ASHBURN — When quarterback Sam Howell returned to the sideline after scoring in Saturday’s preseason game against the Carolina Panthers, the rookie caught some good-natured flak from his Washington Commanders teammates. They joked that they were unaware Howell had wheels like that after he took off up the middle for a 17-yard touchdown.
“I think a lot of people didn’t know I kind of had that in me,” Howell said.
Against the Panthers, Howell looked a lot like the player he was at North Carolina: A strong-armed passer with the ability to extend plays with his legs. And that was a positive for coach Ron Rivera, who drafted Howell in the fifth round despite trading for starter Carson Wentz earlier in the offseason. Howell, who earlier in his college career was seen as a potential top-five NFL pick, threw for 143 yards on 9 of 16 passing and scored two rushing touchdowns in Washington’s 23-21 loss.
Howell’s flashy debut shouldn’t change expectations: This coming season will be a development year for the rookie. Wentz is unquestionably the No. 1 and Rivera has consistently signaled that Taylor Heinicke will be the primary backup. If Howell plays at all in 2022, something — whether because of lackluster production or injuries in front of him — for the Commanders will have gone terribly wrong.
That said, Saturday’s performance underscored why Washington took a flyer on Howell. And it creates intrigue for what could be in store for the quarterback down the line.
Howell’s best stretch in Saturday’s game came on a three-play sequence. First, Howell found Kyric McGowan on a deep in route for 27 yards, patiently waiting for the play to develop before firing down the field. Then, the quarterback fired off a 17-yard strike to Marken Michel. And finally, Howell took advantage of the pocket splitting ahead of him and burst through the gap for his first rushing touchdown.
Other moments, though, revealed that Howell still has plenty to learn. When Rivera reviewed the film from this past weekend, he said he noticed Howell could have dropped back a little deeper to avoid a sack. The Panthers sacked Howell twice, while Wentz and Heinicke were kept clean.
Howell is also getting used to Washington’s system. At North Carolina, the Tar Heels ran a run-pass-option-heavy offense — taking advantage of Howell’s mobility. With the Commanders, Howell will have to learn to go through his progressions quickly and make decisive throws.
But Rivera sees a prospect willing to put in the work. On Monday, the coach recounted Howell’s effort in the quarterback meeting room alongside Wentz and Heinicke. The two veterans are willing to help the rookie, but Rivera said Howell speaks up a lot on his own.
Howell does have teammates he can turn to for help, too. Earlier in camp, Heinicke said he wants to be the “Shaun Hill” to Howell as what the former quarterback was to Heinicke as an undrafted rookie in 2015. Like Rivera, Heinicke pointed to Howell’s upside and said he’s excited to see what Howell can become. “He can sling it now,” Heinicke said.
In April, Howell fell much further in the draft than what analysts and teams expected. No one seems to have a good explanation for why, other than that most signal-callers slid in what was considered to be a generally weak class.
That said, Howell’s third season with the Tar Heels didn’t do him any favors. The quarterback’s production dipped after multiple playmakers had departed in the offseason. He finished with 24 touchdown passes and nine interceptions, a stark contrast to Howell’s freshman year when he threw 38 touchdowns to seven interceptions.
Instead of being a top-five pick, Howell became the sixth quarterback taken.
“I’m going to go out there and try to be who I am,” Howell said. “Once I kind of got comfortable, I was just trying to go play football and play how I know how to play.”
• Matthew Paras can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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