JACKSONVILLE – A tight end in the Top 5 of the NFL Draft is early – as in, historically early.
That's a big reason why Todd McShay called projecting Alabama tight end O.J. Howard to the Jaguars with the No. 4 overall selection in the 2017 NFL Draft "a tough call."
McShay, one of ESPN's more prominent draft analysts, projected Howard to the Jaguars there in his 2017 NFL Mock Draft 3.0, which was released Wednesday. McShay projected Texas A&M defensive end Myles Garrett to Cleveland at No. 1 overall, Stanford defensive end Solomon Thomas to San Francisco No. 2 overall and Louisiana State safety Jamal Adams to Chicago at No. 4.
Howard at No. 4 would be the earliest selection for a tight end in the history of the NFL Draft. Fourteen tight ends have been selected in the Top 10, and Riley Odoms to the Denver Broncos at No. 5 overall in 1972 marked the earliest selection ever for the position.
"It might be a stretch to have a tight end go No. 4," McShay said, "but when you look at this year's class – from a character standpoint, to the maturing that he [Howard] went through, the ability to stretch the field vertically, the ability to create after the catch and the improvement he has undergone as a run-blocker and even pass protection at times …
"I think O.J. Howard is one of the most complete prospects [in the draft]."
McShay said Howard also improved his status at the Senior Bowl in January and at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis in February.
"He nailed the process," McShay said. "I think he has a chance to be a really big difference-maker at the next level at the tight-end position. Jacksonville needs to get better weapons around [quarterback Blake] Bortles for him to have success – protection, pass-catchers and run game."
McShay said he could understand the Jaguars selecting LSU running back Leonard Fournette for the same reason, and that he leaned offense over Alabama defensive lineman Jonathan Allen for the Jaguars because of the team's need to improve offensive weapons. Allen has been widely projected to the Jaguars at No. 4 if available.
"I could see Allen going No. 4 to Jacksonville," McShay said.
McShay also said he has trouble projecting quarterback to the Jaguars at No. 4 – partly because no quarterback merits being selected so early and partly because he believes current starter Blake Bortles can improve on last season.
"I wouldn't rule it [selecting quarterback No. 4] out completely, but I really think Bortles is going to be back next year," McShay said. "I think he'll be healthy and hopefully he can get a couple of the mechanical tweaks that he was working on earlier [in his career]. I thought he had worked [them] out, but he clearly regressed last year.
"My guess is they would draft a quarterback at some point, but I would not expect them to use the fourth overall pick."