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QB Sam Howell — a ‘home run’ pick — highlights Commanders’ Day 3 of NFL draft

The Commanders selected former North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell in the fifth round of the NFL draft. (Michael Dwyer/AP)
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The Washington Commanders predicted unpredictability. The 2022 NFL draft class didn’t have obvious leaders at the top, and the middle rounds were muddied but deep on talent. Finding the right fit required digging — and a lot of phone calls to broker trades.

On Saturday, the third and final day of the draft, the team cut another trade, this time with Carolina, and added five more players to its roster: safety and special teamer Percy Butler (113th overall), quarterback Sam Howell (144th), tight end Cole Turner (149th), offensive lineman Chris Paul (230th) and cornerback Christian Holmes (240th). Along with first-round wide receiver Jahan Dotson (16th), second-round defensive tackle Phidarian Mathis (47th) and third-round running back Brian Robinson Jr. (98th), the Commanders believe they came away with potential starters, a bit of depth and some value.

“Looking at what we did, we have guys that we think are going to be part of some rotation, be part of some opportunity to play for us and truly contribute,” Coach Ron Rivera said. “And if we get anything from the guys later on — that, we feel, would be an extra bonus.”

Breaking down the Commanders draft class

They’re also convinced they got “tougher,” an unofficial theme of their offseason.

“We always want to try to get more physical,” General Manager Martin Mayhew said. “You always want to get faster through the draft. You want to get younger, you want to get healthier. Being more physical is important, especially in our division.”

The most intriguing member of the Commanders’ draft class is Howell, a three-year starter at North Carolina whom Washington studied for months before taking him in the fifth round.

Knowing they would be in the market for a quarterback, Washington began reviewing tape of the top quarterbacks early and met with all of them at the NFL combine. Even after trading for Carson Wentz, they traveled across the country to attend pro days for the top QBs, and after all of that Howell was the one who intrigued them most.

Turns out, the feeling was mutual.

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“I’ve had a good amount of communication with them, but I just kind of knew all along,” Howell said Saturday, shortly after Commanders wide receiver and former UNC teammate Dyami Brown FaceTimed him in celebration. “I kind of had a couple teams that I was interested in. Just after that combine interview and talking to Coach Rivera, I knew this was a place I definitely wanted to be.”

Days before the draft, Rivera alluded to the possibility of taking a quarterback but assured it wouldn’t be in the first round. The Commanders found their starter in March when they traded for Wentz and have a trusted backup in Taylor Heinicke. What they didn’t have was a third-stringer, an oft-overlooked player who, in recent years, has been asked to start games.

“Once we got Carson as our starter, we got off the quarterback train for the most part,” Rivera said. “… To have Sam fall to us was something we had to jump on. We had a very good grade on him — he was, at that point, the highest guy left on our board. … We feel this was a home run for us.”

Commanders select a pair of Alabama products on Day 2 of NFL draft

Howell, 21, was one of the most productive passers in ACC history with 10,283 career passing yards and 92 passing touchdowns, the most ever by a player in as few as three seasons. Although he’s shorter (he’s 6-foot and 218 pounds) than the ideal makeup for a quarterback, he boasts a skill set that was bound to appeal to the Commanders. Coordinator Scott Turner’s offense blends concepts from various schemes but is still centered on Air Coryell principals and its vertical passing attack.

Howell’s deep ball was a hallmark of his game at North Carolina, especially during his first two seasons. When most of North Carolina’s playmakers left for the NFL in 2021, Howell’s play changed and he resorted to using his legs more. Though he’s not the most athletic quarterback, he’s mobile enough to escape pressure, which he had to do often in his last season with the Tar Heels.

In Washington, he’s viewed as a developmental player. Rivera said he phoned Wentz to let him know they would be taking a quarterback and assure him he was a player-in-learning. Rivera also made it clear that Heinicke would remain the backup.

But Washington believes it found a potentially immediate contributor elsewhere.

Butler, a versatile defensive back out of Louisiana Lafayette, is in the mix for the “Buffalo” nickel role, a vital position in Washington’s defense. With speed (he ran a 4.36-second 40-yard dash) and a knack for big hits, Butler can play nickel as well as safety. He’s also a noted gunner on special teams.

“A guy that we feel strongly about,” Rivera said. “He’s a young man that has a very good skill set, and we also have some guys that are on our current roster that have played that position and have played it well for us. So, Percy just adds to the mix, and we can do some things with the right personnel on the field.”

The most intriguing player to Rivera is Cole Turner, the 6-foot-6, 249-pounder out of Nevada. Turner, like many of Washington’s tight ends the past few years, is relatively new to the position, having played his first two seasons in college at wide receiver. But with his size and catch radius, Rivera believes he can be a valuable addition to the Commanders’ offense — especially with Wentz, who has targeted tight ends at the second-highest rate among quarterbacks since 2017 (31.1 percent).

“He’s a dynamic pass-catcher,” Rivera said. “He’s played in a spread-style offense. He’s a big target, has a tremendous catch radius, runs good routes and knows how to separate at the right time. It’s going to be very intriguing to watch the growth and development of these players from this point until we get to the season.”

Washington added more versatility in Paul, a 6-4, 323-pound offensive lineman out of Tulsa who has played both guard spots and both tackle spots. The Commanders have stressed positional flexibility across the board but especially on the offensive line.

Holmes rounds out the Commanders’ draft class as yet another player with extensive experience; the former Oklahoma State cornerback spent four years at Missouri and then two with the Cowboys.