Combine Notebook: Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen and the Virtual QB Rivalry
INDIANAPOLIS — All of the top quarterback prospects except Sam Darnold took part in passing drills Saturday. How you think they performed varied according to who you listen to, how well you can interpret passing drills without defenders and (most likely) what you thought of each prospect before the drills.
But don't worry if you missed the cone drills and sprints: This edition of Combine Notebook will catch you up on Saturday's action, including:
- A talk with Darnold about skipping Saturday's drills, learning to protect the football and how virtual reality can help a quarterback prepare
- Firsthand evaluations of Josh Rosen, Baker Mayfield and other top quarterback prospects
- An all-new and unexpected rising star/draft crush among the quarterbacks
- A visit with the prospect who is like a one-man Philly Special trick play
And much, much more!
Sam Darnold Throws (Sort Of) and Talks About Avoiding Fumbles and Rivalries
Contrary to popular belief, Sam Darnold threw on Saturday.
Darnold (who chose not to participate in passing drills at the combine) took part in the Gatorade Beat the Blitz Experience, a virtual reality simulator that tasks users with hitting targets with imaginary footballs while avoiding digitized blitzers and getting lectured by Peyton Manning about hydration. Darnold side-stepped defenders (and almost crashed into nearby sluggish reporters) and spun some pretty passes with the help of hand-held controllers. It was more like e-gaming than combine drilling, but beggars cannot be choosers.
After exiting the NFL's version of The Matrix, Darnold took a few minutes to talk to Bleacher Report about what it's like to not throw during quarterback drills, among other topics.
B/R: What was it like watching the other quarterbacks throw today and not participating?
Sam Darnold: It was really cool to see the guys compete. A part of me really wanted to be out there. I wanted to compete with them and show everyone what I've got. But I just have to wait until March 21st [USC's pro day] to do that. But I'm really excited for the guys who performed really well.
B/R: How do you shut out all of the chatter about "rivalries" between you and Josh Rosen or the other quarterbacks?
SD: It's pretty easy, because we have such a good rapport: me and Josh, me and the other Josh [Allen], Lamar [Jackson], Baker [Mayfield] and all of us. Us quarterbacks all agree that we can only focus on ourselves. We can't focus on what other people are doing. If we do that, we'll be too worried about what's going on with other people and not focused enough on what we're doing.
B/R: You spoke on Friday about the need to get better at protecting the football. Is there a special technique or drill you are using to cut down on your fumbles?
SD: I watched the film of all my turnovers from the last two years, and every time my hand comes off the ball, I just get that feeling of, Oh crap, I shouldn't be doing that. So every time I do it in real life or in a drill, I start to have that same feeling. So it's subconscious now, which is awesome.
B/R: Have you used virtual reality training devices like this in college?
SD: We had a virtual reality thing at USC. During seven-on-sevens, they would hold a 360-degree camera on the quarterback's head. Then, in the film room we'd be able to put the visor on and look around and see a defense from a quarterback's perspective. Sometimes we would clear out the tables in a room, get the ball and drop back in a controlled environment. It saves your arm a little bit. On the virtual reality, you can make decisions and look at the whole field without having to throw.
B/R: Do you get any time off after the combine before you go back to preparing for your pro day?
SD: If I have a break, I'll probably go to the beach and just hang with my friends. Just relax, get off my feet. But honestly, I'll probably be training right away, because there is no time to waste.
Josh Rosen, Baker Mayfield and the Surprise Star of the Passing Drills
Each year, the league allows a select handful of NFL writers to watch the quarterback passing drills live in Lucas Oil Stadium.
Yes, watching the sessions live is both very different and more enlightening than watching on television. And impressions from controlled drills like these are strictly in the eye of the beholder. With those disclaimers out of the way, here's my take on the how the quarterbacks in the late session fared (Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson were in the early session, so don't look for them.)
- Josh Rosen's drills provoked gasps of both awe and disappointment from the usually silent crowd of NFL evaluators and fellow prospects. A trio of absolutely gorgeous deep balls drew the awe, while some stunning misfires on simple slants and quick outs clearly shocked some observers. While a strong effort overall, Rosen's drills made me wonder if he and Josh Allen were involved in a Freaky Friday situation and switched passing profiles; Rosen looked a little like Allen was supposed to look, mixing the majestic with the inexplicable.
- Baker Mayfield looks uncomfortable dropping back to throw, something he was not asked to do at Oklahoma. He takes a weird kick-step after the snap and moves jerkily to his launch point. The hinky drop appeared to affect his timing on some throws. Mayfield also uncorked some wobblers when forced to drive the ball downfield, something that was also evident during Senior Bowl practices. There was nothing disastrous about his performance, but there is much polishing to be done on his mechanics.
- DRAFT RISER ALERT. Texas Tech's Nic Shimonek was the surprise star of the drills. His dropback and delivery are smooth and quick, and his anticipation and accuracy were consistently strong. The 6'3" Shimonek has the size and athleticism to play at the NFL level. Don't rank him among the top five just yet, but Shimonek should be on the middle-round watch list for teams seeking long-term prospects. (Hello, Patriots.)
- Speaking of middle-round prospects, Richmond's Kyle Lauletta looked the way I expected him to look after watching him throughout Senior Bowl week. Lauletta is smooth, quick and accurate on short stuff. Once the prospects had to throw deep, though, Lauletta needed everything he had to deliver the ball, compromising his accuracy. In the post-corner drills, the throws were just beyond Lauletta's range. He's more of a heady backup than a potential quarterback of the future.
- Oklahoma State's Mason Rudolph had a chance to look like a big-armed superstar in drills that should have suited his talents but was inconsistent on both short and long routes. Western Kentucky's Mike White didn't make any major mistakes and was good enough on all throws to stay in the late-round conversation, but he missed an opportunity to stand out the way Shimonek did. The other quarterbacks did not distinguish themselves.
Saturday Speed Merchant: D.J. Chark, Wide Receiver, LSU
What he did
D.J. Chark set the pace among wide receiver prospects with a 4.34-second 40. That's faster than former LSU receiver Odell Beckham Jr. ran at his combine.
Oh by the way, Chark is also 6'3".
Brief pre-combine scouting report
Playing wide receiver at LSU these days means blocking for lots and lots of running plays while waiting for the chance to catch a play-action bomb or run a reverse. Chark gets tangled at the line and hasn't shown much as a route-runner besides going deep and squaring up in front of cornerbacks who are afraid that he will go deep. He's a willing, sometimes effective blocker.
What he said
Chark on playing receiver for such a run-focused program: "You have to respect the talent that we had in the backfield; it's not ordinary talent so you don't complain. But when you get your shot, you have to make the most of it, which I felt like I was able to do this year. A lot of teams throw the ball a lot so they get more exposure. I feel like it's not about numbers anymore. It's about what's being put on film."
For a raw and relatively one-dimensional receiver like Chark, a 4.34 marks the difference between a second- or third-round selection and banishment to the bottom of the draft board. Chark may not be a bigger, faster OBJ, but he has the tools to stick on a roster as a lid-lifter while adjusting to an NFL-style offense.
Saturday Moneymaker: Christian Kirk, WR, Texas A&M
What he did
The former Aggies slot weapon, Christian Kirk, defied his quicker-than-fast reputation with a 4.46-second 40. Kirk also benched 20 reps, which is impressive for a 200-pound receiver and perfect for the rugged blocking-and-RPO-filled life of the modern slot receiver.
Brief pre-combine scouting report
Kirk is a darting middle-of-the-field possession receiver and returner with the moves and power to generate yards after catch. His hands and ability to track bad balls are not ideal, but his willingness to throw his body around in the briar patch makes him the kind of slot player who can stay on the field in run-oriented packages.
What he said
"This 'lacks elite speed' phrase is my all-time favorite phrase in this process. Say less," Kirk tweeted in January, punctuated by the "hush" emoji.
The Aggies lined Kirk up all over the place and ran lots of screens and options to get the ball in his hands. That makes him tricky to project in the NFL, where route precision will matter more than the ability to wiggle through traffic after a bubble screen. But the pure athleticism Kirk displayed during workouts will make evaluators more comfortable selecting him in the second round and using him as an all-purpose role player until he refines his route running and catching skills.
The One-Man Philly Special
The NFL didn't quite know what to do with N.C. State's versatile Jaylen Samuels this week. Samuels played various positions, including slot receiver, for the Wolfpack. He practiced and played as a traditional running back during Senior Bowl week. So, of course, he worked out at the combine with...the tight ends.
"It was the NFL's choice," Samuels said on Friday. "It wasn't my choice. At first they had me with running backs and then they switched halfway through to tight ends. Teams in the league tell me they see me playing running back."
Maybe the league was making room at wide receiver or running back for Lamar Jackson or something. But at least Samuels got the chance to execute some running back drills after his tight end drills. And he had a strong day overall: a 4.55-second 40, a 10'1" broad jump, which ranked third among "tight ends," and an impressive showing as a receiver during gauntlet drills.
A little bit of confusion about Samuels' position is understandable. Recruited as an H-back type, Samuels became a combination slot playmaker/move tight end/situational running back for the Wolfpack. He caught 76 passes (including four touchdowns) last season while rushing for 403 yards and 12 touchdowns.
The first step to scouting Samuels was often finding where he was hiding in the formation. He was N.C. State's favorite target for shovel passes and slot screens, but he also worked the middle of the field for tough third downs, was a trigger man on various reverses and misdirection plays and often got the call for rugged goal-line runs.
Then came the Senior Bowl, when the 225-pound Samuels flashed the potential to be a three-down workhorse running back.
So the NFL told Samuels he's a running back but made him work out with tight ends. How does this one-man Philly Special see himself?
"I actually got more snaps from the slot. I was in the slot most of the time—third down, red zone, in the backfield—depending on the game and whoever we were playing. Mostly I...I had what, 77 catches this year, so I was mostly slot."
Sounds like Samuels even confused himself. But the label doesn't matter as long as some team gets him onto the field and gives him the ball.
Wide Receiver News and Notes
It will take a while to digest all of the wide receiver workout results and cross-reference them with the game tape. But here are some quick observations and big results from Saturday.
- Alabama's Calvin Ridley ran a 4.43-second 40 and was smooth as silk during gauntlet drills. Ridley glides across the field like he is running on an air hockey table. He also made the best catch of the quarterback sessions when he dove to gobble up an errant throw by Nebraska's Tanner Lee.
- Maryland's D.J. Moore also looked like a natural during the gauntlet drills, and his workout results included a 39.5-inch vertical jump and a 4.07-second 20-yard shuttle (those are really good, folks) to go with a 4.42-second 40.
- South Florida's Marquez Valdes-Scantling is going to attract a lot more attention after posting a 4.37-second 40 at 6'4" and 206 pounds. Valdes-Scantling was another top performer in gauntlet drills, displaying outstanding hands and fine body control.
- Kansas State's Byron Pringle was one of my favorite players at the Senior Bowl, and he ran a 4.46-second 40 with strong shuttle results. The 24-year-old Pringle was inconsistent on the gauntlet, however, with several drops. He's a tricky prospect to evaluate: older with some character issues in his past but with great body control and a competitive streak.
- Courtland Sutton of SMU won the coveted Loudest Obscenity of the Throwing Session award when his disappointment at not hauling in a deep pass echoed through Lucas Oil Stadium. Sutton's workout results did not stand out, but his fluidity during drills did, and he exuded confidence and student-of-the-game enthusiasm during his interviews.
The Inspiring, Electrifying and Utterly Predictable Shaquem Griffin
Central Florida all-purpose defender Shaquem Griffin bench-pressed 225 pounds 20 times Saturday, with a prosthetic taking the place of the left hand that was amputated due to amniotic band syndrome.
It was one of the least awe-inspiring things Griffin has ever done.
His feat of strength was inspirational and amazing, of course. But Griffin makes the inspirational and amazing part of his daily routine.
He intercepted three passes for a major collegiate program, and he didn't have a Winter Soldier-like prosthetic to help him haul in those passes. He recorded 18.5 sacks. Imagine trying to rip away from a 300-pound FBS lineman with just one hand. That's what Griffin did for his entire college career.
His optimism and enthusiasm are always infectious, even though every press appearance is another chance for me and dozens of my colleagues to get weird and awkward asking questions about his...um...er...situation. Being the feel-good story of the football world can be a drag; it can make a player like Griffin more of a symbol than a young man trying to audition for a role in the NFL. But Griffin always makes it look both easy and fun.
He's also a very good middle-round prospect as a nickel package defender and special teams terror. Saturday's workout was just a typical day for him.