INDIANAPOLIS – UCLA’s Josh Rosen may have already pulled off a win this week. And USC’s Sam Darnold may have been the guy who delivered it.
That’s the consensus of a handful of NFL evaluators who are still digesting the news that Darnold will become the first high-profile quarterback in several years to not throw at the league’s scouting combine. But not just for the predictable grousing that always follows the news that a prospect is skipping a key workout. Instead, the rationale centers more on what evaluators already expected from Rosen this week. Specifically, a superb passing workout that may have been tempered by a strong showing from Darnold. Now? The spotlight will fall on the three other highly ranked quarterbacks – Rosen, Wyoming’s Josh Allen and Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield.
“It’s really good for [Rosen],” one evaluator said. “He’s already suited to looking great in this kind of a passing workout, while Darnold is more of a, ‘When the [game] lights turn on’ kind of guy. But [Darnold not throwing] will definitely be a good thing for Josh.”
In fairness, if Darnold is already rooted as the top pick in the draft, an isolated decision to bypass throwing at the combine isn’t likely to change that. But several evaluators pointed out that it creates a performance and competition void that will be filled by another top player. More specifically, by Rosen, who is universally expected to be the most polished and impressive passer in drills this week.
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Should Rosen show up and blow away the drills, it could influence a team like the Cleveland Browns or New York Giants – who hold the top two picks in the draft – to take a longer look at Rosen. And that kind of gaze is an opportunity that past top picks didn’t want to leave on the table for competitors. It’s why Jared Goff threw against Carson Wentz at the combine in 2016 and Jameis Winston insisted on throwing against Marcus Mariota in 2015. Despite being the likely No. 1 overall pick, those players still had a chance to allow someone else to crack that certainty.
Winston was a good example of a player sewing up the process by simply competing. When he exited drills against Mariota, a few executives were impressed with the way he verbally pumped up unfamiliar wide receivers in the drill and even tried to hype up and challenge Mariota to raise his game. Winston looked like he was enjoying the competitive aspect of the drill – and that left a lasting impression. It was a small but important example of how passing drills at the combine can encompass so much more than the throws (although those are also fairly important).
It’s a stretch to suggest Darnold has greatly exposed himself by not throwing. At this point, he’s still a strong favorite to be the No. 1 pick in the draft. But at the very least, he has stimulated the “why?” conversation.
“Why wouldn’t he take part?” That’s what executives, coaches and scouts are talking about this week. That’s what teams like the Browns will talk about when they dispatch coaches and executives to his pro day after heading back to their facilities with an “incomplete” in their Darnold combine report.
“We wish he would throw,” Browns coach Hue Jackson said of Darnold. “[I] would like to see him throw. At the same time, there will be other times to watch him work out and do those other things. But again, do I wish he was throwing this week? Yes, I do. To watch him compete with the other guys. At the same time, it’s not going to hinder us making a decision on what kind of player he is for our football team.”
As for that “why wouldn’t he take part?” conversation, the feeling among some evaluators is this: Darnold and his representatives are being conservative with a draft lead. If he’s the consensus top pick, he already has more to lose than Rosen, Allen or Mayfield. And unlike Rosen, Darnold isn’t naturally suited to deliver a blowout passing performance in combine drills. There is a chance he may line up next to Rosen and not look as natural or smooth throwing a ball. So his representatives have chosen to stack the deck in his favor, holding him back for a pro day at USC, where he’ll be working out with skill-position players he is familiar with.
Surely, Darnold’s representatives would scoff at that suggestion – that they have some kind of fear of putting Darnold next to Rosen in a drill that will accentuate Rosen’s pluses. But it’s a theory that has creeped into the thought process of at least a few evaluators. And that theory didn’t exist a week ago. Nor did a wider stage for Rosen to showcase his natural passing skills. Now that exists, too.
In this small part of the draft process, that’s a win for someone. And it’s definitely not Darnold.
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