The Washington Commanders are going to give Sam Howell every opportunity to become their starting quarterback, and ESPN's longtime draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. believes he is capable of doing so.
In a recent conference call discussing his outlook for the 2023 NFL Draft, Kiper said he believes Howell "has the talent" to be a starting quarterback in the NFL.
"If you remember going into that last season at [North] Carolina, in August of that year, he had...a first-round grade," Kiper said. "He was really good going into the year."
Kiper said he viewed the possibility of making Howell a starter in Year 2 as "a leap of faith" for the Commanders, but Howell put up strong numbers when he had a more functional offense in 2020. With Dyami Brown as his best receiver and Michael Carter rushing for a career-high 1,245 yards with nine touchdowns, the Tar Heels had the fifth-rated offense in college football with 537.3 yards per game.
That season, Howell was the fourth-best passer in the NCAA with 3,586 yards and a career-high passer rating of 179.1. His 30 passing touchdowns, which contributed to him getting the most total touchdowns (68) over his first two seasons through a sophomore year in ACC history, led the conference and were ranked sixth among all quarterbacks.
But with Brown being drafted by the Commanders and Carter going to the New York Jets the following offseason, Howell took a dip in production with a career-low 3,056 yards and 24 touchdowns. Kiper, however, said in January of 2022 that he still believed Howell had a lot to offer teams.
"This kid battled all the way through," Kiper said at the time. "He's got a lot of experience at North Carolina under Mack Brown. This kid looked like a top-ten guy going into the year."
Kiper had a Day 2 grade on Howell, but the quarterback had to wait until Day 3 at the start of the fifth round Washington to call him.
"I remember sitting there on Day 3, and his name kept coming up, and coming up, and coming up until finally Washington took him," Kiper said.
Washington was pleased with the value they got by taking Howell with the 144th overall pick, but he ended up sitting behind Taylor Heinicke and Carson Wentz as the backup and third string quarterback at various points of the 2022 season. He was named the starter for the Week 18 game against the Dallas Cowboys, and while Howell only threw the ball 19 times, Kiper believes the talent he showed in the 26-6 victory was a glimpse of what he could be in the NFL.
Kiper had Howell ranked as the fifth best quarterback prospect in last year's draft. If he were grouped in this year's class, which features Bryce Young, Anthony Richardson, Will Levis and C.J. Stroud as the top options, Kiper would rank Howell as the next best player outside of those four.
"He would be right in there with Hendon Hooker," Kiper said. "Ahead of Stetson Bennett, ahead of Jake Haener, ahead of Clayton Tune, ahead of Max Duggan, Tanner McKee, Dorian Thompson-Robinson. So, he would be either the fifth-highest rated quarterback or the sixth-highest rated quarterback."
It should be noted that Howell is not guaranteed to be the Commanders' starting quarterback in 2023. The team is happy with the growth that he showed throughout his rookie season, both as a starter and backup, but coach Ron Rivera and general manager Martin Mayhew would like him to compete for the role. That is why the Commanders signed Jacoby Brissett, who has performed well in spots as a starter for multiple teams.
Still, Washington will give Howell a shot to show what he can do.
"This is a challenge to him," Rivera said. "If he comes out and does the things he's capable of, we believe he's capable of, he can most certainly be our guy. But we'll find out. That's what competition is going to do. It's going to bring out the best in all our guys."