Most scouts and media members have dubbed 2022 as a down year for Quarterbacks, and while there is no obvious superstar in this class, I would call that a lazy assumption. Once you dig deep into this class you find that there’s a lot to work with, there are several prospects that could end up as long-term starters, provided that the landing spot is a good fit. After nearly three years of scouting the prospects in this draft class, I have the full breakdown of each of the top QB prospects in this class, starting with Sam Howell of the University of North Carolina
Measurables and Stats
- Height: 6-0
- Weight: 221lbs
- Hand Size: 9 & 1/8 In.
- Class: Jr
- Starts: 37 (20-17)
- Recruiting Ranking: 4 Star (0.9582 Composite)
Sam Howell was born to parents Duke and Amy Howell on September 16th, 2000 in Waynesville, North Carolina. Howell attended high school at Sun Valley High School in Indian Trail, North Carolina where he threw for 13,415 yards and 145 touchdowns while rushing for 3,621 yards and 60 touchdowns. Sam is an avid Film junkie that, by most accounts, skipped most of the high school parties that most kids enjoy, in order to spend time studying tape with QB Coach (Former Duke QB) Anthony Boone.
After flipping his commitment from Florida State to stay close to home at the University of North Carolina, Howell entered UNC to compete and win the starting job at a power five program as an 18-year-old true freshman. In 2019, as a true freshman, Howell posted one of the all-time great freshman seasons, finishing with 3,641 Passing Yards and 38 Touchdowns to only 7 interceptions. More importantly than the counting numbers, Howell demonstrated a poise far beyond his years, taking a program that finished 3-9 and 2-9 the previous two seasons to a 7-6 record. As a Sophomore in 2020, Howell built off of his success the previous season, finishing with 3,586 Passing Yards and 30 touchdowns to only 7 interceptions. Playing behind a standout run game, Howell was asked to throw the ball 74 fewer times than he was as a freshman, he responded by increasing his completion percentage from 61.4% to 68.1% in 2020 and his yards per attempt from 8.6 to 10.3 and lead the team to an 8-4 record.
Howell opened 2021 as a Heisman favorite and the potential number one overall pick in the 2022 Draft but also lost his top two running backs, as well as his top two wide receivers of 2020. As a result of this and an offensive line that finished the year ranked 126th in the nation in sack rate, Howell, and North Carolina struggled this past season finishing with a disappointing 6-7 record. Howell, for his part, finished the year with closed the season with career lows in passing yards and touchdowns while also posting a career-high 9 interceptions. On a positive note, Howell did develop into a true dual-threat this season, rushing for 828 yards and 11 touchdowns while breaking an unbelievable 65 tackles.
Film and Traits
When his feet are set and the offense is set up to allow Howell to throw in rhythm, I’m not sure you’ll find a more accurate passer in all of college football. Howell’s tape over the last three seasons is littered with pinpoint throws to all three levels but it’s his placement of deep ball that’s most notable as the UNC star has become one of the most prolific deep passers in the nation. When throwing to all three levels, Howell has displayed timing, anticipation, and touch you don’t normally see with stronger armed passers like Howell. Although, that last point is harder to find on tape because the offense he ran in college featured very few typical anticipatory throws built-in.
There are some inconsistencies with this on tape however, Howell does have a tendency to misalign his upper and lower body leading to some errant throws. The other issue is that Howell can often get caught throwing off his back foot, leading to missing high instead of throwing an accurate ball. These issues occur most often when Howell is resetting his feet as part of going through his progressions or when he has pressure from the interior.
The good news is that these things are not only fixable but appear to have been the focus of Howell’s pre-draft work, and have looked better from the season to the senior bowl to the combine to his pro day.
Composite Accuracy Grade (Short Accuracy + Intermediate Accuracy + Deep Accuracy + Anticipation + Accuracy Off Platform + Accuracy out of the pocket): 8.21/10
A tumultuous season that saw Howell have some growing pains as he transitioned from clutch pocket passer to dual-threat playmaker in 2021 and while it was what his team needed him to do, it took what was one of his strongest traits and raised some questions. Although Howell only threw two more interceptions vs the previous year, on tape Howell displays much more “hero ball” than the previous two seasons. He himself admitted he was trying to do too much, but did seem to settle in as the season wore on. Overall I believe we have more than enough evidence to believe that Howell (when not required to lead the offense in passing and rushing) is a solid decision-maker more often than not. Decision-Making Grade: 7.5/10
In the RPO-centric offense that North Carolina ran Howell was under constant pressure for a few reasons. The first being that the RPO offense in its purest form often leaves the QB responsible for one free rusher unless they drop back into coverage. The second being that in both scheme and execution, the pass protection was historically awful (126th in the nation). Under these circumstances, we got to see plenty of reps where Howell felt the pressure, kept his eyes downfield, and delivered a strike. There were also a ton of reps in 2021 where Howell held the ball far too long, played hero ball, and got clobbered. Despite the growing pains in 2021, Howell projects to be a productive creator from the pocket at the next level. Grade: 7 5/10
While no one will confuse Howell with Buffalo Bills QB Josh Allen in terms of pure arm strength, Howell has more than enough to throw one of the most prolific deep balls in all of college football over the last few years. More importantly, Howell displays great zip and velocity to all levels. Closer to Carson Wentz level arm strength than Patrick Mahomes but that’s a premium over the average. Howell routinely hits deep balls on the wider hashes that they use on Saturdays with fantastic velocity and trajectory. Howell led all QBs at the combine in velocity and all QBs at the senior bowl in spin rate. Grade: 8.5/10
What a difference a year makes! Howell went from a guy that moves around a little bit to buy time in 2020 to one of the most dynamic playmakers in all of college football in 2021. In order to compensate for the loss of two 1,000 rushers, Howell became an essential element of the running game, finishing with 828 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns. While not the fastest guy, Howell wins on the ground with elite vision, a willingness to follow his blocks, and powerful legs to break tackles. In fact, Howell broke the 2nd most tackles in all of FBS last season with 65.
I think Howell will be best to serve as a short-yardage runner on the goal line or on 3rd downs but probably shouldn’t run the ball as much as he did last year and probably lacks the speed to rush 150+ times like he did last year. Despite all of that, Howell has dual-threat upside that will translate that will certainly translate in some capacity. Grade: 8.5/10
This is where Howell makes his money, Howell is a film rat, that even as a more quiet kid, displays tremendous leadership ability. Teammates rave about him and noticeably respond to him on the field. Howell also raises his level of play in clutch situations (he went 2 seasons with 0 interceptions in the 4th quarter) and lead his team to battle back in games against superior teams in Notre Dame, Wake Forest, and Pittsburgh this season. Along with Matt Corral, Howell displays the highest competitive toughness you’ll see from a QB in this day in age. Grade: 10/10
Durability and Potential Red Flags
Durability Concern: Minor
Howell missed one game due to an unspecified “upper-body” injury and has no off-season surgery history that I could find. While I have no concern about Howell suffering any issues due to the injury, I am concerned for Howell’s durability going forward. Between sacks, late hits as he threw, or tackles on designed runs, Howell has taken a beating at UNC. Despite being built like a running back at 6-0, 221lbs, and his relatively good health; I don’t believe anyone can continually take the kind of beating he has at the next level and have a long career. Part of this is Howell learning how to slide (according to him this has been a big focus of the offseason) and part of this is on his NFL team to focus on protecting him better than his college team did.
Character Red Flags: None
All the digging I’ve done on Howell has come back completely clean. No arrests, no recruiting violations, no poor character anecdotes to share. All accounts are that Howell is seemingly all football all the time. Howell started as a fourteen-year-old freshman for his high school varsity team, then as an eighteen-year-old true freshman for a power five program four years later. Was able to participate in the Reese’s Senior Bowl despite being a True Junior due to graduating a full year early from UNC. At the podium and in the interview, it’s very clear that Howell is a kid that understands the moment and is well prepared. He often deflects praise to his teammates and blame to himself. Before cashing in on the NIL deals this offseason Howell first partnered with a nonprofit food bank and took less money on deals so his teammates could be included. Howell is about as high character as they come.
Translating to Sundays
Does he project as a day one starter?
Yes. If you are only looking at tape from UNC, it would be easy to answer no and move on. That RPO offense that they ran in college doesn’t translate well at all to Sundays.
Can he drop back from center effectively?
How well does he make more traditional reads?
Those are just a few of the things that the tape leaves you asking. From what I’ve seen from three years of tape on Howell, he can read the field very well when asked to make more traditional half-field or even full-field reads. He just wasn’t asked to do it often. He also looks really comfortable dropping back so far in his pre-draft work (albeit, with no defenders in his face). Going off of this, plus his track record of coming into programs, immediately starting, and stabilizing the position very early, I feel very confident in his ability to do so at the next level as well. His preparation and character are such that I believe he can be trusted with being the face of a franchise very early in his career.
Best Team Fits
Howell does need some level of support around him to succeed at the next level, but I do believe that he can come and build a winning culture in a losing environment or build upon an existing winning culture. This fact, along with play style and cultural fit went into picking three destinations that I believe he will best fit with.
- Pittsburgh Steelers
The winning culture already exists in Pittsburgh but replacing a legend like Ben Roethlisburger is going to be a tall task. One that I believe Howell is up to. His absurd play strength and deep ball are reminiscent of “Big Ben” but the fit is more than that, I believe Howell fits so well with the culture of the community as well with Head Coach Mike Tomlin. On the field, the Steelers provide a host of pass-catchers as well as star 2nd year running back Najee Harris, that looks much more like the cast that Howell was blessed with in 2020 than what he had last season.
- 2. Detroit Lions
The Lions have long been the “laughing stock” of the NFC, but I believe that new HC Dan Campbell could be changing that. Despite the poor first season, the team fought hard for Campbell and the toughness he preaches every single week. What Campbell needs is an on-field leader that exemplifies Campbell’s culture the way that Brady did in New England or Brees did in New Orleans. Before you fire up the hate mail, I’m in no way claiming Howell and Campbell will achieve the same results, instead, if Detroit wants to even achieve long-term stability and competitiveness, that’s the model they need to follow. On-field the Lions have a pair of talented backs, a young ascending WR, a reliable deep threat, a stud tight end, two effective offensive tackles, and multiple picks in the top 40 to add additional talent. Howell accelerates this rebuild.
Russell Wilson is gone, and while I believe that Drew Lock can be a good starter in the NFL, does Seattle actually believe that? If the answer is no then a guy like Howell makes a TON of sense here. He fits the Pete Carrol culture well in my opinion and seemed to excel at many of the same route concepts that Wilson did last year. This really comes down to D.K. Metcalf though, I can’t imagine a better fit for all those deep fly routes that Howell throws as well as anyone than Metcalf.
Overall Grade and Pro Comp.
A Three-Tiered Pro Comp.
Instead of trying to labor through justifying how a prospect can best match any one player and to provide a bit of clarity on how I could see Howell project on Sundays I’ve moved to a three-tiered comp. This provides a snapshot I believe to be the worst case, best case, and most likely scenarios for Howell’s career.
Floor Comp: Colt McCoy with a deep ball
McCoy developed into one of the best backups in the league that probably could start for a team in the perfect situation. It wasn’t always this way though, McCoy began his career with the Cleveland Browns and had appeared to be impressive enough to have locked up the starting job going into his 2nd pro season until a mismanaged concussion by a bad organization derailed his development. I believe that this is the worst-case scenario for Howell, being a great backup that could probably start that had his career derailed by a bad situation but manages to hang around the league and add value a decade after being drafted.
Most likely Comp: Baker Mayfield +++
Don’t let this past season scare you, Mayfield was a fine starter who helped turn around a toxic culture in Cleveland and even won a playoff game before getting injured. I believe Howell is better than Mayfield though, that’s why I add three plus signs.
Howell is Mayfield plus an even better deep ball (Mayfield’s is pretty good)
Howell is Mayfield plus an 800 yard rushing season, who projects to add some value on the ground.
Howell is Mayfield minus a massive chip on the shoulder that makes him argue with the media, be difficult to coach, or deal with. He’s also minus a police tape. Which is a plus.
Ceiling Comp: Slower Russell Wilson
The best case for Howell is that he has the career of a slower Russell Wilson. Both are shorter QBs that played three seasons in the ACC, win with intangibles, mobility, and a fantastic deep ball. Howell isn’t nearly as fast as Wilson so I don’t believe that he will be quite as effective on the ground.
Overall Grade: 8.25/10 (Top 20 pick)
Analysis: Howell, despite a horrific scheme in college, offers a ton of upside. He is the youngest of the top QBs (21) and has the best career resume. He’s one of the safer picks, yet also one of the higher upside picks. He could very well start early in his career, if he goes to a scheme that features some RPO, and attacks the defense deep as well. Howell is the most likely franchise quarterback out of this year’s class.