NFL draft profile: No. 10 — Alabama TE O.J. Howard, sorely underused two-way weapon

Alabama TE O.J. Howard
6-foot-6, 251 pounds

Key stat: Played in 46 games for the Crimson Tide but had 18.2 percent of his total college receiving production in two games — the 2015 and 2016 national title games, both against Clemson.

Alabama TE O.J. Howard is a surefire first-round pick and could be the first Senior Bowl player drafted this year. (AP)
Alabama TE O.J. Howard is a surefire first-round pick and could be the first Senior Bowl player drafted this year. (AP)

The skinny: O’Terrius Jabari “O.J.” Howard was a ballyhooed recruit and roundly viewed as the top prep tight end when he gave up his baseball dreams (he was a draftable Major League Baseball prospect) and signed with Bama. Started five of the 14 games he played in as a true freshman and had a 52-yard TD against LSU. Also was a part-time starter in 2014 before breaking out as a junior in 2015. That season, Howard started all 15 games and earned MVP honors with a five-catch, 208-yard, two-TD effort in the national championship win over Clemson. Howard followed that up in 2016 as a Mackey Award finalist and again had a big game against Clemson (106 yards, TD) in the championship game vs. the Tigers.

Only six tight ends have been drafted in the top half of Round 1 over the past 20 years (Tony Gonzalez, Bubba Franks, Jeremy Shockey, Kellen Winslow, Vernon Davis and Eric Ebron), and Howard’s receiving production is right in line with all of them. Howard was invited to the Senior Bowl and was clearly one of the best players there. He also dominated in every athletic testing event at the NFL scouting combine except for the vertical jump, leading all tight ends in 10-yard split (1.52 seconds), 20-yard shuttle (4.16), 60-yard shuttle (11.46) and 3-cone drill (6.85).

Howard graduated with a degree in telecommunications and will turn 23 in November.

Best-suited destination: Ideally, the team that drafts Howard will utilize him the way the New England Patriots use Rob Gronkowski, the Kansas City Chiefs use Travis Kelce or the Carolina Panthers employ Greg Olsen. Teams that use a lot of two-TE sets such as the Philadelphia Eagles, Indianapolis Colts, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Arizona Cardinals, Tennessee Titans, New England Patriots and Minnesota Vikings also would be interested in Howard’s services. But really, there shouldn’t be a team in the NFL that couldn’t find good use for one of the best two-way prospects to come around at the position in recent years. Even teams that did not utilize the tight end often or effectively last season — such as the New York Jets, New York Giants, Denver Broncos or Miami Dolphins — should consider redesigning their offense to find a place for Howard in their system. The Cleveland Browns, who coached Howard at the Senior Bowl, certainly would know how to unleash Howard after his dominant week in Mobile.

Upside: Outstanding physical tools. Tremendous height, arm length and good hand size. Shredded, sculpted physique — 7.7 percent body fat — and terrific athleticism. Displayed home-run potential when utilized in passing game. Showed he could take short passes a long way. Long strider with good acceleration who runs better than many of the wide receivers in this class and is mo match for most linebackers in coverage. Averaged more than 15 yards per catch in his career — a terrific number for a tight end. This is an example of how Howard often was overlooked in the Bama offense — he’s wide open in the flat (top of the screen) against Kent State, but freshman QB Jalen Hurts opts to throw into tight coverage elsewhere:

Alabama TE O.J Howard routinely was overlooked in college, as he was here against Kent State. (Draftbreakdown.com)
Alabama TE O.J Howard routinely was overlooked in college, as he was here against Kent State. (Draftbreakdown.com)

Mismatch piece to stress defenses and, even if he’s not getting the ball, opening things up for others. Natural hands catcher with low drop rate. One NFL team charted Howard with a mere three drops over the past two seasons combined, against 83 receptions over that period. Catches ball in stride and looks fluid and natural doing it. Concentrates and can adjust to poorly thrown or tipped passes, of which there were many last season.

Star of Senior Bowl practices, almost uncoverable all week. Versatile — lined up in-line, attached to the line, flexed out, in the slot or on the wing in his career. Accomplished blocker in both run game and passing game. Asked to chip, wham and combo block against SEC defensive ends (even Texas A&M’s Myles Garrett, for example) and won a lot of those battles. Run game was designed with Howard as lead blocker for Hurts on many plays. Dominated blocking drills at scouting combine. Effective cut blocker but also can use his hands to lock out defenders. Takes a pro’s approach to the game. Never missed a game at Bama and never lost a fumble in his career. Clean medical history.

Downside: Didn’t dominate the way you’d expect against lesser competition. Only had seven touchdowns in 46 career games. Caught three or fewer passes in all but nine career games and had only two games with more than 81 yards receiving. Asked to run a very limited route tree and route runner in general requires refinement. Even in the two breakout receiving games vs. Clemson, Howard was the beneficiary of multiple blown coverages by the defense. Not a make-you-miss player with the ball in his hands. Appeared to struggle to get on the same page with Hurts at times on off-script plays, so developing a rapport with his quarterback will be key.

Can use work on his blocking to be as effective in the NFL, especially in his pass sets. Doesn’t barrel through and dominate people. More effective as a combo blocker and won’t be able to isolate against strong defensive ends one on one. Still could add lower-body strength and carry a little more bulk overall. Turned in surprisingly low vertical jump number (30 inches) that was lost amid other combine showcase results. Can coast at times. Possesses elite gifts but doesn’t always flash them. Players with his natural ability tend to dominate more than Howard did. Described by one scout as “a little pretty” in the way he plays. Was asked in more than one team interview whether he truly loved football.

Scouting hot take: “I’m aware of the production. I am not a stats guy, but we all know about it. I’m trying to think, has [Nick] Saban ever had a tight end put up big numbers? You talk to their staff and they don’t really have a good answer for you, because the tape shows him getting open when he got his chances. But I did assume after the [first title game against Clemson] that he would be unleashed. They just didn’t use him like that. I put some of that on them having a freshman quarterback who only could throw certain routes. But I also think it had to do with who was calling plays {Lane Kiffin].” — NFC scouting director

Player comp: A faster Tyler Eifert, without the health concerns.

Expected draft range: Top-15 pick

Previous profiles

Nos. 51-100: Here’s who just missed the cut
No. 50: Indiana OG-C Dan Feeney
No. 49: Iowa DB Desmond King
No. 48: Vanderbilt LB Zach Cunningham
No. 47: Wisconsin pass rusher T.J. Watt
No. 46. Alabama pass rusher Tim Williams
No. 45. Washington CB Sidney Jones
No. 44. Alabama LB Ryan Anderson
No. 43. Ohio State WR-RB Curtis Samuel
No. 42. Florida DT Caleb Brantley
No. 41. Connecticut DB Obi Melifonwu
No. 40. USC CB-KR Adoree’ Jackson
No. 39. Texas Tech QB Patrick Mahomes
No. 38. Michigan State DL Malik McDowell
No. 37: Ole Miss TE Evan Engram
No. 36: Florida LB Jarrad Davis
No. 35: Washington S Budda Baker
No. 34: Oklahoma RB Joe Mixon
No. 33: Alabama CB Marlon Humphrey
No. 32: Florida CB Quincy Wilson
No. 31: Tennessee RB Alvin Kamara
No. 30: Michigan DB-RS Jabrill Peppers
No. 29: Alabama OT Cam Robinson
No. 28: Notre Dame QB DeShone Kizer
No. 27: LSU CB Tre’Davious White
No. 26: Missouri DE Charles Harris
No. 25: UCLA pass rusher Takkarist McKinley
No. 24: Michigan DE Taco Charlton
No. 23: Wisconsin OT Ryan Ramczyk
No. 22: Utah OT Garett Bolles
No. 21: Western Kentucky OG-C Forrest Lamp
No. 20: Florida State RB Dalvin Cook
No. 19: Miami (Fla.) TE David Njoku
No. 18: Tennessee DE Derek Barnett
No. 17: Clemson QB Deshaun Watson
No. 16: North Carolina QB Mitchell Trubisky
No. 15: Washington WR John Ross
No. 14: Clemson WR Mike Williams
No. 13: Western Michigan WR Corey Davis
No. 12: Temple LB Haason Reddick
No. 11: Ohio State CB Gareon Conley

– – – – – – –

Eric Edholm is a writer for Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at edholm@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter!

What to Read Next