Editor's note: NFL.com analyst and former NFL scout Bucky Brooks reveals "the book on" some of the 2017 NFL Draft's most highly coveted prospects. In the seventh installment of the series, we look at Alabama tight end O.J. Howard.
After stepping into the spotlight as Offensive Player of the Game at the 2016 College Football Playoff Championship, Howard made the surprising decision to return for his final season at Alabama to refine his game for the NFL. Although a number of team executives viewed him as a first-round pick, there were a handful of scouts who believed the big-bodied pass catcher needed a little more seasoning before entering the league. With Howard's stock soaring after shining at the Senior Bowl and the NFL Scouting Combine, I thought it was the perfect time to take a closer look at his game. Here is the book on the Alabama star.
What I'm hearing
"He's special. He has the tools to be a dominant player from the first time that he steps into the building. He's big, fast and athletic. He can catch the pill, and he's learned how to block. I love the kid!" -- AFC head coach.
"He's a 'right now' player. He's an explosive athlete with good hands and route-running ability. Plus, he's improved a lot as a blocker. ... He's about as complete as they come at that position." -- AFC scout
"He's a man among boys at his position. He was head and shoulders above everyone at the Senior Bowl." -- AFC college scouting director
What I'm seeing
Howard is the most complete tight end prospect to enter the league in the past decade. Now, I know that's quite a statement with the likes of Rob Gronkowski, Jimmy Graham, Travis Kelce and Jordan Reed sparking a revolution at the position, but they didn't enter the league with polished games that led evaluators to believe they were "solar system" players at the position.
As a 6-foot-6, 251-pound pass catcher with a rare combination of size, speed, athleticism and technical savvy, Howard sports a refined game that will prompt NFL play-callers to build game plans and passing games around his talents. Whether it is stretching the field as a vertical threat between the hashes or chewing up first downs as a "chain mover," Howard has the potential to control games with his mere presence on the field. While that assessment might sound too good to be true considering his modest production at Alabama (114 receptions for 1,726 yards and seven scores in four seasons), it's rare to find tight ends who can blow past linebackers and safeties, have the balance and body control to separate from defenders on short and intermediate routes, and the strength, power, technique and desire to block defensive ends and edge defenders in the running game. That's why scouts are touting Howard as one of the "must-have" players in the 2017 class.
As a receiver, Howard has all of the tools to be a dominant TE1 at the pro level. He is explosive enough to make plays on vertical routes (seams, go routes and posts) or run-away concepts (drags, deep overs and sail routes), but also shows the patience and craftiness to win on target routes in front of the quarterback. Whether it's an option route or a stick route along the hashes, or a search route over the ball, Howard has a knack for finding the open window in the middle of the zone. In addition, he has mastered the art of creating separation with a slick push-off maneuver.
Howard flashes impressive speed, quickness and power once he has the ball in his hands. He turns dump-offs or shovel passes into first downs by simply outrunning nearby defenders. Howard complements his speedy getaways with some violent finishes at the end of runs. He doesn't mind lowering the boom, particularly on defensive backs, when he is running along the boundary. Howard's nasty demeanor while toting the rock serves as a tone-setter for the offense and makes defenders think twice before running up to tackle him in the flat.
As a blocker, Howard shows strength and power at the point of attack. He locks onto his assigned defender and runs his feet until the whistle blows. Although his ability to move defenders off the ball is a little inconsistent, Howard's effort and relentlessness is enough to allow runners to turn the corner on outside runs. As a move blocker, Howard's athleticism enables him to climb to the next level. At Alabama, he frequently aligned as an H-back or "sniffer" off the ball before pulling around to lead running backs through the hole on counters and powers. He quickly works through traffic to cut off his target and delivers solid blows on most of his blocks.
Now, he needs to continue to work on finishing his blocks, but he is pretty advanced as a blocker for a college tight end.
Overall, Howard is about as complete a prospect as you will find at the position. He is a natural pass catcher with outstanding hands and route-running ability, and has the capacity to deliver splash plays from an in-line, slot or out-wide position. Howard can play as an old school "Y" (traditional tight end) or create mismatches on the perimeter as an "H" (move tight end) on the perimeter. With Howard also showing solid blocking skills at the point of attack, he is a plug-and-play prospect with a game that should make him a star early in his career.
NFL comp: Greg Olsen
Howard is one of the rare tight end prospects capable of playing as a "Y" or "H" in most offenses due to his explosive athletic traits. He has the potential to act as a vertical stretch player between the hashes or as a chain mover attacking the underneath areas of coverage. When I survey the NFL landscape, Howard's talents and game match three-time Pro Bowler Greg Olsen. The Panthers star entered the league viewed as a one-dimensional playmaker (pass-catching tight end), but developed into one of the most complete players at the position. From his outstanding route-running ability and pass-catching skills to his persistent blocking on the edge, Olsen has become one of the standard bearers at tight end. With Howard displaying similar traits as a pass catcher and run blocker, it is easy to envision him becoming a feature player in an offense built around his dynamic talents.
Where he should be picked
Howard is unquestionably a first-round talent in any draft. Considering how hard it is to find a tight end with a plug-and-play game that suits any system, the Alabama star is one of the hottest commodities in this year's draft class. It just depends on when a team wants to dive into the TE pool. I could see him come off the board anywhere from the fringes of the top 10 to the bottom of the first round. The Cleveland Browns (No. 12 overall), Arizona Cardinals (No. 13), New York Giants (No. 23) and New Orleans Saints (No. 32) would all be ideal fits for his talents. The Browns, in particular, need a dominant receiving threat to build their passing game around, and Howard's ability to own the middle of the field could make him an enticing option.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.