The popular opinion surrounding Alabama Crimson Tide tight end O.J. Howard is that he was underused in college, lost in the shuffle behind Alabama’s run-heavy offense. However, that has not stopped Howard from being praised throughout the draft process. He’s been projected to be a top-10 pick in a plethora of mock drafts; our Chris Trapasso and Dan Lavoie, both have the 22-year-old Alabama senior ranked among the top 10 prospects on their respective Big Boards. Lavoie has Howard ranked seventh overall, while he’s rated as Trapasso’s second-best available prospect.
How might Howard fit with the Buffalo Bills if they selected him 10th overall in the upcoming draft? Well, Rick Dennison is now the Bills offensive coordinator and it’s believed that he’ll employ a West Coast offense, which should result in the tight ends being used more than they were under the last coaching regime. Buffalo currently has a competent player at the position in Charles Clay, so drafting Howard with its first-round pick would be a luxury and not a need. Nonetheless, he’s a player worthy of such debate so let’s better get know Howard and his game on the field.
Howard has long had the physical attributes at the tight end position that wow scouts. A consensus top recruit, he was regarded as the best incoming collegiate player at the position by numerous recruiting services in addition to being viewed as a top-five player in his home state of Alabama. The 2017 draft prospect had quite an accomplished high school career at Autauga Academy in Prattville, AL, according to his profile on the University of Alabama’s official website. Howard was named a three-time first-team AISA All-State selection during his high school career. As a senior, he amassed 854 yards of total offense and 12 touchdowns in a season where he missed time because of injury. During his junior campaign, Howard reeled in 41 passes for 926 yards, rushed for 487 yards, highlighted by 11 receiving touchdowns, eight rushing scores and three passing TDs. His second season at Autauga Academy was his most impressive one, with Howard setting a school record with 31 total touchdowns in addition to rewriting its receiving records. It also bears mentioning that although Howard was primarily an offensive player in high school, he was also an impressive playmaker on the opposite side of the ball too. He totaled 178 tackles, 12 sacks, six interceptions and three forced fumbles between his sophomore and junior years, supplementing him being named as his team’s defensive MVP as a sophomore.
His stellar high school career did not quite carry over to the collegiate level - through no fault of Howard’s. Seemingly every season, ‘Bama has a star running back that is the focus of its offense while trotting out a quarterback that usually can’t be labelled as anything close to a true passing threat. This was certainly the makeup of the Crimson Tide squads throughout the majority, if not all, of Howard’s time there. His career receiving yards total of 1726 yards are on par with some of the great collegiate-turned-pros before him, but it’s really tragic how few times the speedy big-body receiver managed to get across the end zone. At his size (6’6”, 251 pounds) with 4.51 forty-yard dash speed, Howard would seemingly make a nice go-to option particularly in the red zone, but instead, he totaled just seven career collegiate receiving touchdowns with three of those majors coming in consecutive years in back-to-back appearances by the Crimson Tide in the national title game. He snagged two TDs in 2016 game and one in ‘17’s game; Howard did not record any TD receptions as a collegiate sophomore.
It’s not obvious while watching his game film, but Howard is really, really fast. It’s not noticeable when he runs routes, but when he’s got wide open field in front of him, he won’t be caught very often. He’s got excellent speed for a player who lines up at the tight end position. Howard’s 40-time was right up there with that of the top running backs in the draft: Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey, Florida State’s Dalvin Cook and Louisiana State’s Leonard Fournette, with Howard even running faster than Fournette. The ‘Bama tight end clocked in the second fast time among his position group, only trailing Mississippi’s Evan Engram, a smaller player than Howard measuring in at 6’3” and 234 pounds.
Speed is an attribute that can definitely be enhanced, but when you consider all of the different positions he played in high school and how successful he was at each, it seems fair to say that Howard is naturally fast. His speed is of the straight-line variety. It’s far more likely that he’ll outrun a defender straight up than manage to beat him with jukes. Nonetheless, he’s been fast at every level of his career so far, so there’s no reason to think that won’t remain true in the NFL either.
Trying to evaluate Howard’s route running ability turned out to be harder than expected for several reasons. First, the route tree that he was asked to run in college was not complex at all.
Howard ran a lot of routes that did not not really require him to go deeper than 10 yards down the field. Adding to that, his Crimson Tide squads faced a lot of zone coverage looks from opposing defenses which in turn call for receivers to find open areas and sit and wait for the ball to be thrown their way as opposed to creating separation for themselves with their route.
There are definitely opportunities for big plays when up against zone coverages, though. Really good coordinators will get crafty and dial up complex plays featuring complex patters to find soft spots in the defense. But these sort of plays just weren’t called for Howard.
He was often tasked with running mostly quick snappy routes. Howard did turn in some really long plays, but those generally resulted from defensive coverage lapses and his route running ability.
Ultimately, I’ve still yet to get a solid feel for Howard’s skills in this area. He’s an intelligent, fast player who in theory, should be able to run decent routes. But with that said, on some of his more intermediary routes, his cuts and breaks were not consistently sharp. And regardless of the type of routes that he did, or did not get run at Alabama, there isn’t a valid excuse for that.
Howard 10-inch hands are among the biggest of this year’s tight ends class and he definitely takes full advantage of them. His catching technique is quite polished. He consistently makes catches with his hands rather than let the ball fall into his body. And he’s got good strength in his hands, too. Almost every catch he makes is clean, with no bobbling or movement of the ball really as he reels it into his hands. Does a good job as well of adjusting to passes, which is always welcomed by quarterbacks. Howard is a cliché big pass-catcher who gives the quarterback a large radius to throw into.
Here, virtually as soon as Howard turns his head after breaking off his route, the ball is in his vicinity. This would have been an easy opportunity to get lazy and field the ball with his body, but as he does time and time again, he makes sure to use good catching technique to complete the catch with his hands.
Howard had a great opportunity to get lazy on the play above and make a body catch, but instead as he does time and time again, he makes sure to use good catching technique to complete the catch by plucking the mid-high pass out of the air.
A big receiver who is a great hands catcher is every coach’s dream. You can plug these guys in any system and they should be able to do a tremendous amount of damage. Bonus points for Howard because the speed he possess in addition to his solid catching technique makes him quite versatile in how he can be used on the field.
Yards After Catch
With the speed that he has, if Howard manages to get by a defender they may as well forget about catching him. As great of a weapon as this is though, it does have its limitations. Howard is good after the catch, but because he isn’t shifty and doesn’t have much elusiveness, his YAC game is just good and not great.
Most tight ends and bigger receivers are not elusive either but at his current size - assuming that he doesn’t tack on a bunch more muscle in the NFL - it would be nice to see Howard elude more tackers than he does. He’s a big body for sure, but he’s not in the same class weight wise as the Green Bay Packers’ Martellus Bennett and Rob Gronkowski of the New England Patriots, and therefore it’s fair to expect him to able to be a bit more slippery than he is.
If you’re a receiver playing for Nick Saban at Alabama, and even more so a tight end, you had better be able to block. With the amount of focus Saban and his offensive staff put on the run, it’s hard to imagine a player playing much if they aren't an effective blocker. Howard saw action right away as a true freshman, playing in all the team’s games that season probably because he could hold his own blocking in the trenches.
Throughout his four-year collegiate career, Howard got lots reps of clearing holes for the numerous star running backs the Tide fielded during his tenure. He also stayed behind to protect his quarterbacks way more times than he probably should have.
Honestly, Howard doesn’t generally apply the best technique when blocking - he often stands tall instead of getting down low - but he consistently manages to get the job done anyway. This is a bit concerning but the fact that he seems to have an innate ability to block pretty well, should help keep in many teams good graces. Proper technique can definitely be learned. On a positive note, Howard is strong enough that he consistently drove backwards defensive ends on run calls, and he also displayed good football IQ when sealing edges on stretch runs. He’s pretty good in space, too, when having to run block after motioning.
Check out Howard here holding his own against the projected first overall pick in the draft Texas A&M’s Myles Garrett :
As well as here in pass protection:
Bottom line: Howard is a decent blocker. His skills in this area are typically better than other pass-catchers who tend to be drafted within the top 10 picks of any given draft. Often times, those players are amazing receivers, but don’t take pride in blocking. Howard, in comparison, consistently makes a solid effort to engage defenders
Howard skills wise comes off as a mix of Julius Thomas of the Miami Dolphins and Greg Olsen of the Carolina Panthers. Like Thomas, Howard seems like he’ll thrive outside if asked to line up and play in a hybrid receiver spot. And he’s skilled just like the veteran Dolphin in adjusting and making plays on the ball while it’s in the air. From a purely pass catching perspective, I could see Howard being used in the NFL very similarly to how Thomas is used.
While Howard seems destined to succeed outside, he had shown more often in college how well he played with his hand down on the line of scrimmage instead. He seems entirely comfortable there having lined up inside for the majority of his snaps with the Crimson Tide. He’ll likely be a solid receiving option whether he’s in a three-point stance or not, but coaches will love that he is someone that should be able to provide decent help blocking as well. It seems like more and more teams are getting away from using the traditional tight end lined up when his hand in the dirt, but Olsen is one of the best remaining ones. At nearly an identical size to Howard (6’5”, 255 pounds) Olsen is everything the soon-to-be rookie should aspire to be in a versatile tight end, minus the veteran Panther’s athleticism because Howard has him beat there.
Howard seems poised to be able produce right away as a starter for whatever team drafts him. He already has an NFL body, he has impressive credentials having ranked as a top prospect out of high school and helped the strongest program in college football in the right to play in two national championships, while winning one of them. He’s tested well ahead of the draft and he has had no red flags or even technical flaws that might cause prospective teams to seriously doubt drafting him. Howard is clearly the best tight end prospect in the 2017 NFL Draft, and honestly, he may even arguably rank no lower than fourth if grouped with the wide receivers prospects, too. Howard is certainly worthy of being mocked within the first 10 picks of the draft, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see him be the first pass-catcher to come off the board on draft day. I don’t think he’ll be generational tight end in the mold of Gronkowski or that Jimmy Graham was during his time with the New Orleans Saints, but he does seem poised to a solid pro that should earn multiple Pro Bowl nominations in his career.