Why Washington is all-in on Sam Howell as its quarterback

ASHBURN, Va. — The Washington Commanders said it all offseason: Quarterback Sam Howell was their guy. Then, during last week’s draft, their actions spoke even louder. The Commanders did not draft a quarterback, as some analysts projected them to do. Which means: Howell really is their guy, just like they’d been saying all along.

That might have surprised many outside of Washington, but the Commanders really do like Howell, entering his second season, and sources within the team say they plan to give him first shot at the starting job in 2023. They like how he developed during 2022, culminating in a 26-6 regular season finale win over Dallas. In his one and only start — and game action — Howell completed 11-of-19 passes for 169 yards, one touchdown pass, one rushing TD and an interception.

But the team’s confidence in him goes beyond just what he showed in that game.

“I’m happy with exactly where he is,” Washington general manager Martin Mayhew said.

That’s why the Commanders weren’t tempted to pick Kentucky’s Will Levis when he was available with the 16th pick, opting instead for cornerback Emmanuel Forbes. One team source said the only quarterback who would have tempted them was Tennessee’s Hendon Hooker — but only if he was there when they selected in the third round.

Even so, they didn’t feel the same urgency they did last offseason, when they called every team that might have a quarterback available. They even phoned the retired Andrew Luck, just in case. They ultimately traded two third-round picks to Indianapolis for Carson Wentz and his $28 million cap hit. Then, they cut Wentz at season’s end after injuries and inconsistent play contributed to him finishing 30th in QBR after just eight starts. This offseason, their only move at the position was signing veteran Jacoby Brissett.

Team sources say the Commanders also like Howell because he’s on a rookie contract, which has allowed them to make other moves such as re-signing defensive tackle Daron Payne.

With a new ownership coming soon, coach Ron Rivera and his staff enter a crucial year and Howell is the guy who could make or break their fates. They need him to work. And this is why they’re confident he can:

‘I’m not suggesting he’ll be the next Drew Brees, but…’

According to sources with knowledge of the Commanders’ draft process, Washington’s scouts gave him a grade that equated to a second-round pick. Some of them gave him a third-round equivalent but others had him in the late first. One source said leading into the draft that, had they not traded for Wentz, they would have targeted Howell on the second day. When he was still available in the fifth round, the Commanders pounced.

In scouting receiver Dyami Brown before the 2021 draft, and attending his pro day at North Carolina where Howell was throwing passes to him, they got to see Howell up close.

“It was a very impressive day,” Mayhew said. “You would’ve thought he was one of the guys coming out. And there’s a quiet confidence that he has. The guys trust him, they respect him, he works his butt off. He’s very smart. Like I said, he can make every throw that there is and the guy’s very, very talented. He’s going to be a good player, I believe.”

The Commanders were also well aware of what the Tar Heel coaches thought of Howell. They considered Howell obsessed with the game, saying he’d study fronts and protections on Sunday mornings — the day after a game — which allowed the coaches to have more advanced conversations with him when they met.

“The game comes naturally to him,” said former UNC offensive coordinator Phil Longo, now at Wisconsin.

After the draft, Longo compared Howell to ex-New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees. In terms of size at 6-foot-1, Howell is one inch taller and has pocket presence and ability to make quick throws even as defenders swarm him.

“I’m not suggesting he’ll be the next Drew Brees,” Longo said, “but skillset he has the same strengths.”

‘I’ve come a long way’

During training camp, compared to the other quarterbacks on the roster — Wentz and backup Taylor Heinicke — Howell was clearly behind. Numerous sources with the team said at the time he needed to fix his fundamentals. Howell himself said he needed to focus on his footwork and timing up his feet with the route concepts — something he didn’t do as much at North Carolina.

“We saw that because of his quick-twitch ability to get the ball out, there were some things he gets lazy with,” Rivera said.

In a preseason game against Baltimore, Rivera pointed to a play in which Howell failed to take a quick shuffle out of shotgun that would have given him a five-step drop. Instead, he stayed close to where he took the snap and was sacked on the play. But, Rivera said, had Howell used proper footwork, he would have had more depth and better timing on the route.

“That was what I was worried about,” Rivera said about the impact of sloppy footwork.

“In college we took the same drop for most of our pass plays,” Howell said in December. “Here, every play you’ve got to know the exact drop and know how many hitches the ball has to come out in each progression.”

But Howell and the coaches focused on his footwork from the time he arrived. By season’s end it was better. And by season’s end, Howell was in a good spot. Even if he has to learn a new system under new offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, Howell likes where he’s at in his development. His footwork was not an issue in the season finale win against Dallas.

“I’ve come a long way,” he said.

‘Players know players’

Because Wentz missed seven weeks last season with a broken right ring finger, Howell got a chance to get snaps with the first team in practice. Heinicke, who was starting for Wentz, got almost all of the reps but there were periods in which Howell took all the snaps.

“Towards the end of the season last season we started seeing some real positive signs that really showed he is very confident and comfortable,” Rivera said. “A couple of times some things happened in practice and you would see him fix it himself. That was always something that you look for. He was doing things like that probably mid to end of the season so we felt really comfortable about it.”

Before this point Howell’s primary role had been with the scout team. His job was to emulate the opposing offense against a defense that had worked against specific looks.

“They know what’s coming on defense yet he still made the throws. That’s what was impressive,” Rivera said.

Rivera said he noticed how players reacted to Howell in practice, whether scout team or with the starters. Privately, by season’s end, players felt he was ready to start — some even predicted he’d do very well in the NFL.

“The first thing you’d hear from the defensive guys was, ‘I was trying to make that play, I just couldn’t get to the ball,’” Rivera said. “The old saying is that players know players. As you listen to them talk about it, [receivers would say], ‘His ball was so catchable; he threw that to the only spot [open].”

‘The throw on the touchdown was as good as it gets’

Howell’s lone start nearly didn’t occur. Rivera initially tabbed Heinicke to start the finale against the Cowboys even though Washington had been eliminated. The plan was for Howell to then take over during the game. But Heinicke and others convinced Rivera that Howell should start and get the whole game.

It’s a good thing he listened; Howell was able to show more of what he could do. Rivera liked that after throwing an interception in the end zone, Howell immediately told him what he did wrong and how he could correct it.

There were other plays that stood out for Washington. On Howell’s first pass, following a Dallas turnover, he connected with receiver Terry McLaurin for a 16-yard touchdown. The Cowboys were in man coverage, but McLaurin’s man handed him off to a linebacker over the middle to remove a shallow cross.

However, Howell read man coverage at the line and was prepared for how the Cowboys played McLaurin. He also knew how McLaurin would react on his choice route — continue to run across because it was man. Rivera said Howell made the play because of his pre-snap read.

“The throw on the touchdown was as good as it gets,” Rivera said. “He hit him in stride.”

Later, Howell connected with receiver Jahan Dotson for gains of 30, 22 and 20 yards. Of those 74 yards, 47 came after the catch. There was a slant over the middle when he gained 22 yards after the catch in which Howell planted, patted the ball once and hit Dotson in stride before a defender could come over to help.

Then, with defenders almost in his lap, he connected with Dotson on a 10-yard out, putting the ball to the outside and leading Dotson into 10 more yards.

“He was the reason I turned it up and got yards after the catch,” Dotson said. “On the slants across the middle he put it in stride, right where it needs to be. The arm talent, we all knew he had it. It was just a matter of getting in those situations.”