Alabama-Clemson showcases second-tier NFL draft prospects

In a national championship game that featured some of the top defensive prospects in the nation, a low-scoring contest was inevitable, right?

Not so fast, my friend. It was offense that took over in Alabama’s 45-40 victory on Monday night to claim the national championship.

Another curveball: most of the huge names, outside of Derrick Henry and Deshaun Watson, were kept pretty well in check. A low-key prospect — Alabama tight end O.J. Howard — stole the show.

With some mild tight end classes in recent years, if Howard decides to commit, he would add a second or third solid name to the list of depth at the position, with Jordan Leggett on the Clemson side opting to return for his senior season.

While Howard has been under-utilized over the past few seasons in Tuscaloosa, the talent has always existed. Low usage meant that Howard was not a lock to declare early for the draft. However, with his showcase on Monday, he now is a good candidate to do so.

Even in the Cotton Bowl against Michigan State, Howard made some crucial plays that helped create that win, but against Clemson, Howard was in another world. He has good speed, but he complements that skill with the ability to get open and run effective seam routes. Howard’s route-running acumen was displayed in the title game — it’s a must for a tight end in the NFL. The only question is if Howard is a solid enough blocker at the next level. Even with this, he made an important block on a long touchdown run by Henry.

On the Clemson side, likely first-round defensive studs Shaq Lawson and Mackensie Alexander were not able to live up to the pregame hype, due to injuries. Lawson, who lived in opponents’ backfields during the season and led the nation in tackles for loss, lacked the explosion he needed to make a huge difference in the title game. This was due to a knee injury that cost him most of the Oklahoma semifinal game.

Alexander was slowed by a hamstring injury in game preparation and left in the first half. Jayron Kearse, a hopeful second- to early third-day safety in the draft, was also a non-factor most of the night, further fueling his doubters.

Another first- to second-round talent — Derrick Henry — did not disappoint. The Heisman winner reaffirmed his workhorse identity with 36 carries, after a more limited role against Michigan State. While Henry runs hard, and is quick through the hole as a one-cut back, asking him to do more than that is not an option at the next level. His speed is outstanding for his size, as he showed on his 50-yard touchdown run, but his lateral quickness is not anywhere near elite for the pros. Even in a worst-case scenario, Henry will certainly be above average in the NFL in the red zone.

While there is only an outside chance that he will declare for the draft, one of the more underrated players on the Clemson offense is running back Wayne Gallman. While he struggled to solve that strong Alabama front seven, Gallman has extremely good burst. What he was not able to get through tackles (with just a 3.2 average), he got on the outside as a receiver. He was also able to use his field vision to find the end zone on a one-yard run against the Tide front. He also showed his athleticism on a long run going across the field after a devastating spin move.

Finally, here is the name we all knew we’d talk about in draft prep: Jake Coker. Wait, maybe not so much, but Coker has been very solid during the Tide’s title run, and will at least be a player teams will want to see at the Combine. While he does not have the pure arm that other prospects do, Coker has been extremely efficient for the Tide. He even took on an offensive leadership role.

After throwing over 200 yards only six times in the regular season, Coker tossed for 286 and 335 in the two playoff games, respectively. He has also been accurate most of the season, completing 67 percent of his passes for 21 touchdowns (4 in the playoff) to only eight interceptions. While Coker is fighting just to get picked in the draft, the playoff became his masterpiece. A very strong showing featured two of his three highest quarterback ratings of the season. If he is not picked, Coker is now in a strong position to get an NFL job in camp at least, something that did not look likely a month or so ago.