Tomorrow is the 2022 NFL Draft, and there is a lot of buzz around one Tar Heel in particular. Sam Howell not only impressed NFL scouts during his Carolina career, but continued to turn heads during the NFL combine. There’s a chance that a few teams are thinking about making some controversial decisions at the eleventh hour, because the buzz is that quarterbacks may not start coming off of the board until the second round…unless a team starts feeling particularly froggy. Kenny Pickett aside, it could be that Sam Howell is one of those guys that someone reaches for.
By now anybody that has watched Carolina football over the last few years knows exactly what kind of player Howell is, but for those who are scouting him in hopes that he lands on your favorite team, here’s what I can tell you about the standout quarterback.
When discussing Sam Howell’s strengths, you have to start with his arm strength. The former Tar Heel has a cannon for an arm, and recorded a 59 mph throw during the combine, which led all passers. He also led all quarterbacks at the Senior Bowl in spin rate, which further reflects that his technical skills when passing the ball are all there.
Howell’s at his best when he gets to throw the ball deep, and boy did we see a lot of that when he was at Carolina. UNC offensive coordinator Phil Longo loved dialing up plays that gave Howell the opportunity to get explosive yardage, and during his sophomore season he excelled at it. From the outside looking in, it may look like Howell wasn’t nearly as good his junior season, but to put it bluntly: his weapons were all gone. Dyami Brown, Dazz Newsome, Michael Carter, and Javonte Williams all left following Howell’s sophomore season, and because of it we saw a drop in his production. With an NFL receiving corp, however, I think we’ll see Howell not only return to how he performed over a year ago, but he could be even better.
Finally, let’s discuss his ground game. Howell isn’t the fastest quarterback when he is scrambling out of the pocket, but he is extremely tough to get to the ground. Every season we saw him get stronger and stronger, and during his final season at Carolina it was almost like watching Javonte Williams all over again to some degree. His run game existed both out of necessity and also because of one of his glaring weaknesses, but his 828 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns show that he was easily able to something out of nothing throughout the 2021 season.
One of the most glaring weaknesses in Howell’s game is his ability to go through his progressions. Throughout his Carolina career we saw him take off and run if his first receiver was covered. That is not going to cut it in the NFL, and he is going to have to learn to make all of his reads before taking off with the ball. One has to wonder how much emphasis was put on the issue during his time with the Tar Heels, but I think it is something that might lead to him serving better as a backup for a year or two than a starter for a quarterback-thirsty franchise.
While this next weakness is a bit of a stretch, we didn’t see Howell do a great deal of damage throwing intermediate passes. As I mentioned earlier, he was a deep ball specialist at Carolina and could throw short passes to guys like Carter and Williams, but Phil Longo’s system didn’t really cater to the intermediate throw very well. This of course doesn’t mean that Howell isn’t able to make those throws, but it just wasn’t something that was on display very often.
Finally, while Howell is extremely difficult to bring down when he is running, he isn’t going to turn heads with his speed. He was always able to do just enough to get a first down, but my concern is that his good fortune could run out in the NFL. Defenders are a lot stronger and faster at the next level, and so Howell will have to keep getting stronger if he wants to remain effective on the ground.
There is no doubt in my mind that Sam Howell has a chance to make a team very, very happy at the next level. He is a high-level competitor with a strong arm and does any and everything that he can to help his team win. We saw him put the team on his back so many times during his Carolina career that it was almost criminal. He has his flaws, but ultimately he has enough upside to stay in the NFL for quite a long time.
I alluded to this earlier, but the million-dollar question is whether or not he could be the starter for a franchise right now, and I have a hard time believing that it is the best situation for him. There are still some key things that I think he could stand to learn before taking a large role, but I also know that there are a number of franchises desperate for a quarterback. As long as those teams have patience that exceeds the Bears’ patience with Mitch Trubisky, Howell could be fine in one of those situations. We’ll just have to wait and see what cards he is dealt.