The 2018 NFL Draft begins on April 26, and two of the top quarterback prospects hail from right here in Southern California. This is, of course, in reference to Josh Rosen and Sam Darnold, the signal callers for UCLA and USC respectively. Both used the 2017 college season to significantly bolster their draft stock, and as a reward, it would be no surprise to hear either name called as the first overall pick.
Despite Darnold and Rosen being the unquestioned starters under center for their respective teams, this last year was the first and only time the two met head to head in college competition. In 2016, Rosen was sidelined after six games with a right shoulder injury, and was unable to face USC.
This year’s installment of the UCLA-USC rivalry perfectly encapsulates what both quarterbacks do well. Rosen was asked to throw more, as the Bruins trailed all game. His accuracy needed improvement, as he went 32-52, but his numbers were fantastic. Rosen had 421 passing yards and three touchdowns to just one interception.
Darnold and the Trojans had the luxury of taking on UCLA’s FBS-worst rush defense. In 2017, UCLA allowed 287.4 rushing yards per game, and an average of 2.7 touchdowns on the ground. USC took full advantage, as running back Ronald Jones put up 122 rushing yards and two touchdowns, while Darnold ran another score in for his only touchdown of the game. As a passer, Darnold did all the Trojans asked of him, going 17-28 for 264 yards, with one interception.
UCLA made the game interesting in the closing minutes, as Rosen found Jordan Lasley on a 27-yard touchdown, the duo’s third end zone connection in this match. Lasley was Rosen’s primary receiving target all season, and lived up to that billing by finishing the USC game with 204 receiving yards.
Any potential comeback the Bruins had brewing was squashed by their inability to stop the run. On 3rd and 1 with less than two minutes remaining, Jones sealed the game with a two-yard scamper. Three kneel-downs later, and the Trojans won the battle for Los Angeles supremacy, 28-23.
One of the Bruins’ main flaws was on full display against USC, as Rosen faced pressure in the pocket all game. The Trojans were able to bring him to the turf four times, while UCLA got to Darnold just once. For the season, Rosen was sacked 26 times, tied for 32nd in the FBS. Taking sacks was not an uncommon occurrence for Darnold either, as he was sacked 29 times in 2017, which was tied for 16th.
Between Darnold and Rosen, it appears that Darnold had the stronger 2017 season. He was fifth in the nation in passing yards at 4,143, whereas, Rosen was 14th with 3,756. Darnold’s completion percentage was a hair better, as well; he completed 63 percent of his passes to Rosen’s 62 percent.
Where Rosen takes the edge is in interceptions thrown. Darnold was tied for top 10 in the NCAA with 13 for the year, while Rosen threw 10, tying him for 25th. It should be noted that Darnold played 14 games to Rosen’s 11, which should not be used to take away from Darnold in any way. In fact, it speaks to Rosen’s susceptibility to injuries, which is one of his major concerns.
As two of the nation’s top prospects, Darnold and Rosen were both invited to the NFL combine, and so far, the buzz is good. Rosen was given a 6.19 ranking on NFL.com, putting him in the category of instant starter. Darnold took it one step further, earning a 7.1 ranking and being touted as a Pro-Bowl caliber quarterback.
Scouts have marveled at Rosen’s footwork and mechanics. Both came in handy when he was with the Bruins. He was able to move around a pocket that allowed constant pressure, and make accurate throws. One note on NFL.com states he “might be the best back shoulder thrower in the game.”
Where Rosen lost points, however, is his tendency to try and make a throw that isn’t there. This has been his Achilles heel for some time now, and often led to interceptions that could’ve easily been avoided.
In Darnold’s combine, NFL teams took note of his incredible arm strength, a staple of his playing style since he took over for USC in 2016. What may have not always been appreciated during Darnold’s college career was his ability to go through his receiving progressions quickly and efficiently, a trait not lost on the combine scouts.
Darnold’s incredibly high turnover rate, which goes hand in hand with his less than stellar throwing mechanics, are something that may give a team pause in drafting him. Darnold will be working with the best coaches in the world when he makes it to the NFL, and will hopefully be able to remedy the slow wind up that tips off defenders to where he will throw.
There are multiple quarterback-needy teams in the top of the NFL draft, including the Cleveland Browns, who draft first and fourth overall. Rosen may have burned this bridge, however, stating back in December that he would “rather be a lower pick at the right team than a higher pick at the wrong one.”
The feeling appears to be mutual, as John Dorsey, Cleveland’s general manager, told NFL draft analyst Tony Pauline that he advised the team to stay away from Rosen with their top two picks. Between Darnold and Rosen, it appears one can assume Darnold has a much higher likelihood of suiting up for Cleveland when all is said and done.
Rosen could easily find himself in New York, where both the Giants and the Jets pick in the top 10, and are in need for a quarterback of the future. With the Giants, Eli Manning appears to be the man at the moment, which would give Rosen time to get accustomed to the NFL, and for the Giants to find an offensive line, saving Rosen from the constant pressure he faced at UCLA.
Both UCLA and USC fans have been treated to fantastic quarterback play with Rosen and Darnold at the helm. With their talent level, it is only a matter of time before they’re both starting under center in the NFL as well, even if neither is the first overall pick. One could only hope for a future rivalry to develop between the two as their NFL careers play out. First things first, however; let’s see where they wind up after the 2018 NFL Draft is all said and done.