The 2018 NFL Draft Prospect series breaks down draft-eligible players, highlighting their college production as well as their NFL potential. Daily fantasy players should know about NFL rookies before they’ve played a down of professional football because they are among the most misvalued assets in all of DFS. People who know NFL rookies have a significant DFS edge. The draft will be held at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, TX, from April 26-28.
This piece is on Southern California quarterback Sam Darnold, who has declared early for the draft. For the total list of all players leaving school early, see our underclassmen tracker.
For more on all the other passers in the class, see our 2018 NFL draft quarterback rankings.
Updated as of Mar. 5.
Redshirt Sophomore | 6’3″ and 221 Pounds | Born June 5, 1997 (Age: 20) | Projection: Round 1
Combine numbers: 40-yard: 4.85 sec | bench reps: DNP | 3-cone: 6.96 | 20-yard shuttle: 4.4 sec | vertical: 26.5 in | broad: 105 in
At the beginning of 2018, Darnold was +175 to be the first quarterback selected in the 2018 draft. On Sep. 14, after the first two games of the 2017 season, he was also +175. Shortly before the combine, he was still at +175 and the odds-on favorite. Even though he didn’t have a great campaign, he was good enough — and his Bayesian prior was strong enough — for him to go wire to wire as one of the top options for the No. 1 pick. The Browns own the top pick, so there’s no guarantee Darnold will be selected No. 1 overall — who knows what that team is going to do? — but Darnold looks like a future NFL starter: He has the size and winning record (21-6) to appeal to general managers, and he also has a great narrative as a multi-sport Orange County kid who stayed local to play for his hometown team and whose grandfather (the aptly named Dick Hammer) played basketball at USC in the 1950s before becoming the Marlboro Man. In general, the Marlboro Man’s progeny is superior to everyone else.
After sitting out his first year on campus, Darnold was a star for USC in 2016, completing 67.2 percent of his passes for 3,086 yards and 31 touchdowns to nine interceptions. He regressed in 2017, completing ‘just’ 63.1 percent of his passes for 4,143 yards and 26 touchdowns to 13 interceptions. Although he dropped to 8.5 adjusted yards per attempt (AY/A) from 9.0, his 2017 mark was still solid, and a 0.5 AY/A drop isn’t all that drastic. On the whole, the USC passing offense was still a top unit last year. Per Football Study Hall, in 2016 the Trojans were fourth in Passing S&P+ (135.0) and fifth in passing success rate (51.2 percent). In 2017 they were 11th (123.9) and 10th (47.3 percent): Darnold was a little less consistent and dynamic last year than he was the year prior, but he was still good — especially for a young second-year Power Five starter. At a minimum, he has pro-level arm talent and good mobility, averaging 2.3 yards per carry (including sacks) for his career.
In the entire history of the NFL, never before has a quarterback been 20 years old when drafted (Pro Football Reference), which means that Darnold is the youngest professional passing prospect ever. Over the past 25 years only six first-round quarterbacks have finished their rookie campaigns at the age of 21.
- 2015: Jameis Winston, No. 1 pick
- 2009: Matthew Stafford, No. 1 pick
- 2009: Josh Freeman, No. 17 pick
- 2005: Alex Smith, No. 1 pick
- 2001: Michael Vick, No. 1 pick
- 1993: Drew Bledsoe, No. 1 pick
Darnold is much likelier to be drafted with the first pick than the 17th — Freeman was a travesty of a first-rounder, entering the NFL with just a 59.1 percent career completion rate — and the five young No. 1 picks all had, have had, or will have long careers. Darnold may never win a Super Bowl or lead the league in passing yardage, but he’s likely to be in the NFL for at least a decade, and that’s more than we can say for some of the other first-round quarterbacks in this draft class.
Darnold didn’t throw at the combine, but he’s expected to throw at his pro day. His performance there could determine whether he’s drafted No. 1 overall.
Photo Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports