2017 NFL Draft: Alabama's O.J. Howard atop deep tight end class

Editor's note: NFL.com analysts Lance Zierlein and Chad Reuter will provide overviews for each position group in the 2017 NFL Draft (April 27-29 in Philadelphia) over the next two weeks, continuing today with tight ends.

Teams looking for a receiving tight end to stretch defenses and act as an offensive safety valve are in luck. This class is loaded with talents at the position that are worthy of top-100 picks.

As many as 10 tight ends might hear their names called on the first and second day of the draft (Rounds 1-3), which would top the mark (8) that was set in 2006. Three members of that octet are still in the league: Vernon Davis, Marcedes Lewis, and Anthony Fasano. That draft was also the last time two tight ends were picked in the first round. That's highly likely to happen again this year.

Even in the later rounds, teams will discover solid players with the athleticism and pass-catching ability to stick around at the next level. Don't be surprised if franchises with one very good tight end select another earlier in this draft than anticipated. Two-tight-end sets are truly valued in the league, and there might be better talent at this position than many others come the third and fourth rounds.

Let's explore the deep 2017 TE class.

Note: Click through the tabs above to see overviews for each position.

Teams with greatest need at TE

Top 5 players at the position

Note: Click on a prospect's name for a complete scouting report.

1. O.J. Howard, Alabama: It's not hyperbolic to say Howard had the best NFL Scouting Combine of any pass-catcher. The 6-foot-6, 251-pound tight end is an excellent receiver. He's also more than serviceable as an in-line and move blocker. In an offense designed to fully utilize his hands, agility, and long speed, Howard will be a playmaker. He should be the top receiver drafted.

2. David Njoku, Miami: Still a work in progress as a route runner, Njoku will start out using his agility and size to win matchups against linebackers on crossers and bootlegs. Eventually, those physical characteristics and soft hands will make him a downfield threat vs. defensive backs. His upside is no joke.

3. Evan Engram, Ole Miss: The Redskins' Jordan Reed has created a path for Engram to the Pro Bowl. Athletic, strong-handed, and agile, Engram will be able to knife through defenses like they were made of warm butter. Rather than looking at the 6-foot-3-plus, 234-pound tight end as "undersized", teams should look at him as "overtalented."

4. Jake Butt, Michigan: Even if Butt hadn't suffered a severe knee injury in his bowl game, he probably wouldn't have cracked the top three at the position. But we shouldn't ignore his ability to become a Jason Witten-type safety valve at the next level. Butt will get stronger early in his career, and he'll still be agile enough to find holes in zones, presenting a solid target for his quarterback.

5. Gerald Everett, South Alabama: Everett is smooth as silk off the line of scrimmage, and is a similar to Engram in the way he threatens to slice up defenses. His hands are a bit smaller than scouts prefer (8.5 inches), but it doesn't appear that he's had issues securing the catch. I suspect he'll prove to be a valuable second tight end/slot performer for an NFL team within his first two years on the roster.

Sources Tell Us

"Alabama recruited a shiny toy but (Lane) Kiffin never really knew what to do with it. I don't worry about the talent at all. He could be an all-pro. I just need to know if he loves football." -- NFC general manager on O.J. Howard

Most overrated

Bucky Hodges, Virginia Tech: There's no doubt that Hodges can catch the ball. His highlight reel is as good as anyone's. However, it's not clear that Hodges has the physicality to handle pro defenders at the line of scrimmage or downfield. His change-of-direction ability is not as great as others in the draft. Teams looking for a No. 2 tight end to run down the seam will like what they see in Hodges, but he'll need to prove himself in training camp before teams should expect him to be a starter who can contribute in any situation.

Most underrated

Taylor McNamara, USC: I would have included Iowa's George Kittle here before the combine, but his performance in Indianapolis opened enough eyes. McNamara, however, didn't get a combine invite and was woefully underutilized at Oklahoma and USC. He's a good athlete with solid hands who will be an excellent contributor for a two-tight-end offense. Teams will be able to count on him to move the sticks and be effective in the red zone using his 6-4, 252-pound frame.

Boom or bust

Pharaoh Brown, Oregon: When healthy, Brown is a major threat to defenses due to his size (6-5 1/2, 255) and athleticism (34-inch vertical, 4.83 40, 7.24 three-cone). Unfortunately, his health was a major concern after he nearly had his leg amputated due to a leg injury suffered against Utah in 2014. He worked his way back to be a first-team All-Pac 12 pick in 2016. Teams are also curious about the reports of off-field issues with Brown. The talent is there, so if his maturity and medical reports check out, a team could get a real steal on the third day (Rounds 4-7) of the draft.

Sleeper alert

Phazahn Odom, Fordham: Odom wasn't invited to the combine, partially due to a drop in production (37-492, 7 TDs in 2015 to 14-192, 2 TDs in 2016). The 6-8, 245-pound receiver still has the traits to interest teams in the late rounds, though. He can use his height to create mismatches over the middle, and is also quite willing to throw his body into downfield or in-line blocks to help his teammates. Odom's potential makes him worth a flyer.

Follow Chad Reuter on Twitter @chad_reuter.

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