Howell caught Washington's eye long before they drafted the QB

Sam Howell warms up in Orange Bowl

After the 2021 NFL regular season concluded, Washington's front office set on a mission to find a franchise quarterback. The Commanders' QB1 quest ended in early March when the team acquired Carson Wentz in a trade with Indianapolis.

As the 2022 NFL Draft was approaching, the Commanders weren't going to avoid paying attention to the position altogether. Yes, Wentz is the guy in Washington (for now), but even head coach Ron Rivera suggested pre-draft they could add a signal-caller in the later rounds. And, when North Carolina's Sam Howell was still available in the fifth round, the choice for Washington was easy.

"To have Sam fall to us was something we had to jump on," Rivera said on Saturday. "We feel this is a home run for us."

Rivera and general manager Martin Mayhew each gave multiple reasons as to why they selected Howell during the team's post-draft press conference on Saturday. Yet, there were a few comments from each that especially stood out. 

For starters, Rivera was quick to mention that the team and its scouts looked deep into Howell's tape, dating back to both the 2019 and 2020 seasons. Howell, a three-year starter for the Tar Heels, played his best ball during those two campaigns before undergoing a series of personnel changes entering last fall.

"It would be unfair if you didn't consider his 2020 season, just looking back at what he did," Rivera said.


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In 2020, North Carolina's offense was loaded. The team had a pair of 1,000-yard rushers in Javonte Williams and Michael Carter, two players that shined at the NFL level as rookies last season. On the outside, Howell had two future NFL targets in Dyami Brown, who the Commanders drafted in the third round last year, and Dazz Newsome, a sixth-round selection by Chicago.

With that group, Howell shined. The then-sophomore quarterback threw for nearly 3,600 yards with 30 touchdowns and seven interceptions. North Carolina finished with an 8-4 record and an Orange Bowl appearance against Texas A&M.

Washington scouted almost all of those players during the 2021 pre-draft cycle, which also gave the Commanders their first chance to look at Howell for the upcoming year.

Howell, not eligible for the 2021 NFL Draft, opted to throw at UNC's Pro Day last spring to allow his two wideouts, Brown and Newsome, the chance to catch passes from the QB they were familiar with. Howell's decision to participate at that event still stands out to Mayhew even over one year later.

“One thing that really impressed me about him last year was the Pro Day at North Carolina. When all those guys were coming out, he came out and threw for those guys," Mayhew said. "And a lot of guys would not do that if they didn't have to. And he put on a show, he put on a show, and I was there. [Executive Vice President of Football for Player Personnel] Marty [Hurney] was there. We all saw that. He really caught my eye on that day, and I started watching him."

It's no secret that the 2021 season did not go as planned for Howell. Entering the fall, the quarterback was firmly in the conversation to be the No. 1 overall pick in 2022. But a combination of multiple factors, including the losses of four NFL-bound offensive skill players, led Howell to have his least productive season in Chapel Hill.

Yet, although Howell was unable to match his passing totals of 2019 and 2020, he still turned in a solid year for the Tar Heels. The quarterback finished with over 3,000 passing yards with 24 touchdowns and just nine interceptions, a more-than-solid stat line overall.

“Yeah, obviously a little bit of a challenge," Howell said on the 2021 season. "We lost a couple guys, but for me, I wouldn't trade last year for anything. I think I learned so much this past season that made me overall a better football player and a better person. For me, I really wouldn't trade anything. I wouldn't trade last season for anything in the world. I learned so much last season and I'm forever grateful for all the teammates I had last season. I really couldn't say anything negative about it.”


As a junior in 2021, Howell showcased a different part of his game: his ability to run the football. After rushing for just 205 yards over his first two seasons, Howell totaled 828 yards on the ground in 2021 to go along with 11 scores via his legs. North Carolina's offense had to change after losing plenty of talent and Howell was able to adapt.

"This is a guy that had a whole group of new starters that he had to try and work with and get used to and yet he was still very, very productive," Rivera said. "... We spent a lot of time looking at his 2020 tape, took a lot of time looking at his 2021 tape. I actually read a really interesting article about him. And the thing that really was pointed out in the article was the loss of playmakers and then the loss of the offensive line in front of him, and then the switch to what they were doing offensively to try and capitalize on his ability."

Mayhew echoed a similar sentiment, too.

"I was really impressed with the season last year," Mayhew added. "And like Coach [Rivera] said, he lost a lot of weapons and I thought they modified the game plan somewhat to try to adjust for that, which I think took away from his ability to play his best ball this past year. So I'm really excited about having him with us.”

Throughout the pre-draft process, Rivera, Mayhew and the rest of Washington's brass spoke with multiple people within UNC's program about Howell. They came away from those conversations with the understanding that Howell was very well-liked in Chapel Hill and has true leadership traits.

In Washington, they'll be no pressure on Howell, either. He enters as the third-string QB behind Wentz and Taylor Heinicke, with development the main goal for the 2022 season. Howell himself is thrilled to be in Washington and called it the "perfect spot" for him where he can learn behind Wentz, too.

"This is a value pick, a developmental pick," Rivera said. "This is a guy that has no pressure, where he can sit back, learn from a couple of quality guys and who knows what happens later on."