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2017 NFL Draft: O.J. Howard’s Potential Fit with the Titans

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An in-depth look at Alabama tight end prospect O.J. Howard’s potential fit in Tennessee’s offense

NCAA Football: Western Kentucky at Alabama Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

Thursday night approaches...

With two first round picks in the 2017 NFL Draft, the Tennessee Titans will have a chance to add multiple talented players to the roster.

One of the prospects the Titans are surely considering is Alabama tight end O.J. Howard. Howard is the consensus top-rated player at his position in this draft:

“He’s by far and away the best this year,” one scout said. “He can do everything. He’s got rare speed and athletic ability. He runs like a receiver. He got better as a blocker from his junior to his senior year. He’s a top-level character kid. He has all the professional qualities you want. He’ll end up being one of the best tight ends in the league.”

Howard is “expected to be the first TE to go in the top 10 since the Lions took Eric Ebron in 2014.”

"A weapon that’s not only a receiving entity but a heck of an inline blocker," ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said in a teleconference earlier this month. "We haven't seen tight ends over the last few years with this type of multi-dimensional talent. You saw these tight ends in the '70s, '80s and '90s. Now you have the kind of glorified wide receivers who can’t block. He is an extension of your line, he is an extension of your running game. So I think a tight end that can block, inline, is a rarity these days."

O.J. Howard posted rather disappointing numbers for a player with such lofty draft expectations: over his 4-year career, he recorded 114 receptions for 1,726 yards and 7 touchdowns in 46 games (36 starts). Many analysts attribute this to simply being underutilized in Alabama’s offense. Yahoo!’s Shutdown Corner called Howard a “sorely underused two-way weapon.” Even Nick Saban said as much:

"O.J., quite honestly, should have been more involved all year long," Saban said.

Of course, Saban would be expected to talk up his players before the draft. It’s to his advantage if the players he coaches get drafted higher. On the other hand, CBS sports has no such obligation to rave about Howard, which they did:

It seems highly probable that Howard's lack of volume is entirely attributable to Alabama's playcalling -- indeed, when a conscious effort was made to get Howard the ball, he showed the ability to completely take over games. The most memorable instance of this was in the first of Alabama's two national championship matchups with Clemson, when he caught five passes for 208 yards and two touchdowns.

The Titans apparently have brought Howard in for a visit, as noted by this Rotoworld tweet from March 15:

Okay, so he’s a great prospect. But are the Titans interested?

Well, they did meet with him. What’s more, Jim Wyatt wrote an article for titansonline.com titled, “Does Alabama TE O.J. Howard Make Sense for Titans?

(In case you don’t remember, last February, Jim Wyatt wrote this piece about Derrick Henry’s fit with the Titans for Titans Online. Then, the day before the 2016 draft, he wrote an article about Jack Conklin.)

Still not convinced? At Alabama’s Pro Day, Wyatt and Amie Wells interviewed him specifically for a Titans Online draft video.

Then on Monday, this report came out:

Trust me - the Titans are very strongly considering O.J. Howard.

By failing to re-sign Anthony Fasano in free agency, the team loses a key contributor to the strong running performance of last season, as noted by Pro Football Focus:

Tight ends Philip Supernaw and Jace Amaro are still on the roster, but if the Titans draft O.J. Howard, he would presumably take over Fasano’s role as the No. 2 Tight End in the offense.

At Alabama, O.J. Howard was primarily used in three different pre-snap alignments: in-line next to the right or left tackle, in the backfield as an H-Back, or split out as a receiver.

In-Line

The majority of Howard’s snaps at Alabama were taken from an in-line or H-Back position. He was used as a blocker an awful lot in the Crimson Tide’s run-heavy offense, and especially in 2016 as Lane Kiffin and Saban tried to protect their true freshman quarterback as much as possible.

In the below set of plays, you can see Howard being used as an in-line blocker in the running game. Howard is willing and effective, but he’s not a dominant blocker (though in many of these he’s engaging defensive ends - in fact, the last rep is against Myles Garrett).

H-Back Blocker

Now we’ll take a look at Howard lined up in the backfield. Notice the variety of blocking assignments Howard executes in these reps, sealing the edge, picking up the weak-side pursuit, and even functioning as a lead blocker:

H-Back Receiver

Because Howard was used so frequently as a blocker, Alabama was able to fake the run and occasionally leak Howard out as a receiver.

Sometimes, Alabama would take a rare deep shot. In the last play below, Howard is wide open for a potential touchdown, but Jalen Hurts doesn’t see him...

On the rare occasion that Alabama got the ball into Howard’s hands downfield, he did some serious damage stretching the field...

Split Out

Periodically, Alabama would ask Howard to line up wider as a receiver. This was almost always so that he could block for a screen pass.

Senior Bowl

Howard did not run a lot of downfield routes in college. However, at the Senior Bowl, we got to see a small glimpse of Howard’s potential in the receiving game.

Here, Howard is facing a soft zone coverage - typical in a game like the Senior Bowl where they get one week to prepare - and finds the hole on a downfield post route. Also note his savvy run-after-catch awareness and ability.

At the combine, Howard, 6-foot-6 and 251 pounds, was very impressive, running the 40-yard dash in 4.51 seconds with a 30-inch vertical jump, 121-inch broad jump, 6.85-second three-cone drill, and 4.16-second 20-yard shuttle.

Here’s his combine (sorry, due to the NFL’s strict media control, you’ll have to watch this on YouTube if you really want to see it):

Titans Fit

Now that we know what Howard can do, and before I talk about where in the draft the Titans might select him, let’s take a look at how he would fit alongside Delanie Walker in the Titans 2 TE-heavy offense.

Anthony Fasano played over 50% of the offensive snaps in 2016, according to Pro Football Reference. His 533 snaps ranked 11th on offense, just behind Delanie Walker, in a sport where 11 players take the field at a time. For reference, Harry Douglas and Kendall Wright combined for 546 snaps.

The Titans need someone to take those snaps from Fasano.

Philip Supernaw is a physical, scrappy guy that the Titans must like after re-signing him this offseason. But he has a bit of a concussion history, and after 5 years in the league, how much of an improvement can he be expected to make?

If we assume that the Titans want to draft O.J. Howard to take over Fasano’s role as the No. 2 / primary blocking tight end, we should examine Fasano’s place in the offense last season.

As you may have guessed, Howard was asked to do many similar things in Alabama’s offense as Fasano was in Tennessee. Take a look here at Fasano lining up both as an in-line blocker and in the backfield as an H-back and blocking in the running game.

Fasano was not utilized often in the passing game, but when he was, it was usually in a deceptive way. The play would appear to be a run before Fasano leaks out and get the ball, picking up some yards after the catch. The second one is a play I affectionately call “the Anthony Fasano leak out.”

The Draft

O.J. Howard is an obvious fit for what the Titans need at tight end, both at present with the loss of Anthony Fasano and for the future with Delanie Walker turning 33 years old this August. There’s a reason he’s at the top of everyone’s tight end draft boards.

The question then is where to draft O.J. Howard, and is it worth it to do so? Is it worth is to spend a first-rounder on him with other capable options likely to be available later in the draft?

By most accounts, Howard will be long gone by the time the Titans pick at No. 18 overall. However, the 5th pick is awfully high to use on a tight end.

Kenneth Arthur of the Field Gulls SBNation site wrote a piece comparing O.J. Howard to the greatest tight ends of all time, where he noted that “a tight end hasn’t gone in the top five since Riley Odoms in 1972, and the only one to ever go higher than that was number one overall pick Billy Cannon in 1960.” As for the top 10, “the only three tight ends in this century to be drafted in the top 10 are Kellen Winslow (6th, 2004), Vernon Davis (6th, 2006), and Eric Ebron (10, 2014).”

The thing is, Jon Robinson doesn’t care very much about positional value. I wrote a fanpost before last year’s draft detailing the lack of draft capital and financial resources that NFL teams typically devote towards the right tackle position, and then Robinson promplty drafted a right tackle at No. 8 overall.

Does that mean he would take a tight end at No. 5?

Heading into last year’s draft, the Titans had a desperate need at right tackle, and perhaps that is why Robinson discarded positional value. The Titans have no such dire need at tight end this year, and in fact, it may still be a couple of years too early for the Titans to draft Delanie Walker’s replacement.

It could end up like the Ladarius Green-Antonio Gates situation, where the Chargers let Green walk after 4 years of waiting in the wings and drafted a new Gates replacement. At the same time, Green wasn’t nearly the prospect that O.J. Howard is. But perhaps the Titans will be more interested in a mid-round prospet to truly take Fasano’s role as a primarily in-line, not-often-used-as-a-receiver tight end.

If the Titans manage to trade back in the 8-14 range, I think Howard would make sense, especially if Robinson expects a receiver to make it to No. 18 (and assuming he wants to draft one of these three first-round receivers).

If the Titans spend a high pick on a tight end in a draft class that some are calling “the best tight end class ever,” I would expect the offense to change a bit. Howard (or a player like Miami’s David Njoku, for that matter) should be used to stretch the field and challenge opposing linebackers and safeties to cover himsef and Delanie Walker, as well as defend the running game. It would be foolish to spend such a high pick in such a deep class and then use them almost exclusively as a blocker, especially when, as I said above, Delanie Walker may have a few good years left in him considering the age at which he become a full-time starter.

Anthony Fasano had 8 catches last season. If O.J. Howard is the No. 5 pick and he only has 8 catches this season, something went wrong.

The threat of two talented receiving tight ends could open up the offense and allow the Titans to use more deception, as they could pass or run from heavier formations. Add a playmaking receiver to the mix, as well, and the Titans could potentially have one of the most dynamic offenses in the league.

Make no mistake - this would require the Titans to alter their offense, but this should be no problem, as Mike Mularkey has shown a willingness to adapt to his personnel throughout his coaching career.

O.J. Howard shouldn’t be expected to step in and provide the same elite level of blocking that Fasano contributed, but with Russ Grimm and Mularkey coaching him up, and with Howard’s displayed effort and toughness, he should at least be servicable as a blocking tight end from the start of Week 1.

I expect the Titans to draft a tight end on Thursday sometime this weekend. It might be one of the many mid-round prospects, but it could be O.J. Howard. There are a lot of options to choose from at tight end, and a lot of prospects to decide between in the first round.

The biggest reason I like O.J. Howard for the Titans is that I believe he has a very low bust potential. It’s important that first-round picks are not wasted, especially for a team on the brink like the Titans. The right first round picks could push this team to the next level. But a couple of non-contributing first-round busts (whether due to lack of NFL-translating abilities or due to injury) could stall the Titans rise to prominence.

Howard is a high-character guy that would fit in with the Titans family-first locker room culture. Here’s a really cool and interesting story on him if you want to know more about Howard the person:

So even if Howard isn’t the next Greg Olsen (as some experts compare him to), he will be able to contribute as both a blocker and receiver, playing a lot of meaningful snaps in the Titans offense. He may not become a superstar, but he will be a career contributor at worst.

Is that worth the No. 5 overall pick? That’s for Jon Robinson to decide.

Here’s a highlight reel to get you excited about O.J. Howard: