Why Sam Howell Is 2022 NFL Draft's Biggest Sleeper QB

Maurice Moton@@MoeMotonFeatured ColumnistApril 11, 2022

North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell (7) passes against Wake Forest during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Chapel Hill, N.C., Saturday, Nov. 6, 2021. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
Gerry Broome/Associated Press

The 2022 quarterback class hasn't received rave reviews. We may not see a signal-caller go No. 1 overall for the first time since the 2017 draft. However, that means a team can pick up a high-upside, starting-caliber passer at a great value. If a general manager and head coach talk themselves into someone, Sam Howell should be in the conversation.

Howell lands in the sleeper category among this year's quarterbacks because he hasn't generated as much buzz as his peers. Brent Sobleski explained why Howell's draft stock fell in Bleacher Report's latest big board rankings.

"Howell did nothing wrong over the last month or so. However, his status compared to others in the class should always be taken into consideration. As [Cincinnati's Desmond] Ridder and Liberty's Malik Willis impress teams (in completely different ways), Howell has held relatively steady, which means he's falling further behind the rest of the class."

Howell lacks predraft flash that often pushes quarterbacks up several slots in the selection process. Moreover, some draft analysts have questions about how his traits translate to the pro level.

In a scouting report for Bleacher Report, Nate Tice highlighted the importance of Howell's development in certain aspects:

"Overall, Howell has the arm strength, athleticism and enough accuracy to make it in the NFL. But he will need a good deal of development and polish on his footwork, pocket awareness and movement, understanding of dropback concepts and overall mechanics to become a viable NFL starting quarterback.

"For any team that has the patience for a project, Howell has tools to work with, and his ability to create plays with his legs will help raise his bar as a player. But he'll need to become a more consistent player operating from the pocket to be anything more than a high-end backup or a spot starter."

Tice makes valid points—both pros and cons—about Howell's traits. In addition to those concerns, the North Carolina product also has a tendency to pat the ball before he throws, which will give NFL defenders another split second to make a play downfield.

Nonetheless, as Tice notes, Howell has the physical tools that can elevate his game. While he's not as dynamic when compared to Willis with his rushing ability and arm strength, he has the playmaking ability and the intangibles that should entice NFL teams.

For starters, Howell can throw a good deep ball, which will allow offensive coordinators to call in big plays outside the numbers. He leads receivers downfield with great ball placement:

ACC Network @accnetwork

Fact: Sam Howell can sling it 🚀 https://t.co/OHMxwXrDex

ACC Network @accnetwork

SAM HOWELL LAUNCHED IT 🚀 Antoine Green dives in for the 57-yard TD 🙌 @UNCFootball https://t.co/wjQJSsvARI

Howell can rise to the occasion in critical moments with the ability to deliver pinpoint darts when the pocket collapses around him. According to Pro Football Focus, he has the most big-time throws—defined as "a pass with excellent ball location and timing, generally thrown further down the field and/or into a tighter window"since 2019 and finished his collegiate career as the leader in passing touchdowns while under pressure since the 2020 season:

PFF Draft @PFF_College

Quarterbacks with the most big time throws since 2019 🎯 Sam Howell: 83 🎯 Kenny Pickett: 54 🎯 Sam Hartman: 53 https://t.co/eNvFG6R1Vs

PFF Draft @PFF_College

Leaders in passing TDs while under pressure since 2020 🥇 Sam Howell: 19 🥈 Bryce Young: 18 🥉 Sam Hartman: 13 https://t.co/U6yUBAImz7

In the modern league with an emphasis on the passing attack, you want a gamer under center to compete against high-powered offenses. Howell will give his team a chance to win tight games because of his ability to stretch the field and complete throws in crucial moments.

At 6'1", 218 pounds, which isn't an impressive stature for a pro-level quarterback, Howell can also move the ball with his legs and absorb hits on his way to the end zone or on first-down runs.

And PFF also provided this stat on his ability to force missed tackles:

PFF Draft @PFF_College

Sam Howell's 65 forced missed tackles in 2021 are the most by a P5 QB since 2014 💪 https://t.co/wooq54y6FI

In 2021, Howell showcased more of his ball-carrying skills, rushing for 828 yards and 11 touchdowns. As a collegian, he made a lot of plays out of run-pass options, which may have stunted his progress as a traditional dropback passer, but he can produce early in his career with the help of run-pass option designs.

Last year, the Miami Dolphins' Tua Tagovailoa and Philadelphia Eagles' Jalen Hurts took notable steps in development, ranking first and second, correspondingly, in passing yards out of RPOs. Tice compared Howell to the latter, though, unlike Hurts, the Tarheels standout can pose a bigger threat to boundary defenders and needs to work on his accuracy in the middle of the field.

Despite Howell's blind spots on intermediate throws, Joe Marino of The Draft Network praised his overall accuracy.

"Howell is a mostly accurate quarterback that has his share of pinpoint throws down the field and dropping the football between zones. He consistently places the ball where he intends it to go and enables his targets to have opportunities to stay up and work after the catch. He isn't without a misfire, but Howell is an accurate thrower of the football."

Some scouts may disagree with this takeaway from the film, but Marino believes Howell went through his reads as opposed to locking on to one receiver last year.

"The North Carolina offense is mostly static with plenty of binary reads," Marino wrote. "With that said, I thought Howell's ability to work progressions and scan the entire field became more evident in 2021 from my exposures. There are plenty of examples of anticipatory and second-window throws on his tape."

We should also note that Howell lost his top two running backs, Javonte Williams and Michael Carter, along with his top two receivers in Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome to the NFL last year.

Sam Howell
Sam HowellGerry Broome/Associated Press

Still, Howell had the poise to sit in the pocket, move the ball through the air and improvise with his legs. He threw for 3,056 passing yards, 24 touchdowns and nine interceptions with a 62.5 completion percentage last season.

Howell can provide big plays, a rushing element and has shown signs of consistency despite changes in his supporting cast through three collegiate years. While NFL teams may not love his elongated throwing motion and the bounce at the top of his dropbacks, a coaching staff can fix those idiosyncrasies in his game with practice reps.

With Howell's steady production and physical traits, he has enough upside to become an eventual starter who surpasses the flashier quarterbacks drafted before him. Because of his experience in an RPO scheme, he would make a great fit with a team that has a quality running back and the receivers who can benefit from his vertical passing accuracy.

According to NFL Network's Mike Garafolo, Howell has visited the New Orleans Saints, Carolina Panthers, New York Giants, Atlanta Falcons and Pittsburgh Steelers.

Among those teams, Pittsburgh makes the most sense. Last year, running back Najee Harris led all rookies with 1,200 rushing yards and seven touchdowns on the ground. The Steelers have revamped their offensive line with the addition of center Mason Cole and guard James Daniels, so the ground attack could look a lot better than last year's 29th-ranked unit.

Furthermore, the Steelers may not have to move up from the No. 20 spot for Howell because, as Sobleski pointed out, he hasn't generated as much buildup compared to Willis or Ridder.

While the pick would look uninspiring on Day 1, Pittsburgh could have a sleeper on its radar in Howell, who can take a year to sit behind Mitch Trubisky, tighten up his mechanics and become one of the NFL's biggest surprises from the 2022 draft.


College statistics provided by cfbstats.com.

Maurice Moton covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @MoeMoton.