10 NFL draft prospects you need to know: North Carolina QB Sam Howell

As an NFL fan, you might not be ready to shift into draft mode.

But we like the idea of introducing some of the bigger-name prospects for the 2022 NFL draft now, at least giving readers a big-picture familiarity of how things stand now.

Had we written this one a year ago, Trevor Lawrence, Justin Fields and Trey Lance almost certainly would have made our top 10. All three went in the top 11 picks this spring.

A lot can change for even highly touted prospects over the course of a single season.

Previous entries:Oklahoma QB Spencer Rattler | LSU CB Derek Stingley, Jr. | Oregon EDGE Kayvon Thibodeaux

The 10 players we’re profiling here — five quarterbacks and five non-QBs — aren’t guaranteed to be first-rounders in 2022. But they’re prospects who enter the season with the opportunity to lock up that caliber of draft status — and perhaps also have the potential to tumble.

Let's dive into one of the most productive quarterbacks in the country the past two seasons and a possible top-five pick in the 2022 NFL draft.

North Carolina QB Sam Howell

6-foot-1, 225 pounds

Year: Junior

2020 stats: 237 of 348 passing (68.1%), 3,586 yards, 30 TDs, seven INTs; 92 rushes, 146 yards, TD; TD reception

The skinny

Howell arrived at UNC as a 4-star recruit and No. 111 nationally in the Class of 2019, earning the starting spot immediately as a freshman. The kid who always wanted to be a Tar Heel got his wish as one of Mack Brown’s first big recruits and helped transform the program almost immediately.

Howell became the first true freshman QB in program history to start his first game, won his first two starts and came within a missed two-point conversion of shocking Clemson in 2019. By season’s end, Howell threw for 3,641 yards, 38 TDs and seven INTs.

In 2020, Howell led the program to its highest scoring average ever at 41.7 per game. He set school marks for most passing yards by freshman and sophomore quarterbacks and is close to setting several career passing marks at UNC.

Is this the year that North Carolina surpasses Clemson and the rest of the ACC? If that is the case, it’s likely because Howell took yet another step forward in Year 3.

But if he can’t match his brilliant production over his first two seasons, it could invite questions as to how dependent Howell is on the talent around him.

North Carolina QB Sam Howell has the talent and toughness to be the first quarterback drafted in 2022. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
North Carolina QB Sam Howell has the talent and toughness to be the first quarterback drafted in 2022. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

Sam Howell's strengths

With a career TD-INT ratio of nearly 5-1, Howell has been tremendously productive in his first two seasons without playing recklessly. He also cut down on his fumbles last year, dropping from 10 as a freshman to four last season.

Howell might lack a classic NFL passer's build. But he’s thickly built with solid athleticism — sort of in the Baker Mayfield mold, physically speaking. And Howell also has some Baker-like QB skills, too, able to throw vertically, deal on the move and pick up first downs as a tough and instinctive runner. You must respect the entire field when defending him.

As a thrower, Howell flashes some impressive arm talent. His deep ball immediately catches the scouting eye, as he's been one of the best downfield passers in college. He’s able to spray the ball all over the field with different trajectories, from different platforms and on a variety of routes.

Howell also showed incremental improvement in his passing accuracy, improving his completion percentage from 61.4% as a freshman to 68.1% a year ago. Some of that can be attributed to a lower drop rate among his receivers from one year to the next, but Howell also showed better placement and touch on some of his passes.

And he’s a tough customer. Howell wasn’t always afforded ideal pass protection the past few seasons, and yet he’ll wait until the last moment to fire the ball despite the rush bearing down.

Howell also tends to get better later in games, especially when they matter most. He's been one of the best fourth-quarter performers the past two seasons, completing 102 of 155 passes (65.8%) for 1,587 yards, 19 TDs and zero picks.

Sam Howell's weaknesses

Howell’s lack of height (he was measured at 6-foot-1 1/4 by NFL scouts this spring) isn’t the issue it might have been a decade ago. But even still, there could be some teams slightly concerned about his sub-par stature.

Although his toughness should be commended, Howell can invite the rush too much. He took 35 sacks a year ago and held onto the ball an average of 2.79 seconds per dropback, which is on the higher side. Howell has some creativity to escape pressure but can help himself better by getting rid of the ball quicker and gaining a better feel of when to burn it and fight for another day.

There’s also the question of how system-dependent Howell is. He's certainly benefited from the scheme of Phil Longo, one of the smarter offensive designers in the country. But there’s a worry that this Air Raid system is very first-read dependent and heavy on RPOs and deep shots.

Howell’s critics will tell you he must learn to work through his progressions more consistently. He also can tend to stare down his receivers at times (such as on both picks vs. Syracuse).

Plus, how much will the losses of RBs Michael Carter and Javonte Williams and WRs Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome hurt Howell? Right now, Howell is the team’s leading returning rusher, and no returning pass catcher had more than 19 receptions a year ago. There’s also the matter of the offensive line, which could be a question mark again.

There also are nitpickers of Howell’s mechanics. He has a slightly over-the-top delivery, tends to pat the ball before releasing it and can fail to set his feet better on some throws.

2021 outlook

The question of Howell’s surrounding cast should be answered in the coming weeks, but there’s little time to figure it out with a tough opener at Virginia Tech. UNC’s schedule isn’t a monster overall, but the second half stiffens with three road games in the final five contests, plus a home battle against a tough Miami team that looks like UNC's biggest threat in the Coastal Division.

Howell has answered nearly every question he’s faced, but this season could be his toughest challenge to date. The personnel losses, raised expectations and pressure of being a possible No. 1 overall pick next spring all could bear down heavily.

We should learn quite a bit about Howell’s temperament this season. To date, he’s been composed, mature and highly competitive. His slow pulse is exactly what NFL teams are looking for in signal callers. But how will he respond to adversity in his spotlight season?

Answering that question could help separate Howell from other highly touted QB prospects, including Oklahoma’s Spencer Rattler, and make him a candidate for No. 1 overall. Failing to do so might have some questioning Howell’s NFL ceiling.

Either way, he’s highly regarded for good reason. Howell might be somewhat unorthodox, just as Mayfield was as the first pick in a deep QB class in 2018. But Howell’s coolness under pressure, strong arm and confidence all rate very highly heading into the 2021 season.

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