Alabama Crimson Tide tight end O.J. Howard will return for his senior season.
Howard announced his decision on Twitter Monday afternoon:
On one hand, Howard's decision to stay in college is somewhat surprising. He caught five passes for 208 yards and two touchdowns in the College Football Playoff National Championship Game.
Despite not having a strong body of work—31 receptions, 529 yards, two TDs in total in 2013 and 2014—Howard had a good chance of being an early draft pick based on his work against the Clemson Tigers and his physical tools.
NFL Media's Bucky Brooks highlighted just how freakishly athletic Howard is for somebody listed at 6'6" and 242 lbs:
Howard ran a 4.49 (40) and 4.31 pro agility w/ 34-inch VJ at @TheOpening in 2012 as a rising HS senior.. Athleticism will intrigue scouts— Bucky Brooks (@BuckyBrooks) January 12, 2016
ESPN.com's Alex Scarborough believed Howard's stock would've remained high through showcase events like Alabama's pro day and the NFL scouting combine:
OJ Howard will run the 40 and show tape of this game. That's all it will take to get drafted early.— Alex Scarborough (@AlexS_ESPN) January 12, 2016
With that said, Howard now has a chance to make himself the unquestioned No. 1 tight end in the 2017 draft class. Bleacher Report's Matt Miller still wasn't sold on him as the best available option this year:
OJ Howard is the trendy name, but Hunter Henry is still the best TE in this class if Howard declares today.— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) January 18, 2016
In his most recent big board, Miller listed Howard as the 71st-best draft-eligible player in 2016 and the second-best tight end. Howard could've earned a lot of money as a second- or even third-round draft pick, but his chances of a massive payday as a first-rounder are much stronger now that he'll have another year at Alabama.
Presumably, Howard will be more of a focal point in the Crimson Tide offense in 2016. There are some potential road blocks in terms of his statistical ceiling, however.
Wide receivers Calvin Ridley and ArDarius Stewart, who finished first and second on the team in receptions, respectively, are also returning. Plus, now that the secret is out about Howard, opposing teams will look to game-plan for his presence.
O.J., quite honestly, should have been more involved all year long. Sometimes he was open and we didn't get him the ball, but I think the last two games have been breakout games for him in terms of what he's capable of and what he can do. I would say it's bad coaching on my part that he didn't have the opportunity to do that all year long, because he is really a good athlete, and he's improved tremendously as a player this year.
During the 2016 draft process, NFL teams were bound to wonder whether Howard was merely a gifted athlete and mediocre tight end since he didn't consistently deliver on the field—largely because he wasn't afforded the opportunity.
Barring injury, Howard should put those doubts to bed next season, so long as his role in the passing game increases.