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Detroit Lions 2022 draft watch: Top QBs face-off on Thursday night

Kenny Pickett vs. Sam Howell in a special edition of Lions’ draft watch!

NCAA Football: New Hampshire at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Detroit Lions fans are thirsty for a quarterback, and rightfully so, but this season has been full of letdowns, with no true alpha rising to the top.

Last weekend’s highlighted game, Liberty at Mississippi, featured what most projected (at the time) to be the two leading candidates to be the first two quarterbacks selected in the 2022 NFL draft: Malik Willis (Liberty) and Matt Corral (Mississippi).

Unfortunately, Willis disappointed with his decision-making (his supporting cast did him no favors) and some of his biggest flaws were exaggerated. Corral held steady, but even though Liberty’s defense couldn’t hold up against a more talented roster, he wasn’t able to dominate (he and all his skill players are dealing with injuries) and separate himself from the pack.

Corral is still likely the front runner to be the first quarterback off the board at this time, but he’s far from a lock to go first overall, and the door is wide open for another quarterback to leapfrog him if they can seize the opportunity.

And that brings us to Thursday’s special draft watch game:

North Carolina at Pittsburgh at 7:30 p.m. ET on ESPN

This game features two quarterbacks that are still very much in the mix to be considered first-round prospects, and an impressive showing from either could do wonders for their draft stock.

Kenny Pickett, Quarterback, Pittsburgh (Senior)

6-foot-2, 219 pounds

Pickett is one of, if not the biggest riser among quarterbacks in this draft class. That late-career developmental surge, along with stylistic similarities, has drawn some to compare him to Joe Burrow, but I believe it’s premature to start lifting him up to those levels just yet.

I did profile Pickett ahead of his game against Clemson, calling it a pivotal game for him, especially after throwing four interceptions in their 2020 matchup. Pickett answered the bell, completing 25 of 39 for 309 yards, two touchdowns, and zero interceptions, on his way to a 27-17 victory.

Pickett has a live arm, can make throws all over the field, and has shown confidence in his decision making which has led to improved play. His accuracy has rapidly increased and he has shown some mobility in and out of the pocket, which is an upward trending skill quarterbacks need in today’s NFL.

The biggest factor working in Pickett’s favor may be Lions’ coach Dan Campbell’s relationship with his mentor Hall of Fame coach Bill Parcells. Parcells’ developed a system for drafting quarterbacks, affectionately known as “the Parcells rules”, that many analysts have followed for years. Now, the game has shifted in how it evaluates the position, but for a coach who values an old school approach, it’s worth taking a look at these rules and how they heavily favor Pickett.

  • Rule 1: The QB must be a three-year starter — Pickett is in his fourth year as a starter.
  • Rule 2: Must be a college senior — Check.
  • Rule 3. Must graduate from college — Check.
  • Rule 4: Must start at least 30 games — Pickett has started 44 ahead of this game.
  • Rule 5: Must score two TDs for every interception thrown — Pickett has a career 68:28 ratio and 29:3 this season!
  • Rule 6: Must complete at least 60 percent of his pass attempts — 62.3 percent over his career, 68.7 in 2021.
  • Rule 7: Must win at least 23 games — Pickett has led the Panthers to 28 victories.

The biggest drawback to successfully achieving all of these rules is you typically end up with a quarterback that is older than what teams prefer in today’s NFL. For example, Pickett will turn 24 years old in June, which isn't ideal for a top prospect.

On the flip side, the rules are designed to uncover quarterbacks who can step on the field immediately and with their level of experience, should not be rattled at the next level. Successful examples of full qualifiers include Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, and Russell Wilson to name a few. Is this immediate availability a priority for the Lions who are early on in a rebuild and have Jared Goff under contract for at least another year? Maybe not. Then again, it may be exactly what they need.

Sam Howell, Quarterback, North Carolina (Junior)

6-foot-1, 220 pounds

While Pickett has steadily been trending up, Howell has been on a bit of a rollercoaster. Entering the season, he was viewed as one of the top-two quarterbacks in this class. Then a three-interception opening game—including a poor decision that ended their chances of coming back—resulted in a loss to Virginia Tech and left a sour taste in evaluators' mouths.

Since then, Howell has worked his way back into the hunt but not having the weapons he has had in previous years—RB Javonte Williams (second round), WR Dyami Brown (third), RB Michael Carter (fourth), and Dazz Newsome (sixth) were all drafted in 2021—has exposed some bad habits.

Yes, a drop-off in production was expected this season, but there was also hope that he would be able to elevate the younger players on the roster. Instead, we have seen him alter his game, showing more versatility, specifically as a runner.

In six of his nine games, Howell has rushed for at least 98 yards (over 100 if you eliminate sack yardage) and has run for eight touchdowns. Last week, against then-undefeated Wake Forest, Howell threw for 216 yards and a touchdown, and rushed for 104 yards and two touchdowns.

You can see on the run, he doesn’t have elite athleticism, but there is stylistically a lot of Baker Mayfield to his game, and he has the desire and competitiveness to get the job done.

That stylistic comparison translates to his throwing style as well. Howell has a quick release, isn't afraid to uncork the deep shot, throws a catchable ball, and is accurate at all three levels (though his consistency needs to be improved). Since his Week 1 three-interception debacle, he has thrown 19 touchdowns and just four interceptions—a bit off the pace of his previous two seasons, but again, that was to be expected.

If you’re interested in going back and looking at the previous watchlists to revisit some of the players profiled, you can find those links here:

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