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Path to the Passer: Sam Darnold is gunslinger who may go No. 1

(This is the latest in a series of stories profiling potential quarterback options for the Buffalo Bills leading up to the NFL Draft.)

NFL observers can't resist drawing rave comparisons when watching Southern California quarterback Sam Darnold's ability to improvise big plays from the pocket with his big arm and nimble feet.

"I'll tell you, he reminds me of a younger Tony Romo," said former UCLA coach Jim Mora two years ago. "He's bigger, but that type of ability and he's smart and he's poised and confident."

"He reminds me of a Tony Romo-type, personality, body-wise," said NFL Network analyst David Carr. "He plays quarterback like a shortstop maybe, because he throws a lot of off balance throws but makes it look really easy."

"Tremendously special kid," said former NFL QB Trent Dilfer on the Rich Eisen Podcast. "He's got a little Romo in him. He's got a little Brett Farve in him. He can play from the pocket. He's does stuff you can't teach."

Those kind of comparisons are why Darnold is being talked about as the possible No. 1 overall pick in the NFL Draft.

Cleveland is expected to take a big-armed quarterback with the No. 1 overall pick, and many NFL observers think Darnold should be their man. Cleveland general manager John Dorsey was part of the Kansas City team that traded up for the biggest-armed QB in last year's draft, Patrick Mahomes.

If the Browns were to opt for Wyoming's Josh Allen, then Darnold would be in play for the Buffalo Bills, if they could swing a deal to get the No. 2 pick. It's a lot of speculation five weeks before the draft. But fans can rest assured a move to No. 2 would be the only way he could become a Bill. He's not lasting on the board any longer than the top three, if he doesn't go No. 1.

"Right now I have him as my No. 1 quarterback," said NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock on a national media conference call. "The reason I do is I think he’s got plus size, plus arm strength, an outstanding athlete, and I really liked the way he extends plays inside and outside the pocket. When he scrambles or moves it’s with the intent of getting the ball down the field. His eyes are always up."

"He is a gunslinger, and he will put the ball up for grabs at times," Mayock said. "But he can play in all 32 cities. He can play indoors. He can play outdoors."

Says Pac-12 Network analyst Yogi Roth, a former USC QB coach: "Sam is a difference-maker. I haven't seen a guy like him come out in a long time that has his athletic traits combined with his size and ability to make the ball speak and make it finish on the facemask."

Of course, no one enters the NFL without question marks.

ESPN analyst Mel Kiper ranks Allen just ahead of Darnold.

"Darnold just didn’t have the great year that was anticipated," Kiper says. "He came into the year looking like the clear-cut No. 1 pick overall. Struggled. Some bad habits were developed. Made some bad decisions, some ill-advised throws, had some fumbles. Ball security was an issue, holding the ball with one hand like a loaf of bread in the pocket."

Kiper points out that UCLA's Josh Rosen clearly outplayed Darnold in their head-to-head matchup in November.

"Two years ago he looked clearly like the No. 1 player in the country by a mile," Kiper said of Darnold. "So you have to balance out last year and this year. You can excuse away some of it. You can’t excuse away all of it."

Darnold has classic size, at 6-foot-3 1/2, 221 pounds. He was 20-4 as a USC starter while completing 64.9 percent of his passes with 57 TDs and 22 interceptions.

As Kiper says, Darnold's red-shirt freshman season in 2016 was better than the 2017 campaign. His TD-INT numbers were 31-9 in 10 starts in 2016, and he capped the year with an epic performance, leading USC to a 52-49 Rose Bowl win over Penn State. Darnold threw for 453 yards with five TDs and one INT in that game.

USC this season lost two top receivers, current Steelers star JuJu Smith-Schuster and Darreus Rogers, and its offensive line was younger. He had a lot fewer clean pockets this past season.

Darnold had 12 fumbles (nine lost) to go with 13 INTs. USC went 11-3, closing with a 24-7 loss to Ohio State in the Cotton Bowl.

"This season out of all the picks, other than two, I don't think any coach would have a problem with them," Roth said. "I think he'd say, yeah, make that throw. I think Sam Darnold completes more throws than most quarterbacks would even attempt."

"Washington State, Notre Dame and Ohio State – those were the three games that make you shake your head and say what's going on here?" Kiper said. "Because there were a lot of unforced errors in those games."

"He has a history of fumbling going back to high school," Mayock said. "But I think fumbling can be controlled in the pocket. I think that’s one of the few things you can learn in the pocket as an NFL quarterback, how to keep both hands on the football and control some of the fumbling."

Darnold acknowledges he must protect the ball better.

"The No. 1 priority of a quarterback is to protect the football," he said at the NFL Scouting Combine. "I’m aware of that, and I’m aware how much I turn the ball over and that it’s not OK. I’ve been addressing it this offseason. I’ve been working on keeping two hands in the pocket at all times."

Darnold doesn't turn 21 until June. He played mostly linebacker as a sophomore in high school and missed most of his junior year with a foot injury. Then he was great as a senior at San Clemente High in Southern California. It's impressive how good he is at such an early stage of his development.

Roth did a weekly podcast with Darnold this season and says Darnold has the mental makeup to handle NFL pressure.

"This past season was the first time that he had a full year of hype around him ever," Roth said. "Where I was most impressed with Sam, and I can say this from being with him every week for our podcast, was he truly shut it down around the NFL all season long. He has that muscle to just hone in, lock in. I think that's an overlooked element with him."

"He's critical of himself, he's honest with himself," Roth said. "He's not giving you the PC quarterback answer, which we hear a lot of the time. To me, when you get that, a lot of the time the quarterback doesn't really know himself that well, doesn't know his voice."

At his best, Darnold demonstrates hard-to-teach elite pocket presence.

"I think I can make split-second decisions and just kind of let it go," Darnold said. "Again, sometimes that can get you in trouble, and that’s what I’ve been working on. Just going with my instincts is my best attribute, I would say."

"I think Sam out of all the quarterbacks in this year's draft has the highest ceiling," Roth said.

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