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Most Washington Commanders fans expect Sam Howell to be a career backup in the NFL

So, maybe the 5th round wasn’t a ‘steal’ after all...

NFL Combine Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

In May of 2021, NBC Sports published a “way too early” mock draft for 2022, which at that point was still nearly a year away. The mock draft had the Texans picking #1 in the draft, and the player projected to be the first overall selection on 28 April 2022 was none other than the Commanders own Sam Howell. Here’s what the NBC Sports article had to say about Sam Howell at this time last year:

A freshman All-American in 2019, Howell has passed for over seven thousand yards and thrown 68 touchdown passes in two seasons at North Carolina. In all likelihood, the Texans will have moved on from former superstar, Deshaun Watson and will reset with pre-season, All-American quarterback, Sam Howell.

NBC Sports wasn’t alone in expecting big things of Howell. Bleacher Report had Spencer Rattler projected #1 overall (he did not enter the draft; instead, he is transferring play his final year of college ball in South Carolina), and Howell at #2 overall. Let’s see what Bleacher Report had to say:

Scouts are very high on North Carolina’s Sam Howell going into the ‘22 campaign.

“If the draft were tomorrow, he’d be the only first-round quarterback on our board,” a director of scouting told The Athletic’s Dane Brugler.

Howell became one of the nation’s best quarterbacks as a true freshman and has maintained that high level. He’s unflappable in the pocket and an excellent downfield passer. According to Pro Football Focus, the 20-year-old’s 59 big-time throws on deep passes leads college football since the start of the ‘19 season.

Howell’s first season at UNC established him as a star. His follow-up season proved it wasn’t a fluke as his completion percentage rose by 6.7 points and Howell ended up ranked fourth in the country in passing yards, according to ESPN.

It seemed as if Howell was living up to the hype. The Tar Heels made back-to-back bowl appearances following a 2-9 season that preceded Howell’s arrival. He was surging up draft boards. Prior to the start of the 2021 season, Howell was considered not only a Heisman Trophy front runner, but also a potential top-five draft pick in the 2022 NFL Draft

It’s clear that, in May 2021, Sam Howell was considered to be one of the very best NFL prospects around, yet he ended up being selected as the first player drafted in the 5th round of last week’s draft.

What happened?

Well, it has a lot to do with the numbers that Howell put up as a junior in 2021. After throwing for right around 3,600 yards in each of his first two season, Howell’s passing yardage plummeted to just over 3,000 yards last season. His completion rate dropped from 68% in 2020 to 62.5% in 2021. His touchdowns thrown dropped in consecutive years, from 38 in his freshman season, to 30 as a sophomore, and just 24 as a junior. To top it all off, he threw a career high 9 interceptions, after tossing 7 in each of his first two seasons, and he took 47 sacks in 2021 after averaging 34.5 per season in ‘19 and ‘20.

Things probably changed for good in the opening week of the 2021 season, when Howell completed only 17 of 32 passes for 208 yards and one touchdown — to three interceptions — in a season-opening 17-10 upset loss to unranked Virginia Tech. That game set the tone for the season of declining production for Howell.

One statistic that saw a dramatic increase in 2021, however, was Howell’s rushing yardage. After recording 186 rushes for well under 200 yards in his freshman and sophomore seasons combined (averaging less than 1 yard per recorded rush), Sam Howell piled up the rushing stats as a junior, amassing 828 rushing yards at an average of 4.52 yards per carry with 11 touchdowns, more than making up for the drop in passing yards and TDs. But it wasn’t enough to carry his team to a successful season.

The Tarheels lack of team success was probably another factor that helped push down Howell’s draft stock. After posting records of 7-6 and 8-4 in Sam’s first two seasons, the Tarheels fell to 6-7 in 2021. Losing records are not what NFL front offices want to see from college quarterbacks.

So, it seems pretty clear that the regression in statistical performance and in the Tarheel’s overall success hurt Sam Howell’s draft stock, but what were the underlying causes of that regression?

Howell had been surrounded by NFL-caliber talent during his first two years. In the backfield were Javonte Williams and Michael Carter, two 1,000-yard rushers. Wide receivers Dazz Newsome and Dyami Brown were two of the most dynamic playmakers in the ACC. All four of those players were selected in the 2021 NFL Draft. In fact, the Washington Football Team selected Brown in the 3rd round of last year’s draft after the young receiver had put up consecutive 1,000 yard seasons, with an average of 20+ yards per reception in each of those seasons.

With the loss of so many playmakers all at once, the Tarheels head coach, Mack Brown, had to make adjustments. That meant taking Howell out of the pocket — and his element. The results have already been detailed above; Howell’s passing numbers regressed, but he rushed for 828 yards and 11 touchdowns.

With the offensive scheme changes, Howell’s limitations became clearer to draft experts. He doesn’t have elite athleticism and he struggled at times with decision-making in his final season in Chapel Hill. His release was sometimes too slow, leading to missed passes. Overall, NFL front offices began to believe that his ceiling is lower than some of his contemporaries, such as Malik Willis and Desmond Ridder, both of whom possess superior athleticism.

On Saturday, the Washington Commanders selected Sam Howell with the first pick of the 5th round — a dramatic fall from the lofty expectations of a year ago.

So, the question now is, what is Sam Howell’s future? Is he likely to achieve what was expected of him a year ago when he was one of the best passers in college football? Or is the reality that he actually is a 5th round quarterback, destined to struggle ever achieve much in the NFL — a kid who had a meteoric flash across the sports headlines for two college seasons, but who will never see the same success as a professional?

Hogs Haven asked its members that question in a recent poll.

The majority of people responding to the survey see Sam Howell as a career backup in the NFL, though 45% of respondents believe that he will start games this year or could develop into a franchise quarterback.

It’s clear that there’s very little certainty about what the expectations should be for Sam Howell after his mildly schizophrenic 3-year career in Chapel Hill. Even the professional media analysts seem a little ambivalent and ready to use a lot of qualifiers and conditions when talking about the Sam Howell career outlook question. Consider this from an article posted by Bucky Brooks yesterday:

After shockingly sliding all the way to Round 5, Howell must overcome long odds to become a rookie starter. It is rare for a Day 3 pick to be viewed as an eventual starter, but Howell’s skills and intangibles give him a chance to make a run at the QB1 job down the road. The 21-year-old must earn the trust of his coaches and teammates in July and August. If Howell flashes winning traits in limited action, he will eventually get a chance to compete for the job.

It’s also clear that his new head coach, Ron Rivera, is determined to keep the pressure off of his 21-year-old quarterback, and Rivera has plenty of reasons to do so.

Each week during the season, and periodically during the offseason, we ask questions of the most plugged-in Washington Commanders fans, and fans of all NFL teams across the country. Sign up here to join Reacts. Surveys are sent by email and take just a minute to complete. Make your voice heard!

The Commanders traded for Carson Wentz this offseason, in a move that meant a commitment of draft recources and salary cap space. For better or worse, Ron Rivera is fully committed to Carson Wentz for the 2022 season, and, if things go well, then that marriage of convenience could be extended indefinitely.

Of course, if the Carson Wentz experience in Washington ends up like the Wentz experience in Indianapolis did, then Sam Howell could find himself thrust into the spotlight, but that’s not what the head coach or anyone else in Ashurn wants to have happen. That would signal another failed season and continued lack of stability at the quarterback position for a franchise that just can’t seem to figure out the answer when it comes to the offensive signal caller.

The official line is that Howell is a developmental player for the future. Ron Rivera is so insistent on this narrative, which is really the only one available to him, that he won’t even discuss the idea that Howell could compete for the backup position. Rivera insists that the depth chart is written in stone, and that it reads: Wentz, Heinicke, Howell.

At least Riverboat Ron won’t be fighting against overwhelming sentiment that the rookie quarterback needs to get on the field early. Despite his billing a year ago as one of the top two QB prospects in the 2022 draft, Sam Howell’s journey has brought him to Washington with low expectations and plenty of time to prepare for the challenges he will face.