Top NFL Draft Prospects: O.J. Howard too big and fast to fail for Crimson Tide

In preparation for the 2017 football season, NFLDraftScout.com will profile the top NFL draft-eligible prospects with a different player profile each day. The series will culminate with the preseason top-20 prospects in August.

O.J. Howard, TE, Alabama

Height: 6-6; Weight: 242; 40-yard dash: 4.57; Class: Senior; High School: Autauga Academy HS (Prattville, Ala.)

Given the quantity and quality of NFL prospects produced at Alabama since Nick Saban took the reins, one cannot blame scouts for developing certain expectations and perhaps even stereotypes for its players.

While most of these perceptions are positive -- Alabama players are typically well-coached, very physical and committed to team goals -- some are negative. Some believe, for example, that Crimson Tide players enter the NFL beaten up more than prospects coming from other colleges, a logical byproduct given the extra games Alabama routinely plays pursuing conference and national titles.

On the surface, Howard's story reads like many of the other highly regarded prospects in Saban's football factory. 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. In comparison to others at his position across the country, however, Howard's personal statistics are relatively meager partly because there have been (and remain) so many mouths to feed in the Alabama offense.

But a closer look reveals that Howard is different than many of the Alabama players before him. Entering his senior season, Howard is not technically refined nor especially revered for his power and toughness. Prior to a breakout performance in the national title game, some of the Crimson Tide faithful were even characterizing Howard's career as a disappointment.

With five catches for an Alabama bowl record 208 yards and two touchdowns against Clemson's gifted secondary, however, Howard reminded fans, scouts and Alabama playcaller Lane Kiffin, alike, of his untapped potential. And it is this perceived upside which will make Howard one of the more heavily scrutinized prospects this fall.

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Howard broke out in last year's title game. USATSI

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 game last year, and Howard's junior campaign (33 catches for 394 yards and zero scores) is not significantly more productive than his first two years in Tuscaloosa -- at least not to the level one might expect given his hype or lofty perch on NFLDraftScout.com's board.

At a shade under 6-foot-6 and 242 pounds, Howard looks more like a power forward than a traditional NFL tight end. 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 Seattle Seahawks) featured All-Pro Jimmy Graham. 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 led the Tide with a 15.8 yards per reception average last season and he 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, which could allow Kiffin to feature him in the red zone now that Derrick Henry is rumbling for touchdowns with the Tennessee Titans.

While undeniably gifted, Howard remains far from a finished product. At this time, Howard is far too reliant on his size and athleticism as a route-runner, showing limited shoulder fakes and altered gaits to keep defenders guessing. Howard is not the bulldozer with the ball in his hands that his size would suggest, and this lack of ideal physicality is also evident in his blocking, where he remains more pesky than powerful or passionate.

Following his breakout performance in the national title game, many presumed that Howard would make the jump into the NFL last year, especially given that the 2016 draft was considered weak at tight end. By returning for his senior campaign, Howard has given scouts and the Alabama faithful hope that he's committed to maximizing his undeniable potential.

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