At this point next week, Sam Darnold will represent the future of an NFL franchise.
We’ve waited a while: The former Trojan quarterback’s professional future has been the talk of the entire football universe ever since his 27-yard bomb nestled into Deontay Burnett’s arms against Penn State in January 2017. After over a year of constant scrutiny and wild swings of opinion, the time for speculation is almost over.
Darnold will almost certainly be selected within the first five picks of the NFL Draft next Thursday. And upon inking his approximately $30 million contract, he will shoulder the burden of ending years, possibly generations, of misery for his new team’s fanbase.
With the top four selections split between two cities, Darnold will likely find himself in either Cleveland or New York (barring a surprising trade). Each presents a massive challenge — pressure that has crushed the greatest of college quarterbacks — and if he is the top overall pick, as many expect him to be, that pressure will be all the heavier.
Can the 20-year-old survive in Cleveland, where he could become the youngest starting signal caller in the NFL? The Browns have been where quarterbacks go to die since the franchise rebooted in 1999: The franchise’s four first-round quarterbacks in the last two decades have combined for 114 touchdown passes — 53 fewer than the total Andy Dalton has compiled across seven not-so-remarkable professional seasons.
Then again, would he be better off with the Jets, which might be the only franchise that can rival Cleveland’s level of dysfunction? The Browns may have the league’s worst reputation as quarterback developers, but Gang Green can give them a run for their money. New York drafted at the position in four consecutive years (2013-2016) and have so far gotten a total of 37 starts from those selections — the vast majority of which came from Geno Smith, who threw 25 touchdowns and 34 interceptions before fracturing his jaw in a locker room brawl and losing the starting job in 2015.
Things don’t look quite as bleak across town, but joining the New York Giants comes with its own significant hurdles. Darnold may benefit from being Eli Manning’s backup and learning the ropes like Aaron Rodgers did behind Brett Favre in Green Bay, but upon inheriting the starting job, he will also inherit the pressure of succeeding the Manning era, which spanned more than a decade and yielded two championships. It also doesn’t help that Manning has struggled behind one of the most porous offensive lines in the league for the last few seasons: a nightmare Darnold won’t be keen to relive after taking eight sacks against Ohio State to conclude his USC career.
And if he fails to hit the ground running in his new home, Darnold will also have to cope with a media firestorm that will make last season’s ill-fated Heisman Trophy campaign a cakewalk by comparison. As unfair as it may be, Darnold enters the league with the pressure of being both a high draft pick and former Trojan quarterback. Even though Carson Palmer just retired from the NFL with over 45,000 career passing yards, public perception of USC signal callers remains fairly poor following first-round disappointments Matt Leinart and Mark Sanchez.
Of course, the heavier the pressure, the greater the opportunity. Darnold has the chance to be the first Trojan quarterback to play in a Super Bowl, and if he fulfills the potential scouts see in him, he could be immortalized as a franchise savior.
Joe Thomas, the long-time Browns left tackle, was spot-on when he courted free-agent quarterback Kirk Cousins in February.
“I hear Cleveland is nice this time of year,” he tweeted. “[That] is, if you’d like to have a statue someday…”
Indeed, Darnold might get a key to the city if he can bring an end to Browns fans’ decades of suffering or wipe the memory of “The Sanchize” from Jets Nation. There could even be a poetic element to succeeding Manning with the Giants — shades of Mickey Mantle replacing Joe DiMaggio.
Or it could all go wrong: Darnold’s turnover issues could carry over to the next level, or unforeseen injury could derail his career as we have seen with the likes of Andrew Luck and Sam Bradford. Trojan fans won’t think it likely after watching Darnold lose just three games in two years while bouncing off every hit laid on him.
Unlike the start to his collegiate career, however, the 20-year-old won’t be an underdog when beginning his NFL journey. But after Darnold arrived at USC anonymously before departing with a Rose Bowl and conference championship, maybe he’ll find life that much easier starting from the top.
Ollie Jung is a senior majoring in print and digital journalism. His column, “Jung Money,” ran Fridays.