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A realistic projection of Sam Howell’s NFL trajectory

It’s good to have a Plan B

NFL: Washington Commanders Rookie Minicamp Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Washington’s selection of UNC’s Sam Howell in the 5th round of the 2022 draft was apparently borne out of the team’s recognition that the young QB’s value was simply too great to pass up on the middle of Day 3.

Regardless of the reason, I think it was one of the most important moves by the front office in this year’s draft. I was emphatic that the team needed a “Plan B” going into the 2022 season - my own preference was for Matt Corral, though I did like Howell early on - and the Commanders made the right move.

My rationale for the urgency of a developmental alternative was the following:

When Washington traded for Carson Wentz this offseason, they absolutely increased the ceiling of their QB room. Taylor Heinicke gave it his best last year, but, unfortunately, his best just wasn’t good enough. His arm strength and stature appear to pose insurmountable obstacles to his fitness as a starting NFL QB. That said, he has incredible heart, and should be a fine back-up.

Wentz though, comes with his own set of question marks. He’s had a number of injuries throughout his career, he’s on his third team in three years, and there are some concerning questions about his leadership ability. While I think every Washington fan wants him to succeed in 2022, many of us aren’t willing to bet the farm on it.

If Wentz flames out in 2022 for one reason or another, [Howell] is a legitimate Plan B for the future. If Wentz leads the team to (recently) unprecedented success over the next few years, [Howell] is a potential trade asset. In any case, going into 2022 without a legitimate back-up plan in place at QB would be a nearly unforgivable failing by the front office. [Sam Howell] would be a very wise hedge against risk.

Diving Deeper on Howell

Memories are often short in the sports’ world, and a lot can change in a year, but it’s important to remember how Sam Howell was thought of in May 2021:

The Sporting News had Howell as the number 1 player on it’s top 50 big board last May, leading the QB pack by a mile (Desmond Ridder was the next ranked QB who would ultimately come out in 2022, at #17).

1. Sam Howell*, QB, North Carolina

Howell piled up 7,224 yards, 68 TDs and 14 interceptions at North Carolina as part of a program-wide makeover with Mack Brown, and he has put up nine games with at least 300 yards passing. Howell is 6-1, 225 pounds, dimensions that are close to Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield. Howell is the top quarterback prospect on the board for 2022, and QBs have been taken with the first pick in four of the last five drafts.

Most of us know the story rest of the story, Howell lost four key weapons to the 2021 draft: Javonte Williams (2nd), Dyami Brown (3rd), Michael Carter (4th), and Dazz Newsome (6th). Here are the 2020 stats for those four:

Williams (RB) - 157 carries, 1140 yards, 19 TDs

Brown (WR) - 55 receptions, 1099 yards, 8 TDs

Carter (RB) - 156 carries, 1245 yards, 9 TDs

Newsome (WR) - 54 receptions, 684 yards, 6 TDs

The Tar Heels proceeded to finish 6-7 in 2021, with Howell essentially forced to put the team on his back. Howell’s passing yardage dropped by about 500 yards, but his rushing yardage ballooned by around 675 yards, with the junior putting up 828 rushing yards and 8 TDs in total.

Howell, is still relatively young, as a rookie QB, at 21. He’ll turn 22 this September.

Earlier this week, Al Galdi had Adam Lucas, a UNC beat reporter, on his podcast to discuss Howell and his 2021 season. Here are some notable quotes from Lucas in that interview:

“Off the field, his teammates absolutely love him. He’s not a guy...who was overly impressed with himself. Never put himself above any of his teammates. He was universally loved in the locker room. He’s not a primadonna...he’s going to ask the Washington staff to give him a list of things to work on, he’s going to work on those things, and probably get better at them.”

As far as Howell on the field:

“He’s the best passer UNC has ever had. He can make all the throws, throw the deep balls, and some of the shorter stuff. It probably hurt him he had to run the ball so much this year, but that’s what happens [when your top talent leaves in the draft]. I’m a little surprised that it became a negative to him that he ran it so much when he did what the team needed him to do. He wasn’t just scampering around. He was running over people.”

“He realized his running was one of the best offensive weapons UNC had.”

On his 2021 season not being as good as his 2020 season statistically:

“The team was nowhere near as good. I’ve heard one of the stories is that he was good when he had NFL talent around him, and he wasn’t good when he didn’t. Well, he is going to the NFL where he will have a lot of talent around him.”

On how he would compare Howell and Trubisky?

“To me, today, just evaluating them on the day they came out of college, Sam Howell has clearly proven his ability to be more than Trubisky at this point in his career. Howell has been the young guy who had to lead a veteran team. He’s been the veteran who had to lead a team when pretty much everyone else was gone. With Sam Howell, we’ve seen the entire arc of a career.”

Earlier in the month, John Keim spoke about Howell with UNC offensive coordinator Phil Longo on his podcast, the John Keim Report. Asked about Howell, Longo offered the following:

“He’s incredibly accurate. He can make any throw on the field. He can throw off platform. He can makes plays with his legs. He can extend plays. He’s got great pocket presence. He’s an elite preparation guy, has a great knowledge of the game. For the last 2 years of his 3 years here, he and I have watched countless pro games calling our offense against pro defenses, just to feed his hunger and keep trying to prepare him for things he wasn’t necessarily seeing in the ACC to improve his development.”

“Sam is constantly looking to learn more. Anything that could give him even a little bit of advantage over who he’s playing, he’s going to try to master. He retains things. I never had to coach the same thing twice with him. He’s meticulous with regards to preparation.”

The full interview can be found here:

If you’re interested in Howell as a QB with developmental potential, I’d highly recommend you watch the video above. Longo’s description of Howell’s desire to consume knowledge about the game is incredibly impressive.

So with that background on Howell, what does his future with the Commanders look like? The following is my best guesstimate.

Year 1 (2022)

As soon as Howell was drafted, some in the local media seemed to want stir the pot of a “brewing QB controversy,” but the reality is, by just about any measure, Howell isn’t going to be ready to start as a QB in the NFL during his rookie season.

Carson Wentz is the clear and uncontested QB1 in Washington, and even with all the praise heaped on Howell’s elite mental approach to the game, he’s going to need serious time to continue to understand running a more advanced offense.

Though some have suggested that Howell could be elevated to QB2 this season, with UDFA Cole Kelley taking the QB3 spot, I think that’s highly unlikely. I think that Taylor Heinicke is basically etched in stone as QB2, and frankly, that he deserves to be.

Regardless of whether Heinicke sticks in Washington longer term, I think he’s destined to play as a back-up in the NFL for, at least, several more years. He showed that he belonged in the NFL in 2021, and he’s certainly better than many other back-up QBs in the league.

NFL: Washington Football Team at New York Giants Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Year 2 (2023)

Washington’s contract with Taylor is up at the end of 2022, at which point he becomes a free agent. My expectation is that if Howell’s development proceeds apace, Heinicke will be allowed to ride off into the sunset to see what he can get for his wares on the open market.

If we assume Wentz plays well enough in 2022 that he’s retained in 2023 - recall that he can be released by this point without any cap implications - Howell slots in at QB2 and continues his development.

If Wentz bombs out in 2022, and the team cuts him loose, Howell becomes a potential QB1 option in 2023, at least allowing the team to avoid a DEFCON 1 situation in the 2023 draft, where the team needs to blow several years worth of draft capital to trade up for a QB prospect.

While it’s still entirely possible the team pursues a QB early in the draft, it’s - at least - left with options. Under this scenario, I think it’s fairly probable that the team looks to also continue retaining Heinicke in a depth role.

Year 3 (2024)

At this point it will be abundantly clear if the Carson Wentz experiment was successful or not. If it was, and Wentz has led the team to back to back playoff berths, there are probably discussions of contract extensions before this season, which would be the last on Wentz’s current contract.

Facing several more years of Wentz at the helm, the team is left with a decision: Do they trade Howell to try to re-coup some of his value before he approaches his second contract, or do they simply retain him as a low-cost back-up through his rookie deal? I imagine this will be almost wholly contingent on the quarterback market situation throughout the rest of the league.

If Wentz drops off in 2023 and the team decides to cut him, the team is again looking at the 2024 draft, again, with options, including sliding Howell into the starting role. Depending on how quickly Howell develops, or doesn’t - this feels like it could be the “sweet spot” for him to enjoy a productive career with the Commanders if Wentz falters.

Conclusion

In an ideal world, Carson Wentz finds his 2017 form again and leads the Commanders into a new era of competitiveness, relegating Sam Howell to a back-up role for at least the entirety of his rookie contract. But, there’s a lot that can go sideways between here and 2025.

The good news is, Howell is, by almost every account, a hungry student of the game, a positive locker room presence, and a player with the physical tools to potentially succeed at the pro level. He seems to be just the sort of guy who is ideally situated for a developmental QB role in the NFL, and who, if called upon after some additional training, could keep the Commanders competitive.

It’s going to be fascinating to see what the future holds.

Poll

When do you think Sam Howell takes his first starting snap for the Commanders?

This poll is closed

  • 25%
    2022
    (328 votes)
  • 54%
    2023
    (697 votes)
  • 15%
    2024
    (198 votes)
  • 4%
    Never
    (55 votes)
1278 votes total Vote Now