‘’A Generational Talent”
Hyperbole is no stranger to draft evaluation. Certain terms are used too frequently, like when a running back is compared to Bo Jackson or a safety to Sean Taylor. But when the praise is warranted, it shouldn’t be shied away from. In this instance, Alabama’s O.J. Howard is worthy of the phrase “generational talent.” There hasn’t been a tight end prospect since Vernon Davis that demanded this amount of reverence. I graded Howard as a 1st round prospect with the “Dominant/Rare” tag and would take him in the top 5 of this draft if no other need matched up with the value of the pick. In my four years of scouting, no tight end with the ability to be a weapon in the passing game has been as good of a blocker as Howard is. You can trust Howard on the end of the line to get aggressive blocking downhill as much as you can trust him to get out in space, hunting linebackers or defensive backs on outside runs. Howard can also effectively stay in and max-protect on passing plays or chip a defensive end or linebacker before going out for a pass. He’s bigger than safeties and quicker than linebackers with more than enough strength to win at or after the catch. Of all the players in this class that I trust, O.J. Howard is near the top of the list. For a team looking to take a player that helps them now and in the future, any coaching staff would benefit from adding Howard to their roster; and, no incoming coaching staff, if there were turnover, would come in and not be elated to inherit him.
“Njoku & Engram – the Modern Day Tight Ends”
Miami’s David Njoku and Ole Miss’s Evan Engram are two of the more unique players in this class, and both should find success early in the NFL. Starting with Njoku, look no further than his arm length, vertical and broad jumps than to see how enticing he is as a “move tight end” in the NFL. Testing in the 97th, 90th, and 98th percentile respectively, Njoku’s catch radius, ability to win in the air, and ability to explode and separate are truly rare traits. He can win in space, create after the catch, and be an effective and ever-developing blocker. For teams who miss out on Howard, Njoku is an exceptional consolation prize in Round 1.
Just a tick below Njoku on my board is Evan Engram. My pro comparison for Engram is Washington’s Jordan Reed, who when healthy is one of the best at his position in the NFL. Evan Engram is going to cut the heart out of defenses in the slot because he’s quick in short space and downfield, but he’s also one of the better route-running technicians at that you’ll see from a tight end prospect. Linebackers and safeties struggled to cover him throughout his time at Ole Miss and it was no different in January at the Senior Bowl. I graded him as an early Round 2 prospect, but if a playoff team wants to make him the final piece of their offense in the late 1st, I would have no problem with it.
“The Law Firm of Mid-Round Tight Ends”
Bucky Hodges, Jake Butt, Jordan Leggett, and Gerald Everett all bring something different to the table and all are appealing starting in the mid-late second round. Bucky Hodges is a converted quarterback who mostly played receiver at Virginia Tech. Despite how much he was the Hokies’ X receiver, I would move him inline and believe in my staff to develop the technique needed to be a tight end. His best chance at success is to follow the Jimmy Graham model in terms of usage. Jake Butt is Heath Miller. I know that’s generic but the shoe fits. He’s never going to be pretty but most often will find a way to be open. Butt isn’t a great blocker, but he is a willing one and the book isn’t written yet on that skill for him. Jordan Leggett is the most under-the-radar tight end in the class for me. I’m enticed by his length and ability to make plays downfield – which his career was littered with – and I watched him willingly block time and again in Clemson’s system. I believe Leggett is going to be a low-end #1 or high-end #2 tight end in the NFL, not too dissimilar to New Orleans’ Coby Fleener. The final member of the mid-round tight end grouping is South Alabama’s Gerald Everett. He is very much a discounted version of Evan Engram. In terms of blocking, he’s not there yet and will have to learn to love the art of it. Everett won’t win to the degree in the slot like Engram will, but I love how much Everett competes and the drive to get better is something you can’t discount, especially with mid-round players.
“A Quick Note on the Rest of the Class”
- FIU’s Jonnu Smith is very much a H-Back, slot type of tight end and for teams who are looking for one but aren’t prioritizing it early on, Smith would be an excellent choice somewhere around Round 4.
- Iowa’s George Kittle has impressive athleticism combined with a translatable blocking skillset in the traditional sense. He’s not too dissimilar to former Hawkeye Dallas Clark.
- Ashland’s Adam Shaheen is the getting the comparisons to former basketball-turned-football players, but reminds me a bit of Zach Ertz. The skillset is very raw, but tight end is a position that historically doesn’t require a high level of college experience or production, so if Shaheen picks up quickly on the learning curve, he has the highest ceiling of anyone in the mid-to-late rounds in the draft.