Looking Back at Sam Howell and his College Skillset

LANDOVER, MARYLAND - JANUARY 08: Quarterback Sam Howell #14 of the Washington Commanders runs with the ball against the Dallas Cowboys at FedExField on January 08, 2023 in Landover, Maryland. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
LANDOVER, MARYLAND - JANUARY 08: Quarterback Sam Howell #14 of the Washington Commanders runs with the ball against the Dallas Cowboys at FedExField on January 08, 2023 in Landover, Maryland. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images) /

During the 2023 NFL season, we will see some young quarterbacks take their first snaps as the full-time starter for their teams. This includes Sam Howell, who was selected in the fifth round of the 2022 NFL Draft by the Washington Commanders and appeared in just one game last season. Let’s take a look back at his college career and see whether or not he has what it takes to be a long-term starter in the NFL.

Sam Howell’s journey from North Carolina to the NFL

Sam Howell’s journey to the NFL was pretty incredible. In 2019, he joined the North Carolina Tar Heels as a four-star dual-threat quarterback and the fourth-ranked quarterback in his class behind Spencer Rattler, Jayden Daniels, and Bo Nix.

Howell didn’t waste any time getting on the field, as he started every single game as a true freshman, a rare accomplishment in college football. Most freshmen who step on the field right away tend to struggle early on, but that wasn’t the case with Howell, as he completed 61.4% of his passes and threw for 3,641 yards, 38 touchdowns, and just seven interceptions.

He was extremely efficient, especially considering his age, as he ranked 15th in the nation in yards per pass attempt and 11th in passer rating. He was a more efficient passer as a true freshman than some seasoned veterans like Sam Ehlinger and Jake Fromm.

He didn’t show off his dual-threat ability during his first season at North Carolina, but that would change later on. We’ll get to that in a little bit.

Sam Howell’s freshman season was amazing, but he was even better as a sophomore, completing 68.1% of his passes and throwing for 3,586 yards, 30 touchdowns, and just seven interceptions. His counting stats were a bit worse in 2020, but his efficiency took a big leap as he ranked sixth in the nation in yards per pass attempt and eighth in passer rating.

He was also more productive as a rusher, recording 146 total rushing yards and five rushing touchdowns. His rushing productivity wasn’t out of this world, but it was definitely better than his freshman season when he rushed for less than 50 yards across the entire season.

PFF agreed that Howell’s sophomore season was a major improvement, as his PFF grade jumped from 78.9 (40th in the country) in 2019 to 92.6 (5th in the country) in 2020. His improvements in terms of accuracy and decision-making helped him become one of the top quarterbacks in college football.

After the 2020 season, North Carolina lost a lot of talent offensively, as two of their starting wide receivers (Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome) and two of their running backs (Javonte Williams and Michael Carter) left for the NFL. This hurt Howell’s production, as he completed just 62.5% of his passes and threw for 3,056 yards, 24 touchdowns, and nine interceptions. His passing production wasn’t bad by any means, but it was nowhere near as good as it was the previous season.

With most of his talented teammates moving on to the NFL, Howell was forced to carry a larger load as a runner, and he excelled in this area, rushing for 828 yards and 11 touchdowns. After rushing for just 181 yards through his first two seasons, he became one of the best rushing quarterbacks in college football, ranking third among quarterbacks in total rushing yards in 2021. Howell had his worst passing season as a junior in 2021, but he was still very good, sporting a PFF grade of 90.2, which was lifted up by his elite rushing output.

After three strong seasons at North Carolina, Sam Howell entered the 2022 NFL Draft, and he was considered a potential first-round pick early on in the pre-draft process. That changed as the scouting community soured on the quarterback class as a whole, and he fell to the fifth round, where the Washington Commanders finally selected him.

Quarterbacks who go this late in the draft usually aren’t given an opportunity to show off their skills in the NFL, but that will not be the case for Sam Howell, as the Commanders are giving him a chance to start next season.

Let’s dive further into his skillset, explore his strengths and weaknesses, and discuss whether or not he has what it takes to be a long-term starter in the NFL.

What is Sam Howell’s ceiling in the NFL?

Sam Howell’s statistical profile coming out of college was extremely impressive. He broke out as a true freshman and had three seasons of high-level production. He also displayed high-level traits outside of the numbers, like elite arm strength and high-level mobility. These traits could allow him to reach a reasonably high ceiling if he grows as a passer.

He was far from perfect, though, as he had a few significant issues in college. For starters, he had questionable mechanics, and his over-the-top delivery was extremely exaggerated and put a lot of pressure on his arm, leading to accuracy issues.

He also had poor pocket awareness and would take a lot of unnecessary sacks. This is a significant issue for a quarterback prospect because avoiding sacks is a highly valuable skill. While poor offensive line play can and will lead to a quarterback facing lots of pressure, quarterbacks can evade sacks by moving within the pocket or running outside the pocket to extend plays. This is important because sacks can kill a drive and hurt a team’s chances of scoring on a possession.

Accuracy and sack avoidance were huge issues for Howell throughout his college career, as his career accuracy rate of 74.6% and career pressure-to-sack rate of 27.1% were both concerning for a quarterback prospect. With these issues, it’s not completely shocking that he fell outside the first round. Still, he had a lot of high-level traits, and his statistical profile was too strong for him to fall to the fifth round.

There’s a chance Howell continues to struggle with accuracy and pocket awareness, which could cause him to struggle and look like post-Eagles Carson Wentz. Sorry, Colts and Commanders fans. Hopefully, you can forget the painful memories.

Howell may have an outlier development track, though, and improve upon his weaknesses. This is entirely possible because he is just 22 years old and has a long track record of great production. If this happens, he could be a good starter due to his high-level physical tools.

It’s basically impossible to make any definitive predictions about how Sam Howell will perform this season because he hasn’t played a full season of football in over a year. However, it’s clear that the Commanders have a talented young gunslinger with some serious potential. Also, Washington is a good situation for Howell, as the team has a good head coach, a plethora of talented pass catchers, and a strong defense. If Howell doesn’t work out, It won’t be because his situation was unfavorable.

This season will be huge for Sam Howell and the Washington Commanders

This season will be massively important for Sam Howell and the Washington Commanders. If Howell succeeds, the Commanders may have a franchise quarterback on a very cheap contract. If not, the team will be stuck searching for their QB1 yet again.

There will certainly be some growing pains for Howell this season, but the talent is evident, and there’s a realistic chance that he could overperform his draft slot and become a long-term starter in the NFL. The Commanders just have to be patient and let him grow. If they do that, the benefits could be remarkable.