2017 NFL draft prospect countdown, No. 11: O.J. Howard, TE, Alabama

TUSCALOOSA, AL - NOVEMBER 12:  O.J. Howard #88 of the Alabama Crimson Tide turns up this reception against DeAndre Ward #28 and Dezmond Harris #46 of the Mississippi State Bulldogs at Bryant-Denny Stadium on November 12, 2016 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

What you need to know: No one can accuse Howard of folding under pressure. He had two 100-yard games in his Alabama career: the 2015 College Football Playoff title game vs. Clemson and the 2016 College Football Playoff title game vs. Clemson. It was the 2015 game that will headline Howard’s college legacy. In a 45–40 Crimson Tide victory, he hauled in five passes for 208 yards and two touchdowns—good for MVP honors. The yardage total set an Alabama bowl record. A third-team All-America in ’16, Howard had 114 receptions for 1,726 yards and seven touchdowns over the course of his college career. Howard was a finalist for the 2016 John Mackey Award, given to the nation’s top tight end, along with Michigan’s Jake Butt and Clemson’s Jordan Leggett (Butt won).

Strengths: When NFL teams dream of the ideal tight end, they envision a player with good size, above-average speed and the requisite skill set to be just as comfortable blocking in-line as he is matched up on a route against a linebacker or safety.

Well, here ya go.

Howard’s physical measurements (6' 5″ and 251 pounds, with 33 3/4-inch arms) are comparable to those of tight ends like Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates. The Alabama product’s combine numbers: 4.51-second 40-yard dash, 6.85-second three cone, 4.16-second short shuttle, 22 bench reps, all at or near the top of his position group.

None of this is to say that Howard is destined to be a Hall of Famer, but the combination of his frame and athleticism are driving him toward a top-10 landing spot.

“A guy I’d compare myself to right now would be Greg Olsen of the Panthers,” said Howard, picking off another player with a similar profile to his (Olsen is listed at 6' 5″, 255 and ran a matching 4.51 40 at the combine). “I think Greg does a great job of blocking. He’s a guy, he’s a three-down tight end. He runs great routes. He has great hands. He’s a guy a studied a lot on film in college.”

Even more than the 40 time, Howard’s three-cone and short-shuttle marks showed off why he is such a difficult player to cover. On top of that hulking size, Howard has the feet to run sharp, clean routes, plus enough speed to pull away from man coverage.

He also is more of a red-zone threat than his seven career TDs would indicate. His height alone makes him tough to handle, but he can line up sideline to sideline and has excellent body control for those tight-window catches.

Howard’s blocking ability counts as a clear plus, too. Many of the pass-catching tight ends arriving in the NFL cannot be trusted in a traditional alignment—they’re “move” TEs, who take on that H-back or slot-receiver look. Howard, though, can be a force in the run game.

Weaknesses: His Alabama career has made him something of an enigma. The dominant title-game performances flashed what people expected from Howard each week, but he never hit that level during the regular season. In general, Alabama did not require huge numbers from him to be successful, so was his limited production merely a case of the Tide having so many other weapons? Was it a failure on the part of offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin that Howard wasn’t more involved? Did Kiffin turn his attention elsewhere because he didn’t think he could rely on Howard on a regular basis?

If Olsen is the type of player Howard longs to be, he’ll need to grow even stronger and more physical, especially if backs are going to run behind him.

NFL player comparison: Travis Kelce

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