The offensive prospect who is closest to a sure thing in the 2017 NFL Draft also happens to be the player who spent four years dogged by questions about his lack of tangible achievements.
O.J. Howard, in many respects, should be viewed as the quintessential Alabama player under Nick Saban. He's big and fast, a five-star recruit with rare talent who checks all the boxes and had NFL written all over him by the time he played his first game in Tuscaloosa. And yet, for four years, Saban answered questions about why his star tight end wasn't heavily involved in the passing game.
It was a question Saban never had an easy answer for. Long before Howard played his final game in an Alabama uniform, Saban wondered the same thing himself.
"He is a fabulous receiver," Saban said last July at SEC media days. "He's got great hands. He's got speed to stretch the field. He can make the tough catch. He can separate from man-to-man. So, he has been an effective receiver, one that we probably, as we talked about before, need to use more because of his ability to make plays."
Tight ends have rarely been heavily featured as receiving targets in Saban's offenses. In Saban's 21 years as an FBS head coach, only fifth-rounder Robert Royal and seventh-rounders Brad Smelley and Michael Williams have been drafted at the position. There have been only 20 tight ends drafted in the first round in the past 20 years, but it nevertheless joins quarterback as the two positions under Saban that haven't gotten much early draft love.
Howard will change that. Only two tight ends -- Tyler Eifert and Eric Ebron -- have been selected in the first round in the past six drafts. This year's class, however, is the best tight end group in years, bursting with talent that includes Miami's David Njoku, Ole Miss' Evan Engram, Virginia Tech's Bucky Hodges, Clemson's Jordan Leggett, Michigan's Jake Butt, South Alabama's Gerald Everett and even a coveted Division II prospect in Ashland's Adam Shaheen.
Despite the depth of the class -- teams will be able to find an impact tight end beyond Day 1 next Thursday -- Howard is a slam-dunk first-rounder who has seen his stock continue to rise, potentially into the top 10. It's not hard to see why, either.
Howard stole the show at the combine, a 6-foot-6, 251-pound athletic marvel who ran the 40-yard dash in 4.51 seconds. Among tight ends, he ranked second in the 40, third in the bench press, first in the three-cone drill, first in the 20-yard shuttle and first in the 60-yard shuttle. Howard's jumping numbers weren't spectacular, but he showed that he has the speed and quickness of a wide receiver.
Howard's rare athleticism has been evident since his freshman year. He caught only 14 passes that season, but he began turning heads in a win over LSU. With Alabama trailing by four in the second quarter, Howard shifted out wide. AJ McCarron connected with him on a slant 10 yards down the field, and Howard did the rest: Four Tigers chased him, but they couldn't catch Howard quickly reaching top speed. Howard outran the defense and into the end zone for a 51-yard touchdown, a jaw-dropper for everyone watching.
In a high-profile game, the catch and run put Howard on the map, announcing himself as a guaranteed NFL prospect who seemed destined for All-America accolades.
And then … the catches didn't come. Howard caught 17 passes with zero touchdowns in 2014. In 2015, he had 35 catches and zero touchdowns in the first 14 games, with zero catches in the final two regular-season games. On Jan. 11, 2016, Howard re-announced his presence, torching Clemson for five catches for 208 yards and two TDs to help lead Alabama to the national championship.
Despite his haphazard usage in the passing game, it seemed to be the right time for Howard to go pro. He just played the game of his life for a national champion, and he was likely to compete with Hunter Henry to be the top tight end taken in a weak class in which Henry (No. 35) was the only player at the position picked in the top 80. Howard, however, decided to return for his senior season, to play with a fourth quarterback in four seasons -- it turned out to be true freshman Jalen Hurts -- in an offense that also returned Calvin Ridley and ArDarius Stewart, the top two wide receivers.
Along with the promises of more targets came more of the same: a solid year with 45 catches for 595 yards and three TDs, his biggest game (106 yards and a TD) again coming in the national title game against Clemson.
Through four seasons, Howard played with a new QB every year in evolving systems featuring two offensive coordinators in Doug Nussmeier and Lane Kiffin (plus Steve Sarkisian in the last game of his college career). As a sophomore, Howard receded into the background as Alabama heavily featured Heisman finalist receiver Amari Cooper. As a junior, the offense focused on handing the ball as often as possible to Heisman winner Derrick Henry. As a senior, the offense incorporated quarterback running and ranked 96th in passing attempts per game with a raw passer in Hurts.
Tight ends are rarely the focal point of any offense, and on a stacked roster with different schemes every year, it was difficult for Howard to command the ball. It's nothing new for a Kiffin offense, either, as he wasn't known for heavily feeding the ball to a tight end at USC. Howard was always a great option, but he was never going to be the focal point of an offense under Kiffin that, in the first two years, emphasized his desire to get the ball in the hands of the team's best playmaker as often as possible. And given Hurts' issues throwing down the field, it was difficult to use Howard to his full potential in 2016, too. Instead, he became a short-range option and was used as a blocker to aid a newfound spread running offense with Hurts at the helm.
Of course, "involved in the offense" for a tight end typically refers to being used as a receiver. Howard was heavily involved in the offense at all times because he has developed into such an effective blocker. Howard isn't overpowering -- a lanky frame doesn't help, even at 252 pounds -- but he's worked to refine his technique and proved to be a valuable asset, whereas many impact receiving tight ends enter the NFL with blocking as a severe liability.
While he did have one year more than many others, it's not as if Howard's career production as a receiver is far off from the other first-round tight ends of the past two decades.
Howard's lack of consistent involvement in the passing game was, mostly, a product of circumstances, as strange as it seems to say that about an Alabama player. We've seen many flashes of what he's truly capable of, whether he's split out wide, in the slot, attached to the line or playing in an H-back role. Mix his versatility with his top-end speed and willingness to block, and Howard offers everything a modern NFL offense could want out of a tight end, even if Alabama -- the most NFL-like of college programs -- wasn't always able to unlock his full potential.
While his production doesn't match first-round skill weapons like Christian McCaffrey, Leonard Fournette, Mike Williams and Corey Davis, Howard has still made himself into one of the safest early picks in the draft, arguably the safest out of any offensive player.
Saban admits himself that Howard's drawbacks were to be blamed on the system and not the player. Every part of his game screams instant-impact player who will command targets, and a top-15 pick isn't going to be spent for him to be a role player. Once Howard gets onto an NFL roster, it's hard to imagine we're going to be questioning his involvement anymore.