In today’s NFL, finding a tight end that’s balanced in both blocking and as a terrorizing receiving weapon can be a chore. So many offenses have transitioned to turning the position into more of a sizable wide receiver. It’s a way of creating matchup issues while diversifying your offensive playbook. The skills of the Jimmy Graham’s and Jordan Reed’s of the world come to mind as H-backs who almost never line up in-line to block.
This isn’t to say that teams don’t like having complete tight ends who can do it all. It’s just that they’re not always searching for one if they don’t have to. If you can at least garner the receiving weapon in a typical 6-foot-5, 250 pound, physical freak, then many will see that as a win.
When it comes to Alabama’s all-around superstar tight end, O.J. Howard, you have yourself a complete offensive toy whom which you can use however you please. And given his current projections, the Chicago Bears might have to consider taking him with their third overall pick for the almost sure thing he is. They should have no fear as to what versatility he can offer.
Line him up in-line to block a defensive end and set the edge for your running back? Done.
Send him down the seam as the focal point of your offense for a big reception on third down? Easily accomplished.
Give him a short screen in space to run over and or make defenders miss? Not even a question of possibility.
Incredibly gifted studs such as Howard at the “Y” position don’t come around often in the NFL. He’s as sure of a thing of a weapon at tight end as you’re likely ever going to get. For any team such as the Bears, that practical guarantee, just might be too much to pass up.
Howard obviously possesses immense confidence in his talent and knows what caliber of player he is. He wants to be the man who never lets down whoever takes the, at this rate, small chance on him.
“Just being a three-down tight end,” Howard said during Combine interviews. “A guy that can come in, and defenses can’t key on you just because you come in on third down and you’re going to go out for a pass. I want to be a guy that stays on the field all the time. I can do it all. Play goal-line packages, all of the above. Check all the boxes. All of it.”
It’s a funny thing that Howard should mention his ease of use because it’s all readily available on film. There are almost no flaws to his game. If they’re present, they’re of small concern and there’s no reason they can’t be refined easily as with any inexperienced player at any position. Bar none: You have a bona fide franchise player, day one in this tight end.
The 6-foot-6, 251 pounder in Howard, is an exceptional athlete who’s long (almost 34-inch arms) and freakishly sized for practically any position. He has the speed and acceleration as a burner and is a matchup problem for linebackers and safeties alike, as evidenced by his 4.51 40-yard at the Combine. Not that anyone needed more reaffirmation he was a burner after plays such as this against Clemson.
What’s even better, is that Howard, for all of the talent that was at Alabama during his four-year career there, was never truly unleashed as the receiver he could be. He never caught more than 45 passes or 602 yards, which for an amateur, is still pretty astounding.
If the Crimson Tide felt the urge to open up their playbook with arguably their best offensive weapon in Howard, they might have been even more unstoppable than as usual in head coach Nick Saban’s tenure. College football’s modern consistent juggernaut probably didn’t have to worry about misusing any of their guys, but it’s just a thought.
On that note, Howard is beyond graceful, light on his feet, and plays like one of those H-back tight ends with the ball in his hands, but instead also possesses tremendous strength when asked to do more than catching the ball. Use him in the slot, line him up outside, it doesn’t matter. His disciplined hands as both a receiver and a blocker leave no stones unturned.
Now, and this is a small disclaimer, Howard will have to add a bit more muscle to his frame to last in-line at the professional level as well as working on his overall blocking technique, which can leave aspects to be desired at times. His demeanor and toughness also could come into question. But that kind of development is to be expected and taken in the short term in retrospect for a young player.
This is as polished and as ready a draft prospect as you’re going to get if you decide to stake out a top-five pick on Howard as Bears general manager Ryan Pace just might do. A finished product that could make you forget about the long-term prospects of Chicago tight ends for years.
The highest slot a tight end has ever been drafted was Ron Kramer at fourth overall by the Packers in 1957. After that, it's ironically a tie between the Broncos’ Riley Odoms in the 1972 Draft and none other than Mike Ditka in 1961, both picked fifth overall. Times have changed and perhaps someone such as Howard warrants a new mark in the record books, though.
Whatever the case, whether the Bears do take Howard at No. 3 and make new NFL history, or in trading down, still select him somewhere in the top 10, it’s not likely they’ll be sorry. It’s not likely they’ll care about positional value either. That’s just what kind of player Howard is.
Because of huge note, Howard had only two 100-yard receiving games in his career, both on the biggest stage in the last two National Championship Games. And he knows he can explode in that fashion regularly with the big boys, if only given the chance.
“I can be a guy like that every game,” Howard said. “Being able to make those plays in big moments is huge, but I feel like I’m the type of player who can do that consistently.”
In the end, the Bears just might feel that way too. That’s what happens you add a superstar.
Bears position outlook: Tight end
Bears’ need: Moderately high
Current depth chart: Zach Miller, Dion Sims, Daniel Brown, Ben Braunecker, Mycole Pruitt
The situation: It’s clear that the Bears’ long-term number one tight end isn’t currently on the roster unless Brown or Braunecker are hidden unearthed gems waiting in the wings. The starter in Miller is 32-years-old and coming off of a foot injury. He’s never caught more than 500 yards or at least 50 passes in a season. While the new addition in Sims might pan out better than expected, he’s more of a dynamic blocking tight end.
To put it lightly, whether it’s in the first round or later on in the draft, the Bears would do well to invest in a guy who can eventually take the mantle here.
Best available: O.J. Howard, Alabama
Of course it’s Howard. He’s going to make the team that picks him very, very happy. No questions asked. Outside of him, this might be the best or at least, deepest tight end class ever. You can’t go wrong with Miami’s David Njoku, Ole Miss’s Evan Engram, Clemson’s Jordan Leggett, Michigan’s Jake Butt, South Alabama’s Gerald Everett, and on and on and on. There’s game-breaking ability to find at tight end in every round.
Something to keep an eye on:
I’m of the opinion that Sims may take over as the number one tight end in Chicago at some point in 2017. His upside at greater use strikes me as better than Miller’s. It’ll be fascinating to see if Miller’s body can also hold up for the entire season too, otherwise the Bears might be in dire straits at this position without a young guy.
Robert Zeglinski is the Bears beat writer for the Rock River Times and is a staff writer for Windy City Gridiron. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.