Alabama underused tight end O.J. Howard last season, most draft analysts agree. That won’t surprise many who watched USC play at the start of this decade.
Alabama’s offensive coordinator, Lane Kiffin, seemed averse to throwing to tight ends when he coached the Trojans, and while Howard could have enjoyed a higher profile for the Crimson Tide last season, NFL personnel types certainly weren’t scared away.
Howard is certain to be the first tight end off the board, and a high-first-round pick, in this month’s draft, and that’s no small praise. Draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah calls this group of tight-end prospects the best he’s seen in a decade.
“He’s dynamic. He’s tough,” draft analyst Bucky Brooks said of Howard last week. “He has worked on his craft. At the top of the charts, you’re trying to make sure you don’t miss. He’s almost a can’t-miss prospect in terms of what he brings to the table. With those guys, those are special guys.”
Miami’s David Njoku likely will join Howard in the first round and Mississippi’s Evan Engram has a chance to sneak in as well. It’s a great group of tight ends, but will either of the local teams dip into it?
The Chargers last year used a second-round pick on Hunter Henry, and he performed well in 2016, with 10 starts, 36 receptions, 478 yards and eight touchdowns.
Things are more complicated for the Rams. New coach Sean McVay is bullish on using athletic tight ends in his offense, and the Rams cut ties with incumbent starter Lance Kendricks this offseason. McVay, though, is believed to be high on Tyler Higbee, last year’s fourth-round pick who had only 11 catches in 2016.
It wouldn’t be surprising to see the Rams, if they don’t see a fit at other positions, grab a tight end fairly high.
Michigan’s Jake Butt will be one to watch. Butt was considered one of the top-three tight end prospects before he tore his ACL in the season-ending Orange Bowl. Butt has a great mix of size (6-foot-5, 246 pounds) and route-running, and if he slips into the third round, some team will get a value selection.
There could be a run on tight ends within the first three rounds, with Adam Shaheen (Ashland), Jordan Leggett (Clemson), Gerald Everett (South Alabama), George Kittle (Iowa) and Bucky Hodges (Virginia Tech) all likely to get long looks.
Shaheen is the wild card, from small-college Ashland University in Ohio. He transferred there from an even smaller school, Division II Pittsburgh-Johnstown, and in his past two seasons, Shaheen totaled 129 receptions, 1,755 yards and 26 touchdowns. He did not, however, see anything close to NFL-caliber competition.
Scouts still consider Shaheen to be among the top four or five tight-end prospects.
O.J. HOWARD, ALABAMA
Howard is the total package, considered in some draft-analyst circles to be the top tight-end prospect in the past several seasons. Howard still can improve his aggressiveness, but with his combination of size (6-foot-6, 251 pounds), speed and run-blocking, he will make an immediate impact with his new team.
DAVID NJOKU, MIAMI
Need a tight end? Call the Miami Hurricanes. The program that has produced Jeremy Shockey, Greg Olsen, Jimmy Graham, Kellen Winslow II and others now offers Njoku, a high school high-jump champion who also runs effective deep routes. He will need to improve his strength and run-blocking in the NFL.
EVAN ENGRAM, OLE MISS
Perhaps Alabama didn’t know what to do with its star tight end, but Mississippi had no problem. Engram caught 65 passes for 926 yards and eight touchdowns. He’s a former team captain who has the footwork and speed necessary to play receiver, but at 6-3, 234 pounds, he could stand to be a bit stronger.
ADAM SHAHEEN, ASHLAND
If you’ve seen Shaheen play … you’re lying. You haven’t. Shaheen’s school, Ashland has 5,700 students and plays in the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. But he’s a legit prospect, at 6-6, 278 with great athleticism. It’s a risk, but a team is likely to grab him during the second round.
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