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Tuls | TCU LB Travin Howard is the next valuable moneybacker

Photo by Matthew Pearce/Icon Sportswire

Scouting Notes

Tuls | TCU LB Travin Howard is the next valuable moneybacker

Over the years, the outside linebacker position in the NFL has evolved into a role where strong safety-linebacker hybrids can maximize production at that spot. Players like Deone Bucannon and Su’a Cravens are clear examples of this hybrid, but I think the “moneybacker” role also extends to undersized, athletic  linebackers who can run like Jatavis Brown, Telvin Smith and Shaq Thompson.

Versatility is king in today’s NFL. This is why players like Haason Reddick are picked in the top 15 of the draft now, because they can be a defensive match-up piece. As a result, this is where TCU senior linebacker Travin Howard comes into play.

Carrying a slim 215-pound frame and standing at just a shade over 6’0 tall, Howard is on a similar path to the aforementioned players with his elite production, range and cover skills despite his lack of size. Finishing ninth in the FBS with 130 tackles, Howard earned first-team All-Big 12 honors in 2016. Howard’s talent and versatility to play over all the field, especially in coverage, is what makes him deserving of a high draft pick next April.

For a large portion of the season, TCU played Travin Howard out of position. He was utilized as an inside linebacker, asked to consistently stack and shed blocks and fill holes. If you want to see what Howard’s strengths and weaknesses are, watch the Oklahoma game. He struggled to fight off blocks and finish because of his lack of overall strength and power.

However, he was able to disrupt the Oklahoma offense on the few snaps he played outside, where he was asked to roam and close. These were the snaps that showcased Howard’s strengths of sideline-to-sideline range and cover skills.

Whether on a blitz, dropping back in coverage, or chasing a play down the sideline, Howard has the skill set necessary to be a defensive chess piece. The problem is that he is the best linebacker on TCU’s defense by a wide margin, so he is asked to play inside by default.

For what Howard lacks in instincts, he is able to make up for it with incredible closing speed and explosiveness. Diagnosing the play itself has proven to be a bit of a learning curve, but when he sees it, he is a heat-seeking missile coming downhill. In addition, he is not overly wild or aggressive to the point where he takes an erratic angle or path to the football. In other words, he takes good, calculated risks.

Again, here is another play that showcases Travin Howard’s athleticism. Not only is he able to change direction and seamlessly make a lateral transition, but he is able to plant and explode through the ball carrier. This is where Howard excels in each game: competitive toughness.

Watch Howard’s tape and show me where he gave up on a play before the whistle because I could not find one. He is asked to stack and shed as a 215-pound inside linebacker each and every game, and even though NFL scouts know this will not be his role at the next level, Howard consistently plays with a high motor.

Playing outside maximizes and showcases his strengths, while playing inside maximizes and showcases his weaknesses. Nonetheless, his tenacity and motor have allowed him to overcome these limitations.

It is difficult to see on the broadcast view, but this play encapsulates why Howard is going to be such a hot commodity next April. He ran stride for stride with Jonathan Giles, Texas Tech’s best wide receiver last season, in man coverage. This versatility to kick out and play in the slot to cover tight ends and receivers alike is what the NFL is looking for in today’s outside linebacker/strong safety hybrid.

Again, this is why we have recently seen players like Haason Reddick and Shaq Thompson get drafted in the first round. It is a match-up league, and the more Howard is able to show this, the higher his draft stock will climb as a result.

Conclusion

The “moneybacker” presence on defense is only going to grow and evolve with the passing game at a premium in today’s NFL. TCU’s Travin Howard is next in line on a list of players who have gone on to have successful careers playing this type of role. He is a rangy, sideline-to-sideline player who can kick out to the slot and play in man coverage, or simply drop back and close quickly in Zone. No matter where the ball is, Travin Howard finds a way to be around it because of this athletic ability to fly all over the field.

With that being said, Howard has the skill set of a hybrid matchup piece at the next level. Does that mean he will be drafted in the first or second round, the precedent similar players have set? Only time will tell since there is still another season to be played, but based on the tape I have seen, there needs to be more hype for this Horned Frog.

Jonah Tuls

Tuls is one of the lead NFL Draft analysts for Draftbreakdown.com and has been a key contributor to several other NFL Draft sites in recent years. At Draftbreakdown, Tuls provides macro-oriented NFL Draft coverage, including comprehensive player rankings, mock drafts and big boards for the site. Tuls has worked with some of the NDT Scouting staff previously before; he worked with National Scout Jon Ledyard to form the core of USA Today’s Draft Wire site for the 2016 NFL Draft season. His work there was centered around draft reports, with additional analysis and breaking news efforts as well.

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