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NFL Draft

Will Sam Howell Continue Living Up To The Hype?

  • The Draft Network
  • June 30, 2021
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Since the common draft era began in the NFL in 1970, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has only had two quarterbacks drafted. T.J. Yates (2011 – fifth round, Houston Texans) and Mitchell Trubisky (2017 – first round, Chicago Bears). While the careers of those signal-callers didn’t transition as smoothly as planned, there is another that’s coming down the pipeline that has the potential to join or even surpass Julius Peppers, Lawrence Taylor, and Trubisky as the highest drafted player in program history (No. 2 overall).

The Tar Heels have never had a player selected with the top overall pick, but quarterback Sam Howell could make himself a strong contender with a strong junior campaign.

Originally committed to Florida State, Howell seemed to have his sights set on going to Tallahassee and being the piece that potentially helped return the program to prominence. After the return of Mack Brown to Chapel Hill, his first order of business was to sway the highly decorated quarterback into staying in-state and being the home state hero. That, Howell has become, as he went on to set the program record books on fire. 

Through 25 games as the team's starting signal-caller, he has recorded an impressive 68 touchdown passes, which ties a school record (Darien Durant – 2002) and is the most by any player in ACC history through their first two seasons. Expected to build upon an impressive first two seasons, Howell’s name could sit atop a crop that many scouts are intrigued to watch unfold this upcoming year.

The Good: Howell possesses a stubby and thick lower half, which shows up all throughout his game. A former all-state baseball player coming out of high school, the throwing motion and mechanics of his background are routinely seen throughout his game. An impressive arm all around, he has the ability to drive or loft the ball in all directions and areas of the field.

The area that stood out the most about Howell was his lower-body mechanics and activity. An all-around average athlete, he’s a competitive runner when breaking contain. He also has natural instincts and feel for pressure inside of the pocket. There are times where his dropbacks from shotgun are delayed or he takes an old school drop while keeping his shoulders parallel to the line of scrimmage, but there’s always a quick, springy action(s) soon thereafter. 

His bouncy and exaggerated lower-half movements are useful in that he uses them as a guide to generate extra momentum to place more velocity behind his throws. Considering that he operates in an Air Raid system, he’s tested mostly in the short and deep areas. The standout junior has a snappy lower half and he’s also good with putting his hips and eyes in the right spots to marry up with his intended targets.

Despite being an average athlete, one of Howell’s best attributes is making second-reaction plays. He can operate from a still platform in the pocket, but he also has the ability to escape out of it to make off-schedule plays. His reactionary quickness and still maintaining his ability to be a weapon outside of the pocket as a thrower remain intact. Even though he breaks contain outside of the rim of the pocket, he keeps his eyes up and shoulders square in order to fire it to reappearing targets in new areas.

His greatest asset is his ball placement. Per Sports Info Solutions, Howell was on target for an impressive 78% of his passes last season. Watching six games of him from last season (Notre Dame, Syracuse, NC State, Wake Forest, Florida State, and Texas A&M), the numbers correlate, as he's efficient, particularly in the deep areas. Making life easy on his receivers, Howell enabled them to get yards after the catch in the underneath areas and on deep patterns. He placed the ball in advantageous areas in order for his weapons to reel it in, as evident with Dyami Brown finishing tied for fifth in the country in yards per catch (20.1).

The Improvable: Entering his third season in offensive coordinator Phil Longo’s offense, Howell performs a lot of concepts that are called "object reads." Nearly identical to run-pass options, object reads are passing concepts that place a sole emphasis on a single defender. Depending on which area he aligns or moves in, Howell has options on where to attack. 

Last season, he performed 103 run-pass option passes—easily the top mark in the country (per SIS). The next closest was Mac Jones, who only attempted 76 of similar kinds of passes. In the offense, there are few multi-step progressions where Howell is forced to exhaust options and get to his third or even fourth read, which usually involves someone out of the backfield. 

When it came time to make half- or full-field reads, there was a noticeable delay with Howell because of the inexperience with performing those types of concepts. With so many reps invested in RPOs and object reads, there could be a grace period needed for him when asked to perform in progression-type concepts where he has to read the field in either direction.   

The 2021 season will be a huge test for Howell as the catalyst of the Tar Heels offense. Losing his top four targets in receivers Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome as well as the dynamic backfield duo of Javonte Williams and Michael Carter, Howell will be forced to shoulder the load of what will seemingly be a brand new supporting cast. That, along with the preseason hype, will have evaluators flocking to Chapel Hill to get a peek at the Tar Heels' signal caller.

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