The 2017 NFL Draft could produce the best class of tight ends we've seen in some time.
And even so, Alabama's O.J. Howard has managed to separate himself from a deep and talented pack."He's the best tight end in this draft," NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah said last week on a conference call previewing the Draft. "All the way through, this is one of the best groups we've seen in a long time. We haven't seen guys like that very often."
It's a dynamic that has become clearer with 10 days until the league's annual event, as analysts continue to list Howard as a potential top-10 pick.
"What makes him unique, he not only can survive in the run game, he's pretty darn good at it. You look at somebody that can create big plays down the field with his speed, height, weight, speed, check, check, check," Jeremiah said.
"To even go beyond that, he's one of the more complete tight ends. He's dynamic. He's tough. He has worked on his craft," fellow NFL Network analyst Bucky Brooks added. "At the top of the charts, you're trying to make sure you don't miss."
Howard, whose size and speed could make him a mismatch nightmare at the next level, caught 114 passes for 1,726 yards and seven touchdowns over four seasons at Alabama. Simply, he's built like a power forward and runs like a track athlete.
At the Combine in March, Howard showed off that athleticism, clocking a 4.51 40-yard dash and posting 22 reps on the bench press. He was also a top performer in the three-cone drill and 20-yard shuttle. NFL.com's Lance Zierlein wrote Howard has "elite athletic traits and raw talent, but must add polish to go along with those attributes."
Zierlein was referencing Howard's final season in Tuscaloosa, which watched his production fall off in 2016 after a monster national title game performance (5 receptions, 208 yards and 2 touchdowns) the year before.
"The one thing that's interesting with him, I was shocked, when he went back to school for this last year, I was at the championship game against Clemson that they won the year before, and I thought, OK, he's going to ride that high wave right into the draft last year," Jeremiah said, adding Alabama's run-first offense didn't do Howard "any favors" in 2016.
"But I think you're talking about an elite skill set. You're talking about someone with high character, toughness. He checks every box. I think he's one of the safer picks in the draft."
Brooks added, "He's almost a can't-miss prospect in terms of what he brings to the table."
"With those guys, those are special guys," he continued. "That's why I think he kind of warrant as top 10 grade."