Commander in Chief: Sam Howell could be Washington’s starting QB sooner than you think

Outside of Pitt’s Kenny Pickett, who went to the Steelers with the 20th overall pick, the 2022 NFL draft turned into one of those exceedingly rare exercises in which quarterbacks were not overcooked as draft prospects due to the overall value of the position.

Desmond Ridder went to the Falcons in the third round, with the 74th overall pick. Malik Willis went to the Titans in the third round, with the 86th overall pick. Ole Miss’ Matt Corral went to the Panthers in the third round, with the 94th overall pick.

And North Carolina’s Sam Howell was taken by the Washington Commanders in the fifth round, with the 144th overall pick.

That last quarterback? Perhaps the biggest surprise. Had Howell been available for the draft in 2021, after he completed 68.1% of his passes and averaged 10.3 yards per attempt, throwing 30 touchdowns to seven interceptions, things could have been very different — especially after a 2019 season in which Howell completed 61.4% of his passes for 8.6 yards per attempt, 38 touchdowns, and seven interceptions. At that point, Howell looked for all the world like the next great NFL prospect.

Then, before the 2021 season, Howell lost his two best running backs (Javonte Williams, Michael Carter) and his two best receivers (Dyami Brown, Dazz Newsome) to the NFL, and he was left in the eye of the hurricane. Howell responded by completing 62.5% of his passes for 8.8 yards per attempt, 24 touchdowns, and nine interceptions.

It looks like a fall from Howell’s previous efficiency and production until you look at what Howell had to work with, and how he responded with more stuff in his skill set. Howell ran for a total of 181 yards and six touchdowns in his first two collegiate seasons; he upped that to 828 rushing yards and 11 rushing touchdowns on 183 carries.

“Yeah, it was a little different,” Howell said about the switch from the personnel he knew, to the personnel he didn’t — not at the same level, at least.. “Obviously, same system, but we just kind of did some different things this past year. A lot more quarterback-run stuff this past year, and not as much of the vertical passing game. We kind of got more involved in the intermediate passing game, so, it’s all still from the same system, but definitely, we did some different things.”

When asked about all those losses before the 2021 season, Howell was stoic about the whole thing.

“Yeah, definitely a little bit of a challenge, but to be honest with you, I think we had some really good players this past year, and I wouldn’t have traded those guys for anybody in the world. They’re all really talented players and work very, very hard. Obviously, we didn’t achieve everything we wanted to achieve this past year, but we learned so much throughout it, so for that, I wouldn’t trade this past year for anything.”

As it turns out, Howell may be in better shape in 2022 than he was in 2021 from a global perspective. The Commanders have Carson Wentz and Taylor Heinicke as their two quarterbacks with any real NFL experience, and both of those quarterbacks have had more than enough up-and-down moments to leave things open to a greater or lesser degree in a competitive sense.

The Commanders weren’t looking for a quarterback in the draft, especially after trading for Wentz, but Howell proved too attractive to avoid — especially that far down the boards.

“Once we got Carson as our starter, we got off the quarterback train for the most part,” head coach Ron Rivera said after the pick was made. “To have Sam fall to us was something we had to jump on. We had a very good grade on him — he was, at that point, the highest guy left on our board… We feel this was a home run for us.”

It could be, and it could be a home run in the early innings. Based on Howell’s tape over the last two seasons, he shows the attributes you want in a young, developmental starter.

Howell's connection with Dyami Brown.

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The then-Washington Football Team selected Dyami Brown in the third round of the 2021 draft, and Brown caught just 12 passes on 25 targets for 165 yards and no touchdowns. Brown showed a lot more on the field for the Tar Heels in 2020, when he caught a team-high 55 passes for 1,099 yards, and eight touchdowns. The connection between Howell and Brown was undeniable, and it showed up especially on deep shot plays. On this 37-yard touchdown pass against Virginia Tech, watch how Howell gets the ideal touch and arc on the ball, to make the catch quite easy.

“He’s one of my best friends,” Howell said of Brown after the two were reunited. “We had so much fun at North Carolina, so I just can’t wait to play with him again.”

The fit in Scott Turner's offense.

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Washington offensive coordinator Scott Turner’s ideal offense isn’t that different than the ones his dad, Norv Turner, put on NFL fields for decades. The “Turner passing game” features three-digit vertical concepts from the Don Coryell and Sid Gillman trees, accentuated with heavy play-action and a (hopefully) dominant run game. Even in today’s quick-game era, you’re going to see more deep drops than the NFL average.

Last season per Sports Info Solutions, Heinicke took 168 dropbacks into five- and seven-step drops, completing 89 of 157 passes for 1,177 air yards, 850 air yards, six touchdowns, and eight interceptions. For the Colts in 2021, Wentz completed 71 of 128 passes on deeper drops for 1,222 yards, 856 air yards, seven touchdowns, and two interceptions.

One of the reasons the Commanders went all-in on Wentz is absolutely his big-play ability on plays that take longer to develop. Last season for the Tar Heels, Howell completed 16 passes on 36 attempts for 307 yards, 262 air yards, two touchdowns, and one interception. Back in 2020, when North Carolina was using more downfield concepts, Howell completed five of 10 deep-drop passes for 81 yards, 63 air yards, two touchdowns, and no interceptions.

Howell is seen by some as a simple, RPO-based quarterback, which makes people think that he’s not a great downfield passer, but in 2020, he completed 28 of 60 passes of 20 or more air yards for 1,125 yards, 11 touchdowns, and two interceptions. Last season, he completed 23 of 71 such passes for 838 yards, 10 touchdowns, and four interceptions.

What does that tell you? That Howell can make accurate deep throws even without deep drops.

This fade touchdown last season against North Carolina State shows once again Howell’s ability to do more than throw fastballs — he’s got timing, touch, and good location sense as well as the deep velocity. This is how to graduate from arm strength to arm talent.

Elimination and isolation.

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Greg Cosell, who has worked for NFL Films since 1979 and help invent film breakdown in a public sense with the NFL Matchup show in 1984, has a great phrase about quarterbacks. As Greg says, you want your quarterback to be able to eliminate what isn’t there, and isolate what is there, in a hurry — and consistently. Otherwise, there’s too much noise on the field, and mistakes will be made.

Another thing to point out about Howell is that he’s more than a one-read guy. On this touchdown pass to Antoine Green against Pitt, Howell has a chance to check out the backside comeback and the frontside slot option route. He may want Green all the way on the corner fake to the post, but you can see him going through the progressions before he gets there — which also gives Green the time to make his move in the vicinity of the end zone. The ability to discern what’s the best option is clear.

Howell does need some work on this — he’s still at a point in his development where he’s telegraphing things too often — but you can see how things can go over time.

Winning as a runner.

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Howell isn’t just a good straight runner; he also has the ability to make precision throws when on the move in second-reaction situations. On this 18-yard completion to Emery Simmons, Howell gets flushed out of the pocket, but instead of making a random throw, he waits for the in-cut to develop on the switch release, and makes the right throw.

What still needs work.

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There are times when Howell will go for the hero ball when he really shouldn’t — while he’s efficient for the most part, this interception against Pitt is exactly what you don’t want from your quarterback. It’s not quite “Carson Wentz throwing picks with his left hand” stuff, but QB1 needs to know when it’s time to avoid the YOLO balls, and live for the next down. The Commanders already have enough YOLO with Wentz.

How far can Sam Howell go?

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Given Howell’s size (6-foot-1, 218 pounds) and occasional daredevil sandlot style, the automatic comparison has been to Baker Mayfield, and there is obviously some physical resemblance. There are elements of Mayfield in Howell’s play, but I would compare him to another mid-round draft pick who had to compete against a recently-acquired veteran quarterback, and made it clear that he was the guy from his rookie minicamp.

In 2012, the Seahawks signed Matt Flynn to a deal that was lucrative beyond anything Flynn had done on the field, and they also selected Russell Wilson in the third round. Halfway through the preseason, everybody knew that Wilson was The Guy, and Flynn was not. Media, fans, coaches, teammates. It was as obvious as the proverbial nose on one’s face.

Not that Howell projects out of the box as Wilson did over time, but Wilson didn’t project that way, either — if that were so, Wilson would have been a top-five pick.

In that same draft, the then-Washington Redskins took Robert Griffin III with the second overall pick, and Kirk Cousins in the fourth round. The decision to make Cousins the team’s eventual starter had a lot to do with Griffin’s injuries and Jay Gruden’s stubborn insistence on one kind of quarterback over the other, but the point stands. There are all kinds of opportunities for quarterbacks to exceed their projections immediately, and who’s to say that Sam Howell couldn’t be an example? Based on his 2020 tape, he would have been QB1 in this class, and pretty high up in the 2021 class, which was far more top-heavy.

So, in the “We’re not saying, we’re just saying” department… don’t be too surprised if Sam Howell becomes Washington’s Commander in Chief sooner than you may think.