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NFL Draft

What Sam Howell Needs To Improve Ahead Of 2022 NFL Draft

  • The Draft Network
  • July 7, 2021
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I went into Sam Howell’s film skeptical of what I would find. My live viewings of Howell have left a bit to be desired, and through the osmosis of watching his many, many draft-worthy weapons last season (Javonte Williams, Michael Carter, Dyami Brown, Dazz Newsome), I thought I had a fair understanding of his game.

And I did! Howell is a tough, never-say-die passer with an admirable ability to throw into the teeth of free rushers and oncoming hits. While he doesn’t have a top-flight arm, his vertical ball placement is excellent and the distance is NFL-caliber. He’s brisk in his decision-making and hunts explosives, but doesn’t make overly risky decisions. I thought he was an interesting fusion dance of Baker Mayfield and Mason Rudolph—not necessarily good news for his pro projection, but not necessarily bad news, either.

Under the microscope, he held up better than I expected. I still wish he threw with better anticipation and velocity, but both are present at times, and he really does have an admirable toughness to him, especially when he tucks the ball—there are some Joe Burrow flashes there as a runner, though he’s a bit of a better mover than Burrow.

With that said, the style of the offense and the strengths of Howell as a thrower leave room for needed improvement, should he aspire to a first-round selection come the 2022 NFL Draft.

Sam Howell’s Summer School: Throwing Breaking Routes

Let’s take a look at the heat map for Howell’s top returning target, wide receiver Beau Corrales, as provided by the delightful folks at PFF in their 2021 College Football Preview (a product I personally recommend getting).

Corrales’ route map looks a lot like the D.K. Metcalf route tree when he came out a couple of years ago: all nine routes, deep comebacks, quick outs, bubble screens. I call this the “vertical third” route tree—all of the routes develop in the same third of the field, rarely crossing the hashes, let alone the entire formation.

And that makes sense! Metcalf’s offensive coordinator from his Ole Miss days, Phil Longo, is now the coordinator of the Tar Heels offense. Brown was running the Metcalf routes for North Carolina last season on one side of the formation; Corrales was doing it on the other side. Howell dominated as a decisive pre-snap processor who was always willing to take the one-on-one coverage and throw with anticipation to a deep stop route, or placement to an over-the-shoulder nine route. 

But that offense is woefully devoid of patterns that cross the formation—or really, any routes that put receivers across the quarterback’s vision. Howell’s targets were so often moving away from or toward him—rarely moving left and right across his vision. Those are throws an NFL quarterback simply must have, and right now, Howell doesn’t have them with the requisite ball placement. 

Without an above-average arm, an NFL quarterback must be able to consistently deliver breaking patterns—both in short and intermediate windows—such that receivers are able to catch the ball in stride and generate YAC. Previous passers without top arms, like Burrow, Tua Tagovailoa, and even Mayfield, had this caliber of ball placement. Howell doesn’t.

Let’s take an example from Howell’s game against NC State. It’s late in the second quarter and UNC is trying to set up a couple of shots to the end zone before they’re forced to attempt a field goal. UNC gets exactly what they want on this play call: Michael Carter, a talented receiving back, with a man coverage match-up against a linebacker. Howell is going to Carter the whole way with this ball.

Carter breaks the linebacker’s ankles, which creates an uncovered throwing window and a huge opportunity for YAC. But Howell just straight misses Carter, throwing behind him and forcing him to slow his momentum to catch the ball behind his frame. It’s not an egregious miss, but it matters. Carter stumbles as he adjusts to the ball and finds traffic when he turns upfield. An opportunity for huge YAC falls away—and after a failed end zone shot from outside the 20, UNC is forced to kick a field goal.

What is particularly concerning about this tendency is the fact that Howell misses wide-open guys. This is hardly even a breaking route,  just a seam-bender that develops into massive space behind the displaced linebackers. There is no reason to rush this throw, force this throw, or even really lead the receiver… you just have to put the ball on his numbers.

Howell doesn’t. It’s plenty catchable but far harder of a catch than it needs to be because of the velocity and the placement. The plodding tight end is unable to haul it in.

On both of these plays, the receiver bears some of the fault. But if we’re going to take Howell seriously as a first-round quarterback—and I sure would like to—then these routine throws should not pose so much of a challenge. There are aspects of Howell’s game that he cannot really improve upon—arm strength chief among them—so leaving simple stuff on the bone like this won’t fly if he’s to succeed as a limited QB in the NFL.

Can this be fixed?

Yes. It may not even be real. 

I mean, it’s real—you can see it on his film—but it may just be the product of the throws he’s asked to make and the routes he reps in practice. You can see him throw out-breaking routes to the sideline with better accuracy, as those throws are more common in the UNC playbook. If his middle-of-the-field accuracy looks poor relative to his vertical accuracy solely as a product of his practice time and the system’s asks, then that will become evident during his Pro Day, after he puts forth the work during the NFL draft training cycle.

But, in reality, no matter what the offense makes of him, he should not be missing these throws. He’s too accurate of a quarterback to be doing so. His lack of comfort in reading that area of the field seems to be forcing some unnecessary urgency and hastiness on these throws, which leads to shaky accuracy. He just isn’t as confident as he should be throwing to that area of the field and that will matter to his pro projection, as it will be an area of the field his offensive coordinator must endeavor to avoid when he reaches the pros.

So fixing it is a matter of forcing the issue. Howell must show this season that he knows how windows in the middle of the field open and close, and how his receivers behave in that space, so he can throw safe footballs that maximize YAC. Howell’s margins for error are smaller than players like Oklahoma’s Spencer Rattler or Liberty’s Malik Willis, so the little things became all that much more important.

And this certainly is a little thing, but for Howell’s draft stock, it’s crucial.

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