"The surprise of our camp has been Austin Howard...he's gotten better every week." If former Jets general manager Terry Bradway is to be believed, the right tackle that we have been waiting for since Damien Woody's retirement may have been hiding in the depth of the Jets roster for almost a year. I began writing this piece a few days ago, way before news of Wayne Hunter's benching made the rounds on Twitter. The tune of this piece was going to be that Howard has the potential to eventually develop into a starter. "Eventually" has now turned into two weeks, as Austin has only a few days to ready himself for week 1 of the regular season, against Mario Williams and the Buffalo Bills. Take the jump to get to know the big man from Northern Iowa.
Brief Biography: When you are 6'7'' and 333 pounds, opportunities in athletics will probably find you whether you like it or not. The Davenport, Iowa native graduated from Davenport Central High School, and stayed local for college at Northern Iowa, which recruited him as a tight end. Given his giant frame, he also got an opportunity to play forward on the university's basketball team, but scored only 1.6 points per game in 15 total minutes of playing time. On the football field, Howard was barely 300 pounds at the time, far smaller than he is today but nevertheless too heavy to play tight end. He didn't get many targets until 2007, when he started all 13 games and caught 5 passes for 38 yards and a touchdown. He eventually gained weight and shifted to offensive tackle, a position that he excelled at quickly. He became a good tackle for the Northern Iowa Panthers, even gathering some (lukewarm) pre-draft love from draft sites. However, his name was not called on draft day in 2010 and Howard signed with the Philadelphia Eagles as an undrafted free agent. He played in four regular season games in 2010, even starting one (against Demarcus Ware and the Dallas Cowboys). Needless to say, his match up with Ware did not go smoothly. Ware had 3 sacks that game, and beat Howard countless other times. The Eagles decided to bring in a new offensive line coach following that season, and Howard slimmed down to better fit the new scheme. Regardless, he was cut from the Eagles during final roster cuts and found his way on to the Baltimore Ravens practice squad, from where the New York Jets signed him on November 23, 2011.
Why should he be given a chance? Austin Howard should be given a chance for the same reasons that he is being given a chance: the ineptitude of Wayne Hunter. Aside from getting an opportunity because the Jets were simply fed up with his predecessor, Howard is an absolute giant, measuring in at 6'7'' and 333 pounds, and combines his excellent size with good athleticism. As a former tight end and a former basketball player, he displays good mobility and balance, and handles his frame very well. When he was matched up with Demarcus Ware (a nightmare for even the top tackles in the league), he was completely overmatched but never looked very lost, a problem that often plagues Vladimir Ducasse and Wayne Hunter. His technique needs work but it looks like he generally understands his role.
Things to Improve On: As mentioned before, Howard's main flaw is a lack of refinement. He is still a little raw and his technique certainly still needs work, but this may be a problem that is fixable with increased game action. I noticed that he has repeatedly been beaten because he does not use his hands enough, and sometimes does not finish his blocks. This is something that can be fixed with good coaching.
NFL Resume: Austin Howard emerged as an intriguing player for the Philadelphia Eagles in the 2010 preseason, and went on to play in 4 regular season games for them that year, starting one. I mentioned before that he was 'lucky' enough to draw Demarcus Ware as his assignment. Lets just say it didn't go well, but he is hardly the first player to be dominated by Ware. If you want a really detailed account of Howard's day against Ware (and I mean, really detailed), check out Bent's awesome "BGA" column over at TJB. This preseason, he played well against the Cincinatti Bengals in the Jets' first game, only allowing one hit of the QB through 3 quarters. His play took a slight dip against the Giants, but he was over at left tackle so the results aren't as relevant.
How he fits into the Jets' 2012 plans: At this point, it looks like Austin Howard will be the Jets' starting RT when they open the season against the Buffalo Bills. He won't be the starter because he earned it, but rather because Wayne Hunter lost it. Rumor has it that the Jets are still looking for an upgrade at the position, and it would not surprise me if a trade goes down sometime next week. For now however, Howard is the starter and will be given every opportunity to keep that position. For the Jets, Howard succeeding would be the optimal situation. He is cheap and has upside, two commodities that are highly valuable in this league. It would also mean that they could retain any draft picks or players that would otherwise be utilized to upgrade the position through trade. For Austin, it is obviously the opportunity of a lifetime. He has a genuine shot at becoming a starter on a Superbowl contender (yes, I said it...a team that plays in the AFC Championship Game twice in three seasons can be considered a contender). He will be a cog on a line that is otherwise very experienced and very solid, next to a right guard (Brandon Moore) that can cover many of Austin's deficiencies. If Howard doesn't play up to his potential in the next few weeks, the Jets won't hesitate to trade for a veteran tackle, perhaps with the Detroit Lions or any other teams with a surplus of offensive linemen. His time is now, but if doesn't take advantage the Jets won't sit around waiting for him.
To conclude, I leave you with this note from Austin Howard's Twitter:
"Excited and very blessed to have this opportunity w the
#Jets. I am determined to give my 110% and continue to get better every single day."
Sound off Gang Green Nation, what do you expect out of our new starting right tackle this season?