MOBILE, Ala. -- A lot of times, the Senior Bowl is about unearthing sleepers from small schools.
But it also can be a forum for the biggest, most imposing guy from a national powerhouse to dominate the competition and enhance his status as a first-round pick.
That has been the case this week for Alabama tight end O.J. Howard, who came in as the most highly touted player -- and has done nothing to change that.
“Oh, without a doubt. The most complete player down here,” ESPN NFL analyst Matt Bowen said of Howard, who stood out from the moment he weighed in at a chiseled 6-foot-5, 249 pounds to his first practice, when he was reeling in one-handed catches and taking the top off the defense.
“He’s another case study of why, even if you’re projected as a first-round pick, it’s great to come here because you’ve got nothing to hide,” Bowen said. “And he put on a show. That’s what you want to do.”
Howard also was the first player that ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay mentioned in his review of the first day of Senior Bowl practices. But with Howard’s dazzling size and athleticism, you didn’t need to be any kind of scouting expert to single him out among the rest of the competitors on the field.
“He’s one of those players that if you put all the numbers in a computer and said, ‘Create a tight end,’ he would be your prototype. He’s got the body, the athleticism, the speed, the hands,” said Senior Bowl executive director Phil Savage, a former NFL general manager who also serves as the color analyst for Crimson Tide games. “And I thought he had a tremendous [practice week]. I’m not surprised. I really felt like he would showcase himself here.
“To me, coming here, I’m like, ‘He’s gonna solidify himself.’ If he’s not the top tight end, I’d like to see who the other guy is.”
Howard's impressive week may help boost him into the top half of the first round. And he said it means “a lot” for him to be considered as possibly the No. 1 tight end in this year’s draft class.
“That’s a big accomplishment, a big statement for people to say that. But you’ve just got to prove it, man. You’ve got to go out and make people believe it,” Howard said. “That’s what I’m trying to do here, just go out every day and compete and give my best.”
Of course, Howard didn’t just decide to grace Mobile with his presence this week out of the goodness of his heart. Despite his physical gifts and national championship pedigree, Howard has plenty to prove himself.
In fact, Howard could almost be labeled a “sleeper” in his own right, since he was surprisingly not used that much at Alabama, averaging less than three catches and 40 yards per game over his final two seasons.
Howard had just 83 catches for 1,197 yards and five touchdowns in 30 games in his last two seasons at Alabama.
Savage said part of the reason why Howard wasn’t featured more in the passing game was because Alabama had a true freshman quarterback in Jalen Hurts -- and they felt more comfortable with Hurts throwing outside the numbers instead of working the middle of the field.
“So that impacted some of his production there in my estimation, just as the radio analyst watching from afar,” Savage said.
Howard said it was also important for him to come to Mobile this week to show NFL teams he can be a solid run blocker and pass protector, as well as a pass catcher.
“It was a great opportunity to come out and play against great competition and showcase some of my run-blocking ability and running routes,” Howard said. “Whenever there’s a great opportunity to play against great talent, I’m always willing to do that.”
When asked if he tries to emulate any NFL tight ends in particular, Howard listed Jason Witten, Jimmy Graham and Jordan Reed, which amplified his desire to be good in multiple areas, and showed he is aiming awfully high.
But Howard wasn’t aiming too high. When NFL.com did a quick survey of NFL executives this week, their comparisons also included an impressive range.
Bowen said Howard showed good blocking ability this week. He reached out to get outside linebackers, held up in pass protection and showed good footwork and a strong core.
But Howard probably remained most impressive as a pass-catcher.
“He was open all day because when he gets to the top of the route, he can separate from either a safety or a linebacker in coverage,” Bowen said. “Really good speed, really good matchup ability, 6-5, 249 at weigh-ins, super athletic, strong hands.
“And the thing about him that’s exciting if you’re a scout or a pro coach, you’re saying, ‘Look, all week they played basic pro-style stuff. So O.J Howard was a standard tight end, hand in the ground.’ Wait till they start moving him around.”