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First-year college phenom Sam Howell is starting over in the NFL

Crissy Froyd

The 2022 NFL Draft quarterback class was an interesting one that saw signal-callers come off the board in an order that hardly anyone predicted. Among those to fall later than expected was North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell.

Howell was largely projected to be taken absolutely no later than the fourth round with some analysts putting him in the second round or even the late first-round ahead of the event. Instead, he was selected at pick No. 144 overall by the Washington Commanders to kick off the fifth round of action.

This could ultimately end up being a high-value, no-risk pick for the Commanders looking back on this down the line.

Related: Washington Commanders 2022 schedule and game-by-game predictions

Sam Howell’s college career and the narrative surrounding it

sam howell, north carolina
Vasha Hunt-USA TODAY Sports

Two completely different narratives surrounded Sam Howell between the 2020 season and the 2021 campaign. In the former, the one that preceded Howell being named an early QB1 or QB2 in the draft class, there were questions as to whether his success was a product of his own doing or if he was simply reaping the benefits of those around him.

Howell completed 68.1% of his passes for 3,586 yards (an impressive average of 10.3 yards per attempt) with 30 touchdowns and seven interceptions. In 2021, he took a moderate step back on the stat sheet, completing 62.5% of his pass attempts for 3,056 yards with 24 touchdowns and nine interceptions.

64% completion, 10,283 passing yards, 1,009 rushing yards, 109 total TD, 23 INT

SAM HOWELL COLLEGE STATS

At times, there were some decision-making and consistency issues on Howell’s end. But much of the overall problem within a team that only won seven games seemed to stem from incompetent offensive line play and a subpar supporting cast.

In his own right, Howell came in clutch for the team on several plays and wasn’t afraid to use his mobility to move the chains for the team, either. He also held the second-lowest turnover-worthy play rate at 2.2% in 2021 according to Pro Football Focus, behind only North Carolina State quarterback Devin Leary.

Also according to PFF, Howell’s 2020 big-time throw rate of 8.8% was the third-highest in a single season since 2016, behind only former Florida quarterback Kyle Trask (8.9%) and current South Carolina signal-caller Spencer Rattler (9.4%) in 2020.

Howell had some good moments in offseason showcases like the Reese’s Senior Bowl, and couldn’t have been more confident in the type of quarterback he is and the versatile skillset he brings to the table for an NFL team.

“I feel like I’ve got the best arm in the class,” Howell told me at the Senior Bowl. “I have the ability to make every throw on the field.” “I think I bring great leadership. I think I can rally a team better than anyone else. I have no limitations mentally or athletically. I can make any throw, I can run the ball, and mentally, I can handle anything an offensive coordinator wants to do.”

Crissy Froyd’s 2022 NFL Draft QB Rankings:

  1. Carson Strong, Nevada.
  2. Kenny Pickett, Pittsburgh.
  3. Matt Corral, Ole Miss
  4. Malik Willis, Liberty.
  5. Sam Howell, UNC.

Sam Howell’s biggest area for improvement starts with the feet

Sam Howell at Washington Commanders Rookie Minicamp
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Among the knocks on Howell was his footwork overall. Within Phil Longo’s scheme, there wasn’t a lot of stressing over quarterbacks’ footwork as long as it wasn’t drastically affecting their play as a whole. More emphasis was put on trigger time and avoiding the quarterback tensing up in the upper body due to overthinking upper-body mechanics.

Howell received praise for his trigger time on his routes in college, something that was a positive trait of his on display from the time he was a true freshman.

When I asked Howell about his opinions of him from that perspective and on other aspects of his game, he said he wasn’t looking into the outside noise and that he was just focused on being consistent every play without completely overhauling anything.

“I can’t speak for what people expect — I don’t really know what they say,” Howell said. “I’m not trying to change anything fundamentally,” Howell said. “It’s just doing it consistently—have good fundamentals on every play. There’s definitely a little bit of an adjustment from the footwork we did in college that’s going to be a little bit different in the NFL. So, it’s been just trying to get more comfortable with that. There’s a lot more timing throws in the NFL so I’m going to have to be a lot more consistent with my feet and that’s something I’ve been focusing on is NFL footwork.”

Sam Howell making transition to the NFL and a long-term outlook

Howell had a lot of responsibility at the line of scrimmage with the Tar Heels and between that, his positive traits as a passer, and the mobility he brings that can be helpful in the modern NFL, it’s reasonable to believe he’ll make a smooth transition.

Howell says he believes the offense he played in under Longo that had Air Raid passing concepts with a power run game to it and some play-action off of it is something that helps translate to the NFL as well.

It’s not out of the picture for Howell to eventually become a starter in the NFL at some point whether it be with the Commanders or a different team. The fit is a good one, though, with the way the Commanders have utilized quarterbacks like Taylor Heinicke who, while there are certainly differences, does have some similarities in his game to Howell’s.

For 2022, Howell projects to be the backup to Carson Wentz, who the Commanders acquired in a trade with the Indianapolis Colts earlier this offseason. Washington took on Wentz’s full contract.

  • Carson Wentz contract: $22 million ($6.294 million roster bonus) in 2022; $20 million ($6.176 million roster bonus) in 2023 and $20 million (with $6.235 million roster bonus) in 2024.

In exchange for the quarterback and a 2022 second-round selection, the Colts received a 2022 third-round pick, a 2022 second-round pick and a 2023 third-round pick that can become a second-round pick if Wentz sees action on 70% of Washington’s offensive plays in 2022.

Wentz finished out the 2021 season, his lone campaign in Indianapolis, with a 62.4% completion percentage, 3,563 passing yards, 27 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Depending upon how well he performs in 2022 will play a large role in just how quickly Howell may see the field.

If Head Coach Ron Rivera is pleased with what he gets out of Wentz this season, Howell should develop into a high-end, reliable backup if and until he’s given an opportunity to assume the helm in DC or elsewhere.

His former offensive coordinator seems confident in the latter.

“It’s hard for me to project why,” Longo said in a report from David Harrison of Washington Football on Sports Illustrated. “I know that Sam was evaluated very highly. I know that it seemed to be a surprise to the scouts and NFL coaches that I know that he was still around in the fifth.”

All Sam needs is an opportunity, and that’s what Washington is providing him with,” Longo continued. “And I know he’s elated to be with the Commanders … he just wants an opportunity to go and compete.”

Howell’s future will be something to monitor throughout the season as the Commanders open the season at home against the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sept. 11.

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