ASHBURN, Va. — Sam Howell’s arm strength is NFL-worthy. The latest edition of Madden NFL ranked the Washington Commanders rookie’s arm power eighth among all quarterbacks, tied with Aaron Rodgers. Days into his first professional training camp, Howell realizes he’ll need all that oomph to get by.
“I think the main difference (from college) is just how good the DBs are,” the former three-year starter at North Carolina told The Athletic. “Our D-line is really good, but the (defensive backs), just the way that can break on balls … it’s shocking. They close windows very fast.”
There is no rush for Howell to speed up his passing and mental process accordingly. The fifth-round pick is third on Washington’s QB depth chart behind Carson Wentz and Taylor Heinicke. Howell is still learning the playbook, his offensive teammates and the talent level of ball-hawking cornerbacks and safeties.
Thanks to that right arm, he has the foundation to be an intriguing prospect. For now, that’s good enough.
“It’s just a matter of learning as he goes through (camp),” coach Ron Rivera said. “Understanding our scheme, our progressions in terms of the routes being run and how to get from one receiver to the other.”
Though Howell entered the 2021 college football season heralded as a future high draft pick — and Wentz hasn’t wowed in camp — there are no expectations for the rookie to enter a meaningful regular-season game this season. Yet the basics for an NFL role exist. That’s why everyone involved is taking a patient approach.
Beyond the right arm that set records at UNC for career passing yards (10,283) and touchdown passes (92), Howell has a gamer vibe reminiscent of Heinicke. Like Washington’s primary starter last season, the 6-foot-0 Howell lacks ideal size. Both find ways to create through the air and on the ground; Howell, partly by necessity as he played within a limited offense, rushed for 828 yards and 11 touchdowns in his final season with the Tar Heels.
Even if Howell’s eyes widen momentarily at the sight of ball-hawking cornerbacks and safeties, his demeanor is that of a player whose pulse does not quicken as adversity lurks.
“Howell needs to clean up his footwork and develop as a pocket passer,” The Athletic’s draft insider Dane Brugler wrote pre-draft, “but he has NFL-quality arm strength, athleticism and work ethic and operates with a slow heartbeat.”
That even-keeled vibe will appeal to players who don’t want to see signs of panic in their quarterback’s eyes. Howell’s manner will also help him through the camp’s ups and downs. Then there’s his new reality. After starting for three years in college, Howell enters the pro ranks third on the depth chart.
“It is a little different than what I’m used to,” Howell told The Athletic. “I know the kind of situation that I’m in here. All I can do is control what I can control and try to get better every day.”
Development at this stage for Howell means “trying to maximize every single rep that I have out there.” He works up a mental sweat watching Wentz and Heinicke. “I try to get a mental rep on every single play that we run in practice,” Howell said Friday.
A new experience comes Saturday for Howell and all the rookies: Their first work at FedExField. Washington is shifting its morning practices at the team’s Northern Virginia facility for a night session at its home stadium.
“It’ll be super cool to see our stadium,” Howell said.
On Saturday, he’ll participate on the field. During regular-season Sundays, Howell is poised for sideline viewing. That’s fine for now. Often facing the third-team defense, he’s looked strong in the pocket at times, green in others. Camp practices and preseason games will be Howell’s time to improve and flash — and find ways to deliver passes before those receiving windows close.
More news and notes from Friday
• Two recent camp trends intersected when Rivera announced the sudden retirement of linebacker Tre Walker. The undrafted free agent joined Antonio Gandy-Golden among players to retire this camp. Walker is also the second linebacker removed from the depth chart. Drew White suffered a season-ending ACL tear this week. That leaves the team with only seven linebackers on the 90-man roster.
As to whether Washington will (finally!) seek more linebackers, Rivera said, “It’s gonna prompt us to obviously look at it.”
• Wide receiver Curtis Samuel (hamstring, sore lower back) did not participate in practice after working with the first-team offense on Wednesday and during Thursday’s light walk-through. That’s three of Samuel’s last four full practices working with trainers on the side field.
Fellow wideout Dyami Brown joined Samuel and tight end John Bates (calf), offensive lineman Saahdiq Charles and defensive backs Troy Apke and DeJuan Neal. Guard Trai Turner (quad) and defensive end James Smith-Williams (hip) remained unavailable, and William Jackson III (hamstring) missed some of practice.
• Tight end Logan Thomas (knee surgery) is weeks away from returning, and Bates last practiced on July 29. Cole Turner joined the injury report on Saturday. The 6-foot-6 rookie kept moving on one pass play as Heinicke rolled left. Turner made the catch over the middle but took a whack from safety Percy Butler, among others, while turning upfield. The rookie walked off the field and straight into the trainer’s tent.
The pads are back on and Percy Butler is making aggressive plays. Stuffed a McKissic run on one play. Moments later he crunched Cole Turner on the move after the TE made a catch over the middle. Turner a bit banged up after the contact.
— Ben Standig (@BenStandig) August 5, 2022
Rivera later said Turner experienced hamstring tightness — and that Sammis Reyes also had a hamstring issue. That means Washington could be without its projected top four tight ends for Saturday’s practice.
• There was no clear daily winner between the offense and defense except for a goal line sequence late in practice.
The first-team offense took possession in the shadow of the end zone at the 2-yard line. Defensive end Casey Toohill chased down running back Antonio Gibson in the backfield on first down. Linebacker Jamin Davis helped stone a second-down run up the middle before blanketing tight end Armani Rogers in the end zone, forcing Wentz to throw the ball away on third down.
Gibson twice on Friday lost the ball on handoffs from Wentz. It wasn’t clear whether the issues came with the exchanges or simple drops by the RB coming off a season in which he had a league-high (among non-QBs) six fumbles. The second blunder came on the fourth-down play, with Toohill coming up with the loose ball.
The second-team offense with Heinicke did not fare much better over its entire series of plays. Cam Sims skied to catch a fade pass in the right corner of the end zone, but cornerback Christian Holmes pushed the receiver out of bounds before Sims’ feet touched the ground. Running back Jonathan Williams punched the ball in from the 1 on fourth down.
• Davis remains the other starting linebacker alongside Cole Holcomb in Washington’s standard lineup. However, David Mayo’s workload with the first team ticked up in recent practices. All three played together Friday during a brief stretch with a base 4-3 look, but Davis’ progression after an underwhelming rookie season garners the most curiosity.
Rivera this week said he’s been pleased with Davis in camp, saying, “He’s much more comfortable with what we’re doing.”
As for the uptick in Mayo’s first-team snaps — meaning less for Davis — the veteran is part of Washington’s “big group,” and that’s a look the coaches used more this week along with five defensive linemen.
• Butler, an aggressive safety with speed, also snuffed a J.D. McKissic run during practice. Competition between Butler and Darrick Forrest is increasing and should make for a rock ’em, sock ’em showcase during the preseason.
(Photo: Geoff Burke / USA Today)