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The Daily Tar Heel

Tar Heels in the Pros: Howell, Downs and Williams making impact in NFL

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Washington Commanders quarterback Sam Howell (14) throws the ball during the football game against the Baltimore Ravens on Aug. 21, 2023. Howell was the UNC quarterback from 2019 to 2021. Photo Courtesy of the Washington Commanders.

Amid the 2023-2024 NFL season, many Tar Heels are showing off their skills in various forms. From leading the NFL in passing yards to completing diving catches on third-and-longs, former North Carolina football standouts are making their mark at the professional level.

Sam Howell

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UNC junior quarterback Sam Howell (7) prepares to execute a quarterback keep during the Tar Heels' football game against the N.C. State Wolfpack at Carter Finley Stadium in Raleigh, NC, on Friday, Nov. 26, 2021. UNC lost 34-30.

With the most passing yards currently in the league, Howell is making strides after earning the starting quarterback position with the Washington Commanders, beating out Jacoby Brissett during training camp. 

Despite a rough start at the beginning of the season — he was sacked by the Bills nine times in week three — Howell has thrown for over 1,000 yards combined in his last three games. 

Against the Seattle Seahawks on Saturday, Howell led the team in back-to-back scoring drives in a 29-26 defeat. He completed a 19-yard touchdown pass to Antonio Gibson to tie the game and, on the next drive, passed for 70 yards, including a 35-yard touchdown pass to former Tar Heel wide receiver Dyami Brown.

Josh Downs

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Junior wide receiver Josh Downs (11) drives the ball down the field during the fourth quarter of UNC's game against Wake Forest at Truist Field on Saturday, Nov. 12, 2022. UNC won 36-34 to clinch the 2022 Coastal Conference Championship.

Downs has tallied 43 receptions for 523 yards in his rookie season, making him second to Michael Pittman Jr. on the Colts roster. His ability to separate himself from the defense early on in the play and complete contested catches are just a few reasons why he has quickly risen in the depth chart for the Colts.

Downs, coming off a knee injury, did not practice with the Indianapolis Colts prior to their game in Frankfurt, Germany against the New England Patriots. Even though his play time was limited to 13 snaps, the wideout still made one of the biggest plays for the Colts on a third-and-five play on their own 10-yard line. Quarterback Gardner Minshew was scrambling in the pocket and aired the ball in Down’s direction on the near sideline. Downs, in full extension, dove for the ball and completed the 28-yard gain. 

Javonte Williams

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UNC's junior running back Javonte Williams (25) evades members of Wake Forest's defensive line during a game in Kenan Memorial Stadium during a game on Saturday, Nov. 14, 2020. UNC beat Wake Forest 59-53.

Williams, a second round pick in the 2021 NFL draft, has acquired the starting running back position for the Denver Broncos. In his rookie season, he appeared in all 17 games. While he did not start the majority of them, Williams still had a major impact with 903 rushing yards and 316 receiving yards. 

In his second season, Williams tore his ACL and LCL in an early season loss to the Las Vegas Raiders after playing in only four games. Williams worked diligently over the offseason to avoid the injury reserve list when training camp started. 

This season, he has bested Jaleel McLaughlin and Samaje Perine to secure the starting position despite a quadricep injury, tallying 436 yards on 111 carries.

Williams’ ability to break multiple tackles is what sets him apart from the others. On a second-and-10 in his rookie season, Williams was able to break three Dallas Cowboy defenders and stay on his feet to complete a 30-yard run after eventually being dragged down by a diving Cowboy player.

@smithhannahg

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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