Alabama tight end O.J. Howard is expected by many to be drafted in the top 10, something only 18 players at his position have ever accomplished. The only three tight ends in this century to be drafted in the top 10 are Kellen Winslow (6th, 2004), Vernon Davis (6th, 2006), and Eric Ebron (10, 2014). In his latest mock draft, SB Nation’s Dan Kadar has Howard going 10th to the Buffalo Bills, but some are even going as high as top-five, with the Washington Post mocking him to the Jacksonville Jaguars at four.
A tight end hasn’t gone in the top five since Riley Odoms in 1972, and the only one to ever go higher than that was number one overall pick Billy Cannon in 1960. The success rate for these players?
Well, you already know the answer about Winslow and Ebron. The last tight end drafted in the top 10 to be named as an All-Pro was Charlie Young, the sixth overall pick in 1963. The only one to ever make the Hall of Fame was Mike Ditka, the fifth overall pick in 1961. Oftentimes, your best case scenario used to be someone like Kyle Brady.
The ninth overall pick by the NY Jets in 1995, Brady never made a Pro Bowl and averaged just under 300 yards per season, but he did play for 13 seasons and was noted for being an above-average blocker at the position. The days of that being the expectations for a tight end are over.
In a league that is favoring the QB far more than the running back, pass blocking and catching are at a premium at the tight end position. You must be an adequate blocker but a number one or two receiver if you want to be the starting tight end on most teams. Among the most targeted players in the NFL last season were Kyle Rudolph, Greg Olsen, Dennis Pitta, Travis Kelce, Zach Ertz, Delanie Walker, and Jason Witten. Russell Wilson threw to Jimmy Graham 95 times for the Seahawks last season, and Seattle employed four players at the position, including a third round pick who rarely got off the bench, and a Canadian athletic freak who they just re-signed for one more season despite Nick Vannett’s presence and a class that is considered to be loaded with physical tight end specimens.
Even receivers are starting to look more and more like tight ends.
Mike Evans, the most-targeted player in the NFL last season, is 6’5, 231 lbs. If he added 20 pounds, he’d be the same size as Winslow. Terrelle Pryor is 6’6, 240. Kelvin Benjamin is 6’5, 240. There’s a reason you are going to see UConn’s Obi Melifonwu drafted in the first round — who else is going to cover these guys? Which secondary players have the size and athletic makeup to keep up with them on the field? Melifonwu is 6’4, 224 lbs, has 32.5” arms, runs a 4.4, has a 44” vertical, and an unrealistic 11’9 broad jump.
Yes, the Seahawks, who have met with Melifonwu twice now, are interested.
On Monday, Football Perspective’s Chase Stuart posted the best weight-adjusted 40 times at the combine, with Howard coming in first, just ahead of expected number one overall pick Myles Garrett. Howard’s expected 40 at his size was 4.81, but he did it at 4.51. Garrett should be expected to run a 4.93, but he ran a 4.64. Three of the next four players on the list are also tight ends: Evan Engram, Bucky Hodges, and George Kittle.
Kittle is someone you’ll see on some of Rob Staton’s previous mock drafts as a second or third round target for Seattle. At 247 lbs, he ran a 4.52, just a hair behind Howard’s time. Slid in between those guys is offensive tackle Aviante Collins of TCU, a 295 lb lineman who somehow runs a 4.81. Collins is being projected as a day three pick.
And then down at number 10 is Melifonwu, who should be expected to run a 4.64, but was 0.24 seconds faster than that. With tight ends and receivers getting so much bigger, faster, stronger, this is where what we used to call “tweeners” on defense will instead become “versers,” which is the coolest name I could come up with in under 30 seconds; short for versatile.
“Big as a linebacker, fast as a corner, covers like a safety? Gotta have it.”
Now back to the tease in the headline, who is the greatest combine TE of all-time? That would be Davis, who truly defied odds 11 years ago when he was coming out of Maryland. Not odds like “what are the odds he’ll make the NFL?” but the odds of physics and science and what we thought the human body was capable of.
First, look at these incredible numbers from Howard:
6’6, 251 lbs, 4.51, 30” vertical, 10’1 broad, 4.16 in the 20-yard short shuttle
6’3, 248 lbs, 4.38, 42” vertical, 10’8 broad, 4.17 in the 20-yard short shuttle
Credit to Howard for being three inches taller and even besting Davis by a fraction in the shuttle, but the 40, vert, and broad are just unreal for Davis. How did their college numbers compare? Well, Davis had 441 yards as a sophomore, 871 yards and six touchdowns as a junior before declaring for the draft. Howard played all four seasons at Alabama and over the last two years had 602 yards and 595 yards, respectively. However, he scored just seven touchdowns in a four-year career.
That being said, Alabama was often criticized for not utilizing the tight end position enough, a stance all too familiar to Seahawks fans at this point. However, receivers Ardarius Stewart and Calvin Ridley combined to catch 15 touchdowns last season alone, and some question whether or not the fault belongs to the coaches, or to Howard for not showing as much commitment as was expected of their star weapon.
Either way, the NFL is getting Howard, and a host of other athletic tight ends this year through the draft. Seattle probably isn’t targeting a tight end until the end of round three, or very late in the draft if at all, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t something they must monitor. The Seahawks are already down a cornerback with DeShawn Shead recovering from a torn ACL, and could be down another if a great trade offer comes in for Richard Sherman, plus they’ve found out just how vulnerable they are when one of their safeties goes down. Put on top of all of that the fact that they have not re-signed Mike Morgan and could be playing a guessing game with their third linebacker and you can see why a “verser” (I’m pushing my own term, what an asshole) will become vital in this draft. Maybe it’s not Melifonwu (it probably is though), but Jabrill Peppers, Adoree’ Jackson, and others could come into play as well. More and more of these types of players will be infiltrating NFL defenses because someone has to do something about these 6’6, 250 lb dudes who run a 4.5 and can catch.
Maybe they aren’t at the athletic level of Vernon Davis, but they’re getting closer and there are way more of them.