Sam Howell wants to be the greatest QB ever
The North Carolina gunslinger may be the gem in this mysterious quarterback class. Oddly enough, he's been hiding in plain sight. Yes, his goals are quite lofty, too.
When Sam Howell starts to answer the question, it sure sounds like he’ll off-ramp into Cliché County. A safe haven with the biggest moment of his football life closing in. Can’t blame him, really.
Are you the best quarterback in the draft?
“Oh yeah. No doubt,” he begins. “But at the end of the day, it’s not about that for me. It’s not about being the best quarterback in this draft. It’s about going into a team with a good situation.”
But he’s not finished.
“Obviously I am so confident in who I am, and my game, that I think I’m the best quarterback in the NFL already. That’s just who I am as a person and who I’ll continue to be.”
He didn’t stutter and he’s not trying to be provocative, either. This is sincerely what Howell, the 6-foot, 224-pound record-setter from North Carolina believes. Through this conversation, he adds that it’s his goal to go down as the greatest player ever, too. Howell insists one must think in this manner to play the position.
“Confidence,” he adds,” is definitely something you have to have.”
That’d certainly warp the belief that this 2022 quarterback class stinks. Scouts are not enamored with this group, as Bob McGinn covered in his draft series, but that does not mean this has to be 2013 all over again. There could be a hidden star in the group of Kenny Pickett, Malik Willis, Desmond Ridder, Matt Corral and Howell. We’ve learned many times over that overarching opinions about a prospect can be proven dead wrong — Derek Carr was exciting as a box of Saltines the next year, 2014, and worked out just fine. What made Carr potentially special didn’t necessarily hit scouts between the eyes, either. There are many examples of quarterbacks who are not fully understood and appreciated.
We do know this much: teams in need are going to throw darts, too. They’ve got no other choice. If you’re not hunting for a long-term answer at quarterback, you’re a dead team walking. There’s such a value in conducting business with a QB on a rookie deal, too.
In dissecting these five, in trying to find which one will hit, I think it’s smart for us to heed Kurt Warner’s advice. As the Hall-of-Famer has said many times over in this space, the quarterbacks who can process the field and hit their “layups” last. It’s why he loved Joe Burrow so much right out of the chute — the Cincinnati Bengals’ No. 1 pick was processing defenses at an elite level. Jarring physical traits are bound to drive the predraft hype train each spring. We see Willis, in shorts, flip his hips and gun it over the mountains at his pro day. We watch Corral’s highlight reel and see faint shades of Patrick Mahomes. But pure athleticism or speed or circus arm strength should all be considered a bonus.
It’s far more important for a quarterback to make the correct read and the accurate throw again. And again. And again. Think Tom Brady in January. The best ever doesn’t supply one spectacular throw that has us all rewinding our DVRs in awe, but he wins constantly because he’s making the right throw constantly. Not surprisingly, Warner is a big fan of Howell’s game. He sees a quarterback with touch and anticipation capable of completing those all-important “second-level throws.”
We should not be surprised to hear Howell’s name called tonight in Round 1.
Out of this QB class, Howell ranks No. 1 in completion percentage, yards, touchdowns. More telling, he is No. 1 in yards per attempt when facing pressure, ranked as Pro Football Focus’ No. 1 QB with three seconds or less to throw and was also No. 1 in avoiding negative plays against the blitz in 2021. He broke 27 records at North Carolina in three seasons, including total offense (11,292 yards) and touchdowns (111). He also set an ACC mark with the most passing touchdowns by a player in three seasons.
He wasn’t smashing records as a dink-and-dunk distributor in a popgun offense, either. At the NFL Combine, Howell displayed the strongest arm in the group with a throw of 59 miles per hour — the fourth-fastest throw measured since 2008.
After banner seasons in 2019 and 2020, Howell lost two receivers and two backs to the NFL and his passing numbers dipped in 2021. Even then, he introduced a new skill in his repertoire by rushing for 828 yards and 11 touchdowns. He also happens to be the youngest quarterback in the class at 21 years old.
It’s hard to believe he’s been mostly an afterthought on the national level. We’re not discussing Sam Howell nearly enough.
Probably nobody’s surprised more than the man himself who repeats that he isn’t using the silence as motivation whatsoever.
“My three years of film at North Carolina speak for itself,” Howell says. “I have no limitations athletically. I can make any throw on the field, and I can use my legs as a weapon in the running game. Mentally, I can master any playbook any coordinator would want to run. There would be no limitations with where that coordinator would want to go with that system. And I think my ability to rally a team and get a group of guys going and all working towards one goal is one of my strengths. I truly believe I do that better than anyone.”
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Howell rallied the offense in fourth quarters repeatedly at Chapel Hill. Two thrillers against Wake Forest come to mind this day.
In 2020, the Tar Heels trailed 45-24 with six minutes left in the third. Howell threw for 550 yards with seven total touchdowns. His go-ahead run with 4:20 left was a beaut. Howell knifes upfield through an opening and stiff-arms a defender on his way to the end zone. He connected on several deep balls off play fakes that day as well with his smooth, classical over-the-top delivery. In 2021, North Carolina trailed 45-27 at the same point in the game. This time, Howell resembled a bruising running back in rushing for 104 yards with three total scores. His calm in chaotic moments is a trait that could transfer.
“There were so many times we came back from being down,” Howell says. “It made me who I am today.
“The main thing is ‘don’t get too caught up in the scoreboard.’ Don’t worry about the score. Just stick to your process and play good football. Chip away. Focus on the play. Do whatever you can to be successful that play. And if you do that again and again, you’ll like where you are. I feel like I’ve played good when we’re in those moments. But you definitely don’t want to be in those moments all the time.”
A small-town kid who grew up 30 miles from Charlotte, he played three sports his entire life.
His creed as an athlete is point-blank: “Every single thing I do is with a purpose and that purpose being to win. I have a lot of goals, a lot of dreams and things I want to accomplish in my life.”
One of those dreams is being the greatest ever. Putting something so lofty into reality, to him, starts with outworking everyone. North Carolina’s head coach, Mack Brown, has called Howell the hardest worker on the team and Howell says he takes pride in knowing he prepared better than anybody else on any given field. “What can I do to separate myself that other people won’t do?” he adds. Howell seeks and edge — always.
And what does this look like exactly? Back to his freshman year of high school, Howell has trained with former Duke quarterback Anthony Boone.
Boone is incredulous at the national conversation. He believes people have flatly chosen to hype “one-hit wonders.”
The fact that Howell had to change up his identity as a quarterback without two 1,000-yard backs and two 1,000-yard receivers last fall is what’s likely scaring some teams. Size, too. At 6 feet, he’ll need to create his own passing windows. But Boone views 2021 as a positive because Howell “unselfishly inserted himself into the run game.” He took a ton of hits on 20-plus carries a game after barely running at all as an ACC gunslinger his first two years.
North Carolina also went 6-7.
“He could’ve been like any other guy who’s done it before,” adds Boone, “and shut it down when things didn’t look great for his team. But he stuck it out with his teammates. He came with the ship and will die with the ship — that’s the kind of guy you want in your organization.”
He notes Howell’s 34 in the Wonderlic, a number that’s significantly higher than Ridder (19), Corral (15) and Pickett (17). From what he’s heard, teams have been blown away by Howell’s recall. They’d give him 10 plays to install, talk about random stuff for an hour and then have Howell regurgitate those 10 plays back. From boy to man at the position, Boone has watched (and helped) this football IQ skyrocket.
“It’s almost mind-boggling how impressively sharp he is,” says Boone, who runs the “QB Country” Charlotte division. “He’s got the ability to process and learn at an extremely high level. That’s what’s going to keep him in the league a long time and, in my opinion, longer than the guys in his class.
“The media has hyped all these other guys. OK, so this guy ran a 4.4. Great. How many guys are going to need to run a 4.4 day-in and day-out besides Lamar Jackson? Not many. Lamar Jackson is the only one whose 4.4 speed actually translates. Him, Kyler Murray, but everyone else who runs a 4.4 may spray it a little bit or may not process at a high level. That’s great if it helps but the most successful guys who have played the position don’t run 4.4s or they don’t throw it 70 yards. Nowadays, we’re trying to change the mold of what the quarterback position looks like and what it feels like and what’s important. Look at the intangibles. Look at red-flag issues. That stuff matters. I don’t want to give a guy $20 million and worry about him doing something crazy when he’s not around the facility. That’s a big responsibility. I think more people try to spend time finding what’s wrong with him and pick at little things rather than just flat-out saying, ‘Listen. He’s probably the safest pick in the draft.”
Watch Howell’s tape consistently vs. a Willis, vs. a Corral and Boone believes you’ll see a quarterback processing high-level throws. Not someone who’s making one read and — if it’s not available — tucking the ball to run. Jackson and Murray possess supreme speed and escapability, so they can get away with this. Russell Wilson, too, but even he has always kept his eyes downfield. NFL linebackers and edge rushers are “too fast, too athletic, too smart,” Boone adds, for a one-read QB to survive.
In rare cases, this can be drilled into a quarterback over time. That’s why so many prognosticators view Willis as a fit with the Pittsburgh Steelers. He wouldn’t need to play a snap any time soon for Mike Tomlin.
To stick, Willis will need to develop this gaping hole in his game.
Because much more often, we see quarterbacks light the league on fire for a season with the 4.4 speed or the bazooka arm before evaporating in thin air. Freakish physical ability only lasts so long because defenses figure you out. Warner has been genuinely surprised by Josh Allen’s meteoric rise from inaccurate project to MVP candidate. With the help of former coordinator Brian Daboll and private coach Jordan Palmer, Allen developed this part of his game.
The way to stick as a starter in the NFL is to mentally stay two steps ahead of a defense and hit the open receiver with numbing efficiency.
“Having athleticism helps,” Boone says. “but it shouldn’t be what gets you into the league.”
Teams know this. Which is why Boone predicts Howell will shock people Thursday night the same way Daniel Jones did as the sixth overall pick three years prior.
He has spoken to a few teams who’ve tried to poke holes and, every time, his response is the same: “This dude is a damn machine.” He calls Howell the prototypical counter. He’s not necessarily flashy — at all — but Boone compares him to New Orleans Saints great Drew Brees. He sees that level of upside. And that’s a name Howell isn’t afraid to bring up himself.
Brees managed just fine as a 6-footer, retiring as the league’s all-time leading passer.
“I’m a huge fan of Drew Brees,” Howell says. “I’m in love with the way he prepares for games. You can tell he has a plan for the ball before the ball is even snapped. He’s always on time. … Obviously, he’s not the biggest guy. And late in his career, he wasn’t the strongest guy. He didn’t have the strongest arm. But you really couldn’t tell the difference. He’s always on time and always knew where he wanted to go with the ball. You just have to find those throwing lanes.”
Howell makes clear that there’s nothing anyone could say that’d motivate him more than he already is. Slights mean little. Don’t hold their breath for a zinger to the local media about making a team pay for the duration of his career.
“I don’t play this game to prove my doubters wrong,” Howell says. “That’s just now who I am.”
Because, again, his motivation comes from a different place. (His voice is laced with a southern bluntness.)
“To be the greatest who ever played the game,” he says. “That’s truly what I want to accomplish in my life, and what I can accomplish.”
Time will tell if he’s able to shimmy in the pocket with a Breesian sixth sense for pressure to compensate for his lack of height. When it comes to his size, he’s not special. So many QBs with this 224-pound compact frame turn out to be career backups in the pros. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. After eviscerating the record books at Missouri, 6-foot Chase Daniel has thrown all of eight touchdowns and seven interceptions in 13 NFL seasons… yet has also earned $39.8 million.
Howell’s bar, however, is set quite a bit higher. There’s a detailed plan in the three-time captain’s mind to become the greatest.
We shouldn’t undersell his No. 1 physical trait, either: that arm. He’s not quite sure where the raw arm power comes from, only that he’s always been full of the confidence to pull the trigger on any throw to any part of the field. He sees a unmistakable value to the ups and downs at Chapel Hill, too, saying “I’m going to be resilient. That’s just who I am.” Losing games and needing to absorb all those hits in 2021 helped him evolve as a quarterback. And since last season wrapped up, Howell has been studying NFL systems nonstop. North Carolina didn’t ask him to read the whole field as much as he will in the pros. But he’s not concerned. He’s sure he’ll have a “head start” going into any system that drafts him this weekend.
At the core of his game is his heart.
After Notre Dame topped UNC, 44-34, ex-Fighting Irish coach Brian Kelly didn’t hold back. He called Howell a “warrior.” That night, the QB threw for 341 yards, ran for 101 and took a ton of hits from a talented Notre Dame defense. “He laid it on the line,” Kelly said then. “He's pretty special.”
As Carr and so many others have taught us over decades, perhaps we should all care more about this quality than any throw on an overhyped, ESPN-televised pro day.
“I play with a fearless mindset,” Howell says. “I’m not scared of anybody. I’m going to throw my body on the line and do whatever I can to help my team win games. I think playing with that fearless mindset is contagious throughout the team. That’s why I do it. I want to set the tone for my team and let everybody know, ‘We’re here. It’s going to be a fight. No one’s going to walk in here and have an easy game. If they want to beat us, it’s going to be a dog fight.’”
As for being the best QB in the sport right now? And wanting to be the greatest ever?
It’s no act. He’s not reading from a script. If anything, Howell is described by scouts as an extremely quiet kid. Simply, this is how he lives his life day to day. Howell’s coach has been hearing this same exact stuff as far back as high school.
Now, Boone cannot wait to see Howell get a chance to put those words into action.
Maybe this draft is memorable after all.
“Listen,” he says, “this kid has been telling me this same kind of stuff his entire life. He broke every single record in North Carolina, in the history of the state. He broke every record at Chapel Hill, in the history of the school. I’m not going to put it past him. Just because of the kind of dude he is.
“The way he works. The way he prepares. Who he is.”