Tytus Howard walked into the Alabama State football offices last week and was greeted by a large action photograph of himself in his Texans uniform as his alma mater unveiled an eight-foot high mural to pay tribute to him as the highest draft pick in school history.
The Texans' 2019 first-round draft pick and starting offensive lineman was back on campus as the historically Black college and university honored him for his accomplishments.
“It felt pretty good to be back," Howard said. "When I was a freshman, I came in as a walk-on. We would always look at all the NFL draft picks, they had a mural on the wall and stuff like that. I always told myself that one day I wanted to be there. So, they called me and said, ‘Hey, Tytus, we’ve got a surprise for you. We need you here for the spring game.’ When I came down, they surprised me with the mural on the wall, and it was just such a huge accomplishment.
"It was just good to go back and kind of give back my knowledge, my experience has been in the NFL to some of the players. They had recruits come in, I got a chance to speak to a couple of players coming out of high school. Just going back and let guys know that it really doesn’t matter where you go, where you come from. If you put the work in, be consistent, the sky is the limit for you guys."
A former high school quarterback and walk-on who gained 100 pounds to emerge as an NFL draft prospect and Senior Bowl all-star game standout, Howard is a former all-rookie selection who has started anywhere from left tackle, right tackle and left guard.
Although there's been considerable debate on where Howard should ideally line up with him garnering much higher blocking grades as a tackle than at guard, Howard has never stated a clear preference. He has simply lined up wherever the coaches ask him to operate.
“I think if you’re versatile, I think it just gives the coaches more leeway to certain players they might want to bring in, or certain plays they want to run, thinking about me being versatile the way I am, being able to put me at guard or tackle," Howard said. "I think it just helps the team in general and it helps me because I get a chance to know all the plays and what everyone has to do, so it’s only going to make me play faster when I’m out there.
"As far as position-wise, I’m really just going to playing wherever the team deems me the most valuable, whether it’s guard or tackle. I’ve been working out this offseason to become a better player in both, so I feel pretty comfortable playing both.”
Howard has started all 37 games he's played in since his arrival in Houston.
At 6-foot-5, 322 pounds, Howard plays the game with aggressiveness, physicality and a growing understanding of how to best harness his power into blocking strategies.
"Tytus Howard, he can play tackle, he can play guard," Texans coach Lovie Smith said. "The more things you can do, absolutely, the more valuable you are to us and for your stock in general. I think if you have your profile right and you are picking big athletes, small athletes, guys that with a certain skillset, they can do more than one thing. So, that’s definitely the case.”
Howard explosively fanned his left leg out at an angle while raising his hands and setting up in a compact blocking stance, looking natural and comfortable during his NFL regular-season debut last season at the pivotal left tackle position against the New York Jets.
A former starting right tackle, Howard stepped into a position of need with two-time Pro Bowl left tackle Laremy Tunsil sidelined on injured reserve after undergoing thumb surgery to repair a torn ligament.
Although Howard did get bull-rushed by Jets defensive lineman Ronald Blair, shoving him into the backfield, for one sack of quarterback Tyrod Taylor as the Texans lost 21-14 as the team collectively allowed five sacks and eight quarterback hits with seven tackles for losses, Howard got high marks from an analytics standpoint and from the coaching staff.
Howard was the highest graded Texans player with an overall 79.4 Pro Football Focus grade Although Howard was one of the lowest-rated guards in the NFL this season with a 43.7 overall grade, including a 41.5 run blocking mark and 57.3 pass blocking grade, he graded out much higher at left tackle, a position he played as a rookie in a preseason game against the Green Bay Packers.
At left tackle, though, against the Jets, Howard had an 86.4 pass blocking grade as the sack allowed to Blair was the only glaringly bad play.
Wherever Howard winds up playing next season, which could hinge on what the Texans do in the draft, the Texans are confident in his abilities.
"First off, you have a player that is a team guy where it doesn’t matter, like Tytus," Smith said. "Our conversations, ‘Where do I need to play to help the football team?’ We have two outstanding coaches (offensive line coaches George Warhop and Hal Hunter) that have been doing it for a long time with a great coordinator (Pep Hamilton).
"We will figure it all out. I’ll just tell you he will be out on the field somewhere. Talk about those big athletes? He’s a big athlete. If we had five guys like that, we would be pretty happy. If this is a problem, we like this problem that we have.”
At 6-foot-5, 322 pounds, Howard has the requisite size, strength, athleticism and nasty temperament to play tackle.
Signed to a four-year, $12.225 million contract that includes a club fifth-year option the Texans are figuring out if they're going to pick up, Howard was much healthier last eason. A year ago, he endured a rough offseason that included recovering from knee surgery to repair a torn meniscus, a procedure to repair a broken finger, and dealing with no offseason practices due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Howard anticipates a hard-nosed approach from Hamilton to try to improve drastically at running the football.
“I think the mentality of the offensive line with coach George Warhop, we’re going to be way more physical," Howard said. "Nothing against our past coach, but I think we’re going to be physical up front. I think with Pep, his offense, we pride on being able to run the football. We didn’t run the football well last year, so I look forward to being able to run the ball real well every game.”
As the Texans prepare to draft in the first round for the first time since he was selected, Howard recalled how it felt to hear his name called and realize his newly-minted status.
I was in Georgia at the time of the draft, I remember my family at home, probably 25 people from my family together with me because I didn’t go to the draft," said Howard, who was selected by former Texans general manager Brian Gaine. "My agent (Peter Ariz), we all just had a pretty good get-together. I’m just sitting out with family, having a good time, and I just got the phone call:‘Hey, Tytus, we’re going to take you with the 23rd pick,’ and I went down to tears because it’s one of the most memorable, exciting times of my life. I’m completely grateful for the Texans giving me a chance to come here and play professional football, because you’re getting paid to play a game that honestly I would play for free.
"Not saying I will play for free, let me put that out there. I love football, so I don’t play it sometimes because of money, but I play it because I love the game. It’s been pretty good. I always like to watch it because I like to see the reactions of the guys, see their families, their moms, the dad who spent all that time raising them the right way to see their kids take a step forward to get money and stuff that changes the whole generation. It’s always a blessing for that to happen, so I like watching the draft.”
Howard provided some advice for the Texans' incoming rookie draft class: listen and learn. “I would tell them just come in and get as much knowledge as they can from the guys like me, or the guys who have already been here and just be yourself. When I came here, I would get a whole bunch of knowledge from all the guys who were around," Howard said. "But I prided (myself) on being myself and just learning from the older guys and trying to find a way to learn from them, but kind of create my own style of how I want to be, what type of player I wanted to be and the type of things I wanted to go about. It's a high expectation. When you come in here, you’ve got to perform, especially as a first round pick. I would just tell those guys just come in, be themselves, stay focused. It’s going to be a grind, but they’re going to be okay.”
Aaron Wilson is a Pro Football Network reporter and analyst and a contributor to Sports Talk 790.