The selection of O.J. Howard at No. 19 overall was mostly met with glowing reviews around Tampa Bay, but there are still some cautiously optimistic Bucs fans. Their main point of skepticism: Howard’s stats – or lack thereof, as they perceive.
The Alabama tight end increased his catch total every season but maxed out last year with 45 receptions. He had 602 receiving yards in 2015 and ’16, with a combined seven touchdowns.
Those numbers might not jump off the stat sheet, but they’re actually par for the course as elite tight ends’ collegiate careers typically go. As evidence, here’s a look at the college stats of some of the NFL’s premier pass-catching tight ends.
- Greg Olsen, University of Miami: 40-reception high during his senior year for 489 yards and one touchdown.
- Travis Kelce, University of Cincinnati: 45-reception high during his senior year for 722 yards and eight touchdowns.
- Jimmy Graham, University of Miami: Just 17 receptions in his only season of football, for 213 yards and five touchdowns.
- Rob Gronkowski, University of Arizona: 47-reception high for 672 yards and 10 touchdowns.
- Jordan Reed, University of Florida: 45-reception high his senior year for 559 yards and three touchdowns.
- Kyle Rudolph, Notre Dame: 33-reception high his junior year for 364 yards and three touchdowns.
This isn’t to say that college tight ends have never been featured. Guys like Delanie Walker and Dennis Pitta accounted for most of Central Missouri and BYU’s production, respectively. Even Ole Miss’s Evan Engram, the second tight end off the board last Thursday, hauled in 65 passes for 926 yards and eight scores last year.
The point, however, is that stats don’t tell the whole story, and that’s especially true for college tight ends. It’s a different game and teams often have different styles.
And consider this: In 2016 Alabama had only three games come within 17 points, including the 35-31 loss to Clemson in Raymond James Stadium. If you were Nick Saban and Lane Kiffin, dominating teams with a run-first approach, wouldn’t it be smart to hide an element of the offense – leaving no tape for opponents to review – and break it out in contested battles that call for a game-breaker?
Howard was that weapon for the Tide.
It’s well documented that he had his best performances in big games, including a combined nine receptions for 314 yards and three touchdowns over two championships against Clemson. The wide-open receptions could’ve been a result of not only strategic play-action but also the lack of game tape Clemson had to study and prepare for.
Add another five-catch outing against Auburn and an eight-catch game against Texas A&M, both in 2016, and it’s clear Bama was saving its 6-foot-6, supremely athletic tight end for the biggest stage.
Time will tell if Howard can go up and grab contested passes or become a 70-catch player, but the production on paper in college shouldn’t discourage fans about his potential at the next level.