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Senior Bowl quarterback breakdown: On Day 1, Sam Howell and Malik Willis get a bit of separation

Andrew Mason Avatar
February 2, 2022

MOBILE, Ala. — It has been said before, and it will be said again: Every quarterback being discussed as a potential first-round pick in this year’s draft has a flaw that, if not corrected, could end up damaging his chances of being a long-term NFL starter.

So, it was no surprise that the sextet of quarterbacks had performances at Tuesday’s Senior Bowl practice that reflected this.



First things first: Three-and-a-half hours before practice, Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy introduced Pickett to the media at a press conference in downtown Mobile with a whopper of a comparison.

“He’s got a really cool way about him. Kind of reminds me a little bit of [Joe] Burrow when I got to know Joe through this process,” Nagy said. “He’s just — guys gravitate to him. He’s a leader. It comes easy to him. So this is the start of a big week for him.”

That’s a hell of a comparison,” Pickett said a moment later. “I’m going to have to have Jim intro me like that everywhere I go.”

On the field, under-center work was a point of emphasis for Pickett, and he looked the smoothest of the three National Team quarterbacks. He looked particularly smooth rolling to his left, something that doesn’t always come easy for right-handed quarterbacks. There was one decision he likely wanted back in the team-period segment of practice, when he rolled to his left and had two receiving targets open, but took the shorter option, hitting Wisconsin’s Jake Ferguson.

Pickett was picked off once, but it wasn’t on him; he had a pass skip off the hands of Nevada tight end Cole Turner. It was a solid day with no red flags, but his Pitt film shows that there is more in him.


If Ridder is to cement his status as a potential first-rounder, he needs to flash. That isn’t what happened Tuesday. He didn’t have any significant mistakes, although there was a fumbled center-snap exchange with Cole Strange; this could be chalked up to this being the first day working together.

Ridder’s ball placement wasn’t great throughout the practice, and he didn’t have any splash plays. He struggled to feel pressure from the back side. His footwork will need refinement, and frankly, that led to some of his accuracy issues. But as we have seen since time immemorial here, it’s not about how you start the week — it’s how you improve and incorporate teaching. There is plenty of space for him to grow.


Working under center was bound to test the Nevada alumnus in two ways. First, he worked in Jay Norvell’s iteration of the Air Raid, making him primarily a shotgun quarterback. Second, the mobility issues present last season as he played following knee surgery would be exacerbated by dropping back. But he quickly got comfortable with the work, and did well at incorporating the teaching of coaches, improving in his ability to sell the play-action handoff after receiving some instruction during the individual period of practice.

Strong played without a brace on his right knee and had easily the liveliest arm of the National Team quarterbacks. Accuracy was a concern; he had several misfires, including one where he wildly missed on a throw in the flat to the running back. He also took more deep shots than Ridder and Pickett.



The questions about Howell arose from the contrast between a 2020 season in which he had four drafted skill-position players at his disposal and a 2021 campaign in which UNC had to replace its two leading rushers and top two receivers — one of whom, Javonte Williams — eventually landed in Denver.

The early returns were favorable.

Howell’s deep ball was consistent, and he had no trouble throwing to all areas of the field. Perhaps his best passes resulted in drops; two deep passes skipped off the hands of intended receivers in the one-on-one period. But he was the most accurate quarterback of the day during seven-on-seven and team periods, and his decision-making was generally on-point.

No team is going to want Howell to run often. But it’s a tool in his chest — and it’s one that he ought to be able to use to great effect. One example came during a team-period play that saw him look downfield after a play-fake boot, scan and then quickly take off for what would have been a double-digit pickup in game conditions. A willingness to run will press defenses, which could in turn lead to open receivers downfield.


The best high-end throws of the day came from the former Liberty quarterback. In the one-on-one period, he capitalized on a perfect post route by Memphis’ Calvin Austin III, finding him deep and in stride as Austin crossed the goal line for a 40-yard score. Willis, like Howell, was let down deep; he hit Gray down the right sideline, but that pass was dropped.

But Willis was inconsistent on his short-to-intermediate throws, and had particular struggles with accuracy working on out passes toward the sideline. He made multiple throws off his back foot despite having the space to step into his passes; his accuracy issues started there.


It was no surprise that in terms of raw arm strength, Zappe came up short of the zip shown by Howell and Willis. He’s not going to move his way up the board with velocity; it has to come from extreme accuracy, good decision-making and just enough of a threat downfield. At that, he succeeded, with the longest strike of the seven-on-seven period for any of the six quarterbacks:

But Zappe struggled with his short accuracy, missing short on multiple passes. He didn’t look like the completion machine he was in Western Kentucky’s iteration of the “Air Raid,” and will need to improve if he is to cement himself as a Day 2 pick.


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