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One of the primary questions scouts ask when projecting college players to the NFL is how well players will perform against top competition. For Howard, the opposite might be the bigger concern.
Despite obvious physical tools - including an imposing frame, rare straight-line speed and soft hands - Howard was inexplicably ignored as a receiver throughout much of his career at Alabama. His career numbers (114 receptions for 1,726 yards and seven touchdowns) hardly suggest that he will be a first round pick, though he almost certainly will be. His production would be even less impressive if his gaudy totals against Clemson in the past two national championship games were thrown out of the equation. In those two contests - the only two over Howard's career in which he eclipsed the 100 yard receiving mark - Howard was nearly unstoppable, hauling in a combined nine passes for 314 yards and three touchdowns.
On the surface, Howard's story reads like many of the other highly regarded prospects in Nick Saban's football factory in Tuscaloosa. Blessed with obvious physical gifts, Howard signed with the Tide amid great expectations as a five-star recruit. He earned early playing time, wowing with his combination of size and athleticism.
Howard played in all 13 games (and started five times) as a true freshman in 2013, catching 14 passes for 269 yards and two touchdowns. He was held out of the end zone a year later, hauling in 17 passes for 260 yards in 14 game appearances (three starts) as a sophomore. Take away the breakout national title games and Howard's junior (33 catches for 394 yards and zero scores) and senior campaigns (41-489-2) are potentially more alarming than exhilarating.
Fortunately for Howard, prospects are drafted based on raw talent not box scores. And with so many mouths to feed in Alabama's offense, scouts are likely to give Howard the benefit of the doubt with the expectation that he - like former under-utilized Alabama pass-catchers like Amari Cooper and Julio Jones - will excel once featured in the NFL.
STRENGTHS: At a shade under 6-feet-6 and 251 pounds, Howard looks more like a power forward than a traditional NFL tight end. He shows quickness and balance in gaining a clean release off the line of scrimmage, slipping by the jabs from defenders because of his body control and fluid athleticism. Howard accelerates smoothly, quickly pulling away from defenders tasked with covering him and is a reliable "hands" catcher, extending and plucking outside of his frame with ease and tracking the ball well over his shoulder. Howard possesses the vision, agility and acceleration to continue the damage after the catch at the next level. Towering over virtually all of the defenders asked to cover him, Howard has learned to use his size to his advantage, lowering his shoulders into would-be tacklers and sprawling his legs in an attempt to keep his knees from touching the turf. Howard shows good timing and body control when leaping for high passes. Howard showed considerable improvement as blocker in 2016, demonstrating greater effort and upper body strength. He possesses the length and strength to lock-out defenders, turning and sealing them to create lanes for teammates.
WEAKNESSES: While undeniably gifted, Howard remains far from a finished product. At this time, he is far too reliant on his size and athleticism as a route-runner, showing limited shoulder fakes and altered gaits to keep defenders guessing. The fact that he has not made more progress in Alabama's offense suggests that he may possess only average football intelligence and passion for the game. Howard is not the bulldozer with the ball in his hands that his size would suggest.
IN OUR VIEW: Despite his lack of production, Howard is considered the crown jewel in an exceptional class of tight ends. His experience in a pro-style offense suggests that he should be able to contribute immediately and he still possesses plenty of untapped potential.
COMPARES TO: Jimmy Graham, Seattle Seahawks: An explosive athlete with breakaway speed, lateral agility and balance, Howard projects well as a "move" tight end and hybrid slot receiver, similar to the way that the New Orleans Saints (and subsequently the Seahawks) have featured Graham. He possesses the length and strength to block - showing significant improvement in this area in 2016 - but using him in this way minimizes what makes him special.
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