They reside on opposite sides of a storied college rivalry, with vastly different personalities and different ways of getting their jobs done.
But quarterbacks Sam Darnold of USC and Josh Rosen of UCLA could wind up in same place next spring — at or near the top of the NFL draft.
Just how much a dazzling new quarterback can mean to a franchise is on display this weekend as this city’s two NFL teams enter Week 4. The Rams are at Dallas, and the Chargers play host to Philadelphia. Three of the four starting quarterbacks in those games were products of the 2016 draft: Jared Goff of the Rams, Carson Wentz of the Eagles, and Dak Prescott of the Cowboys. Each has provided his team with varying degrees of hope.
Meanwhile, Rosen, a junior, and Darnold, a redshirt sophomore, could be on the verge of history. Only once in the past 50 years have quarterbacks from both schools been selected in the same draft — in 1989, UCLA’s Troy Aikman was taken No. 1 overall by Dallas, and USC’s Rodney Peete went in the sixth round to Detroit.
Should they decide to leave school early, Darnold and Rosen would be in the conversation as the top pick in the draft.
To get a better feel for how these quarterbacks might do in taking the step to the NFL, four professional observers who have a keen grasp of the topic gave their views:
- An NFL team personnel executive who spoke on condition of anonymity so he could be as candid as possible on evaluations that are typically confidential.
- Aikman, a Hall of Famer and Fox NFL color analyst, who knows Rosen particularly well.
- Jordan Palmer, a former NFL quarterback and the brother of USC Heisman Trophy winner Carson Palmer, who was the No. 1 pick in 2003. Jordan Palmer specializes in coaching quarterbacks, among them Darnold, as well as preparing them for the draft.
- Rick Neuheisel, the former UCLA coach and quarterback who is currently a CBS college football analyst and is very familiar with the styles and history of both quarterbacks.
For the purposes of this story, each source agreed to assess the situation in his own words.
NFL personnel executive
I really like Sam Darnold. He hasn’t been picture-perfect this year as far as accuracy and those types of things, but he’s made plays when the game’s on the line. He finds a way, even after not playing great for two or three quarters. When it comes down to making a play, he makes the play. That’s what you look for in a quarterback.
You can talk about the little bit longer delivery he has, and some mechanical flaws. But he’s got some incredible intangibles. That’s what you look for in a starting quarterback in the NFL. When Sam walks in the huddle, his teammates look at him and they know they have a chance to win, just because of him.
The Penn State game in the Rose Bowl put him over the top. It was like, “Wow, this guy is going to be special.” But you want to see consistency and a pattern of what this player has done throughout his career. He’s establishing himself as a player that can win when the game’s on the line.
Rosen is mechanically very sound. He’s got a tight, compact, easy delivery. The ball jumps off his hand. Great footwork in the pocket. He’s a very light-footed athlete and balanced. He seems to have good vision, but then he makes poor decisions. He forces balls sometimes and trusts his arm too much. He just takes some gambles that are not necessarily the smart play.
He can put the ball in harm’s way, but he can also make the big plays doing that. He’s got some gambler in him — some Jeff George, some Jay Cutler. He’s got all those same qualities, where he has all the physical tools. But he needs to become a more consistent, more disciplined football player.
Darnold is going to be talked about as the No. 1 pick, and he has a choice. Does he want to come out? Does he want to play for the Jets or Colts or whoever it may be?
With Rosen, quarterback coaches are going to fall in love with him because he’s so mechanically sound. He’s a smart guy. He comes from a great family. A quarterback coach will say, “I can work with this guy.” Then they’re going to get the head coach involved, and the GM, and at some point you’re going to have to take a shot on a quarterback.
You’re not tied to the $20-million contracts of 10 years ago. You can afford to take a shot on a quarterback now and miss. Hurts, but in a quarterback-driven league, you’ve got to take some shots. So he’s one of those guys that I think will go fairly high if he does come out.
I haven’t seen a lot of Sam Darnold, but I’ve seen Josh. Last summer, I was renting a place in Manhattan Beach, and I went up to campus and watched him work out with the receivers one afternoon, so I’ve seen him up close. I think he’s an amazing talent. He can really do it all. He’s smart, he’s athletic, has a really good arm and throws the ball well.
I just think for these guys, the more work they get in college the better opportunity they have to have success once they get into the NFL. The more games you can get under your belt, the better off you are. But if they opportunity is there, those are hard things to pass on as well.
With the comeback game against Texas A&M, I had just gotten married the day before. I had been in Santa Barbara, and I flew back to Dallas so I watched the game at my house here. I think that in some ways it’s certainly one of the measuring sticks for a quarterback, how he can rally a team when they’re behind. That was a huge win for the team.
Josh came in as a true freshman. I played a game as a true freshman at Oklahoma, and it wasn’t very pretty. I know what a challenge that can be for a young quarterback, and he came in and played really well by any measurement.
Coming into this season, I don’t know what Josh’s thoughts are. I know at one time when I visited with him, he said he was coming out after three years. I don’t know if that’s still the case. If that’s true, then obviously this is a big year for him, for someone who was banged up last year. I know he got off to a really good start with that win.
It’s very difficult to succeed right away in the NFL. I was 0-11 at the start of my rookie year. Unfortunately for these quarterbacks, being the No. 1 pick you’re going to bad teams. So you go to a situation where there’s a lot of expectations.
People are excited about your arrival. But generally you’re playing on a team where it’s simply a challenge to compete. And that first year, at least for me, there’s a lot of punishment that comes with that. You’re just trying to get through that first year, and so many of us have done it, without losing your confidence and believing that you can continue to develop. And eventually win, and win at a high level.
Whether it was myself or [John] Elway or Peyton [Manning]. You can go through a whole list of guys, it’s just part of the deal. There are very few guys that had the opportunity to go somewhere as the first pick and actually be on a team that can protect him and then also win football games at the same time.
When Sam went to SC, there was an offseason where he came and threw with some quarterbacks I had in town. I think it was DeShaun Watson, Jared Goff, Christian Hackenberg, Joshua Dobbs, and J.T. Daniels, who was a seventh-grader. Sam came for the last day of it, and I was like, “Whoa.” Because now you got a chance to see it up against the other guys. That’s when we realized, OK, there’s really something special about Sam.
Sam is very humble. He’s a lot like my brother, personality-wise, in that people who don’t know him might say that he’s quiet. But if you know him, you’d never say he’s quiet. He’s very even-keeled, very mild-mannered on the outside. When you can maintain that when the pressure’s on, then it becomes a tremendous asset.
He’s like a duck on the water. Above the surface it’s very calm and peaceful, but underneath there’s a lot of effort and he’s going places. He processes a lot of things really quickly, makes quick decisions, and I don’t really ever see him allowing things like pressure or opinion affect his thought process. All that’s happening on the inside, and on the outside he’s just a cool California kid.
Sam is in a really good position to make a seamless transition, when he wants to. I don’t think it’s a foregone conclusion that he leaves early. When he decides that he’s ready to move on, whenever that is, then I think that he’s going to be well suited for a quick transition to the next level.
Darnold’s physical traits aren’t overly impressive. But what is impressive is his ability to, number one, forget mistakes, and number two, to create. And he usually winds up on the right side of the ledger. He’s lost one game as a starter, and that was his first one. And if you go back to see what happened in that game, he actually hit a pass to secure victory but the offensive lineman was called for being downfield. I just think he’s got that magic.
Now when he gets dissected like the frog in sophomore biology, there will be lots of warts, in terms of does he have this or that. When he goes and throws against all the different guys in the combine — and it will be interesting to see if he does it — it’s not going to look the same. The GMs are going to say, “He doesn’t have that unique an arm.” But he’s got this kind of Tom Brady-ish ability to win games.
In the Rose Bowl, one of his impressive throws was just his ability to avoid a sack, jump up and throw the ball away.
There’s a lot of concern about the interceptions this year. To me, he’s a little bit enamored with Deontay Burnett. When I see the highlights, it looks to me like he’s trying to force it into No. 80, who’s a really talented receiver. So maybe that’s why he’s got a little bit more in the way of interceptions.
If Rosen and Darnold were in a throwing contest, they’d call the fight. It wouldn’t go the distance. Rosen’s arm is way more talented. I’ll bet he’d have a higher score on his SAT, and in a political discourse he’d have opinions that you’d marvel at given his age.
But Josh’s issue is going to be his personality. When he doesn’t think you know what you’re talking about, he ain’t afraid to tell you that you don’t know what you’re talking about. That bothers a bunch of the proletariat in scouting circles. If you have something to offer, he’s going to devour it.
You watch the fourth quarter of the Texas A&M game, and you see NFL throw after NFL throw after NFL throw. Doing it against the odds. And yeah, he got lucky. He tried to throw one away and it was a touchdown pass. But we see that every weekend in the NFL. What we saw was him putting the ball on the money time after time.
He doesn’t have a Dez Bryant to throw to. He doesn’t have a Julio Jones to throw to. He’s making it work with the guys he has.
He said a very mature thing after the game at Memphis. He said, “I’ve got to stop playing hero ball.” Because given what happened against Texas A&M, he had to throw those balls down the field. You don’t have to throw that ball across your body against Memphis. To me, that’s a sign of maturity. I think he’s going to be sensational.
I think he’s got a unique skill set. And you’re talking to a guy who didn’t want him to have it. Because my kid [Jerry] was competing against him, my kid was trying to win the job. I wanted to find things I didn’t like. But he has every throw.
Follow Sam Farmer on Twitter @LATimesfarmer