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Alabama NFL Draft Prospects

TE O.J. Howard: Top five NFL Draft spots

It drives Alabama fans crazy to see how underused O.J. Howard was on offense—yet and still, the former five-star tight end managed to produce a successful four-year tenure with the Crimson Tide.

After signing in its decorative 2013 recruiting class, the Prattville (Ala.) native would become a 1,000-yard target with seven career touchdown receptions on 114 catches. Much of his damage came against Clemson during the 2016 and 2017 College Football Playoff national championship games.

Howard burned the Tigers for 334 receiving yards and three touchdowns on nine receptions.

Behind head coach Nick Saban and tight ends coach Mario Cristobal (Oregon now), Howard developed into a three-down player in his last two seasons at Tuscaloosa. Overall, he cleared the way for three 1,000-yard rushers—T.J. Yeldon, Derrick Henry and Damien Harris, a 2,000-yard rusher (Henry), a Heisman winner (Henry, 2015) and 129 rushing touchdowns—along with being a nightmare for defenses on the perimeter.

His decision to return to Alabama for his senior year paid off, as he finished with 45 catches for 595 yards and three touchdowns. The 6-foot-5, 249-pounder dominated the Senior Bowl last week, and is projected to be taken within the top 15-20 picks in the upcoming NFL Draft. In the second installment of top five NFL landing spots for ex-Tide players, yours truly of TDAL Magazine lists the potential fits for Howard at the next level.

Tennessee Titans (AFC South, 2016 record: 9-7)

Coach Mike Mularkey and the Titans have the best chance at drafting Howard.

Tennessee will have two first-round picks (Nos. 5 and 18) and though it has needs at cornerback and wide receiver, it certainly has a need at tight end. Delanie Walker, 32, has turned in a productive NFL career; however, the 11-year veteran cannot remain atop his game for long.

The game slowed down for quarterback Marcus Mariota in his second season.

He tossed for 3,426 yards with 26 touchdowns to nine interceptions. Adding Howard helps Mariota in pass protection and completions, while continuing to assist DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry.

Both backs guided Tennessee to the third-best rushing attack in the NFL (136.7 ypg).

Denver Broncos (AFC South, 2016 record: 9-7)

Despite having five tight ends on its roster, the Denver Broncos have the position as a “top need” heading into the draft. A lot of its success on offense stems from the ability to zone block in its rushing attack. The Broncos were 27th in rushing offense (92.8 y/g), which calls for a player that can seal the outside to create huge runs.

Prior to his retirement, Peyton Manning developed chemistry with Julius Thomas.

The quarterback-tight end connection was golden during the 2013 and 2014 seasons, as Thomas caught 65 passes for 788 yards and 12 touchdowns in Denver’s Super Bowl run (2013). Selecting Howard would give Manning’s successor, Trevor Siemian, a big-bodied weapon at his disposal. Wide receivers Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders create enough havoc, but adding Howard brings more trouble to Denver’s opponents.

The Broncos have the 20th overall pick of the first round.

Pittsburgh Steelers (AFC North, 2016 record: 11-5)

Heath Miller (2005-15) was its last premiere tight end.

The trio of Jesse James, David Johnson and Xavier Grimble are all talented, but coach Mike Tomlin and Steelers want a three-down player. Thoughts of retirement have hit the rumor mill in regards to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, yet the 34-year-old still has some game left in him.

O.J. Howard would be the big play tight end to pair with Antonio Brown (1,284 yards, 12 touchdowns), Eli Rogers and Sammie Coates at wide receiver. Regardless of Martavis Bryant returning next season, his issues with the NFL’s substance abuse policy (missed 2016 season) could have him elsewhere.

Howard’s 10″ hands as a blocker could be wondrous for running back Le’Veon Bell, who recorded 1,268 yards rushing and seven touchdowns on 261 carries. Even with it being a need, Pittsburgh carries the 30th pick in the first round. Due to Howard’s ranking in this draft class (11th overall, top TE), he will not fall to the Steelers.

Dallas Cowboys (NFC East, 2016 record: 13-3)

Jason Witten is playing at a high level, but he’s also 34 years old.

This could be the draft in which Jerry Jones, Jason Garrett and the self-proclaimed “America’s Team” find his successor. Dallas clinched a playoff berth and an NFC East title with rookies at quarterback (Dak Prescott) and running back (Ezekiel Elliot). Elliot spearheaded the league’s No. 2 rushing offense, totaling 1,631 yards and 15 scores on 322 carries. Prescott was a sound decision maker, carrying a 23-4 touchdown to interception ratio.

Receivers Dez Bryant, Terrance Williams and Cole Beasley remain the attractions, but drafting O.J. Howard gives the NFC East much more to think about on Sundays. Dallas holds the 28th overall pick.

Miami Dolphins (AFC East, 2016 record: 10-6)

Dion Sims stood out as Miami’s best pass-catching tight end (four touchdowns, 2016).

Quarterback Ryan Tannehill endures much shade, but his toughness guided the Dolphins to the playoffs for the first time in seven years. He threw for 2,295 yards and 19 touchdowns to 12 interceptions, before a knee injury (ACL) prevented him from participating in the postseason.

Wide outs Jarvis Landry, DeVante Parker and Kenny Stills are an exciting trio to watch if you are a Dolphins fans. While Landry led the group in receptions (94), targets (131) and yards (1,136), Stills recorded a team-high nine touchdowns. Miami’s passing attack was decent, but its run game propelled it to the playoffs. Jay Ajayi, who was healthy for much of the year, posted 1,272 rushing yards and eight touchdowns on 260 attempts.

Consistently getting first downs was a problem for coach Adam Gase and company. The Dolphins were second to last in first downs, recording 278 of them in the 2016 season. Much of O.J. Howard’s plays at Alabama resulted in first downs, whether it came on third down conversions or chunk yardage efforts.

Tannehill’s successor at Texas A&M, Johnny Manziel, believed in putting the ball up and allowing his big-bodied targets to elevate and make plays. Howard has that type of potential and Miami has the 22nd overall pick.

Stephen M. Smith is a senior analyst and columnist for Touchdown Alabama Magazine.  You can “like” him on Facebook or “follow” him on Twitter, via @Smsmith_TDALMag.

Stephen Smith is a 2015 graduate of the University of Alabama. He is a senior writer and reporter for Touchdown Alabama Magazine. He has covered Alabama football for 10+ years and his knowledge and coverage of the Crimson Tide's program have made him among the most respected journalist in his field. Smith has been featured on ESPN and several other marquee outlets as an analyst.

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