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Sam Howell - NFL Draft Rookie Profile

The 2022 NFL Draft Prospect Profile series features prominent 2022 NFL Draft prospects with film analysis and scouting insights. I have experience working in college football and have been studying the NFL Draft for over 15 years. My analysis is based on film study and analytics. In 2021, I profiled nine of the top skill players in the draft. So far this season, I have written up profiles on Pittsburgh QB Kenny Pickett and Liberty QB Malik Willis.

A common misconception about the NFL Draft is that the college and pro games are very similar. They are not. Besides the obvious difference in speed and skill level, a college field has different hash mark distances and different rules. There are specific schemes and plays that NFL teams copy from college and vice versa. But the differences between the two are understated in NFL Draft analysis. There's a reason many highly-productive college players are not considered legitimate professionals.

To that end, scouting prospects is not just about evaluating college performance, it’s about projecting traits that translate to the next level. This is not limited to just physical traits. There are certain football traits that are evident in college film and will translate to the pro game. For example, a wide receiver being able to get in and out of breaks efficiently will not change from college to pro. On the flip side, an edge rusher who got most of his sacks due to hustle or missed offensive line assignments may not have shown translatable traits on film. We will continue our 2022 Prospect Profile series with North Carolina QB Sam Howell.

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Sam Howell - NFL Rookie Profile

Sam Howell is a 6-0, 221-pound talented QB prospect who declared as a Junior after starting three years at North Carolina. Howell's best year came in 2020 when he was surrounded by NFL talent on offense and put up 3586 yards, 30 touchdowns, and seven interceptions on 68.1% completions. Following the departure of Dyami Brown, Dazz Newsome, Javonte Williams, and Michael Carter, Howell's numbers took a dip in 2021, where he completed just 62.5% of his passes with 24 touchdowns and nine picks. It's worth noting that his rushing production skyrocketed as his passing production regressed, as he rushed for 828 yards and 11 touchdowns last year.

Howell broke out early, started 37 games, and has appealing physical traits. There are questions about how his style will translate to the pro game and whether or not he can command an NFL offense in terms of the nuances of the quarterback position. Let's dive into the film.


Arm and Mechanics

When Howell is at his best, his innate ability to throw the football shines through. The key with Howell is getting his lower body correct so that he can confidently deliver the ball. He doesn't have the quickest release as an over-the-top passer who cocks the ball back more significantly than other gunslingers. His arm talent is evident on many throws, and he delivers a tight spiral with good zip on all types of throws and arm angles. He can place one-on-one deep balls well and gets the ball outside the numbers as well as any QB in this class.

The clip below shows off him working the field outside the numbers with an absolute dime. I'm not in love with hopping at the top of his drop, or how far he reaches with his front leg. However, the flip side is when his front leg locks, which causes most of his misses. Howell is probably young enough to iron out his lower body mechanics to be more consistent.

The clip below again shows what Howell can do with good weight transfer and enough stride with his front leg. Here he looks off the slant to open up the middle of the field and delivers a strike to the post.

The clip below is a beautifully placed deep ball. Howell's base is not too tight or too wide, which results in an accurate deep shot after a three-stop drop and one hitch.

Here's more good timing from Howell and a relatively accurate deep shot off play-action. When his front leg doesn't lock up, he can hitch up in the pocket and get his hips involved in the throw.

Howell's accuracy is not consistent, but when his lower body is right, he looks very good. There's evidence on film of hitting all types of routes including swings, spot routes, and mesh shallows in the short area of the field. He throws a pretty ball, which underscores his arm talent and ability to allow his teammates to make plays after the catch.


Legs and Second-Reaction Balling

Howell is not a polished player in the sense that I expect him to walk into an NFL building and master a drop-back passing game from day one. He will need to work on reading defenses and going through progressions, like pretty much all college QBs. Part of the allure of Howell as a prospect is that he can do a lot with his legs, including QB run game and making second-reaction plays improvising.

The clip below is a nightmare for a defensive coordinator. Boston College brings six and clamps the top of the screen in man coverage. Howell sticks on the field concept too long (which is a weakness he'll need to get better at) and then still somehow finds an escape hatch to burst forward for a first down. His rushing ability will translate.

Here's more Howell running. It's a zone-read RPO where the pass route gets covered. Howell makes a great decision to keep the ball and get north, displaying an uncommon burst for a QB.

Howell can look a bit clunky as a mover sometimes, but his second-reaction movement skills remind me a little of young Ben Roethlisberger. The clip below shows him finding space and throwing a dart moving left with a low arm angle. These are the types of creative plays that will excite NFL teams.

Howell looked like the best or one of the best players on the field throughout his time at North Carolina. It's not an objective metric, but it's one of those observations where you know it if you see it. The stats back it up. The essential question is can he be the best player on an NFL field when the speed of the game is so much faster?


Critical Concerns

Howell is just 21 years old and has a lot to work with physically. If teams knew exactly what it was that made the difference in quarterbacks translating from college to pro, there would be no busts or surprises. The bottom line is that it's tough to decipher on tape or in interviews how a guy will adjust to the speed of the game, mental processing, and all that comes with being the face of a franchise. The best I can do watching the film is judge the internal clock, decision-making, command of the offense, and how a player prepares for postseason events like the Senior Bowl and combine.

Howell missed some throws at the combine and is clearly reworking his mechanics while training. I rarely see commentary on combine throwing performance, but I like to judge how a player acclimates to less-than-ideal conditions, throwing the ball under pressure, and competing with his peers on the spot. Josh Rosen was outclassed at the combine and it impacted my evaluation of him as a supposed accurate passer. Howell completed 68.1% of his passes in 2020 but missed some throws at the combine, including two post-corner routes. Kenny Pickett was clearly more accurate. It's not a complete deal-breaker, but it would have been nice to see him iron out some mechanical issues and show out better in throwing drills.

The clip below appears to be a beautiful pass dropped in over the outside shoulder. However, it's really a missed opportunity. The receiver clearly has a step on the man corner and if he's led upfield more, may be running into the end zone. Howell can improve his accuracy consistency by improving his mechanics, and many of the best young NFL QBs have done just that in recent years. But as of now, the team that drafts Howell is not adding a polished pro passer from an accuracy or pro-scheme-experience standpoint.

Another area where Howell must improve is with his internal clock and holding the ball too long. Even in his positive plays, there are times he stares down his primary read and then has the quickness and athleticism to escape and make a play. In the NFL, those decisions must be made much quicker. Your second reaction can't be a hair late.

The clip below shows Howell smartly checking down when the flat defender drops underneath his stop route at the Senior Bowl. I still think he's a hair late and it also shows an example of his front leg locking up.

It's worth noting that Howell engineered a touchdown drive in the Senior Bowl game and showed off his legs quite a bit.

The clip below shows his negatives in terms of decision-making and lateness on a second-reaction play outside the structure of the offense. Howell leaves the pocket for no real reason, rolls all the way to the sideline, and makes a ridiculously dumb throw in traffic in the middle of the field. There are far too many instances of him holding the ball too long, even in his great 2020 season.


NFL Outlook

Sam Howell has a lot to work with from a physical standpoint, including the ability to drive defensive coordinators crazy with his legs. He's tough with a big arm, and a lot of experience and production at the Power 5 level. I suspect there will be people who don't understand why he's not considered a top-10 prospect with his tools and production. The bottom line is that he's going to have to relearn pretty much everything about playing quarterback after coming from North Carolina's spread offense. His college performance was spectacular, but NFL teams are not in the business of evaluating how well a guy played at the NCAA level.

We know Howell can make NCAA-speed reads against the likes of Duke and Wake Forest. Do his mental processing and decision-making traits translate? Will he be able to outrun and outmuscle NFL defenders on second-reaction plays? Can he clean up his mechanics to be more consistent in terms of ball placement? Teams can try to answer these questions before the draft, but we won't know for sure until he steps on an NFL field. I wouldn't mind making a bet on Sam Howell's talent in the mid-to-late second round. I'd also prefer to have him sit a year and learn the pro game. Being just 21-years old, his potential is undeniable. I wouldn't be shocked to see his career go either way, but he's not a guy I'd be pounding the table for.

Thanks for reading and stay tuned for more draft content in the coming days.

Other Prospect Profiles:

Malik Willis - QB, Liberty

Kenny Pickett - QB, Pittsburgh

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