Commanders QB Sam Howell transcends fifth-round status in impressive preseason

·8 min read

One of the more interesting discussions of the 2022 NFL preseason has been how former North Carolina and current Washington Commanders quarterback Sam Howell lasted until the first overall pick in the fifth round of this draft. Howell was the sixth quarterback taken in a quarterback-light draft where only one — Pitt’s Kenny Pickett 20th overall by the Pittsburgh Steelers — was taken in the first round.

This would have seemed an impossibility after his 2019 and 2020 seasons, in which Howell combined for 68 touchdowns and just 14 interceptions. At that point, Howell looked for all the world like a lead-pipe first-round pick. But in 2021, Howell lost his two best running backs (Javonte Williams and Michael Carter) as well as his two best receivers (Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome) to the NFL.

Changes in personnel and scheme forced Howell to essentially become a running back — he carried the ball 183 times for 828 yards and 11 touchdowns — and with all that, he still completed 217 passes on 347 attempts for 3,056 yards, 24 touchdowns, and nine interceptions. Howell’s numbers were down as a passer from the previous seasons, but his opportunities to attack a defense were different, and he seemed to embrace them — adding that running threat to his palette.

In his preseason debut against the Carolina Panthers on August 13, Howell got to watch doppelganger Baker Mayfield do his thing with his new NFL team, and Howell responded positively, completing nine of 16 passes for 145 yards.

Things weren’t quite as solid against the Chiefs in Week 2 — he completed 10 of 18 passes for 122 yards, no touchdowns, and an interception — so the stage was set on Saturday against the Ravens for Howell to show which version of himself he had really brought to the NFL. He answered definitively, completing 24 of 53 passes for 280 yards, his first NFL touchdown pass, and no interceptions. Howell also ran eight times for 62 yards, leading the team in rushing.

Yes, it was the third preseason game, and Howell was playing against mostly second- and third-teamers. But he was also playing with mostly second- and third-teamers, including himself. Howell probably hasn’t done enough to wrest the starting job away from Carson Wentz, nor the backup job from Taylor Heinicke, but given the YOLO tendencies both Wentz and Heinicke have shown through their careers, Howell may be on a fast track to something special in 2023 and beyond.

“It felt great,” Howell said of his opportunity to play all the snaps against the Ravens. “[I’m] really appreciative of the coaches for having the confidence in me to go the whole way. Obviously, I still have a lot to work on, but it was great seeing the whole game through. I thought that that was a big advantage for me going into the regular season – getting to play the whole game here.”

What did Howell show, and how did he progress, in his final preseason game? Let’s go to the tape.

Taking the deep shots.

(Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports)

In his first two games, Howell attempted seven passes of 20 or more air yards, completing just one for 22 yards. Most of his passes were in the short to intermediate range, and a few behind the line of scrimmage. If the Commanders were just trying to get Howell’s feet under him, that process took a sharp step forward against the Ravens. Howell completed two of five passes of 20 or more air yards, and he should have two more on the right side of the ledger — his old North Carolina teammate Dyami Brown complicated things.

There was this deep shot over the middle with 13:44 left in the first quarter, where Brown got tripped up on the route, and wasn’t where he needed to be.

Brown did catch two passes for 45 yards, but he left too much meat on the bone.

“It was great,” Howell said of playing with Brown again. “He’s one of my best friends, and it was like old times back at UNC. I just wish I could have connected with him a couple of times.”

So, he’s got the “don’t blame your receivers, even when it’s their fault” part of the quarterback thing down.

More encouraging was this 28-yard completion to receiver Matt Cole with 1:41 left in the third quarter. Howell let the route develop, and then threw the ball up where Cole could get it, and where cornerback David Vereen couldn’t.

Evading and eliminating pressure.

(Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports)

Howell was pressured far too often for anybody’s liking against the Ravens — he took five sacks, and Baltimore had 12 quarterback hits. This was the fault of his offensive line to a degree, but there were also times when Howell’s own rogue gene would have him running into (and out of, and back into) stuff that shouldn’t have happened.

Another problem was something head coach Ron Rivera brought up after the game — Howell wasn’t dropping deep enough at certain times.

“I think one of the things that he has learned is trying to hang in a little bit longer in the pocket,” Rivera said. “One of the things talking to him about is that he is short on some of his five-step drops, he stays very close to the line, and he needs to play a little bit deeper. If he got deeper, it would help the offensive line.”

Howell agreed with this assessment when asked if the dropback process is different in the NFL than it was in college.

“Yes, it really is, and I’m getting more comfortable with it, but it is something that I need to work on. It really goes to hand-eye coordination, but also with the rest of your body, as well.”

Here’s one negative example of how that looks — on this sack with 1:36 left in the fourth quarter, Howell could have helped himself with a better understanding of pocket movement. He seems more inclined at this point in his career to either hang in the pocket, or bail to run. He needs to figure out the balance in-between.

Winning as a runner -- for good and bad.

(Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports)

One reason Howell bails too early to run at times is that, through his time in college and in the NFL, he can make things go on the ground. This is both good and bad for his development as a pure quarterback. There are times when running is the only option, and he will get yards some other quarterbacks couldn’t. But when you’re running every time the first thing you see breaks down, you tend to miss the nuances of the position that elevate the best quarterbacks into the Pantheon.

On this 10-yard run against the Ravens’ Cover-3, Howell seemed at odds with the throw to his left when linebacker Malik Harrison dropped into short coverage off a mug blitz look. He could have had time to complete to Brown to his front side, especially if he had moved in the pocket, but he tucked and ran instead of making the progression read. A 10-yard gain is a 10-yard gain, but there was more to be done here.

To his credit, Howell is aware of the issues in this regard.

“I think I’m pretty poised in the pocket, but it is just going to come with more reps and more work,” he said after the Ravens game. “When things do start to break down, I tend to rely on my feet a little, but that’s always served me well.

“Really, it’s about simulating game situations and different types of rushes. It’s more mental reps and then putting that to your body. And then, it’s about just going through the process and getting more comfortable with the offense.”

A fifth-round bargain? Absolutely.

(Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports)

It seems that the Commanders understand what they have in Howell. Wentz’s wild variance will show up at some point in the regular season — most likely, at the worst possible time. Taylor Heinicke is a good backup and spot starter who will bang his head against his own ceiling if asked to do too much. Rivera’s team has enough other issues to probably prevent them from serious contention, which gives them time to work on Howell’s development.

I have been impressed with Howell’s development in his first preseason. You can tell when young players take what they’re given from their coaches — as long as those coaches are not engaging in organizational malpractice — to move forward to where they really need to be. Howell has outstanding mentors in offensive coordinator Scott Turner and quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese, which takes him out of the Justin Fields/Matt Nagy or Trevor Lawrence/Darrell Bevell/Brian Schottenheimer purgatory.

“It was very important for us to really get a chance to evaluate the young quarterback,” Rivera concluded. “He has a very bright future in this league. He has a lot of growing to do. I know Scott and Ken will go through this with a fine-tooth comb and emphasize the things that he could have done better. He was exciting to watch, he made some really good decisions, and he made some decisions that could have been better. He did a nice job.”

Sam Howell did a very nice job in his first preseason. How long it takes him to get full starts in the regular season is up to him, and the vagaries of the quarterbacks above him on the depth chart.

But overall? Not bad for a fifth-round pick, who never should have been a fifth-round pick in the first place.

Story originally appeared on Touchdown Wire