Tight end is one of the more underrated positions on an NFL team, and that's also true when it comes to the draft. There are currently nine tight ends in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, although only one of those players was drafted in the top 10 of their own draft class, Mike Ditka (No. 5 overall, 1961). Otherwise, the NFL has only seen Kellen Winslow Jr (No. 6 overall, 2004), Vernon Davis (No. 6 overall, 2006), Riley Odoms (No. 5 overall, 1972) and Ron Kramer (No. 4 overall, 1957) taken as top-10 tight ends.
It is a very rare occurrence for a tight end to exhibit such refined talent in all areas of their game for teams to consider taking them so highly. But, O.J. Howard is a different breed, and could be exactly what the Cincinnati Bengals are looking for with the No. 9 overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft.
With such a lofty draft positioning, the Bengals are likely to look for an impact player who can boost his respective unit of the team. That could be a pass rusher, but it could also be an impact pass catcher. Drafting a player like Howard could allow the Bengals to inject talent into the passing game without readjusting their promising set up at wide receiver.
Tight end is a position for which the Bengals might appear more set than they actually are. Starter Tyler Eifert has been an absolute star at various points in his career, but he has had trouble staying healthy and hasn’t been as productive as he could have been as a result. He has one more year remaining on his contract and the Bengals have control after that as the team could easily franchise tag him or re-sign him long-term. Backups Tyler Kroft and C.J. Uzomah have both flashed potential, but have yet to show an ability to complement Eifert as impact players.
Even with those three players, the goal for an NFL team should be constant improvement and giving the offense a boost with a big-time playmaker like Howard could lead to great things. He is exceptionally athletic for such a big player and has impressive speed and an ability to hit top gear that you don’t typically see out of most tight ends. He plays just as well in the passing game as most wide receivers, but he doesn’t shy away from blocking duties and is built like a prototypical tight end.
Unfortunately, Howard’s in-line blocking ability and hand strength can betray him. He doesn’t shy away from blocking, but he certainly has some work to do in that area of his game. That, in addition to some questions about his drive and competitiveness keep him from being even more highly regarded. But, he has all of the potential in the world and the ability to transform any offense into a potent one.
There has been some question as to whether or not the coaching staff at Alabama utilized his abilities as well as they could have, lending to some explanation for his less than astounding production in college. But, NFL coaches are on a different level. The Bengals, who pride themselves on drafting well and developing their own talent, should be able to coach him into fulfilling his potential.
Receiving comparisons to guys like Eifert, Shannon Sharpe, and Jimmy Graham, it is hard to not get excited about Howard. It is even more understandable for Bengals fans—who watched a less than exhilarating passing game in 2016—to get excited about a player like Howard with an exceedingly impressive level of talent. Making Howard a top-10 draft pick, especially as a tight end, would be setting extremely high expectations. But, if the Bengals think they have the system and environment in which he can thrive, he could be an excellent addition to an already loaded pass catching group.