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2022 NFL Draft rankings: QB (Part 1)

Sam Howell

Sam Howell

Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to my 2022 NFL Draft scouting series, where we’re kicking things off with quarterbacks sitting outside my top-5 (QB6-QB15). In the days ahead I’ll be dropping my deep-dives on Malik Willis, Desmond Ridder, Kenny Pickett, Matt Corral, and Carson Strong.

Statistical rankings below courtesy of PFF and ESPN. Rankings below are based on 39 qualified draft-eligible quarterbacks. FCS quarterbacks not included in rushing QBR (19 qualifiers).

6. Sam Howell | UNC | 6’1/218

Comp: C.J. Beathard
PFF grade rank: 7
PFF adjusted accuracy % rank: 26
PFF big-time throw % rank: 12
PFF turnover-worthy throw % rank: 8
BTT/TWT rank: 8
PFF clean pocket rank: 11
PFF under pressure rank: 15
ESPN rushing QBR rank: 2
2021 dropbacks: 462

December 18, 2018. First day of the early-signing period. Howell has been committed to Willie Taggart’s Florida State Seminoles since the spring, but he flips and signs with UNC instead. Taggart is fired the next year, while Howell, a native of Monroe, North Carolina, goes on to spearhead a mini-renaissance of Tar Heel football alongside HC Mack Brown.

Brown sealed the deal on a wavering Howell – FSU OC Walt Bell’s defection to become UMass’ HC opened the door – by stealing OC Phil Longo from Ole Miss. The Rebels had been hit with sanctions, and HC Matt Luke’s seat was white-hot. Longo tried to recruit Howell to Ole Miss, a non-starter because Howell didn’t want to move from North Carolina to Mississippi to play for a school under sanctions. But Howell loved Longo’s offense, and Brown knew it. So Longo decided to leave Matt Corral for Sam Howell.

Longo’s system is known for two things, simplicity for his players and explosive results. Longo runs fewer than 30 plays, but each has post-snap options that allow the offense to exploit what the defense is giving it. The system simplifies Howell’s post-snap reads, cutting the field in half for him.

Howell was a quick study. He started immediately, and, over his first two seasons, threw for 7,227 yards with a 68/14 TD/INT ratio, with accuracy percentages of 61% and 68% and YPAs of 8.6 and 10.3, respectively. UNC was 5-18 the two years before Howell and Brown arrived, and 15-10 in the two years that followed.

In 2020, Howell led the entire nation with 30 PFF-charted big-time throws, and he finished No. 4 in PFF passing grade on throws 20+ yards downfield. Two names ahead of him on that list – Zach Wilson and Mac Jones – went in the first round last April. The other name on that list, Spencer Rattler, was the only quarterback prospect whose stock fell further than Sam Howell’s last fall.

In hindsight, perhaps not enough of the credit for the 2019-2020 offensive bonanza was given to Howell’s supporting cast of skill stars. RBs Javonte Williams and Michael Carter along with WRs Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome departed for the NFL after the 2020 season. Without them, Howell flashed a dual-threat element to his game (1,100 rushing yards and 11 TD on 8.1 YPC with sacks omitted in 2021), but Howell’s passing cratered across the board, with decreased accuracy, efficiency, and explosion.

While his aDOT rose from 10.9 to 11.7 between 2020 and 2021 as Howell leaned heavily on speed merchant WR Joshua Downs, his YPA dropped from 10.2 to 8.7 as he learned not to trust the rest of his receiving corps. Howell’s percentage of PFF-charted turnover-worthy plays remained static between 2020 and 2021 – 2.2% – but his percentage of big-time throws was slashed from 8.8% to 6.1%. He wasn’t taking any unnecessary chances with his new supporting cast.

Howell’s 2020 season with the four NFL skill-players was his only collegiate campaign where he finished with an adjusted accuracy percentage of 75.0% or higher. Matt Corral, Kenny Pickett, Carson Strong and Bailey Zappe, among my top-7 QB, finished 77.0% or higher this past season. What I saw on Howell’s 2021 tape was a new level of risk-aversion, and he wasn’t pinpoint accurate on the throws he decided to make.

The Tar Heels fell off to 6-7. Howell declared for the NFL Draft anyway – the only true junior in this quarterback class – and went on to have a mediocre Senior Bowl. He did not test at the NFL Combine, likely because his athletic profile wouldn’t have flattered him as much as his rushing output did last season. Howell is a tough kid, but the running element to his game is going to play way down in the NFL. The only quarterback with more charted scrambles in college football last year was Malik Willis.

Unlike Willis, Howell isn’t a stud athlete. Howell is short and built compact with average foot speed, a tough runner who makes good decisions on option/zone-read plays and is decisive when tucking and running. He steals yards on broken plays and fights for yards.

Howell’s toughness comes in handy in the pocket. He is comfortable with heat in his face and will hang in the pocket and take a shot to get a throw off. He’s arguably too brave, and he left a small handful of college games battered. In 2020, Howell was sacked 33 times, tied for No. 3 in the nation. Last year, he was sacked 49 times, No. 2 in the nation – this in addition to the extra punishment he took as a runner.

Howell will need to learn to make quicker decisions in the NFL, and have a more fleshed-out backup plan than tucking-and-running. This is one of the biggest questions with his eval. Howell knows how to run Longo’s system, and he generally looked fantastic when that system provided Howell with advantageous looks to a future NFL player. When he didn’t get the look he wanted, or his target hadn’t created enough separation, forcing Howell to ad-lib, he struggled.

Howell’s pocket game was much crisper in 2020 when he trusted his supporting cast. One thing I really like about him is Howell’s always cocked ready to throw in case a throwing window pops open. Doesn’t need extra time to widen his base to begin his throwing motion. This helps expedite his release – which, in a vacuum, is of average speed for this class, with a little windup action.

Howell is very slick at finding throwing platforms in tight quarters. You’ll see him drop dimes and flick spirals surrounded by bodies, from myriad arm angles. When he has playmakers around him, it’s dangerous to send waves of pressure at Howell. If it doesn’t get home quick, your corners are on islands downfield, against a quarterback looking for exactly that.

Howell was more comfortable than Matt Corral in 2020 moving off to secondary options, snapping to the other side of the field for Option 2 or 3. In 2021, Howell was more panicky, very quick to bail if he didn’t like his look. And he wasn’t going to take any chances with the non-Downs receiving options he was working with, in contrast to 2020, when Howell could check-down to Newsome, Williams or Carter if Dyami Brown was covered.

Howell used to get comped to Baker Mayfield a lot. But in my opinion that comp no longer fits because of the aerial risk-aversion we saw from Howell in 2021. Mayfield had more creativity as a passer, more gumption – more gamble, if you want to put it that way. He was always testing the defense. With Howell, that comes and goes depending on how advantageous a situation he’s in.

But the pair share similarities in build, as well as smooth, repeatable releases. Howell is especially skilled giving his man the best of it in one-on-one shots downfield, and he shows requisite arm strength muscling it in against zone coverage or when attacking the seam. Mayfield had clearly superior accuracy and used it to carve up the intermediate area, while Howell is more of an all-or-nothing passer, with scrambling now his default when nothing presents itself.

When Howell makes a mistake, it tends to be self-inflicted. He’s gotten a little better at not telegraphing throws by locking onto his primary option, but he still has work to do in this area. Howell is extremely comfortable in the pocket. But sometimes that comfort invites trouble, like when Howell starts drifting to the throw-side of the field. He can put himself in tight quarters that he can’t escape from. In 2020, Howell ranked No. 9 among qualifying FBS quarterbacks in percentage of pressures he shared responsibility in. Last year, he topped the FBS.

The way Howell plays, inviting the enemy to the gate on lots of throws, he cannot struggle under pressure in the NFL. He was far better in that metric in 2020 than 2021. In 2020, Howell ranked behind only the aforementioned Rattler in PFF passing grade under pressure. In 2021, just among the 39 draft-eligible quarterbacks in this class, Howell’s PFF grade under pressure cratered to No. 15 (and this includes his rushing utility, which helped him in these circumstances).

Howell’s moxie, fearlessness, willingness to test vertically, and requisite blend of arm talent and athleticism will appeal to NFL teams who see him as a post-hype sleeper value play. If this class were picked last April, Howell would have gone in the top-10. But his lack of precision placement as a passer and propensity to take sacks are causes for concern, particularly since Howell won’t be able to bank on his legs saving him from sticky situations in the NFL as they did last year against the ACC’s procession of stinky, unathletic defenses.

7. Bailey Zappe | Western Kentucky | 6’0/215

Comp: Chase Daniel
PFF grade rank: 12
PFF adjusted accuracy % rank: 7
PFF big-time throw % rank: 4
PFF turnover-worthy throw % rank: 19
BTT/TWT rank: 12
PFF clean pocket rank: 12
PFF under pressure rank: 24
ESPN rushing QBR rank: 15
2021 dropbacks: 730

WKU HC Tyson Helton was done-in by a poor offense in 2020. They say necessity is the mother of invention, and Helton’s forced him to get creative. So he imported Zappe, WR brothers Jerreth and Josh Sterns, and OC Zach Kittley from FCS offensive powerhouse Houston Baptist. The plan worked so smashingly that one year later, Washington State copied it by importing in-tandem FCS Incarnate Word QB Cameron Ward along with his HC (to be OC).

Expect to see more of this in the year’s ahead after what Zappe did in his first and only season at the FBS-level. He broke NCAA single-season records with 5,967 yards and 62 passing touchdowns and was named the Conference USA MVP. Those around Zappe at HBU and WKU rave about how smart he is. By this point he’s a verified Air Raid maestro. One of Zappe’s former coaches told me he’s essentially a coach on the field.

Zappe is a pro’s pro in the pocket, sensing danger and stepping up in the pocket to inoculate himself from it. He typically makes sound decisions with the ball, whether that’s shuttling it off short quickly or striking deep. Zappe’s arm was better live at the Senior Bowl than I thought it was going to be.

Zappe has a short, squatty frame that is eerily reminiscent of Chase Daniel coming out of Missouri. Though Zappe doesn’t have a noodle, his arm tops out at average, and Zappe isn’t a gambler testing tight windows with it, probably a sage decision. He can beat defenders playing forward in zone coverage, but often it’s because he saw the opportunity early, not because of velocity.

Zappe must out-process the defense because he isn’t going to beat it with physical talent. The ball doesn’t come out as quickly with him as some of the passers ranked above him on my list. This, in conjunction with his average arm, will play down his aerial game a little at the next level.

But don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Zappe will appeal to offenses with heavy Air Raid influences as a strong long-term backup option. In the NFL, in a scheme that suits him, Zappe will be able to get his offense by when called upon, mostly by taking what the defense gives him and shuttling the ball off to the appropriate receiver.

8. Dustin Crum | Kent State | 6’1/210

Comp: Nathan Peterman
PFF grade rank: 6
PFF adjusted accuracy % rank: 20
PFF big-time throw % rank: 2
PFF turnover-worthy throw % rank: 1
BTT/TWT rank: 1
PFF clean pocket rank: 8
PFF under pressure rank: 25
ESPN rushing QBR rank: 3
2021 dropbacks: 462

Crum was overlooked in the recruiting process because of his frame, but he shouldn’t have been as a two-time finalist for Ohio’s Mr. Football award in high school. After sporadic field time his first two years, Crum took over the starting job early in 2019 and never relinquished it.

He ran Sean Lewis’ break-neck offense in college. Lewis was a longtime assistant of Dino Babers. Babers coached under Art Briles, and Lewis brought some of those old Baylor philosophies back to the MAC, where they previously worked wonders at Bowling Green during Babers’ short stay there.

Statistically, Crum is one of the most impressive quarterbacks in this class, with a career 55/12 TD/INT ratio in college. He was also a threat on the ground, twice topping 700 rushing yards even with sack yardage included. Last year, Crum rushed for 923 yards and 13 TD on 7.5 YPC when you take out sacks.

It’s not just the counting stats. Crum is the only draft-eligible quarterback to rank in the top-6 last season in PFF grade, big-time throw rate, turnover-worthy throw rate, BTT/TWT ratio, and rushing QBR. Even within Kent State’s hyper-tempo, aggressive offensive system, a trademark of Crum’s game was taking care of the ball, one thing the NFL will appreciate when evaluating him as a backup option.

Crum plays chess as a passer, looking off defenders to give his intended target more space at the catch point, and he maneuvers in the pocket well enough to buy himself time if needed. But the lack of juice in his arm is going to be a bigger problem against zone defenses and when throwing deep in the NFL than it was in college. This will be exacerbated by Crum’s slower release and lack of snap-bang decisiveness, factors that will help NFL defenders crowd his receiver’s catch points more than they did in the MAC.

I like Crum’s mobility, controlled aggression with the ball, and experience in the spread passing game. He’s a projected backup for a spread offense that bakes the RPO into its scheme. But with middling arm talent, he’s likely to be asked to be a much different kind of quarterback in the NFL than he was in college, a heady scrambler who must move the ball on the ground and in the short and intermediate areas through the air.

9. Jack Coan | Notre Dame | 6’3/218

Comp: Greg McElroy
PFF grade rank: 16
PFF adjusted accuracy % rank: 10
PFF big-time throw % rank: 8
PFF turnover-worthy throw % rank: 5
BTT/TWT rank: 4
PFF clean pocket rank: 15
PFF under pressure rank: 19
ESPN rushing QBR rank: 16
2021 dropbacks: 436

Coan’s ascendence at Wisconsin chased Alex Hornibrook to Florida State. A few years later, it was Coan being chased out of town by a youngster, four-star QB Graham Mertz. After watching Coan’s work at Notre Dame (25/7 TD/INT rate last year), and seeing Mertz flounder as the starter, Wisko probably wishes it could take that one back.

Coan is your prototypical pocket-passer equipped with a strong arm. This past season with the Golden Domers, we finally saw Coan unleashed a little bit, using that arm to stretch the defense vertically. Coan is more of a full-field reader than many other quarterbacks in the class. He’s an efficient processor of information, but can be fooled by exotic coverages.

He also, it must be said, is in the discussion for best arm in the class outside of the consensus top-6. When throwing from a sound base, the ball zips out. You don’t want him unloading the ball under duress, when his feet aren’t set, as the decision-making and accuracy both plunge alongside the velocity. His work under pressure has always been middling and I’m dubious that it’ll ever improve.

Though Coan isn’t a rushing threat outside of the pocket, he moves around just fine within it. And you love that he’s willing to step into the fire and take a shot to uncork a ball. But Coan took some big hits in college because he didn’t recognize pressure quickly enough. It goes without saying that he categorically lacks the foot quickness to beat NFL defenders as a runner. When Notre Dame wanted to run plays that involved the quarterback moving last season, former HC Brian Kelly would send in Tyler Buchner or Drew Pyne.

Coan is a fit only for traditional pro-style systems, preferably run-first outfits that set up deep shots with play-action. He projects as a long-term backup. Confined to the pocket, Coan’s only chances of starting in the NFL for a season is if his work under pressure improves.

10. Cole Kelley | SE Louisiana | 6’7/249

Comp: Paxton Lynch
PFF grade rank: 2
PFF adjusted accuracy % rank: 1
PFF big-time throw % rank: 26
PFF turnover-worthy throw % rank: 9
BTT/TWT rank: 11
PFF clean pocket rank: 3
PFF under pressure rank: 11
ESPN rushing QBR rank: N/A
2021 dropbacks: 630

Kelley was an intriguing four-star recruit in the 2016 class, a towering, monstrous quarterback with enough mobility to be a weapon in short-yardage situations as a battering ram. He signed with Arkansas. After a redshirt year, Kelley posted a 9/8 TD/INT ratio across six starts the next two years before opting to leave.

So Kelley, nicknamed “The Louisiana Steamboat”, transferred back home to Southeastern Louisiana. He started the 2021 spring season and was immediately a revelation, earning the Walter Payton Award as the FCS’ top player. This past fall, Kelley finished runner-up for that award, throwing for 5,124 passing yards on 9.3 YPA while accounting for 60 total TD.

Kelley is a natural thrower with an easy over-the-top delivery, like a pitching machine. His intermediate throws and seam shots come out with requisite velocity. Kelley feasted in the short and intermediate sectors last year at SELU. A full 62.7% of his passes last year came within nine yards of the line of scrimmage, an extremely-high number.

He comes from a gimmicky offense, but for whatever it’s worth, Kelley is very accurate and decisive within 10 yards of the LOS, explaining how he led this class in adjusted accuracy last fall. Kelley is better with the seam shots and deep crossers than he is flinging rainbows for go-routes. Despite his size, he lacks a cannon.

You want his deep passes over the middle, not to the sidelines. Kelley went 17-for-33 (51.5%) on 20-plus yard throws over the middle last year for 18.1 YPA, falling off to 17-for-38 (44.7%) on such throws outside for 13.8 YPA. His adjusted accuracy on the deep balls over the middle was nearly 70%, while his adjusted accuracy on deep balls to either side was just a little over 50%. Kelley’s inability to throw moonshots leaves those sideline deep shots a risky proposition in the NFL, where help will arrive quicker and more hungry to pluck ducks and take them the other way.

Kelley shares a similar frame and athletic profile to Paxton Lynch. But whereas the NFL didn’t properly bake in Lynch’s weaknesses during its evaluation process, the league seems to primarily be focusing on Kelley’s, as opposed to his strengths. Belying his towering stature, Kelley is a short-game operator, be it as the short-yardage battering ram or the point guard passing the ball soon after crossing mid-court. A team looking for a get-you-over backup with short-area accuracy and short-yardage utility will take the developmental plunge on Day 3.

11. E.J. Perry | Brown | 6’2/211

Comp: Taylor Heinecke
PFF grade rank: 26
PFF adjusted accuracy % rank: 18
PFF big-time throw % rank: 37
PFF turnover-worthy throw % rank: 29
BTT/TWT rank: 37
PFF clean pocket rank: 13
PFF under pressure rank: 36
ESPN rushing QBR rank: N/A
2021 dropbacks: 512

12. Kaleb Eleby | Western Michigan | 6’1/208

Comp: David Fales
PFF grade rank: 29
PFF adjusted accuracy % rank: 17
PFF big-time throw % rank: 21
PFF turnover-worthy throw % rank: 30
BTT/TWT rank: 23
PFF clean pocket rank: 18
PFF under pressure rank: 38
ESPN rushing QBR rank: 14
2021 dropbacks: 434

13. D’Eriq King | Miami | 5’9/196

Comp: Quinton Flowers
PFF grade rank: 20
PFF adjusted accuracy % rank: 2
PFF big-time throw % rank: 28
PFF turnover-worthy throw % rank: 20
BTT/TWT rank: 20
PFF clean pocket rank: 24
PFF under pressure rank: 13
ESPN rushing QBR rank: N/A
2021 dropbacks: 151

14. Brock Purdy | Iowa State | 6’1/212

Comp: Jake Browning
PFF grade rank: 23
PFF adjusted accuracy % rank: 5
PFF big-time throw % rank: 39
PFF turnover-worthy throw % rank: 12
BTT/TWT rank: 36
PFF clean pocket rank: 16
PFF under pressure rank: 21
ESPN rushing QBR rank: 12
2021 dropbacks: 467

15. Chase Garbers | California | 6’2/218

Comp: Brian Lewerke
PFF grade rank: 18
PFF adjusted accuracy % rank: 16
PFF big-time throw % rank: 25
PFF turnover-worthy throw % rank: 2
BTT/TWT rank: 7
PFF clean pocket rank: 25
PFF under pressure rank: 10
ESPN rushing QBR rank: 8
2021 dropbacks: 417

16. Skylar Thompson | Kansas State | 6’2/217

Comp: Sam Ehlinger
PFF grade rank: 17
PFF adjusted accuracy % rank: 8
PFF big-time throw % rank: 24
PFF turnover-worthy throw % rank: 32
BTT/TWT rank: 29
PFF clean pocket rank: 19
PFF under pressure rank: 9
ESPN rushing QBR rank: 11
2021 dropbacks: 266

Thor’s recent NFL Draft work: