Jason Licht and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' draft team worked out countless scenarios before the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft on Thursday, and at some point they contemplated Alabama tight end O.J. Howard falling to them at pick #19. It's safe to say, however, that this wasn't the most likely scenario.
Because truth is often stranger than fiction, Howard is somehow the newest weapon in Tampa Bay's offensive arsenal after the Buccaneers figuratively sprinted to the draft podium at pick #19. How unexpected was this? Well, the Buccaneers have never before, in more than four decades, drafted a tight end in the first round. In addition, Howard was almost universally considered a top-15 pick, and in many cases a top-10 choice; these seven assembled mocks on NFL.com all have him going in the top 15, with four of them in the top six. And, furthermore, Licht and his crew were fully prepared to consider a trade down from #19 depending on how the first half of the evening fell out.
Licht summed up the surprising nature of the Bucs' 2017 first-round pick even more simply.
"We're beyond excited about him," said the Buccaneers' general manager after his fourth first round at the helm. "It was a little bit of a pipe dream during the process that he would get there, and then we got a little itchy. We decided to stay patient, which we did. We were getting some action at our pick. I have a feeling a lot of teams were probably after him – along with some others, there are still some good players on the board.
"You can do a million mocks and come up with a million results. We're just happy that we got him. We thought there was a chance at a certain point. Now, starting at pick one, we probably wouldn't have bet on it, but it is what is. We feel like we got a windfall right now."
The Buccaneers thought Howard would most likely be gone before their pick because he belongs to an increasingly rare breed of tight end who have the size and skills to be an in-line blocker but the speed and agility to work the seams downfield. Why did the Bucs consider Howard a pipe dream on Thursday night. Because he's a true 'Y.' That's the designation given to a three-down tight end.
"He's big, he's a huge target, makes contested catches, he's athletic, he can run," said Licht. "I think he's going to help you immediately in the passing game but then he's eventually going to develop into a really good blocker as well with his length and his effort. He's a tough guy. He's a tight end prospect [that doesn't] come around very often, the multi-faced, across-the-board type of guy.
"It just puts a lot of stress on a defense. You can dictate what you're doing, and they have to figure out how to cover it. Hopefully once things get humming, it's going to open up every area of the offense. It's going to help your run game, help your outside receivers, help your slot, everything. We've got a long ways to go yet before we're talking championships or anything."
Those traits are the exact reason why Howard was considered a good bet to be the rare top-10 tight end pick. There have been only six of those since 1980. In the end, he went 19th, but the Bucs believe that was because a run on quarterbacks and receivers changed the expected layout of the top half of the round.
INFOGRAPHIC: BUCCANEERS SELECT HOWARD
"The true Y tight ends are a dying breed in college football," said Head Coach Dirk Koetter. "There's not that many teams left that utilize a player like O.J. [who is] in the NFL still one of the best weapons that you can have. Here's a guy that's got the speed to run down the seam and the power to block a defensive end at the line of scrimmage. There's just not many of those guys around. We're very fortunate that he was still there and exciting for him to be joining the Bucs."
With all three of the draft's top receivers going in the first nine picks and Chicago starting a quarterback run by trading up to the second pick, it wasn't terribly surprising that Howard fell out of the top 10. However, every pick from number 11 to number 18 was a nail-biter for those in the Bucs' draft room as their 'pipe dream' started to come true. Licht said his crew didn't truly breathe out until the Titans had submitted their #18 pick. One thing was certain: The Bucs, whose draft room phones were ringing, were not trading down as long as Howard was still on the board.
"It's a guessing game," said Licht. "There are a million mocks out there. We do our own mocks. If you get six right, you're doing pretty good. We don't set our boards based on the mocks. Before the draft we have a lot of meetings where we say, 'Which players have to be there [that] you're not even going to consider trading back? Which players would you consider moving up for?' So on and so on. He was obviously one guy that we weren't going to trade back for."