NFL.com analyst and former NFL scout Daniel Jeremiah takes a "first look" at some of college football's top players for 2021. This is the first in a series of scouting reports that will run throughout the offseason.
After watching quarterbacks come off the board at Picks No. 1, 2 and 3 in the 2021 NFL Draft, I thought there would be no better way to start my annual look at the next wave of prospects than with one of the nation's most buzzed-about college QBs.
North Carolina's Sam Howell has been a starter since Day 1 of his Tar Heel career, earning ACC Rookie of the Year honors in 2019 and following that up with an even more impressive campaign in 2020. His 68 touchdown passes are a conference record for a QB through his sophomore season. While I don't view the current top tier of collegiate signal-callers to be on the same level as the previous bunch, I came away very impressed with Howell after watching three of his game tapes from last season. Here's my initial scouting report:
Height, weight: 6-foot-1 1/4, 225 pounds (school measurements).
2020 statistics: 237 of 348 (68.1%) for 3,586 yards, 30 TDs and 7 INTs; 92 carries for 146 yards (1.6 average), 5 TDs (12 games played).
Game tape watched: Syracuse (Sept. 12, 2020), Virginia Tech (Oct. 10, 2020), Florida State (Oct. 17, 2020).
What I liked: There's a lot to like about Howell's game. He has very quick hands (which show up in the RPO plays the Tar Heels feature heavily) and a live arm. The ball jumps out of his hand and he throws a firm, catchable ball. His placement is outstanding on the deep ball. He also excels on the seam ball in the middle of the field, showing the ability to get the ball over linebackers and underneath safeties. He isn't a dynamic athlete, but he displays the agility to escape and extend plays. He takes the free yards the defense gives him in the run game, and he fights for extra yards after contact. He operates in a simple offensive system, but he does have quick eyes to work from one side of the field to the other.
Where he needs to improve: I like the aggressive playing style, but there are times when Howell needs to rein it in a little bit. Occasionally, he will lock onto his initial read and force the ball into traffic. He also needs to calm his feet at the top of his drop. He bounces too often and fails to set his base, which can affect his ball placement. His lack of height does lead to some tipped balls at the line of scrimmage. He can help limit the problem by maneuvering laterally in the pocket or climbing up to find clear throwing lanes.
Biggest takeaway: I believe a lot of what Howell does well will translate to the NFL. He can make every type of throw, and he isn't a stationary player. He can move around and create plays. I'm excited to see more of the offense put on his plate in 2021. He was blessed with two outstanding running backs last season (2021 draft picks Javonte Williams and Michael Carter), and the offense relied heavily upon them. He also had two wide receivers that heard their names called on draft weekend (Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome). That is a lot of offense to replace. Will he be able to elevate the play of others around him? That's something I can't wait to find out.
He reminds me of: Baker Mayfield. I wrote Mayfield's name down in my notes after watching about 15 plays by Howell. They have the same build, similar arm strength (Howell's is slightly stronger) and athletic ability (again, slight edge to Howell in this department). They both are ultra-competitive when they carry the football, and they bring juice/energy to their teams. Howell is a better deep-ball thrower, while Mayfield was a better decision-maker and didn't force as many balls into coverage back when he was a prospect.
I can't wait to watch him play: at Notre Dame on Oct. 30. This will be a huge test for Howell and the UNC offense. Last year, Howell was held to a season-low 211 passing yards against the Fighting Irish, and their defense should be excellent again this fall. I haven't studied him yet, but my friends in NFL circles are already raving about Notre Dame safety Kyle Hamilton. That will be a fun battle to watch!