Entering his junior season at Chapel Hill, Sam Howell had NFL Draft experts salivating. He and Spencer Rattler were thought to be the franchise-changing quarterbacks of the 2022 class. How quickly they both fell out of favor. Rattler lost his starting job at Oklahoma and transferred to South Carolina to re-establish his career. Howell continued to be the starter at North Carolina and ended up a fifth-round pick of the Commanders, the sixth quarterback to come off the board.
The Commanders’ quarterback situation is far from solid. How can a team put its faith into Carson Wentz? The long-term potential isn’t there. He’s an upgrade from Ryan Fitzpatrick a year ago, but let’s overlook how the team is set up for failure with a thin-ice quarterback. That slippery slope is due to his injury-prone past and inconsistent play when healthy. The cynicism surrounding Wentz as Washington’s starter began before he’d even played a game for a franchise looking for its first long-term starter since Mark Rypien way back in 1989-93. Mark Brunell, Jason Campbell, Kirk Cousins, Gus Frerotte, and Robert Griffin III all lasted three seasons as the team’s main starter. Wentz isn’t the streak-breaker.
Wentz was brought to the nation’s capital to stabilize the team under center after the Commanders swung and whiffed on bringing Russell Wilson from Seattle. And it happened after the Taylor Heinicke experiment failed. Therefore, there’s one quarterback on Washington’s roster with long-term potential: Howell. And he dazzled in the team’s preseason games, only adding hope to a future with Howell at the helm.
Howell’s potential is based on a minuscule sample size. He’s played in 85 fewer NFL games than Carson Wentz. Wentz, former North Dakota State starter, has officially appeared for the Eagles and Colts 85 times. It’s common fanfare when fantasizing about a rookie quarterback; the hype for Cam Newton and Sam Darnold each started somewhere. For Howell, it’s all about finding the form that made him an ACC darling back in 2019 and 2020.
The North Carolina great made 37 starts in three seasons leading the Tar Heels. He won a quarterback competition as a true freshman in 2019 and set the school’s all-time single-season record for touchdown passes (38). During his sophomore season, Howell was much more efficient, raising his completion percentage to 68.1 percent, up from 61.4 percent. In terms of passing production, 2021 was a down year for Howell but he didn’t completely fall off with 35 combined passing and rushing touchdowns.
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In a terrible draft for quarterbacks, it’s hard to understand why Howell’s projection fell so sharply. A groupthink mentality tanking everyone’s grade lower only didn’t cascade to Kenny Pickett somehow, who isn’t even starting in Week 1 for Pittsburgh. That’s Mitch Trubisky, another former UNC QB. That move guarantees that no rookie quarterback will start the opening week of the NFL season for the first time since 2007. Such all-timers as E.J. Manuel and DeShone Kizer started in that stretch.
If projections that started the 2021 college football season become true, and odds are someone from this draft class will become an elite quarterback, Howell has as much reason to be that guy as anyone else. Does anyone really believe Bailey Zappe will be Tom Brady 2.0 and recreate that magic in New England? What about Matt Corral, who looked like a prototypical NFL starter before getting injured in Ole Miss’ bowl game against Baylor last year?
The Commanders have an improving offense. Truth be told, there’s only one way to go from where they were in 2018. A decent offensive line with plenty of young, promising weapons on the outside and backfield would be at Howell’s disposal, headlined by Terry McLaurin. Then again, a more-experienced Wentz also will throw to the Ohio State grad. I’m expecting he’ll somehow blow it. He always does. And Washington head coach Ron Rivera would be dumb to give chance No. I’ve-lost-count to Heinicke. It’ll be Howell time. The soon-to-be-22-year-old actually has a chance to buck the Commanders’ QB trend that’ll turn 30 next season.