North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell was an interesting prospect entering the 2021 season for a variety of reasons. After starting every game since he walked on campus as a true freshman in 2019, Howell led a high-powered Tar Heels offense in which he threw 68 touchdown passes through his sophomore year, the most ever in ACC history. Considering how productive he was as a passer combined with North Carolina’s ascension as a program, Howell was a hot quarterback prospect to watch in 2021.
The main narrative surrounding Howell was how he would perform with so many new offensive weapons around him. North Carolina lost its top two running backs Michael Carter and Javonte Williams to the NFL in addition to its two leading receivers in Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome. Those departures represented 85% of the Tar Heels’ rushing production and 65% of their receiving production from 2020.
Through North Carolina’s first six games of the season, both Howell and the Tar Heels have been disappointing. While the team is 3-3 with disappointing losses to unranked foes in Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech, and Florida State, Howell has been unable to find the same consistency in the passing game that he had in previous seasons. His completion percentage, yards per attempt, interception percentage, and passer rating have declined notably while North Carolina is scoring nearly a touchdown less per game despite not facing a challenging schedule to date.
In a wide-open race for QB1, Howell has yet to do anything to elevate his draft stock, and his performance this season has invited more questions about what he can be in the NFL.
There’s no denying the importance of quarterback play in the NFL and even within the 32 NFL starting quarterbacks there are a great number of tiers. Every team would love to have a dynamic talent like Patrick Mahomes, Justin Herbert, Josh Allen, Dak Prescott, or Lamar Jackson to build their offense around, but there aren’t enough quarterbacks at that level for every team to have one. That’s why teams are so willing to take swings at young quarterbacks in the draft while others have to settle for modest playmakers that require everything to be ideal around them to have a chance at being a contender.
I remember seeing this tweet in 2017 and it resonated with me. While there is so much that goes into separating trucks from trailers at the quarterback position, a lot of it has to do with physical upside. Do quarterbacks have the size, athleticism, arm talent, and competitive toughness to play above X’s and O’s and make plays when everything isn’t perfect around them? Can they extend plays and win off schedule? When under duress, do they have the poise and throwing power to hang tough and fit the ball into tight windows? Do they have the twitch and awareness in the pocket to elude the rush and make throws off-platform?
For the best quarterbacks in the NFL—the trucks—the answer to every question above is yes in addition to having impeccable leadership skills, work ethic, football instincts, and character.
When forecasting Howell to the NFL, the concern for me is that he is a trailer and not a truck. He features a squatty build, modest arm talent, and ordinary athleticism. He plays in a North Carolina offense that is static and features binary reads that do not prepare him well for what will be required of him at the next level. And while it’s a tough ask for Howell to not have a drop-off with a new supporting cast, it also doesn’t inspire hope for him being able to elevate the talent around him in the NFL.
Howell is a perfectly reasonable quarterback prospect. He has a quick release, is fairly accurate, throws a good deep ball, and has found a ton of production at North Carolina. But the concern for me is that a first-round investment in his skill set will leave his NFL team with a trailer and place notable stress on the front office to overcome his deficiencies by needing all the pieces around him to be perfect for the team to succeed.
It only takes one team to fall in love with a quarterback for them to go in the first round and there is a good chance that Howell could declare for the draft and be a top pick. But I worry that the team is getting a trailer and is destined for mediocrity. Given the salary cap, every team has to make concessions on the roster, but if I were a general manager, I wouldn’t “settle” when it comes to the quarterback position and draft one just to draft one. It’s too important, jobs are on the line, and I’d want more from the guy I peg to be the face and future of the franchise.