By Alex Kurpeski
Lost in the shuffle of the circus that is the 2021 NFL Draft is the fact that the 2022 class is without a clear-cut, Trevor Lawrence-like QB1 at this moment. The leading candidate to be that guy has long been North Carolina signal-caller Sam Howell, a prolific pocket passer who has never been afraid to let it fly. Howell was something else in his freshman year, throwing for 38 touchdowns and only seven interceptions, opening up North Carolina’s offense tremendously with his arm strength. You can read my write-up on him from this summer by clicking this here hyperlink — if you’re curious of course. Though he was very sharp in 2019, I figured it was time to revisit Howell’s case to be the QB1 in 2022 with a little film study (have no fear Kedon Slovis stans, we’ll get to him another day).
Howell’s growth as a passer from 2019 to 2020 has been evident, as his completion rate has risen from 61.4% to 69.1%, while his yards-per-attempt have risen a full two yards, up from 8.6 as a freshman to 10.6 as a sophomore. At 6’1, 230 lbs, Howell is sturdy but a bit on the shorter side, with a build similar to that of Detroit Lions’ QB Matthew Stafford. With his stocky frame, the UNC star is already built to take hits, unlike many young passers. Like Stafford, the UNC standout possesses a howitzer for an arm too. Below is a look at how Howell compares to his fellow ACC quarterbacks, with a tremendous graphic courtesy of the College Football Film Room. It’s a great summation of his efficiency this season.
North Carolina's Sam Howell was accurate at all levels of the field this season, especially on the deep ball.
Howell's completion percentage and on-target rate on the deep ball each ranked second in the ACC pic.twitter.com/omg99430L0
— CFB Film Room (@CFBFilmRoom) December 15, 2020
Though his numbers across the board have improved, Howell’s stat line is boosted by a pair of games against Wake Forest and Virginia. In these two contests, Howell completed 67.9% of his passes for 993 yards and 10 passing touchdowns. That’s nearly one-third of his total yardage and over one-third of his touchdowns. While he’s been good in the other nine games the Tar Heels have played, Howell has only one other 300+ yardage game this season. He’s done a good job of not turning the ball over this season, but his touchdown numbers are down from last season, though this can be attributed to the success of Javonte Williams and Michael Carter on the ground. UNC has been committed to the run this season, allowing Howell to throw roughly 100 fewer passes than he did in 2019.
Howell has looked excellent under pressure this season, as evidenced by his 117.3 passer rating in this context, the third-best mark among qualified passers trailing only Spencer Rattler and Kyle Trask. He’s made a ton of big-time throws with rushers in his face — like this one below. With a pair of edge rushers bending around the corner, Howell stands poised in the pocket with his feet nearly in his own endzone. Despite having a hand in his face he squares up and delivers a dime downfield to Dyami Brown. This pass travels almost 50 yards in the air effortlessly, dropping right in between the two Miami defensive backs. Plays like this one are gonna make Howell a lot of money in the NFL.
Sam Howell is the best Quarterbacks that we’ve seen at UNC in some time. His deep throwing ability is the best in college football. For example, this throw. He knows he’s going to get hit, delivers a strike 35 yards down the field. Howell throws the deep ball like Russell Wilson pic.twitter.com/J5IZ3XC3pP
— Sidelines UNC (@SidelinesUNC) December 18, 2020
That wasn’t the only time that Howell tortured the Hurricanes’ secondary with his deep ball. In this play below, Howell sends a bomb downfield following a play-action look. He notices his streaking receiver almost immediately and wastes little time delivering the ball downfield. I love Howell’s confidence to test the defense this early in the game almost as much as I love his mechanics. He throws a beautiful deep ball and sets his feet really well, not allowing himself to get too excited by the open receiver.
Sam Howell with a dime to start the game pic.twitter.com/j2wbJXyvT2
— Slightly Biased (@BiasedSlightly) December 12, 2020
Now there are some elements of Howell’s game that make me nervous. He tends to hang in the pocket with the hope of making a big play more often than I’d like. In this play, he gets sacked on a play where he’s caught dead in the water from the jump. In the NFL this is an easy throw-away, but Howell tries to do a bit too much and takes a sack, pushing his team back five yards. This is an easy mistake to make, especially for a passer who was as hot as Howell was against Miami. But it’s just as easy to fix, too.
Miami gets their 1st sack of the day!
Jaelan Phillips and Quincy Roche make their impact on today’s game by staying giving Sam Howell no way to escape.
Roche is our #32 prospect while Phillips has been shooting up boards the last few weeks pic.twitter.com/2KkilrgYCo
— Boom or Bust: The Draft Show (@BoomOrBustDraft) December 12, 2020
Howell’s back shoulder throws are already at an NFL level. On this play from his 2019 tape, the Tar Heels star drops one of the prettiest passes you’ll ever see from a freshman quarterback. It’s plays like this that allowed Howell to rise so rapidly in the eyes of the devy community, and he’s continued to make throws like this in 2020, as well.
Just watching some Kinlaw tape but man what a toss and catch by Sam Howell to Dyami Brown right here pic.twitter.com/vUrt6fRAuf
— Avery Collins (@smhavery) April 14, 2020
Howell has also demonstrated a keen ability to escape in the pocket. In this clip, he does a great job of avoiding a sack before rolling out to his right and completing a 15-yard pass that slips right between a pair of safeties on the opposing team. This play gives me some real Baker Mayfield vibes (the Oklahoma version), as it’s high-risk but executed perfectly. NFL teams have grown to love this “backyard football” playstyle, as evidenced by the commitment to turnover-prone passers like Drew Lock and Daniel Jones. Unlike those two, Howell can make plays like this without putting the ball in harm’s way too often. Howell fits the new-age mold of the efficient gunslinger, a passer who can consistently make jaw-dropping plays without too many boneheaded throws mixed in.
I would say that this is my last film from Howell but I can’t promise that. 🚨 Sam Howell is a BAD man. 🚨 pic.twitter.com/kQLC1STY8I
— Avery Collins (@smhavery) April 14, 2020
I give a lot of credit to Dyami Brown for Howell’s emergence. His ability to get open deep has made for a ton of highlight-worthy throws on Howell’s tape. In this play from the 2019 Military Bowl, Howell gets the ball out quickly and drops a 40+ yard touchdown pass to Brown, who completely dusts his defender before making a spectacular catch in the endzone. My one critique of Howell’s time at UNC is the fact that Brown and Dazz Newsome have been so good for him. They’re head and heels above the majority of corners who they face off against in the talent department. There will likely be more parity between Howell’s receivers in the NFL and the guys tasked with covering them week-to-week, so it will be interesting to see how much of a product of North Carolina’s system he really is.
— Collin Wilson (@_Collin1) December 27, 2019
I am a big fan of Howell’s upside. I can see him becoming a legitimate star at the NFL level on the merit of his ability to create plays, stretch the defense with his arm strength, and the pure moxie that he brings to the field. Howell’s quiet confidence is the ideal demeanor for an NFL quarterback to possess, as he stays calm and collected even in the face of adversity, while also reminding everyone why he’s one of the best in the game. He’s tough as nails and plays to win every week.
All of the elements of greatness exist for Howell, now it will be all about where he lands. A team like the 49ers, Bears, Patriots, or Colts could find themselves picking him in 2022, as these teams are all outside of the range for the top 2021 prospects. While all of these landing spots seem like great fits for a player like Howell, it’s entirely possible that he finds himself with a team like Denver or Washington who might pass on a rookie this season (and regret it). If the latter situation comes to fruition, I fear that Howell’s weaknesses could become exposed, as they’ve been covered up nicely by UNC’s scheme for nearly two years now.
In short, Sam Howell is still the QB1 for the 2022 NFL Draft. While I don’t see that changing anytime soon, he will have to continue to dominate without Newsome, Brown, Carter, and possibly Williams next season in order to maintain this status. Doing so may be easier said than done.