NFL News & Analysis

The Washington Commanders’ outlook with Sam Howell at QB

2M7BR91 January 8, 2023 : Washington Commanders quarterback Sam Howell (14) in action during the game against the Dallas Cowboys in Landover, MD. Photographer: Cory Royster (Credit Image: A© Cory Royster/Cal Sport Media/Sipa USA)(Credit Image: © Cory Royster/Cal Sport Media/Sipa USA)

• A long list of Washington quarterbacks: Howell is the latest of the 14 quarterbacks the team has trotted out over the past decade.

• Howell is a low-floor, high-ceiling player: Any Day 3 draft pick is more likely a nonfactor than a star, but Howell's gaudy college numbers make the latter a very real possibility.

• If all else fails, Jacoby Brissett is a top backup: Washington shrewdly signed Brissett this offseason, presumably as insurance if Howell doesn't pan out.

Estimated reading time: 9 mins

Heading into the 2023 NFL offseason, the Washington Commanders biggest need lay in the quarterback position.

But that's not new. The list of quarterbacks Washington has trotted out over the past decade is longer than a CVS receipt, with the team trying almost everything imaginable to find a franchise player. In 2012, they traded up to No. 2 overall to select Robert Griffin III, before drafting Kirk Cousins in the fourth round of the very same draft, a decision that led to moderate success but still stopped short of pushing them into serious contention.

Then came Alex Smith, until his devastating leg injury, which led to Colt McCoy, Mark Sanchez and Josh Johnson getting starts. Next up, Case Keenum with first-round rookie Dwayne Haskins preparing in the wings. When that didn’t work, back came Smith to mark one of the best comeback stories in NFL history.

The 2020 campaign brought the arrival of Kyle Allen and Taylor Heinicke, the latter ultimately taking hold of the starting role before producing one of the best single-game performances by a Washington quarterback in the PFF era during the wild-card round of the playoffs.

Even after that effort, the team brought in journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick. The FitzMagic era lasted all of 16 snaps before the veteran suffered a career-ending hip injury during his first game as the Washington signal-caller.

Back came Heinicke. In came a broken Carson Wentz. Back came Heinicke. With the 2022 postseason out of reach, Washington thrust rookie Sam Howell behind center, the first start of his NFL career.

And now, we have a dilemma.

Washington quarterbacks since 2012
Name Snaps played  Overall Grade Passing Grade
Kirk Cousins 3,872 75.2 75.1
Robert Griffin III 2,357 70.5 73.5
Taylor Heinicke 1,729 60.9 59.2
Alex Smith 1,110 70.0 69.5
Dwayne Haskins 862 57.8 56.6
Carson Wentz 510 60.6 58.9
Case Keenum 448 55.0 56.1
Colt McCoy 446 56.6 54.0
Kyle Allen 214 69.0 67.4
Josh Johnson 204 47.6 42.3
Sam Howell 66 68.5 61.5
Mark Sanchez 65 41.8 41.7
Garrett Gilbert 55 59.7 57.5
Ryan Fitzpatrick 16 38.9 42.5

Click here to see more in PFF Premium Stats

Going into the offseason, the talk was, yet again, “Who will Washington trot out next?”

But the only quarterback they signed or drafted was veteran Jacoby Brissett, who many believed would be the starter in 2023. The Commanders couldn’t possibly turn to a fifth-round quarterback with one career start in a meaningless Week 18 game … could they? Well, all signs are pointing to Sam Howell getting the chance to start Week 1.

On paper, that might seem crazy, but Howell might not be your typical Day 3 quarterback.

Howell, after a 2020 season at North Carolina where he earned a 92.3 overall grade and made 33 big-time throws (second most), was viewed as a surefire top-10 pick in the 2022 NFL Draft. The talent around him dissipated after that campaign, though, with the Tar Heels losing their top running backs in Javonte Williams and Michael Carter and two top receivers in Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome.

2020 2021
Overall Grade 92.3 91.1
Passing Grade 91.5 81.1
Big-Time Throws 33 23
Rushing Grade 71.8 91.0
Missed Tackles Forced 20 65

Howell was asked to use his legs more in 2021, and while it led to a drop in his passing efficiency, he morphed into a major rushing threat. His 65 missed tackles in 2021 were most by a Power Five quarterback since 2014.

At the same time, the question surrounding Howell was no longer whether he was a top-10 pick; it was whether he was even a first-round talent. The 2022 class of signal-callers was notably weaker than in previous years, and there was no clear-cut QB1. Pittsburgh's Kenny Pickett ended up as the only signal-caller drafted in the first two rounds. Howell slid all the way to Pick 144 in the fifth round and was the sixth quarterback selected overall in the 2022 NFL Draft.

The scouting report on Howell indicated he wouldn't be able to step into an NFL offense right away and succeed. His offense at North Carolina showed very few full-field passing concepts and relied on run-pass options and deep balls. It showed off Howell’s arm and deep ball accuracy…

…but also that there would be a lot for him to improve on the mental side. He struggled when asked to work off the first read and, especially in his last season, often took off to run when his first read wasn’t open.

Howell’s first NFL action came in the preseason, and it highlighted some of the pre-draft concerns. His mental processing seemed a touch too slow for the NFL level, and his pocket manipulation wasn’t up to par. 

One thing a quarterback can’t do at any level is miss late and behind. That’s a recipe for disaster.

However, there were a couple of plays that showed how much progress Howell made in a very limited time. Being able to work through full-field progressions and hitting the backside concept on time never materialized for Howell at North Carolina because the coaching didn’t ask him to do it.

These back-to-back plays were impressive.

The rest of the preseason turned out to be the same mixed bag of good and bad. What you would expect from a fifth-round rookie quarterback.

Howell didn’t play a snap throughout the regular season until the Commanders were officially eliminated from playoff contention in Week 18 against the Dallas Cowboys. His stat line and grades were nothing incredible, but there were a few plays where his potential was apparent, leaving Commanders fans excited. Some notable stats:

  • 11 of 19, 168 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT
  • 68.5 overall grade
  • 1 big-time throw, 1 turnover-worthy play
  • 70.6% adjusted completion %

This is the throw everyone will point to:

It was easily Howell's best throw of the game, an accurate deep ball that hits Terry McLaurin in stride.

And it wasn’t just that one throw. Howell was also getting the ball on time and managing tight pockets well. 

Looking back at the preseason film, you never saw a throw out of his hands with this sort of anticipation.

It wasn’t all perfect. Howell threw a bad interception in the red zone that highlighted how inexperienced he still is.

The odds aren’t great for Day 3 quarterbacks to become successful in the NFL, and Washington fans should temper their expectations for Howell. For every Dak Prescott and Kirk Cousins, there are dozens of guys who never see the field. The talent is definitely there, but as with most young guys under center, it’s about working on the mental side of the game and mastering those subtle details that elevate the talented quarterbacks into successful NFL players.

The Commanders are in a unique position. Head coach Ron Rivera and the front office have constructed a relatively respectable roster. Their defense has consistently been among the best in the NFL. They have a good group of offensive weapons. They just hired a highly respected offensive coordinator in Eric Bienemy. Add to that the potential change in ownership and Rivera possibly being on the hot seat, and you have your answer as to why Sam Howell could be the guy in 2023.

He’s the Hail Mary shot that could elevate this team into not only contending for the playoffs but making some noise in a rather weak NFC. But behind that Hail Mary is a veteran backup in Brissett who has shown that he can be the safe, effective quarterback capable of allowing a team to stay in the playoff hunt.

So, how big of a leash does Howell get? The Commanders should be able to tell early on if they can trust him to efficiently operate this offense. And if he can’t, in comes Brissett. While Howell’s ceiling is enticing, his floor is an all too familiar position for Washington fans. If you can’t find the answer at quarterback, it makes winning football games and fighting for the playoffs that much harder. If Howell can tap into his potential that saw people wanting to draft him in the top 10 years ago, the sky could be the limit for a Washington team that has been “a quarterback away” during the entire Rivera tenure.

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