Can you hand the ball off in a better position than this?
This isn’t as impressive as the last throw, but this reminds me very much of Ben Roethlisberger against the Jets. He steps up in the pocket, and makes a laser throw on the run to a place where only his receiver can make a play on the ball. The important aspect of this throw is that he’s not slowing down to shuffle his feet, rather it’s thrown in motion, which creates less reaction time for the defenders.
I slowed down this pass as much as I could because I wanted to highlight why I thought this was an NFL caliber pass. If you can, please notice when Darnold starts his windup on this play, because it’s right when his receiver is starting his break. At that point, Darnold has two choices between two receivers with a safety in the middle. As Darnold is going through his motion, the safety moves with the first receiver and Darnold throws a perfect pass to the second receiver. It shows great anticipation, but it’s also why he has a higher interception percentage than other college QBs. He didn’t wait to confirm that the receiver was open, but rather projected the safety to move out from the middle of the field and made a great throw. In the NFL, he won’t have time to confirm that the safety will move out of the way, so this read helps him transition to the NFL, even though it’s risky in college.
Back shoulder pass once again, and it’s another situation of throwing the receiver open. This is a throw that translates extremely well to the NFL.
A great throw once again, and I want you to notice where the throw originates from. Darnold is situated on the far hash, and then throws it down the field past the other hash. Since he has time to set his feet, he makes an excellent pass and the ball falls right into the hands of the receiver.
Once again, I want you to tell me if this ball could be placed better into the hands of the receiver. The defender is undercutting the route, and Darnold finds a way around it for the touchdown. If you watch other players from this draft, including Rosen and Mayfield, you will see accurate passes. However, Darnold does a better job of adjusting past the defense with touch on the ball. If you throw this pass on a straight line, it’s an interception.
This is a play on 3rd down, but notice the anticipation with Darnold. When the QB is starting his throwing motion, the receiver isn’t even in his break. The ball is in the air when the receiver makes his break, but notice how it is placed only where he can make a play on the ball. This is elite level anticipation, along with accuracy on this play, where the receiver is fairly well defended. It’s a throw that translates extremely well to the NFL, and should be the most exciting example in this whole article.
Sam Darnold is not a perfect prospect, as you will see from the other articles in this series. He has his flaws, but the elite skill that stands apart in this draft class is NFL caliber throws from Darnold. He shows an excellent capability to maintain accuracy while on the move, while retaining an innate understanding of angles while on the field. He throws the football with excellent touch, while displaying very good arm strength. Far too many times during the draft process, Sam Darnold got tagged as the “safe prospect” because he doesn’t have elite accuracy numbers, elite level smoothness, or elite arm strength. However, I believe he has elite level traits that will translate to the NFL, especially his anticipation and touch.