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North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell is a talented NFL prospect with a wide range of potential outcomes

Chapel Hill, North Carolina, USA; North Carolina Tar Heels quarterback Sam Howell (7) runs for a touchdown in the fourth quarter at Kenan Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Playmaking quarterbacks are running through the NFL en route to championships, MVPs and All-Pro selections. That quarterback type is hot right now because the NFL brass has “allowed” a different style of quarterback to replace the statue-esque passers teams sought for decades. These quarterbacks typically take a laissez-faire approach to footwork in the pocket because their ability in the pocket carries them at times.

Unfortunately, the exceptions to the rule are the ones that stand out in our minds, which is where we find former North Carolina Tarheel Sam Howell.

Howell could very well be an exception to the rule, but the opposite end of his potential outcomes is a pocket passer whose inclination to scramble actually holds him back. 

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Trying to pin down groupthink on the UNC quarterback is not easy. Scouting reports on him vary — not only where he lands on overall big boards but also where he fits in this quarterback class. The PFF big board has him as the top quarterback at 16th overall. The Draft Network ranks him as the fourth-best quarterback and 42nd overall. Bleacher Report has an even lower opinion of Howell, ranking him as the fifth-best quarterback and 92nd overall.  

When discussing Howell's projection to the NFL, it becomes obvious that he must refine his footwork in the pocket, as it has been an issue dating back to his freshman year in 2019. Although he has improved that skill over the course of his career, it’s still not very good. Howell can often forgo the passing profile position (feet perpendicular to the line of scrimmage with the ball up and ready to throw) that most quarterbacks must use in the pocket in order to efficiently get through reads and throw the ball accurately — even players such as Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson, especially the Baltimore Ravens quarterback, adhere to those tried and true rules of pocket management. 

Those quarterbacks are also excellent runners who can thrive in open space when they decide to break technique. Projecting Howell as that type of quarterback is interesting, as his porous offensive line for three seasons enabled him to develop into a very nice runner by his last season. 

Season Rushing Grade Rush Attempts Missed Tackles forced Per Attempt
2019 53.0 65 0.15
2020 71.8 65 0.34
2021 91.0 136 0.48

If this is Howell's NFL identity, then his ceiling is much higher than one would think. However, PFF’s lead draft analyst Mike Renner doesn’t seem to think so, “Howell can't be so reliant on scrambling at the next level — 13% of his dropbacks resulted in scrambles in 2021. He's not that kind of athlete. He has to be more patient and quicker through progressions from clean pockets”

This brings us back to Howell's ability in the pocket and his comparison to the aforementioned Darnold. The former USC quarterback, who now owns a lifetime 60.9 PFF grade in the NFL, transitioned to quarterback halfway through his high school career, which led to major footwork issues across his career. The “talent” was there, as he could absolutely rifle a football, but his decision-making never came along, and he never cleaned up his footwork. Darnold — like Howell — was a solid runner but not an elite one, and that aspect of his game could not make up for all of his deficiencies in the pocket. 

Howell’s decision-making is also a concern as noted by The Draft Network’s Joe Marino, “Howell is mostly sound with his decision-making. With that said, he can be over-committed to a predetermined read and there are times I want him to be more willing to come off as his primary option.”

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