A look ahead: In Week 2, Broncos could see a young QB they — and everyone else — passed on

May 22, 2023, 12:23 AM

Second in a season-preview series


  • OPPONENT: Washington Commanders
  • DATE: Sept, 17, 2023
  • TIME: 2:25 p.m. MDT
  • VENUE: Empower Field at Mile High, Denver
  • TV: CBS


The fascinating aspect of Sam Howell is how his draft stock plummeted in one year. Entering the 2021 season, some way-too-early mock drafts had the North Carolina gunslinger going in the first round — even pushing to be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2022 draft.

Howell was the first pick in a round, all right — the fifth round.

But now, he’s getting the treatment of a QB drafted far earlier. And if he succeeds, he might cause some reflection for teams in their draft processes. For while his numbers declined in 2021, there were myriad reasons — including the loss of virtually all of his skill-position weapons, including Broncos RB Javonte Williams.

Howell’s stock never appeared to recover from a 3-interception, 6-sack night in the Tar Heels’ 2021 season-opening loss at Virginia Tech. He fell off pundits’ radars. Critiques of his ability to handle a pass rush arose. But quietly, Howell put the pieces back together over the balance of that season. Protection remained an issue and the Heels’ defense bled points at an alarming rate, but Howell refused to point a finger.

Still, the season put Howell into the draft’s scratch-and-dent pile. Washington spent the 2022 season polishing the young QB, whose promise shone as early as last year’s preseason.

The Week 2 game will be different, however. It is forecast to be Howell’s first road regular-season start.

Now, one of the fascinating aspects of Howell is his skill set. He possesses mobility, but his first choice is to win with his arm. He operates well moving outside of the pocket. At 6-foot-1, he’s shorter than most NFL starting quarterbacks.

In other words, his strengths had more than a few items in common with Wilson. Which is why, once he fell into the fourth round last year, he might have been worth a flyer for the Broncos. The potential existed for him to be an ideal backup to the 12-year veteran.

That said, the Broncos got one starter from the two fourth-round selections they had in 2022: CB Damarri Mathis. The jury remains out on DE Enyi Uwazurike, although he demonstrated progress down the stretch last season.

Still, Howell showed the Commanders enough in a single, season-ending start to where they named him their putative starting QB. They didn’t draft a quarterback last month. Free agency saw Taylor Heinicke depart; the Commanders didn’t pursue a clear starter, instead signing Jacoby Brissett, who appears to have transitioned into the itinerant “insurance policy” phase of his career.

Washington is a club in transition. By September, new ownership should be officially in place. That combination would appear to put coach Ron Rivera on a seat that is, at minimum, warm.

But despite not having a winning season in three Washington seasons, the former Panthers coach remains highly regarded for shepherding the troubled franchise through a minefield that is in no way of his own making.

Rivera’s defense is stout and will generate pressure. But it says a great deal that in his fourth year, still seeking his first winning campaign in the DMV, Rivera will cast his lot with Howell.

Clearly, the coach has belief in the second-year quarterback. When they come to Denver, they are likely to still be early in the evaluation process.


  • The teams have split the last six games in the series, with the teams alternating wins. That split dates back to 2001, the Broncos’ first season at what is now known as Empower Field at Mile High. Prior to that, the Broncos won two successive games in 1995 and 1998.
  • This will be the 16th time in Broncos history in which they opened a season with consecutive home games. In nine of the previous 15 instances, the Broncos started 2-0. Never have the Broncos opened 0-2 when playing their first two games at home. (In 1974, they opened 0-1-1 with back-t0-back home games at Mile High Stadium.)


  • This will be Jack Del Rio’s eighth game against the Broncos in some capacity since he departed as defensive coordinator after the 2014 season. As head coach of the Raiders, he guided Oakland to a 3-3 mark against the Broncos. As Washington defensive coordinator, he was on hand for a 17-10 loss to Denver in 2021.
  • The matchup is the “17th game” for each team. The teams earned the pairing by finishing in last place in their respective divisions — although Washington was a competitive 8-8-1 for their best regular-season record since 2016.


Broncos 20, Commanders 13



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