JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- ESPN NFL draft analyst Todd McShay has the Jacksonville Jaguars doing something no other NFL team has done.
McShay has the Jaguars taking tight end O.J. Howard with the fourth pick in his latest mock draft, which would mark the highest a tight end has been drafted since the common draft era began in 1967. McShay said he considered running back Leonard Fournette at No. 4 but was just so impressed with what he has seen from Howard on film and throughout the pre-draft process.
"It was a tough call, to be honest with you," McShay said. "It might be a stretch to have a tight end go No. 4. We’ve only had two tight ends go in the first round the last six drafts, but ultimately when you look at this year’s class I think from a character standpoint, the maturing that he went through, the ability to stretch the field vertically, the ability to create after the catch, and then the improvement he’s undergone as a run blocker and even in pass protection at times, I think O.J. Howard is one of the most complete prospects."
The only other tight end drafted in the top five in the common draft era was Riley Odoms, whom Denver took with the fifth overall pick in 1972. Howard would become the 13th tight end drafted in the top 10 since 1967 and just the fourth in the last 21 years. Since Oakland drafted Rickey Dudley ninth overall in 1996, only Eric Ebron (10th in 2014), Vernon Davis (sixth in 2006), and Kellen Winslow (sixth in 2004) have been first-round picks.
The 6-foot-6, 251-pound Howard caught 114 passes for 1,726 yards and seven touchdowns in four years at Alabama. That’s 15.1 yards per catch, which compares favorably to -- and beats -- what some of the better tight ends in NFL history did in college.
Rob Gronkowski averaged 16.0 yards per catch at Arizona. Davis averaged 16.5 per catch at Maryland. Tony Gonzalez averaged 14.6 yards per catch at California. Heath Miller was 11.8 at Virginia. Jason Witten, the NFL’s all-time leader in tight end receptions (1,089, which ranks seventh overall all time), averaged 11.7 yards per catch at Tennessee.
“[Howard] also had a great week at the Senior Bowl, kind of confirmed what we knew, and then a great showing at the NFL combine,” McShay said. “He has nailed the process. He was great in both the national championship games and I think he has a chance to be a really big difference-maker at the next level at the tight end position.”
The Jaguars could certainly use a playmaker at tight end. Marcedes Lewis is expected to return for his 12th season, but at this point in his career he’s mainly a blocker (he hasn’t caught more than 25 passes in a season since 2012). Third-year players Neal Sterling and Ben Koyack, who combined to catch 22 passes for 185 yards and one touchdown with Julius Thomas out of the lineup for the final six games in 2016, appear to be role players at this point.
A reliable pass catcher and matchup problem in the red zone would help quarterback Blake Bortles, who is entering a make-or-break season. After a breakout season in 2015 in which he set single-season franchise records in passing yards (4,428) and passing touchdowns (35), Bortles regressed mechanically in 2016 and finished with 23 touchdown passes and 16 interceptions (which was his lowest single-season total). That opened the door on questions about whether he is the team’s long-term answer at quarterback, and they’ve only been fueled by executive vice president of football operations Tom Coughlin twice failing to endorse Bortles when given the chance in news conferences.
Some recent mock drafts have the Jaguars taking a quarterback at No. 4, which McShay doesn’t believe will happen.
"I wouldn’t rule it out completely, but I really think that Bortles is going to be back next year," McShay said. "I think he’ll be healthy and hopefully he can get a couple of the mechanical tweaks that he was working out earlier [and] that I thought he had worked out, but [he] clearly regressed last year.
"My guess is that they will draft a quarterback at some point but I would not expect them to use the fourth overall pick."
Instead, he believes the Jaguars will make history.