That’s the question for early 2017 Heisman debates, and it will continue into the 2018 NFL Draft. USC quarterback Sam Darnold and Penn State running back Saquon Barkley are the top two picks in Sporting News’ first NFL mock draft for 2018, and with good reason.
The last time we saw Darnold and Barkley, they put on a show in the 2017 Rose Bowl. Darnold passed for a Rose Bowl record 453 yards and five TDs. Barkley rushed for 194 yards, added 55 yards receiving and scored three TDs. USC beat Penn State, 52-49, but the carry-over effect of that amazing show for both teams has brought on anticipation for the sequel with Darnold and Barkley.
There’s a long way to the NFL Draft, but they’ll be visible throughout the year. Here’s what Darnold and Barkley have working in their favor heading into 2017:
National title contenders
USC and Penn State were the hottest teams in the country at the end of last season and expectations will be high in the fall.
Sporting News’ post-spring Preseason Top 25 is out, and we have the Trojans ranked No. 2 and the Nittany Lions ranked No. 6. Penn State won the Big Ten championship last season, and USC beat Pac-12 champion Washington. Both teams will be ranked in the Top 10 across the board in the preseason polls.
Westgate Las Vegas released its early Heisman odds last week, and Darnold is the early favorite at 5/1. The first eight players listed are quarterbacks. Barkley is the first running back listed at 20/1, the same odds as Alabama’s Bo Scarbrough.
If Darnold and Barkley can keep their teams in the championship hunt, then there’s more than just a good chance they’ll be in New York as Heisman Trophy finalists.
Let’s go back to that Rose Bowl. Here’s Darnold throwing a TD pass between three defenders:
Now, here’s Barkley weaving through a few more defenders:
Both will fill up Twitter and YouTube with several more highlights during the 2017 season. That’s a promise.
NFL Combine hype
Darnold is part of a quarterback class that also includes UCLA’s Josh Rosen, Louisville’s Lamar Jackson and Wyoming’s Josh Allen. Darnold will have to separate himself from those three and others, and that’s always an unpredictable science. Who thought Mitchell Trubisky and Patrick Mahomes II would go ahead of Deshaun Watson at this time last year?
Barkley, meanwhile, is a physical freak whose combine performance will be must-see TV. We’ve already seen him squat 495 pounds seven times and run a 4.33 in the 40-yard dash. This might be more entertaining than watching Leonard Fournette this year. That’s saying something.
That mock stock will fluctuate during the season, but here’s what SN contributor Eric Galko wrote about Darnold:
“Projected to the be the top quarterback in the 2018 NFL Draft, Darnold’s Rose Bowl performance against Penn State has already won over NFL decision makers. As long as he continues to improve, he’ll be the first quarterback selected.”
Here’s what Galko wrote about Barkley:
“Barkley is a special talent who may grade as high as, if not higher than, Leonard Fournette and Ezekiel Elliott.”
Team needs and draft order will dictate that process, but Darnold and Barkley will have top-five consideration unless something drastic happens.
Draft track record
USC’s quarterback and Penn State’s running back are timeless glamour positions in college football, and Darnold and Barkley are simply the next ones.
Since 2000, former USC quarterbacks Carson Palmer (2003), Matt Leinart (2006) and Mark Sanchez (2009) have been taken in the first round. Darnold will be compared to those three throughout the process.
Same thing with Barkley. Former Penn State running backs Curt Warner (1983), Blair Thomas (1990), Ki-Jana Carter (1995) and Curtis Enis (1998) have been selected with top-five picks since 1980. There are a few busts in there, but Larry Johnson, who was taken with the No. 27 pick in 2003, went on to an excellent career. Those are names Barkley will be compared with over the next year along with top-five picks in Elliott and Fournette.
Enjoy the show. Darnold and Barkley are tremendous playmakers with bright futures in the NFL, but we want to see them for at least one more year on the college level first. Who knows? We might even see a head-to-head sequel during bowl season.