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Alabama’s O.J. Howard stands out in deep tight end class

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Alabama tight end O.J. Howard dazzled NFL evaluators at the combine.AP/Associated Press

No days off? O.J. Howard can relate.

The Alabama tight end shares a work philosophy similar to that of Patriots coach Bill Belichick: Idle time is wasted time. For him, it's more like "No plays off."

Among the plethora of questions thrown Howard's way during the NFL Combine was, "Is there anything you don't like about football?"

After mulling his response to what he considered the toughest question he faced ("It's a lose-lose situation"), Howard came up with a good answer.

"I hate plays that don't involve the tight end,'' he said. "I love to be part of the offense. I'm always willing to make a play.''

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That was an example of the kind of mental sharpness and on-your-feet thinking NFL inquisitors like. The 6-foot-6-inch, 251-pounder also possesses the physical skills that talent evaluators love.

Those are just some of the reasons Howard is expected to be the first tight end off the board in next week's draft. He is poised to be the first tight end plucked in the first round since 2014 (Eric Ebron, Lions, 10th overall).

Howard is at the head of a stacked tight end class — one that could produce up to six picks in the top two rounds. That would be the biggest haul since 1973, when six went over the first two rounds, including first-rounders Charlie Young (Eagles), Paul Seymour (Bills), and Billy Joe DuPree (Cowboys).

In addition to Howard, Miami's David Njoku and Mississippi's Evan Engram could crack the top 32 this year.

If there were any question before the combine about Howard being the top player available at his position, he left no doubt with his performances in Indianapolis.

Howard topped the ticket in the three-cone drill (6.85 seconds), the 20-yard shuttle (4.16), and the 60-yard shuttle (11.46). He was clipped in the 40-yard dash (4.51) only by Engram's ridiculous 4.42. Howard banged out 22 reps in the 225-pound bench press, good for third.

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"I have a lot of respect for the guys in the tight end class,'' Howard said in Indianapolis. "We have a deep class, a lot of great talent. To be the first guy off the board would be a tremendous accomplishment.''

The Patriots, one of the top teams in the NFL at utilizing the tight end, would love to get their hands on Howard, though they'd have to do a considerable amount of finagling to add him to a stable that includes Rob Gronkowski, Dwayne Allen, and Matt Lengel.

Howard's status as the top playmaking tight end is somewhat ironic considering he didn't put up eye-catching numbers during his four-year run in Tuscaloosa. He had 114 catches for 1,726 yards, and 7 touchdowns in 46 games.

But he played in an offense known more for churning out yards on the ground than lighting up the skies. Consider this past season when the Tide, with freshman Jalen Hurts running the offense, averaged just 185 passing yards per game.

Howard said numbers tell just part of his story, and he was never frustrated by his lack of touches in Lane Kiffin's offense. He just rolled with it.

"Frustrated? Never. Disappointed? Yeah,'' he said. "I got disappointed I didn't get the opportunities I should have gotten, but never frustrated because I was a team player. I was excited to see us win. You can't go wrong with winning."

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It was another answer that will get high grades from NFL personnel.

Winning was something O'Terrius Jabari Howard did plenty of in college, going 51-6 with a national championship.

Howard burst onto the national scene when he was named MVP in Alabama's win over Clemson in the 2015 national championship game. He caught five passes — and plenty of attention — for 208 yards and a pair of touchdowns.

After that season, Tide head coach Nick Saban acknowledged that Howard should have been more involved in the offense.

Though he surely would have been a coveted pick in the draft, Howard, who committed to play for Saban as a sophomore at Autauga Academy, came back for his senior season.

"Absolutely the best decision I've made in my life so far,'' Howard said. "I had the opportunity to graduate college and I did that. As a football player, I got better. I improved in blocking. I understand the game more, played for a great coach. You can't beat that.''

Howard said that concentration on blocking is something that he believes separates him from other tight ends. Polishing his blocking skills took time. He learned that raw power will get you only so far.

"Technique was the biggest thing,'' he said. "Technique and footwork, those are the two biggest things to becoming a great blocker. Once I learned that and put my strength with it, I became a better blocker.

"As a young guy, I had no technique, just going in playing. Once you get the technique down and footwork, you can block anybody.''

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Howard, who has had at least informal meetings with every NFL team, said he appreciates the route-running skills of Washington's Jordan Reed but the player he most models his game after is Carolina's Greg Olsen.

"He's a guy that's a three-down tight end,'' said Howard. "He runs great routes, has great hands. He's a guy I studied a lot of film on in college, so I would compare myself to him.''

Though he scored a comparatively low number of TDs in college, Howard believes he'll be more of a scoring threat as a professional and that he possesses the skills to shine in the red zone.

"Splitting a tight end out wide in the red area, you have to respect that,'' he said. "Sometimes there are a lot of great matchups with linebackers covering a guy in the red zone, safeties, I think that's a mismatch. I think I can make plays.''

The top tight ends available in the draft

PLAYER

SCHOOL

HT.

WT.

40

ROUND

O.J. Howard

Alabama

6-6

251

4.51

1

Has exceptional size, strength, and smarts, and should make an impact immediately. Was underutilized in Tuscaloosa but that’s a good thing now: There’s plenty left on these tires.

David Njoku*

Miami

6-4

246

4.64

1

A strong and fluid athlete with the explosiveness of a wide receiver (seam routes a specialty) and the strength of a tight end. He’ll need to polish his route-running.

Evan Engram

Mississippi

6-3

234

4.42

1

Athletic and versatile, he was used in every formation imaginable during four years in the tough SEC. Not an overly physical player, he relies on quickness and savvy to block defenders.

Gerald Everett

South Alabama

6-3

239

4.62

2

Has rare acceleration off the snap for a man his size and maintains separation throughout his routes. Doesn’t have elite strength but has gained muscle recently and must continue to do so.

Bucky Hodges*

Virginia Tech

6-6

257

4.57

2

Massive target with great strength and athleticism. Didn’t start playing the position until college (he was a high school QB) so there’s still some rawness. Could end up being the best of the bunch.

Jake Butt

Michigan

6-6

246

n/a

3

Would be higher were it not for a torn ACL suffered in the Orange Bowl. Decent athlete with excellent size, football smarts, and versatility. Tough and competitive in the Jim Harbaugh mold.

Jordan Leggett

Clemson

6-5

258

n/a

3

Good athlete with excellent size and receiving skills. He’s a willing blocker but needs to add strength if he wants to be a three-down guy. With the right team, he could blossom into a star.

Jeremy Sprinkle

Arkansas

6-5

262

4.69

4

Maybe the best pure blocker here, he’ll help right away in the run game but needs polish as a route runner and receiver. Lacks explosiveness off the line. Will do damage after the catch.

Eric Saubert

Drake

6-5

253

n/a

5

Pride of the football hotbed of Des Moines, he is a real bulldog. A good route runner with excellent hands who really improved his stock at the East-West Shrine Game and Senior Bowl.

Jonnu Smith

Florida Int’l

6-3

248

4.62

5

Despite a comparative lack of size, he is an excellent in-line blocker with really good hands and decent after-the-catch escapability. Shows good burst off the line but can’t separate consistently.

Best of the rest: *Adam Shaheen, Ashland (6-5, 277, 4.79, 6th); Cole Hikutini, Louisville (6-4, 248, n/a, 6th); Michael Roberts, Toledo (6-4, 261, 4.86, 7th); Pharaoh Brown, Oregon (6-6, 255, n/a, 7th); George Kittle, Iowa (6-4, 250, 4.52 7th).

*underclassman

The top wide receivers available in the draft

PLAYER SCHOOL HT. WT. 40 ROUND
*Mike Williams Clemson 6-4 218 DNP 1st
This guy is right out of Central Casting. Possesses a premium blend of size, speed, and strength for the position. Uses all skills to consistently gain separation. Scored 11 touchdowns last season.
Corey Davis Western Michigan 6-3 209 DNP 1st
Another NFL ready guy, Davis wreaked havoc on the MAC over the last four years, amassing 5,212 yards and 51 TDs. He’s big, has outstanding burst, and runs very precise routes.
*John Ross Washington 5-11 188 4.22 1st
One of the best pure athletes in the draft, settled in at receiver last season after bouncing between offense and defense. Put up more than 1,100 yards and 17 TDs for the Huskies. He needs to – and will – bulk up a tad.
*Curtis Samuel Ohio State 5-11 196 4.31 1st
An exceptionally versatile player, you could stick this guy in any formation and he’ll make hay. He can play receiver or running back and should contribute as a returner on special teams. He’s fluid and sneaky strong.
*Malachi Dupre LSU 6-2 196 4.52 2nd
A really fast guy with great body control and the ability to track the ball and go up and get it. The knock was a lack of size but he’s already added muscle since the end of the year. Could be an early steal.
Dede Westbrook Oklahoma 6-0 178 DNP 2nd
A true home run hitter, Westbrook can fly. He piled up over 2,200 yards and 21 TDs the last two seasons, picking up the Biletnikoff Award in 2016. A history of off-the-field issues will keep him off some boards.
Cooper Kupp Eastern Washington 6-2 204 4.62 2nd
Middle name should be production. He had more than 6,400 receiving yards and 78 TDs in four seasons. He lacks explosiveness and speed but has great hands and drive and plays with a chip on his shoulder.
JuJu Smith-Schuster Southern Cal 6-1 215 4.54 2d
A wide body with big, powerful arms, Smith-Schuster can dominate opponents with strength. He chucks opponents at the line consistently but doesn’t have high-end speed. Can both take over a game and disappear at times.
*Isaiah Ford Virginia Tech 6-1 194 4.61 2nd

Ford is a good athlete with nice explosiveness and a flair for the big play. He’s both fast and quick. Could stand to add some muscle and he’s a little shy when it comes to downfield blocking.

Amara Darboh Michigan 6-2 214 4.45 3rd
Like tight end teammate Jake Butt, Darboh has flourished under Jim Harbaugh. A good athlete with terrific size and competitive spirit, Darboh could contribute immediately. Lacks elite speed.

Best of the rest: Josh Reynolds, Texas A&M, (6-3, 194, 4.52); *Ardarius Stewart, Alabama, (5-11, 204, 4.49); Chad Hansen, California, (6-2, 203, 4.53); Noah Brown, Ohio State (6-2, 222, DNP); KD Cannon, Baylor (5-11, 182, 4.41).

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Jim McBride can be reached at james.mcbride@globe.com