By Charlie Campbell
Summary: A mismatch receiving tight end is one of the most desired offensive weapons across the NFL. With a legit combination of size and speed, tight ends are very difficult to defend in the middle portion of the field while providing third-down and red-zone weapons for their quarterbacks. If the tight end brings size and effectiveness as a blocker, they are even more lethal. Thus, a tight end like O.J. Howard borders on being prototypical for the position in terms of what the NFL is looking for in 2017.
As a freshman, Howard flashed big-time potential, hauling in 14 passes for 269 yards (19.2 average) with two touchdowns. As a sophomore, the talented tight end as very under-utilized by offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin. Howard had only 17 receptions for 260 yards. In 2015, Howard totaled 38 catches for 602 yards and two touchdowns. Both scores came in the National Championship win over Clemson as part of five-receptions, 208-yard explosion; that was a monstrous performance to help the Crimson Tide win that game.
In 2016, Howard totaled 45 receptions for 595 yards with three touchdowns. He showed significant improvement as a blocker and route-runner during his final season for Alabama. Following the season, Howard put together a tremendous week at the Senior Bowl where he impressed on the field with his receiving skills and blocking. Sources also said that Howard interviewed well with teams.
Howard is a real weapon as a receiver. Naturally, he is just extremely athletic and a fast tight end to get downfield quickly. He often burned man coverage and was very adept at finding the soft spot in zone coverage. Howard has a big frame to box out safeties and leaping ability with body control to make catches over defenders. Linebackers have little chance of covering Howard in man coverage; only elite NFL linebackers with great speed could cover Howard. He should be a tremendous middle-seam tight end who produces big plays for his offense.
Howard turned himself into a quality route-runner and has generally reliable hands, minus an occasional drop. He is a receiving weapon in the red zone, but also is dangerous with some run-after-the-catch skills. Howard has a burst to rip off yards and is tough to bring down in the open field for defensive backs. Defenders are caught by surprise as the big tight end runs away from many down the field.
Along with his route-running, Howard really improved as a blocker in his senior year. He was making some nice edge blocks to free his backs, and he hit some huge blocks against Clemson in the National Championship to spring runs for his back. Howard has quick feet and latches on long enough in pass protection to buy his quarterback time. In the ground game, Howard got better at sustaining his blocks and getting into the body of the defender. A big part of blocking for tight ends is just having the desire and giving an effort, Howard does that and has turned himself into a three-down starter for the NFL.
Here’s how one Southeast area scout broke down Howard, “He’s as close to a complete tight end over the last few that have come out. He’s a better blocker online than Eric Ebron and Tyler Eifert were coming out. Not as good of a route runner as either of them coming out, but I attribute most of that to how he was used. [Howard] looked pretty good at Senior Bowl since his game was able to expand a bit more in that system last week. Howard is probably faster than Eifert, and they have comparable hands. The Greg Olsen comparisons hold merit, but Howard is a much better blocker than Olsen coming out of Miami.”
As a pro, Howard could be a devastating mismatch weapon and one of the top receiving tight ends in the NFL. He should continue to improve and be a quality blocker, but probably will never be a bull. Howard looks like a potential 10-to-15-year quality starter. In terms that and his talent, Howard is deserving of mid- to late first-round consideration in the 2017 NFL Draft.
Player Comparison: Greg Olsen. Like the scout quoted above said, the Olsen comparison holds merit. Olsen isn’t a beast as a blocker, but he has turned himself into a serviceable player in that regard. Howard did the same at Alabama and has the upside to be a better blocker than Olsen as a pro. As a receiver, Howard could easily turn into a weapon like Olsen through the air. They are similar in size, speed and athleticism. Olsen was a late first-round pick in the 2006 NFL Draft, and Howard should go in the middle to back portion of the first round in 2017.
NFL Matches: Tennessee, Tampa Bay, Denver, Houston, New York Giants, Green Bay and Pittsburgh
There are a lot of teams that could use tight end help, and Howard could be the top-rated player at the position from the 2017 NFL Draft. In the middle portion to the back half of the first round, there are a lot of potential landing spots for Howard. Perhaps the highest that he could hope to go would be the Titans at pick No. 18. They could use a tight end to pair with Delanie Walker, plus Walker didn’t close out the 2016 season in great fashion.
Tampa Bay has wanted to make two-tight end sets a big part of their offense. Cameron Brate has turned into the secondary tight end, but Austin Seferian-Jenkins didn’t work out as the primary. Howard could give the Bucs that primary weapon with a safety receiver for Jameis Winston. The versatile Howard would also improve the run blocking and pass protection on the edge.
The Broncos could use a No. 1 tight end, and Howard would make a lot of sense for Denver. He could be a nice weapon for Paxton Lynch.
The Texans badly need a receiving tight end to pair with C.J. Fiedorowicz. Howard would be an instant upgrade to the Houston offense. If the Texans don’t use their first-round choice on a quarterback, Howard could be in play for them.
The Packers could look to upgrade their tight end position, and Howard would be a great fit. He makes all sorts of sense for Green Bay.
Howard shouldn’t fall past Pittsburgh as he would be the best player available if he made it to the Steelers at No. 30. Jesse James is just a backup quality tight end, while Ladarius Green had injury issues in 2016. Howard would be an instant upgrade for Pittsburgh.
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