Emma: Alabama TE O.J. Howard Has Star Potential In NFL

By Chris Emma–

MOBILE, Ala. (CBS) — Consecutive periods of Wednesday’s work at the Senior Bowl showed why Alabama’s O.J. Howard is the best tight end in this draft class.

Howard was challenged with edge-rushing linebackers in a one-on-one drill. With each attacker, he held his own. Crimson Tide teammate Ryan Anderson ripped around a pad and came at Howard, who pushed his hands to the bulky linebacker’s chest and pushed upward.

Moments later, the South team settled into its offense. Howard turned a corner in his route and caught a pass in traffic.

A 6-foot-5, 249-pound prospect, Howard has been a star at the Senior Bowl. He’s a rounded athlete with speed and strength to his game. This ascension didn’t happen by accident. Howard is a complete player because of battles with Anderson, Jonathan Allen and Reuben Foster in practice each day.

“Competing against guys like that, you can only get better or you’ll be embarrassed every day in practice,” Howard said Tuesday night in Mobile.

In a class with talent at tight end, Howard stands out as the best of the bunch. Though his numbers at Alabama this season weren’t eye-popping — 37 catches and two touchdowns — his talent is clear.

Howard is a threat in the passing game. He’s a mismatch for any defense, even if he wasn’t utilized much in Alabama’s offense. Howard could be tough to contain in the NFL.

“I’m trying to be a guy that can help a team make plays down the field, be that go-to guy (in) big moments,” Howard said. “Just separate myself from defenders and be a playmaker. I think I’m a playmaker, I play better with the ball in my hand. I can help a team out a lot that way.”

At Alabama, Howard was asked to improve as a blocker in order to help guide the Crimson Tide’s rushing attack. Better blocking came with those matchups against Allen in the trenches but also because of the structure in place for Nick Saban’s program.

Saban watched from the Senior Bowl sidelines Tuesday as Howard and three Alabama teammates took part in practices with the South. He’s a demanding coach whose expectations are clear. Alabama expects to win a championship each season. Saban demands excellence, which makes his players better when it comes time for the next level.

“The way coach Saban always stressed discipline, always stresses buying into what you have to do,” Howard said. “Take it by the hand and take it full force. That’s what it’s going to take at this next level, every day.

“Coach Saban is one of the greatest coaches of all time. To even be in the same room as him and play under him is amazing.”

Howard’s stock is rising in Mobile, with many viewing him as a first-round pick. His athleticism and upside will be a major draw, one that displaces concerns to his lack of production at Alabama.

The Bears could land Howard’s services with their 36th pick in the second round, but they may need to consider moving up into the late first round for a shot at Howard. Adding a dynamic athlete to the offense makes sense for them.

Then again, every team scouting at Ladd-Peebles Stadium can envision itself adding a player of Howard’s caliber to the fold.

Howard is proving himself as a complete tight end. He could be building for a bright future in the NFL.

Chris Emma covers the Bears, Chicago’s sports scene and more for CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @CEmma670 and like his Facebook page.

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