Few prospects in the 2018 NFL Draft have been scrutinized as much as USC’s Sam Darnold, and Wyoming’s Josh Allen. We analyzed Allen’s turbulent outing against Oregon in our last big board update, now it’s time to get into Darnold who we saw live in Boulder last Saturday.
Unlike Allen, Darnold had a fine game, maybe his best of the year showing incredible poise and control of the offense added to some high-end talent. We’ll get into all of that plus the latest risers up the board before the final stretch of college football begins, in addition to our actual updated top 50, and stay put for a new mock draft and our update positional rankings coming in the next week.
Scouting Sam Darnold and USC
The USC quarterback’s rise to the scene in 2016 was highlighted by his decision making, athleticism, and ability to throw on the run, added to a Rose Bowl performance in which he flashed pretty impressive arm strength. 2017’s been a bit more of a mixed back as Darnold’s been turnover prone at times, while also showing off more high-level arm strength and coming through in the clutch in several late-game drives. He’s also had to shoulder more of the offensive load with several new starters on the line and at receiver.
Against Colorado, he put it all together in a perfect mix of the quarterback we saw in 2016 and 2017. Sam’s game started off efficiently throwing off his first-reads with accuracy and flashing some arm strength converting his first couple third-downs, while the running game did most of the heavy lifting. What impressed early about Darnold was his efficiency and his natural arm strength which really stood out in a live viewing. He also impressed with throws on the run added to his general athleticism for his size. His very first pass was a dime on a designed bootleg to the right sideline. He also had a scramble and got out of pressure when he seemed to be guaranteed to be sacked in the backfield.
Darnold did miss a few throws slightly overthrowing a couple deep balls and sailing two other intermediate comeback routes. As the game went on he got better and better in his decision making and started to make some very accurate throws on third down and in the red zone. One particular fade to burn Isaiah Oliver – possibly this classes best cornerback – was a beauty with great touch and timing. He then unleashed the gun throwing a few rockets and starting to work off his secondary reads. One particular power-throw stood out to receiver Deontay Burnett as Darnold looked off the safety then came back to zing it to his receiver up the seam. At this point Darnold showed everything I was looking for and some, he managed the game masterfully with the lead and then got a rushing touchdown that put his athleticism and ability as a runner on full display.
Aside from the near misses mentioned above Darnold had one pass that could’ve been intercepted on a fade in the red zone with bad ball placement. As we’ve seen with the USC QB in the past that one bad throw didn’t phase him as he bounced back from it and managed the game perfectly from their own.
After seeing him live and watching him take his game to the next level this season, making tough throws within the pocket or on the run in tight windows all over the field, and in clutch situations none the less, Darnold’s moved up to the top of my board. A pretty steady rise since I was somewhat skeptical about all the preseason hype as I had questions about his ceiling. While some worry about the turnovers, he’s certainly turned me into a believer in a class that’s lacking for sure things or players who’ve taken their stock to the next level. His combination of upside and how he has all the necessary traits to be a high-end NFL starter make him a really appealing prospect.
USC’s other standout
Running back Ronald Jones II has actually been the better playmaker for the Trojans at the collegiate level this season and continued that against CU. If Darnold was impressive Jones might have been even more so consolidating his first round grade. For a 200-pound back, he runs with tremendous power and it’s easy to see how muscular his legs are. Coming in I knew he had the long-speed but he also showed great wiggle and some nice patience combined with vision.
The Trojans defense has plenty of talent but no one who stood out or impressed much on the positive side up in Boulder. Middle linebacker Cameron Smith in particular disappointed as he just didn’t show the athletic skills required to be a third-down contributor at the next level. Any talk of him as a top-five player at his position or top 100 pick seems overblown.
Big Board risers
OLB’s and edge rushers galore
The second most important position in modern football, the edge rushers, are really intriguing this season and while the talent promised to be good coming into the year, there have been several new names and fast risers.
Our board now has five players in the top 11 that are experts in rushing the passer from the outside and the only two were already there in the preseason. North Carolina State’s Bradley Chubb has been a terror this year for opposing offenses living in the backfield. He’s reminiscent of Derek Barnett from a year ago with his power and ability to affect the game in all phases. If he develops a few more moves rushing the passer, watch out. Clemson’s Clelin Ferrell is a personal favorite despite only being a redshirt sophomore, he has size, power and plenty of athleticism to win with speed too. His teammate Austin Bryant is incredibly mobile sideline-to-sideline, can play in coverage and blow by offensive tackles with his speed. He’d fit perfectly as a 3-4 outside linebacker. Both are top 20 level studs at this point.
As far as 3-4 OLB’s Alabama’s Rashaan Evans would really nicely as he’s dominated the opposition this season and can play as an off-ball linebacker as well. He was already in our top 20 the last few updates but has risen into the top 10 as of now.
Georgia’s Lorenzo Carter and USC’s Uchenna Nwosu are similar to Evans in that they could play as edge’s in a 3-4 or be more conventional strong side linebackers in a 4-3 as well. Athletic rushers with a variety of skill sets are all the rage in today’s NFL and there are plenty to chose from in our top 50.
Washington State’s Hercules Mata’afa is a much more interesting case as he’s only 250-pounds but plays as an inside rusher quite a bit. No matter where he’s lined up Mata’afa is a phenom getting in opposing backfields tieing Chubb with 21.5 tackles for a loss. The aptly named Hercules has been wracking up TFL’s his entire career and has been high on our board all season, but after another year of elite production, he seems to be a good bet to go in the first round also.
Mad RB depth
We previewed some of the headline talents in this draft class at the running back position in our preseason top 50, but since then, even more have emerged making this crop of backs very enticing.
For starters, there’s Stanford’s Bryce Love who’s exploded onto the scene as a full-fledged Heisman contender. The sub 200-pound back is undoubtedly undersized but it hasn’t mattered. He’s deceptively powerful in his lower body, has superb vision and patience, and is a true burner once he gets out in space. He may not go as high as his highlight tape would suggest, but Love’s done enough to enter the top 50 conversation with the first round being a possibility as well.
Notre Dame’s Josh Adams has been a bulldozer this season in his own right, and if not for an injury that’s slowed him down the last couple weeks we might be talking about him too as a Heisman candidate. Adams is a bit of an upright runner, making him a bigger target for tacklers but he’s a load to take on at 220-pounds with breakaway speed. That’s the prototype of what the league is looking for in an NFL back. There are plenty more impressive runners in the class, but these two private school studs are the biggest risers of the group going from off the board to inside the top 35.
Another gunslinger to consider
We talked about last year’s Heisman winner Lamar Jackson and how he’d shown enough improvement as a passer earlier in the year to rise up into the top 20 of our board. Now another college star is doing the same.
There might not be a more decisive prospect in this draft than Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield who with another Heisman worthy year has made his case as a future pro. While Mayfield was incredibly productive a year ago his skills in a spread offense didn’t seem to translate much. In 2017, Baker’s showing some skills that absolutely will. First and foremost the undersized signal-caller has improved a lot and become much better making tough throws within the pocket. His arm has also looked better as well, it might not be a cannon like some in the class, but he’s accurate and has an average arm for NFL standards which is more than enough. His decision making’s been extraordinary this season within OU’s spread attack, and his playmaking ability on the run is superb.
There are still concerns about his ability to adjust his playing style to the NFL, but the progress he’s made in the last two years is noteworthy. If Mayfield’s Sooners can get into the playoffs and put a few more epic performances on film against top defenses that could go far in boosting his stock. For now, he slots in at the bottom end of the top 50 but given the need for quarterbacks his rise up the board might not be over yet.
2018 NFL Draft Big Board 3.0
1. Sam Darnold, QB, USC
2. Arden Key, EDGE, LSU
3. Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State
4. Derwin James, DB, Florida State
5. Bradley Chubb, DE, North Carolina State
6. Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA
7. Clelin Ferrell, EDGE, Clemson
8. Minkah Fitzpatrick, FS/CB, Alabama
9. Rashaan Evans, OLB, Alabama
10. Connor Williams, OT, Texas
11. Harold Landry, EDGE, Boston College
12. Derrius Guice, RB, LSU
13. Christian Wilkins, DL, Clemson
14. Isaiah Oliver, CB, Colorado
15. Jaire Alexander, CB, Louisville
16. Ronnie Harrison, SS, Alabama
17. Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, OLB/EDGE, Oklahoma
18. Ronald Jones II, RB, USC
19. Calvin Ridley, WR, Alabama
20. Hercules Mata’afa, EDGE, Washington State
21. Austin Bryant, EDGE, Clemson
22. Sam Hubbard, EDGE, Ohio State
23. Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville
24. Josh Allen, QB, Wyoming
25. Tarvarus McFadden, CB, Florida State
26. Quenton Nelson, OG, Notre Dame
27. Malik Jefferson, OLB, Texas
28. Bryce Love, RB, Stanford
29. Carlton Davis, CB, Auburn
30. Maurice Hurst, DT, Michigan
31. Taven Bryan, DL, Florida
32. Matthew Thomas, OLB, Florida State
33. James Washington, WR, Oklahoma State
34. Christian Kirk, WR, Texas A&M
35. Josh Adams, RB, Notre Dame
36. Adonis Alexander, CB, Virginia Tech
37. Chukwuma Okorafor, LT, Western Michigan
38. Orlando Brown, OT, Oklahoma
39. Tremaine Edmunds, OLB, Virginia Tech
40. Anthony Miller, WR, Memphis
41. DeShon Elliott, S, Texas
42. Dorian O’Daniel, OLB, Clemson
43. Derrick Nnadi, DT, Florida State
44. Uchenna Nwosu, OLB/EDGE, USC
45. Lorenzo Carter, EDGE, Georgia
46. Kendall Joseph, LB, Clemson
47. Da’Ron Payne, DT, Alabama
48. Mason Rudolph, QB, Oklahoma State
49. Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma
50. Nick Chubb, RB, Georgia
Just missed the cut
51. Damien Harris, RB, Alabama
52. Josh Jackson, CB, Iowa
53. Denzel Ward, CB, Ohio State
54. Marcus Allen, S, Penn State
55. Mark Andrews, WR/TE, Oklahoma
56. Jerome Baker, WLB, Ohio State
57. Levi Wallace, CB, Alabama
58. Mike McGlinchey, OT, Notre Dame
59. Braden Smith, OG/T, Auburn
60. Vita Vea, DT, Washington