The pressure was on USC quarterback Sam Darnold. So were the most important eyes of the Browns organization.
Owner Jimmy Haslam sat in the stands, watched and talked to Darnold’s parents. General manager John Dorsey, coach Hue Jackson, coordinator Todd Haley and quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese stood at ground level and studied every dropback, sprint-out and throw.
Then the skies opened and the rain fell in Los Angeles.
Darnold didn’t flinch Wednesday during the Trojans’ pro day, stating his case for the Browns to select him with the No. 1 pick of the NFL Draft on April 26.
“It’s just a job interview and then just coming out here, I thought I showed them the best version of myself,” he said on NFL Network. “I’ve been training really hard for this day, and I thought I did really well.”
Darnold (6-foot-3 3/8, 221 pounds) is considered by many the top quarterback in the draft and the favorite to be chosen No. 1, but it’s a tight quarterback class at the top that includes UCLA’s Josh Rosen, Wyoming’s Josh Allen and Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield.
The Browns have meetings and private workouts scheduled this week with all four. They met with Darnold and had dinner Tuesday night, including Haslam.
“He’s a great guy. That whole staff is awesome,” Darnold said. “I was able to meet with the Giants, as well. So just meeting with both of those organizations, those people are at the top of the world right now, and I’m trying to impress them but at the same time be myself.”
Rather than be intimidated by joining a team that went 0-16, Darnold’s encouraged by the direction the Browns are heading and the recent roster moves by Dorsey.
“I want to be picked by the team that wants me,” he said on ESPN. “It’d be awesome to go No. 1, just because I think what the Browns are doing is really good right now and I think they have potential to be a really good team in the future. Just based on that, yeah, a part of me really wants to go 1.
“But at the same time, if they don’t want me and they don’t pick me, that’s the best situation. Because I don’t want to go to a team that doesn’t want me.”
The pro day was a smashing success, according to the early reviews. Darnold missed a few of the approximately 60 throws but showed consistent accuracy, arm strength and touch in a steady downpour.
He was particularly impressive on a few deep corner routes, and while moving in the pocket to simulate avoiding the pass rush.
“This has been one of the most impressive pro days from an accuracy and ball placement standpoint that I’ve seen,” ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay said.
Darnold chose not to throw at the scouting combine, so the pro day carried more weight.
“I’ll tell you what, despite the rain, it’s pretty darn good,” NFL Network’s Mike Mayock said.
Darnold doesn’t have the giant arm of Allen or the accuracy of Mayfield and Rosen but he might have the best combination of arm strength, athleticism, accuracy and character. Showing he can handle the rain was important for a couple of reasons. The weather is often nasty in Cleveland, and Darnold fumbled 21 times in two years at USC, losing 14.
His hand measurement of 9 3/8 inches at the scouting combine was sufficient and relieved some concerns and he’s been working on keeping two hands on the ball before he throws to avoid being stripped. The ability to grip the wet ball and throw with accuracy should remove other doubts.
“It was really cool to be able to throw in the rain and do what I did, so it was awesome,” he said.
Darnold has been training under former NFL quarterback Jordan Palmer, who said before the workout he wanted it to pour.
“Now you can address hand-size issues, any concerns around that, or weather, a kid from California, so I think we’ll be able to show everything today,” Palmer said on NFL Network. “But with as much good game tape as he has, as impressive as he is in person, I think (today) is actually less relevant in terms of who’s going to take him.”
USC coach Clay Helton said even at 20 years old Darnold is the type of person who sets the tone for the entire team by setting a great example with his work ethic. He’s got some laid-back California in his personality — not the outward fire of Mayfield — but Helton said Darnold’s leadership qualities shouldn’t be underestimated.
“The best one-on-one leader I’ve ever seen,” Helton said. “And when you deal with guys that are at USC, you deal with some dynamic personalities. Sam has that capability to walk over to that personality and to lead him one-on-one, not to call him out, not embarrass him, but to say, hey, this is what I need from you, this is how you can get better and how you can help our team.
“And those guys react to it, they react to that type of leadership, and he’s the best I’ve ever been around in my college career at it.”
Darnold said he let the Browns and other teams see the real him during their private sessions.
“In those meetings, I was just myself,” he said. “I also think that’s what my teammates really like about me is that I’m just going to continue being myself no matter what, out here, in the locker room, in the weight room, walking around campus, seeing guys.
“So, yeah, I think just being the best version of myself is what I strive for and I think I did a good job of that today and these past few days when I’ve been meeting with teams.”
The Browns traded for veteran quarterback Tyrod Taylor last week, and Jackson anointed him the starter. Darnold said he’d be OK sitting and learning.
“I sat for a year under Cody Kessler when he was balling out here,” he said of Cleveland’s third-round pick in 2016. “I thought that was the best thing for me, just because I got to learn the playbook in-depth and then I was able to get my reps on the practice field and I think that really showed my redshirt freshman year when I came out and did what I did.
“There’s two ways of looking at it, but I think either way I’ll be successful.”