Summer Scouting Series: UNC QB Sam Howell

New summer series for Steelers Depot highlighting a handful of 2022 NFL Draft hopefuls and options for the Pittsburgh Steelers we could be talked a lot more about nine months from now.

Sam Howell / QB / North Carolina – 6’1 1/4”, 225lb

The Good

-Has good speed and mobility out of the pocket, being able to create out of structure
-A legit threat in the option game and when flushed out of the pocket as a runner
-Has a sturdy frame and can be a physical runner when asked to take off, willing to go through defenders to pick up extra yardage
-Has some shake as a runner in the open field, being able to evade pressure as a runner or escape pressure when looking for the play down the field
-Quick hands in the RPO game when it comes from snap-to-pass or completing the option handoff to pull and pass
-Has impressive arm strength for his size, having the ball jump off his hand on deep shots
-Has great deep ball placement, possessing the arch and accuracy to drop it in the bucket
-Has the arm talent to create on-the-run and make the impressive off-platform throws
-Team leader and a competitor that will put his body on the line to make a play
-Willing to stand in the pocket and take a shot to deliver the ball downfield to his intended target
-Does a good job keeping his eyes downfield when he senses pressure as a passer

The Bad

-Lacks ideal height you look for in a traditional signal caller
-Footwork in the pocket can stand to improve and be more consistent by stepping into his throws
-Fails to set his feet on throws and will bounce around in the pocket as he waits for his receiver to break open
-Benefits from an offensive system that creates easy reads and mismatches against coverage
-Will lock onto his initial target at times and rely too much on his arm talent to try and fit it into tight coverage
-Will have balls sail on him over the head of intended receiver at times when pressured or skip passes at the feet of his intended target


-Consensus four-star prospect and No. 3 pro-style QB in the country
-Named 2018 North Carolina Gatorade Player of the Year following his senior year
-Set the North Carolina record for total yards with 17,036 in high school
-Originally committed to Florida State, but flipped his commitment to UNC
-Started all 13 games at quarterback as a true freshman, completing 259 of 422 passes (61.4%) for 3641 yards and 38 TDs with seven INTs while adding 94 carries for 35 yards (counting sacks) and a score on the ground
-Started 12 games as a true sophomore, completing 237 of 348 attempts (68.1%) for 3586 yards and 30 TDs with seven INTs while adding 92 carries for 146 yards and five scores on the ground
-Has four receptions for 24 yards and two scores on trick plays in two seasons in Chapel Hill
-All-ACC Second Team in 2020, 2019 Freshman All-American, 2019 ACC Offensive Rookie of the Year, 2019 ACC All-Academic

Tape Breakdown

Sam Howell has been touted since the end of the 2020 season as the next in-line of future signal callers in college to hear his name called early on draft day in 2022. After doing more research into the prospect and diving deeper into his film, it’s easy to understand the intrigue with the player. Howell rewrote the record books as a high school recruit in the state of North Carolina and after a falling out with Florida State, he switched his commitment to the Tar Heels and then-new head coach Mack Brown. Howell picked up where he left off in the high school game, making an immediate impact on the field in Chapel Hill as a talented passer.

As reported by Pro Football Focus, Howell had 66 completions for 32 TDs on throws 20+ yards downfield in 2020 with both numbers being tops in college football. You see that arm talent on this throw against Florida State where Howell takes the snap and delivers a strike to his receiver in the end zone for the score 40+ yards out, lofting it into the air in-between two defenders and allowing his big-bodied receiver to go up an make a play on the football.


Howell’s touch and ball placement on his deep throws are quite impressive, being able to drop into the bucket over-the-shoulder to his receiver #15 Beau Corrales in-stride like we see on this touchdown throw against Duke his freshman year.


Howell’s arm strength as a passer is no joke as the ball tends to jump off of his upon its release. He threw 64 yards at a high school combine event showcasing his arm strength going into his senior year it looks as if that throw power has improved in his two seasons at the collegiate level. Watch him take the snap here against Texas A&M at his own 20yd line and roll out to his left to evade pressure, setting his feet and delivering the ball nearly to the opposite 25yd line to his receiver in-stride for the walk-in TD.


Here is another play from the same game highlighting the cannon attached to Howell’s arm. He takes the snap from the shotgun and fakes the handoff, dropping back to pass. He gets pressure up the middle and to his left, having no room to step up to throw. Still, he shows great composure in the pocket and delivers a strike downfield while taking a big shot, throwing the ball from the 37yd line to the opposing 15, putting the ball within the reach of #5 Dazz Newsome who lays out for it but sees the ball go through his hands. However, Howell does get the roughing the passer call on the play, resulting in a first down. Impressive throw to give his receiver a chance to make a play while knowing he was going to get lit up on the hit.


Howell may not have elite athleticism, but he is pretty mobile for the QB position and understands how to avoid pressure when the pocket collapses. Here against the Seminoles, we see good pocket awareness and ability to create out of structure by Sam Howell. He takes the snap and looks to pass but gets pressure closing him on him but doesn’t panic and pulls the ball down and steps up i/o forcing it into coverage. He then makes a good throw on-the-run down the seam to his man for the easy touchdown run.


Here’s another great play by Howell extending the play with his legs outside of the pocket where he immediately gets pressure coming off the edge and up the middle, flushing him out to the right where he stiff-arms #21 Marvin Wilson as he runs to the sideline and gets off the pass on-the-run while getting shoved out of bounds to Newsome who makes the diving catch near the line to gain. This gunslinger, off-platform throwing style has been a popular trait of QBs who have recently transitioned to the pros, and Howell has the same ability to keep the play alive when it initially breaks down.


When he decides to tuck the ball and run, Howell is effective at picking up yardage with his legs. Here against the Aggies, we see Howell that the snap and fake the give to the RB on the RPO, giving the quick pump fake to get the incoming defender to leave his feet as he tucks the ball and takes off, evading the pressure coming off the edge. He shows some good burst in the open field as he works his way to the sideline, eventually getting pushed out-of-bounds after moving the sticks.


Here in the same game we see another impressive run by Howell on 4th-and-short in the empty formation where he takes the snap and runs the QB draw up the middle weaving his way through traffic to pick up the first down and even bounces off a tackle attempt by the safety, eventually getting wrapped up by another defender and brought down by multiple Aggies after a successful conversion.


This clip shows how dense Howell is for his size, being able to absorb contact like that. He is willing to take shots and but his body on the line for the team as evidenced by this fun clip against NC State where he gets out in front on a running play to #25 Javonte Williams and throws a big block to de-cleat a defender and put him on his back. The mindset and effort you love to see in your quarterback.


Now for the not-so-good. While Howell has impressive arm talent, he often relies on said talent a little too much, having too much faith making the difficult throws instead of taking what is given to him. He will try and fit balls into places he has no reason to throw to, risking the turnover like we see here against Syracuse where he tries to drop the ball into the tight window with #7 Andre Cisco working his way over from center field, jumping in-front of the pass for the interception and taking it back the other way for a big return.


Howell also has a bad tendency to have balls sail on him over the head of his intended target when he gets pressure in front of him, causing him to throw early as sort of short-arm the throw.  Here is an example from the Texas A&M game where Howell gets pressure closing in on him up the middle and around the edge, causing him to short-arm his pass as the interior defender gets his hand up to attempt to deflect the pass, causing the ball to fly over the intended receiver’s head over the middle of the field and right into the hands of the linebacker dropping into zone coverage for the INT.


Here’s another example of the same issue from the game against Florida State where Howell feels pressure coming and skies the ball over his intended target who is running wide open on the post concept but can’t get a hand on the football flying over his head.


Howell’s overall pocket awareness and anticipation also needs to improve heading into his junior season. He has been asked to execute a rather simple offensive system that benefits from having a lot of first-read throws and RPO options instead of making him read the entire field and go through his progressions. We see that dependency of forcing it to the first option here on this play where Howell takes the snap and eyes down Williams out of the backfield with #13 Joshua Kaindoh reading the swing route perfectly from the defensive end spot dropping into coverage with Williams. Howell decides to try and force the ball to Williams instead of looking over the middle, firing the ball to the back while Kaindoh steps in-front of the pass for the easy pick-six.


Overall, I do understand the intrigue and hype surrounding Howell as a potential franchise signal caller at the next level. He has impressive arm talent, mobility, ability to create outside of structure, and the competitive toughness you love to see in your QB. However, he does trust his arm talent a little too much and will have to reel it in a bit to avoid the turnover-worthy plays that will occur at the next level, learning to pick-and-choose his battles. His pocket awareness, footwork, and accuracy under pressure all have to improve as well suggesting he is far from a seasoned prospect ready for a jump to the professional level. Howell reminds me so much of Baker Mayfield coming out of Oklahoma as the too standing next to each other look eerily similar having the same stature and size, similar arm talent, mobility, and play style. I would personally say that Howell has the more impressive arm talent whereas Mayfield was a better decision maker coming out of Oklahoma when drafted by the Cleveland Browns.

Now Mayfield was selected with the first overall pick by Cleveland in the 2018 NFL Draft, and while he has been a steady producer at the helm since then, there have been plenty of ups-and-downs since then, suggesting the overall upside and consistency may not have warranted him being drafted with the first overall pick over other options available in hindsight. I think the same can be said for Howell, who is a talented player in his own right, but has notable flaws in his game and will need a friendly scheme to mask some of these deficiencies along with stellar coaching to bring the very best out of him.

I do think that his upside as a passer can be greater than Mayfield coming out, but I also think he shows more risk as a decision maker, causing concern should he go to a team with an unstable foundation around him if taken at the top of the draft.

That being said, he has a whole season to continue to develop on the mental side and hone his skills while showing he can produce without his top talent available as most of his skill guys were drafted this spring.

I will be excited to watch Howell play this fall and see if he can take that step forward to solidify himself as potentially the top QB off the board come April.

Projection: Early-to-Mid Day One

Games Watched: vs Syracuse (2020), at Florida St. (2020), vs Texas A&M (2020)

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