If there were a set of rules for Sam Howell to follow as he tries to lead the Washington Commanders' offense, one of, if not the first on the list would be to get the ball to Terry McLaurin as often as possible.
McLaurin has been a security blanket for a variety of quarterbacks as he enters his fifth NFL season. As part of an offense that has gone through overhaul at almost every position, McLaurin has been one of the only constants, and despite all the turbulence that has surrounded him, he has found ways to be productive with every signal-caller he's worked with, from Alex Smith to Garret Gilbert.
Howell is the 10th player to throw passes to McLaurin in his career, and their relationship is still growing as Howell tries to earn the role of Washington's Week 1 starter for the 2023 season. Although the two have only been working together consistently since June, McLaurin can already tell a difference in their connection, and over the last few weeks, he feels it has risen to another level.
"I definitely think it has," McLaurin told reporters after Tuesday's joint practice with the Baltimore Ravens. "We're still in the middle of camp and we still got some preseason to go, but I feel like we're building a little bit of that trust where you get some one-on-one opportunity, he's gonna trust me to come down and make that play."
On paper, it would seem that Howell and McLaurin's skill sets are an ideal match. Howell's arm strength is well known from his time at North Carolina, but his ability to get the ball out quickly, and place it in spots where only his receiver can make the catch, are traits that gel with those of McLaurin, who has the speed to beat defenders downfield as well as the quickness to get open near the line of scrimmage.
Through about four weeks of camp, Howell and McLaurin have meshed well together. The discrepancy between Howell's targets to McLaurin compared to the rest of the receivers isn't much, but there have been flashes of what the two can accomplish. In Week 3, for example, Howell aired out a deep pass to McLaurin, covered by Christian Holmes, on the right sideline with the veteran wideout making the over-the-shoulder grab near the end zone.
Some of the toughest challenges came on Tuesday against the Ravens, when McLaurin was often matched up against cornerback Marlon Humphrey, who prides himself on being physical and handsy at the line of scrimmage.
And while Humphrey's coverage on McLaurin was tight with little margin for error, that didn't stop Howell from fitting passes in tight windows. McLaurin rewarded that faith with one impressive reception after the other, starting with his and Humphrey's reps in one-on-one drills.
"I just wanna continue to give him that trust," McLaurin said. "When you're going against a great corner like Marlon Humphrey and you're backside one-on-one, you gotta win those reps so he can have that confidence in you."
Howell faced that kind of coverage all morning during 11-on-11 drills against the Ravens, not just against Humphrey, but also the rest of Baltimore's secondary. Howell took the adversity in stride with poise that McLaurin lauded after practice.
"I think he sees the field really well and he's going to give us chance to make opportunities on the perimeter, which has been great," McLaurin said. "His timing I felt like was really good with us today. As soon as we were getting out of our breaks, all of the receivers, the ball was right there, and it gave us a chance to run with it as well."
McLaurin was often Howell's first target as he adjusted to the Ravens' defense. That wasn't a surprise to head coach Ron Rivera, who has seen McLaurin provide that level of reliability to several quarterbacks.
And with McLaurin finding ways to get open, like he did on a comeback route against Humphrey in seven-on-seven drills, why wouldn't Howell make it a point to get the ball to him?
"Terry's just one of those guys that for a young quarterback, you're gonna go back to who you think is a good completion," Rivera said. "And that's what Terry is. And I think that's why you saw some of those things today."
McLaurin has been a fan of working with Howell since the 2022 fifth-round pick made his first career start against the Cowboys in Week 18 last season. He appreciates how confidently Howell plays the position and appreciates how much he trusts his receivers to make plays downfield.
And from the time McLaurin caught Howell's first pass, which resulted in a touchdown, he has seen steady improvement from the young quarterback.
"I think he did a great job even when he had to improvise and roll out a little bit to still keep his eyes downfield and continue to give us the chance to make plays," McLaurin said.
Tuesday's practice added further evidence that the connection between Howell and McLaurin is in a good place. As their relationship continues to blossom, it can only mean good things for the Commanders' offense.
"He's been the same guy since we started camp, since he stepped in at the last game last year. He's just really poised," McLaurin said.