The NFL Draft is a crapshoot for players. No one knows exactly where he will be selected, with rare exception, and things can take unusual turns. The supplemental draft, a more arcane summer stepbrother to the widely celebrated spring selection process, is even more difficult to predict, with players entering under more bizarre circumstances and teams viewing the process differently.
So while I wouldn't venture to suggest exactly where Purdue defensive tackle Ra'Zahn Howard will be selected in a few weeks, when the NFL conducts the supplemental process (the exact date of which is still somewhat mysterious, though it will take place the second week of July), I do have a strong sense that he will be taken, and perhaps higher than some would anticipate. And what I can assure you of is that this young man does not lack for confidence and is very much up for the challenge.
Howard confirmed for me reports that he left Purdue for academic reasons and, after much deliberation, decided it was time to join the pro ranks rather than sit out a year to transfer to continue playing college football. Since word of that decision made the rounds, Howard's agent, Peter Schaffer, said he has been contacted by all 32 teams and expects a heavy turnout at the player's July 8 pro day in New Jersey.
Howard, meantime, has been trying to compensate for a truncated predraft period by working out relentlessly, consulting with some of his family and acquaintances who play in the NFL, and watching film of those he hopes to emulate at the next level.
"I was in a predicament at Purdue," Howard said, "and I had some issues with my academics. I enjoyed my time at Purdue, and Purdue has been like a family to me, and my coaches embraced me from the get-go there. There is no dirt being thrown on anybody's names ... My coaches helped mold me.
"But for me, personally, it was unfortunate that it was time to leave and I had bigger expectations going into my senior year, but I was basically given the decision to transfer. I thought about having to sit out a year, and being realistic with myself and seeing the kind of shape I was in, now is the time to go.
"I've trained myself and remolded myself and upgraded myself like I'm going into my senior year, and waiting out a year for me, that's a waste of time. And missing the game for a year, anything can happen in a year, and some people lose motivation because they sit out a year and then you have to adjust to a new atmosphere and new coaches and a new defense. So a lot of thought went into it but I'm happy with the decision I made and excited for the draft."
Howard is an intriguing package for scouts. He is a big, big man (Howard says he measured 6-foot-3 1/2 and 325 pounds right now) who also has no lack of natural athleticism and speed from a youth spent excelling at boxing, wrestling and basketball. In fact, Howard didn't take up football until his junior year, and in three years at Purdue, he appeared in 24 games, registering 47 tackles and three sacks.
Some scouts believe he could be at home as a tackle in a 4-3 or anchor as a nose in a 3-4, and he continues to grow into his body and hone his technique. Howard seems driven, mentioning frequently the film work he began undertaking early in his high school career. He wants to be a tactician in the pro ranks, and not just a space-filling big body.
He is the only player generating any real buzz in this supplemental draft, and has the kind of build where, if he had gone out and performed well as a senior, he could have been set up to go on the second day of the full draft. His pro day will go a long way to cementing his draft status, but it is not uncommon for teams to take a chance during this July process.
Howard took this decision very seriously and consulted with veterans like Eagles defensive lineman Vinny Curry, a family friend, and Akeem Spence, getting their opinions of his game and his options before finalizing his route.
"I have some great positive influences who have been in my life, and those guys evaluated me and they see the way I carry myself and I trust their opinion," Howard said. "They helped me with it and I'm so excited to see where this whole process goes, to be honest with you. I'm embracing it more than anything else."
Howard vows to be in peak condition when the NFL congregates to his pro day, and says he has heard lots of positive chatter already.
"Definitely," Howard said. "I've been hearing pretty much from every team in the league, basically, and in that sense it's fascinating to me. I was just in college getting ready for my senior year, and now I'm possibly going to be playing with or against some of the guys I look up to in the NFL. I've heard a lot of positive feedback from the teams so far. They really like me and love what I can bring to the table."
Howard will train with Spence in the coming days and will join him at Spence's football camp in Tampa. He plans on being a sponge picking up whatever pointers he can about life in the NFL and what it takes to compete at this level. Howard sounds like a young man committed to making a strong first impression, and if he can match his confidence with production, he might end up being a summer steal for some franchise.
"I'll say this: if a scout were to ask me -- or an NFL head coach or GM or position coach -- how I describe myself," Howard said, "I would say I am stout against the run -- big and stout against the run -- and an athletic type of nose guard. And I can do a lot of different things in the middle. I bring excitement, power and explosiveness to the position, and I'm able to do a lot of things. I'm versatile and still moldable. I'm still able to learn things. I see myself -- God willing and if God blesses me -- I see myself being one of the premier guys in the league in two years, definitely."