ASHBURN, Va. -- The Washington Commanders have insisted all offseason that, yes, they really do like quarterback Sam Howell. They didn’t try to trade for an established starter like they did last season, conducting an all-out search. They might draft one, but it’s not a priority.
With the draft less than a week away, it’s worth asking draft experts: Is Washington taking the right approach? Should it look harder at quarterbacks in this draft class? How does Howell compare to this class -- and what did they think of him last year?
Washington viewed Howell as a second- or third-round choice a year ago. It ended up drafting him in the fifth round. The Commanders signed veteran Jacoby Brissett in March after releasing Carson Wentz, but Ron Rivera said that Howell will get the first shot at the starting job this year.
They did host Tennessee’s Hendon Hooker, coming off a torn ACL, for a visit this week. He would not be an option for them at No. 16, one source said, but there’s some intrigue with Hooker at some point after the first round.
With the team up for sale, their quarterback decisions will be scrutinized.
“Everyone in that organization understands there’s a lot of risk involved because you’ve got new ownership coming in,” said Mark Dominik, a former NFL general manager now an analyst on Sirius XM. “Howell was a [fifth-round] pick so if it doesn’t work out, ‘Are these the right people to lead the organization?’ But they’ve been around him and I think they feel that sense of comfort that you don’t have to be aggressive.”
Howell started only one game last season, the finale vs. Dallas in which he completed 11-of-19 passes for 169 yards, had one touchdown, one interception and ran for one score in a 26-6 win.
One NFL offensive assistant, who studied the quarterback class last year, called the group bad overall -- but said he liked Howell the best. He called him a natural thrower, but with “poor fundamentals and footwork,” and Washington harped on improving the latter from the time he arrived at the facilities.
Rivera has said their excitement for him stemmed from his improvement in practice during the season.
“Towards the end of the season last season … we started seeing some real positive signs that really showed you that 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.”
One member of the organization said last year before the draft that they would have targeted Howell in the first three rounds had they not traded for Wentz. When Howell remained available in the fifth, they pounced.
“I thought he was going to go much higher,” Dominik said. “I thought he could compete with the third-round guys. Having watched the tape and the throwing mechanics and his decision-making and talking to guys at North Carolina -- they didn’t feel it was the best opportunity for him but he battled through it -- I thought he was going to go higher. It was great value for the Commanders.”
Here’s what ESPN’s draft experts said about Howell -- and how they’d compare him to this year’s class:
Mel Kiper, Jr.
2022 rating: Fifth in the class. Kiper said he anticipated Howell being drafted in the second or third round.
Mel says: “If you remember, going into that final season at Carolina in August of that year, he had a first-round grade. He looked really good going into the year. He has the talent to be a starting quarterback in this league. It’s a leap of faith to say he’s our guy, but he could have gone a lot higher than the fifth round.”
McShay says: “I had a third-round grade on Howell. I obviously liked him a bit more than teams in the QB market last year. I always viewed him as a good backup in the NFL and someone who could win some games and keep a team competitive if the starter went down for a handful of games.”
How would Howell compare to this class? McShay said he’d have him as the eighth-rated quarterback in this class, behind his top four of Bryce Young, C.J. Stroud, Anthony Richardson and Will Levis as well as Hooker, Haener and Dorian Thompson-Robinson.
2022 rating: Third-round grade.
Reid says: “His offense was a big hurdle for him in a Phil Longo offense where they attack that middle of the field a lot. But when those pieces left, he just wasn’t able to uplift those guys -- he didn’t have great receivers to throw to. He took on more of a rushing role. The physical gifts weren’t the question; he has enough arm strength to survive. Is he good enough to uplift his surroundings? He wasn’t able to do that consistently at Carolina. That’s one reason he fell to the fifth round.”
How would Howell compare to this class? Reid said he’d be sixth on his list, right after Hooker.
2022 rating: Fifth-round.
Quote: “I was not a Sam Howell fan; I didn’t see it. The loss of talent around him saw his play slip and that affected him and then you see ... where size comes into the picture. The height wasn’t there. I was never blown away. I thought in Week 18 he played better than I expected and I was surprised by that. To say you’re rolling with a fifth-round pick when you have another draft class of QBs... that’s a position you’ve got to swing at until you hit it. I was surprised by their stubbornness, ‘No, we’ll roll with Sam Howell.’ Jacoby is the best quarterback in that room right now.”
How would Howell compare to this class? Miller said he’d be his sixth quarterback, after Hooker.
“I didn’t see the elite starter traits from him like I do the top five this year,” Miller said. “The scheme can cover some of that up, but a shorter QB without great twitch to make plays outside the pocket and a throwing motion that’s all arm worried me.”