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What is Sam Howell’s Ceiling?

Preseason comps with two previous late round starters

Washington Commanders Training Camp Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

My last article presented a set of performance benchmarks for the Commander’s rookie class, based on the historical performance of players at the same position with comparable draft pedigrees. I used two comparison cohorts for each of Washington’s draft picks: players selected within a similar range of draft picks, and players selected at the same rank order in their position group.

By sheer coincidence, each of Sam Howell’s comparison cohorts included a rare commodity, a high-end starting quarterback selected after the second round. The cohort of QBs selected in a similar draft range to Howell (pick #144), included Dak Prescott, selected at pick #135 in the fourth round of the 2016 draft; and the cohort of QBs selected 6th in their draft class included Russell Wilson, selected 75th overall in the third round of the 2012 draft.

To give you an idea of how rare those players are, in the decade I examined (2012 to 2021), only one other QB selected after the second round has become an entrenched long-term starter. That would be Kirk Cousins, who is a tier below Wilson and Prescott. The later-round QBs next on the list after Cousins are journeymen Nick Foles (2012 88th pick; Super Bowl MVP) and Jacoby Brissett (2016 91st pick). After that, the other later-round QBs range from career backups to washouts, with just a few other hopefuls drafted too recently to judge (e.g. Davis Mills, Sam Ehlinger).

All that we can say at this stage is that we would be very lucky if Howell turned out to be as good as Wilson and or Prescott. My comparison to QBs with similar draft pedigrees suggested that the probability is around 0.125, which is actually higher than I would have expected. However, his better than expected performance in the first preseason game sparked hope in many Washington fans that we might have finally stumbled onto the next late-round gem. It is hard to resist wishful thinking when your team is moving on to its 11th starting QB since the last drafted starter left town five years ago.

We probably won’t know what Howell’s true potential is for at least a year, and maybe more, because Ron Rivera appears to be committed to Carson Wentz as the starter for 2022. Nevertheless, sparked by the promise of Howell’s first NFL appearance, I thought it would be interesting to have a look at Wilson and Prescott’s paths to landing their starting jobs to see if I could get an idea of how early their respective teams knew what they had.

Seattle Seahawks v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images

Russell Wilson – Seahawks’ 2012 Preseason

The big move of the Seahawks 2012 offseason was signing free agent QB Matt Flynn to a three year, $26M contract with $10M guaranteed, representing modest starting money at the time. Flynn was one of the most sought-after free agents that season. He had been stuck behind Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay since being drafted in the seventh round in 2008, but had flashed potential when given opportunities. His most notable performance in Green Bay was a 480-yard, six-touchdown outing against Detroit in the 2011 season finale.

Pete Carroll made it clear from the start that Flynn would compete for the QB1 job with 2011 starter Tarvaris Jackson. Having addressed the QB position in free agency, the Seahawks focussed on defense, and struck gold with their first two picks in the 2012 draft. They used their third-round pick on the undersized QB from Wisconsin, which many analysts thought was something of a luxury pick.

Here is how Chris Burke of Sports Illustrated graded their draft:

Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller was even more critical of the Wilson Pick:

(If you want a real laugh, compare that to Miller’s grade for the Redskins’ draft in the linked article.)

Ahead of the draft, most analysts appreciated that Wilson was a stellar passer, but concerns about whether, at 5’11”, he was too short to play in the NFL dropped his draft ratings to the later rounds (never mind that the 2nd ranked QB in 2011, Drew Brees, was only 1” taller). This is how draft analyst Lance Zierlein rated Wilson:

Wilson is this year’s big-time question mark at quarterback. Unlike those who have held this title in the past, Wilson is a stellar passer who shows arm strength and accuracy when he is able to deliver the ball without a hitch. A transfer from North Carolina St. over the summer, he has outstanding football intelligence as he picked up the Wisconsin offense in a short time and was the opening-day starter. However, at his height teams will have concerns whether or not he can see to make the throws at the next level. He is a mechanical mover who has strong technique and leadership qualities. If Wilson were three inches taller there would be debate at the top of the draft as to where he fits in, but look for teams to take a flier on him in late rounds to see if he can develop and outplay his size.

Seattle’s Pete Carroll, John Schneider and Scot McCloughan were able to see past the size issue and selected Wilson in the third round. After just three days of rookie mini-camp, Carroll announced that Wilson would get a chance to compete with Flynn and Jackson for the starting job. When camp began, the three QBs split reps evenly with the first team.

With a week to go before the first preseason game, the competition appeared to have come down to Flynn vs. Wilson. At least that is the view I derive from this update from Field Gulls writer Danny Kelly. While no decision on the starter had been reached, Pete Carroll announced that Flynn and Wilson would split halves in the first preseason game, with Jackson sitting out. It would appear that Flynn had the edge, since he was slated to receive all the first-team snaps for the rest of the week and start for the first half of the preseason opener.

Wilson took advantage of the opportunities and won the starting position by outplaying Flynn in the preseason games. In the preseason opener against the Titans, Flynn played the first half and was conservative with his throws, completing 11 of 13 for 71 yards and no TDs or turnovers, with the longest completion going for 16 yards. Wilson took over in the second half and dazzled, completing 12 of 16 for 124 yards, highlighted by a 39-yard TD pass to Braylon Edwards. He added 59 yards on the ground, including a 32-yard scramble for a touchdown with 1:52 left.

Flynn and Wilson again split halves in the second preseason game against Denver. Once again, Wilson completely outplayed Flynn, throwing for 155 yards and 2 TDs on 17 attempts, including a 34-yard TD strike to Tyrell Sutton. Flynn just managed 6 of 13 for 31 yards with no scores.

Flynn sat out the third game against the Chiefs with a sore elbow, allowing Wilson to take center stage. Wilson took full advantage, leading Seattle to a 44-14 rout while throwing for 184 yards and 2 TDs and rushing for 58 yards.

Following the game, Carroll named Wilson the starter for the 2012 season. Assisted by one of the great defenses of recent decades, and a 1,590 yard rushing effort by Marshawn Lynch, Wilson led Seattle to a divisional round playoff loss, crushing the hopes of Redskins’ fans along the way. The following season, he hoisted Seattle’s first and only Lombardi trophy. The Wilson/Carroll Seahawks were one of the most successful teams of the next decade, adding a second NFC championship in 2014 and making playoff appearances in 8 of 10 seasons, while only posting a single losing season in 10 years.

Dallas Cowboys v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

Dak Prescott – Dallas Cowboys’ 2016 Preseason

Like Wilson, Prescott was rated as a late-round prospect entering the 2016 draft. draft analyst Lance Zierlein gave him a 5.9 rating (average backup or special teamer) and had this to say:

Hard to find an NFL comp for Prescott because he’s built like Donovan McNabb, but lacks McNabb’s ability and polish. Prescott has NFL size, mobility and enough arm, but the tape shows a player who must improve his mechanics, poise and quickness through his progressions if he is to become a full­-time starter in the NFL. There are absolutely draftable traits and upside, but he will need extended work to smooth out his flaws. Until then, a team would be wise to utilize him on short-yardage packages.

It didn’t take as long as Zierlein or most NFL front offices must have thought.

While Wilson got his break by virtue of landing with an open minded head coach who genuinely valued competition at all roster positions, Prescott’s opportunity came by way of injuries to two players ahead of him.

When Prescott entered the Cowboys’ training camp in 2016, he was fourth on the depth chart behind second-year QB Jameill Showers, backup Kellen Moore, and starter Tony Romo. During the first week of camp, Moore broke his tibia, and the Boys failed to reach a deal with Cleveland to trade for backup Josh McCown to replace him. That placed Prescott in a camp battle with Showers for the backup QB job.

There were mixed reports about which of the two backups had the edge throughout camp. Prescott seems to have really shined when given the opportunity to practice with the ones in the final week, prompting the coaching staff to start him in the preseason opener against the LA Rams.

Prescott took advantage of the opportunity and threw 10 completions on 12 attempts for 139 yards and two touchdowns, including a 32-yard TD reception by Terrence Williams, on a perfectly placed throw over Lamarcus Joyner. He clearly outperformed Showers (8/16 for 99 yds) as well as Rams’ first overall pick Jared Goff (4/9 for 38 yds, 1 INT).

Prescott followed up his debut performance with an even stronger outing against Miami (12/15 for 199 yds, 2 TD, Passer Rating 158.3; 3 carries for 28 yds, 2 TD) and a solid effort against Seattle (17/23, 116 yds, 1 TD, Passer Rating 99.2) in the next two preseason games.

Romo suffered a vertebral compression fracture in the first quarter against Seattle, sending him to injured reserve for the first nine weeks of the season. Following Romo’s injury, Prescott was named the Week 1 starter for the 2016 season, based on his stellar preseason performance. It was the right decision, as Dak went on to be named AP Offensive Rookie of the Year, passing for 3,667 yards, 23 TD and 4 INT on 459 attempts (77.6 QBR) and rushing for 282 yards and 6 TDs.

Washington Commanders Off-Season Workout Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

What Does it Mean for Sam Howell?

Wilson and Prescott took somewhat different routes to become day-one starters in their rookie seasons. Both QB’s flashed potential during training camp, but it only became clear to their respective teams that they were the best starting options in the preseason games. Wilson established his position by clearly outperforming everyone else on the team. It is not entirely clear whether Prescott would have got the opportunity to showcase his talent as a rookie if not for the injuries to the veteran backup and the established starter ahead of him on the depth chart. In both cases, the decision to name the rookie the starter was only made following the third preseason game.

What do these examples mean for Commanders’ rookie QB Sam Howell, heading into the second preseason game? Maybe nothing. Howell’s situation is very different to Wilson, who was drafted by a team with no clearly established starter and was given an opportunity to compete for the starting job in training camp.

Like Prescott, Howell was drafted by a team with an established pecking order at QB. From the minute that Carson Wentz was signed, Ron Rivera has been absolutely clear that he is the starter and Taylor Heinicke is the veteran backup. When Howell was drafted, Rivera reinforced that messaging, with a phone call to Wentz, and consistent statements to the media. Howell’s path to move up the depth chart this season is likely to be harder than Wilson and Prescott’s. Compared to his predecessors, he has had less opportunity to play with the starters, although it has recently been reported that he is starting to get first team reps. (Editors note - Howell was running the scout team offense vs the starting defense during the final practice of training camp)

Nevertheless, the opportunity is in his hands. The main thing he has to do is continue to impress with his ability in the remaining preseason games. And that brings us to the question I started out with. How is he doing to this point in his rookie campaign compared to the other two later-round day-one starters? There are really two parts to that question. How is he doing relative to previous players at this point in the preseason? And how is he doing relative to the two players he would have to beat out to become a day-one starter?

Let’s line them all up and have a look how they stack up after one preseason game:

One thing that’s clear, Howell has a clear shot at overtaking Heinicke as the Commanders primary backup QB this season. He is fairly even with Wentz statistically after one preseason game, but threw for more yards and demonstrated an ability to score with his legs. Of course, it’s hard to compare the two directly, because Wentz played with the starters against the first and second team defenses and Howell played with the backup’s backups and roster bubble players.

Prescott’s opening performance, against the starters, was in a class of its own. Wilson’s first preseason performance is fairly comparable to Howell’s. He had a higher completion percentage, but threw for fewer yards and threw one pick, which Howell avoided. Both Howell and Wilson scored twice in their debut outings.

My takeaway from this exercise is that, while we don’t yet know how good Howell can be, to this point in his first preseason, he is keeping pace with with his team’s starter and not out of range of one of the best later round QBs of the last decade. Barring an injury or other issues with Wentz, he will probably have to wait a year or more to get the same opportunity that Wilson and Prescott had as rookies. Based on what we have seen so far, it’s not out of the question that he could develop into a starting level QB, and maybe even a top end starter.

Acknowledgements: Thanks to James and Scott for editorial assistance.


When will Sam Howell get his first start?

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    September 12th at FedEx
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    2022 regular season
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    2022 playoffs
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    After that
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