South squad tight end O.J. Howard of Alabama (88) runs on the field during the player introductions of the Senior Bowl NCAA college football game, Saturday, Jan. 28, 2017, at Ladd-Peebles Stadium in Mobile, Ala. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

Butch Dill

MOBILE, Ala. – The top prospects at premier positions rarely start their draft cycle at the Senior Bowl, either because they're an underclassman who is ineligible to play or because they don't want to hurt their sky-high stock.

A few players every year, though, make the trip to Ladd-Peebles Stadium anyway, like Sheldon Rankins, who made an impression on the Saints in Mobile last year and ended up being the No. 12 pick, the first defensive tackle off the board.

The best tight end in the 2017 draft is hoping he mirrors Rankins' success. Alabama tight end O.J. Howard, a freakish athletic specimen who has widely been projected as the best player available, showed up and dominated a week of practices for the South team. 

"I love to compete, and I felt like it was a great opportunity to come out here and play around great competition," Howard said. "I had a lot to come out and prove, and that's why I took it." 

A tight end with Howard's dimensions and athleticism rarely has something to prove. 

Howard measured in at 6 feet, 5 5/8 inches and 249 pounds, and he runs like a man much smaller. 

"O.J. is one of those players, if you put all the numbers in the computer and said, create a tight end, he would be your prototype," Senior Bowl executive director Phil Savage said. "He's got the body, the athleticism, the speed."

Howard felt like he had something to prove because he wasn't always given a full opportunity to be a primary receiver at Alabama.

Despite all of his physical gifts, Howard never caught more than 45 passes or picked up more than 602 receiving yards in four seasons with the Crimson Tide. 

Savage, who doubles as a color analyst for Alabama games in the fall, believes the situation wasn't right for Howard to truly shine from a statistical perspective. 

"Alabama this year, of course, played a true freshman quarterback this year with Jalen Hurts, and the tight end, that's obviously the middle of the field. I felt that, in some ways, they focused on getting the ball outside to (wide receiver) Calvin Ridley, Ardarius Stewart," Savage said. "That impacted some of his production there, in my estimation." 

Howard lived up to the billing in Senior Bowl practices, looking like a wide receiver trapped in a defensive end's body.

But even though his time at Alabama might have cost him a few dozen catches in his career, those four years also prepared him better than most tight ends for the NFL game.

Due to the proliferation of spread offenses at the collegiate level, tight ends who possess both receiving and blocking experience are hard to find. Howard opened his career at Alabama as a receiver, but the Crimson Tide's run-heavy scheme also gave him a lot more experience as a blocker than most tight ends will have. 

"Every year I put on a little weight, I got a little smarter as a player, technique-wise, so each year I got better at the blocking game," Howard said.

Making the trip to Mobile paid off for Howard, who solidified his spot as the draft's tight end. Most draft experts expect Howard to come off the board somewhere in the top 20, as the first tight end taken overall. 

Howard appears to have proven his worth. 

"If he's not the top tight end, I'd like to see who the other guy is," Savage said. "The Miami junior (David Njoku), the underclassman that came out, he doesn't have the pedigree or the resume that O.J. had." 

Follow Joel A. Erickson on Twitter, @JoelAErickson.