Draft Journal: O.J. Howard Could Be the Dolphins’ Long-Term Solution to Tight End Woes
The Miami Dolphins do not have a single long-term option at the tight end position. The signing of Jordan Cameron is undoubtedly one of the worst decisions made around the league over the past few seasons. No one could have foreseen Cameron’s fall from grace after his meteoric ascension in Cleveland. Since arriving in Miami, however, Cameron has been inconsistent, unreliable and ridden by mistakes and injuries. In fact, Cameron is reportedly considering retirement due to his history with concussions.
Behind Cameron, the Dolphins have little more than rotational talent. Backup Dion Sims has worked hard to improve as a receiver and it shows on tape. With that being said, he has been considered a blocking tight end since college, and that is where he will continue to give Miami the most value. MarQueis Gray has had his moments, as did Dominique Jones against the New York Jets this weekend, and Thomas Duarte offers physical potential on the practice squad. Unfortunately, none of these players seem well rounded enough to eventually become a reliable starter for Adam Gase in the future.
While we discussed Miami’s tight end situation briefly in a previous edition of our draft journal, let’s take an in-depth look at the player widely considered to be this year’s top prize at the position.
O.J. Howard, Alabama (TE)
Earlier in the season, I found it unlikely that a tight end would crack the first round of the upcoming NFL draft. Hunter Henry was regarded as one of the most complete tight end prospects to come out of college in years. Nonetheless, he ultimately fell to the San Diego Chargers in the second round and has impressed early on in his rookie season.
As 2016 progresses, however, the more likely it seems that Alabama standout O.J. Howard will intrigue a team in round one. Howard made himself a household name with his 208-yard, two-touchdown performance in the National Championship and has continued his strong play well into this season.
Howard is held back by his role in the offense and, thus, can disappear from tape at times. His physical abilities though are by far the best among eligible prospects at the tight end position. He possesses a rare combination of size and speed and, in turn, offers a ton of big-play ability.
Scouts question his route running ability at this point in the process, but that is fairly typical out of prospects of Howard’s nature. Once he learns that he can’t rely solely on his athleticism, and is taught the craft of the position, Howard figures to be a real weapon.
With the way the Dolphins have been performing, many of their weak positions have outperformed expectations. However, Howard fits the mold of players that seems to attract Gase. Although we have only seen a single draft with Gase in Miami, he seems more than willing to draft players based on their upside (Laremy Tunsil), unique physical characteristics (Jakeem Grant) or despite the fact that they may not be a finished product (Xavien Howard). Howard checks all of these boxes, plays at a position in which Miami sorely needs reinforcements and would add a necessary and different dimension to Gase’s offense.
Despite their current, impressive, three-game win streak, the Dolphins’ roster is still filled with personnel question marks. It even remains unclear if those that have stood out during the current stretch (i.e. Jay Ajayi) are considered part of the long-term future in Miami. With that being said, there is no such trouble in evaluating the tight end position. Gase is going to want, even need, a tight end to stretch the field in the seam and take pressure off of the other offensive position players. Cameron was supposed to be that player for the team, but it’s time to move on.
Much of this depends on where Miami ends up in the first round but, assuming it is somewhere in the back end, Howard seems like a plausible candidate. He isn’t going to continuously put up huge numbers (very few collegiate tight ends do), but if he can show consistent improvement in his route running, reliable hands and the occasional big play as he has thus far, he should be firmly in first round territory come April.
Others to Keep an Eye On
Raekwon McMillan, Ohio State (ILB)
Reuben Foster is the unrivaled top inside linebacker prospect, and Jarrad Davis can make plays all over the field despite being listed as an outside linebacker. Barring something drastic, however, Raekwon McMillan will still be the second inside linebacker to come off the board.
McMillan is going to grab the attention of several NFL teams for his pure tackling ability. He displays a high football IQ on tape, as seen by the angles he takes and his talent diagnosing plays. He isn’t the most athletic linebacker in the nation, but he is no slouch either and rarely seems to make mistakes. Former teammate Darron Lee was lauded for his speed and coverage potential, which landed him on the New York Jets as the 20th overall pick in 2015. McMillan, on the other hand, still has lots of room to improve in pass coverage.
The Ohio State standout leads his team in tackles with 54 in addition to a forced fumble and 2.5 tackles for a loss. He is also the signal caller for one of the nation’s stingiest defenses. In other words, he is simply a football player, and his intelligence would seem to make him one of the safer defensive prospects available.
I still have my doubts about Kiko Alonso being a long-term solution at inside linebacker, but he has generally outperformed expectations up to this point. Still, McMillan would be an instant improvement over every other linebacker on the roster. We have seen missed tackles plague Miami as recently as this passed week, and Jelani Jenkins has seemingly showed us all he really has to offer. McMillan would immediately become part of the solution to the Dolphins’ run defense woes, even if he can’t be relied on to cover tight ends early in his career. That could very well be enough to have Miami pull the trigger late in the first round.
Mike McGlinchey and Quenten Nelson, Notre Dame (OL)
Miami’s offensive line has been unbelievable over the past three games, and that may make it seem like the position is no longer a need. However, Ja’Wuan James continues to be plagued by inconsistent performances and penalties, and Jermon Bushrod can’t realistically be expected to maintain his level of play past this season. Even beyond that, the team lacks any resemblance of depth along the line of scrimmage, and a single injury to one of their starters can destroy the entire game plan set forth by Gase.
Thus, top offensive lineman Cam Robinson should undoubtedly be a potential option. However, if they miss out on the big guy from Alabama, they could plausibly turn their attention to a pair of Notre Dame teammates: Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson.
McGlinchey is an offensive tackle, currently protecting the blind side for the Fighting Irish. Despite that, many expect him to at least initially move over to the right side in the NFL. He is an unbelievably physical blocker and has adequate footwork as well. In other words, he has the tools to become a reliable starter as a professional. He simply needs to master his technique, as all rookie offensive linemen are ultimately expected to do. If the Dolphins don’t see James in their future, McGlinchey could easily be his replacement.
Nelson, on the other hand, is quite possibly the best offensive guard in all of college football. He is an absolute mammoth of a player at 6’5”, 325 pounds, and an undeniable weapon in the run game. If Gase sticks to the plan of establishing his ground game and taking pressure off of Ryan Tannehill, Quenton Nelson could be the finishing piece of an increasingly dominant (albeit shallow) offensive line.
For both Notre Dame players, it could ultimately come down to the Dolphins’ willingness to spend two straight first round picks on offensive linemen. If Gase and the front office decide that their biggest need is at offensive line, or are simply intrigued by their skillsets, either McGlinchey or Nelson could plausibly find themselves in South Beach next season.