As we go to print one day before the NFL Draft, the majority of draft analysts still believe Malik Hooker, the play-making safety from Ohio State, will be the Chargers pick at No. 7 in the first round.
However, there are a few updated mock drafts that have both Hooker and LSU safety Jamal Adams off the board by the time the Chargers are on the clock. Some analysts think General Manager Tom Telesco should go after a receiver — Clemson’s Mike Williams and Western Michigan’s Corey Davis are the names mentioned.
If the safeties are gone and there is no offensive lineman worth selecting early in the first round, Telesco will address other needs with the pick or trade down. But which direction should he go if the player he covets is gone and there is no safety, receiver, edge rusher or defensive tackle on his big board worth the seventh pick? And what happens if no team wants to trade up to the seventh spot?
There is one player ranked the best at his position whose name no analyst has the Chargers even looking at in the first round. A player who was under utilized in college and, according to analysts, has the kind of talent to be a dominant player as a pro — a player who could improve the Chargers offense on day one.
O.J. Howard, 6-6, 248, TE, Alabama
Ranked No. 18 on Pro Football Focus’ (PFF) Top 250 Prospects List and No. 12 on Ourlads’ Top 50 List, respectively, Howard is regarded the best tight end in this draft. He capped off his senior year by setting career-highs in receptions (45) and touchdowns (3) — finishing his collegiate career with 114 receptions, 1,726 yards and seven touchdowns.
Billy Moy (PFF): “O.J. Howard owns a unique blend of size and athleticism that is simply coveted in today’s NFL at the tight end position. Howard was PFF’s top-graded college tight end this past season, and it’s tough to find any major red flags in his game. He’s an athletic mismatch, capable of taking advantage of smaller defensive backs while having the speed and quickness to consistently separate from linebackers; he has sure hands, as he’s recorded just six total drops over the last three seasons. Howard has also graded positively as a run blocker in each of the last three seasons, including 2016 when he earned the highest run-blocking grade among tight ends.”
Ourlads’: “A tools-rich, hard working athlete who grew up in a pro style offense and saw plenty of action blocking and tackling over the past four years. He has the physical ability to energize the tight end position on any team. Howard is a match-up nightmare for defenses because of his size, speed, and athletic ability. Woefully underused at Alabama until the national championship game where he showcased his immense talent.”
Forget the fact Telesco drafted Hunter Henry at the top of the second round last year. If Telesco is able to pick the best tight end in the draft for the second straight year, the gameday schemes offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt could design around Henry, Howard and future Hall-of-Famer Antonio Gates would be a nightmare for opposing defenses.
Also, think about the New England Patriots and how dominant they were when the offense featured the two tight end attack of Rob Gronkowski and the late Aaron Hernandez.
During the years 2010-2012, the tandem of “Gronk” and Hernandez combined for 3,634 receptions, 4,619 yards and 56 touchdowns. The size of the 6-foot-6-inch, 265-pound Gronkowski and the 6-foot-1-inch, 245-pound Hernandez presented matchup problems for every defense the Patriots faced.
Before dismissing the idea of drafting Howard, Chargers fans should remember the success Rivers had while throwing to receivers Vincent Jackson (6-feet-5-inches, 230-pounds) and Malcolm Floyd (6-feet-5-inches, 225-pounds). Imagine defenses scrambling to match-up against the likes of Henry (6-feet-5-inches, 250-pounds), Gates (6-feet-4-inches, 255-pounds), Howard (6-feet-6-inches, 248-pounds) and Allen (6-feet-2-inches, 211-pounds) all running routes at the same time — advantage Chargers.
Per Greg Gabriel (Pro Football Weekly), Howard’s versatility allowed him to “play in tight (next to the OT), as a Y, split out, in the slot and as a wing in college and should be able to do the same as a pro.”
The Chargers offense finished the 2016 season ranked 14th overall — rushing (26th), passing (8th) and scoring (9th). Bringing in another high-caliber offensive weapon for Rivers to connect with can only improve those numbers exponentially.
The Endzone: Every year players slide down the draft board because of reported injury concerns, questionable character issues or a team trades up and changes the draft board. Alabama has two such players the Chargers could take as well — DT Jonathan Allen and ILB Reuben Foster. The odds of Allen falling to the seventh pick is slim, but if he does, the Chargers should take him.
The Chargers defense finished last season ranked 29th in scoring by allowing the fourth most points in the NFL. Pairing Allen next to Brandon Mebane on the interior with Joey Bosa and Corey Liuget on the outside in new coordinator Gus Bradley’s 4-3 scheme, the defensive front seven would be one of the best in the league. A first-team ALL-SEC selection three years in a row, Allen is ranked No. 2 on Pro Football Focus’ (PFF) Top 250 Prospects and Ourlads’ top 50 Prospects, in his latest mock draft, Rob Rang (CBS Sports.com) believes Allen will fall to the Chargers.
“The Chargers won big a year ago with Joey Bosa and could be in a similar position this year should Allen fall into their lap,” Rang said. “The 6-foot-3-inch, 286-pound Allen has the intangibles the Chargers have long prized and could remind new defensive coordinator Gus Bradley of former Seahawks pupil Michael Bennett with his positional versatility, initial burst and coordinated, powerful hand play.”
As for Foster, questions about his character have him sliding down the draft board because of a couple incidents during the last three months. After losing linebacker Manti Te’o to the New Orleans Saints in free agency and designating Melvin Ingram with the non-exclusive franchise tag, Telesco could always select Foster to bolster his linebacker corps in the event he cannot agree to a long-term contract with Ingram. Ranked No. 5 on PFF’s Top 250 Prospect List and No. 15 on Ourlad’s top 50 List, Foster is considered a three-down ‘backer capable of playing inside or outside depending on the scheme. Rang believes the questions around Foster drops him to the Washington Redskins at No. 15.
“Foster is a top-10 talent but might suffer a slide on draft day after questions about his decision-making off the field and durability on it surfaced since the season ended,” Rang said. “Possessing remarkable closing speed and the physicality to intimidate, he could prove a steal at this point in the draft.”
Whichever direction Telesco decides to go in the draft, one thing is for sure — this class must have the same kind of high-impact on the team as the players selected in last year’s draft. With so much negative response the ownership continues to receive for moving the franchise from San Diego to Los Angeles, the team needs to win immediately in order to start building a much-needed fan base.