Paul Domowitch: Pencil in undrafted Austin Howard as one of Eagles' offensive linemen

Kevin Kolb drops back to pass in first half against Bengals.
Kevin Kolb drops back to pass in first half against Bengals.
Posted: August 21, 2010

CINCINNATI - Very few NFL teams buy their offensive tackles at Kmart anymore. Peruse the league's depth charts and you'll find that most of the starters at that position are high-round blue bloods.

Of the 32 Week 1 starting tackles in the NFC last season, 25 were selected in the first four rounds of the draft, including 14 first-rounders. Only four of those 32 starters entered the league as undrafted free agents.

Which brings us to Austin Howard. The 6-7, 333-pound rookie from Northern Iowa, who signed with the Eagles after getting snubbed in the April draft, has been one of the revelations of the summer. Final cuts still are 2 weeks away, but you are on very safe ground scrawling in this kid's name as one of the eight or nine offensive-line survivors who make the 53-man roster.

Howard has played nothing like a wide-eyed undrafted rookie out of a Division I-AA school. He has held his own in training camp against the likes of Pro Bowl defensive end Trent Cole, and has played very well in both of the Eagles' first two preseason games, including last night's 22-9 loss to the Bengals.

His lone gaffe last night came late in the third quarter, when he gave up a sack to Bengals defensive end Carlos Dunlap on a third-and-3 at the Cincinnati 23 that forced the Eagles to settle for yet another David Akers field goal. Otherwise, he did a good job handling the second-round rookie.

"He's looked very good," one Eagles scout said. "Early in camp, Trent beat him a couple of times. Since then, he's done a good job against Trent. He's done a good job against everybody he's faced."

The Eagles need Howard to be good. While most of the preseason concerns about the offensive line have been focused inside - where center Jamaal Jackson is trying to come back from a torn left anterior cruciate ligament, and right guard Stacy Andrews is trying to prove he isn't a high-priced bust, and left guard Todd Herremans spent the first couple of weeks of camp on the physically unable to perform list after tweaking his surgically repaired left foot in the spring - they are not without questions on the outside.

Jason Peters is a talented enigma wrapped in a questionable work ethic. He can play as well as any left tackle in the league 1 minute and roll over and play dead the next (see: playoff game against Cowboys).

Right tackle Winston Justice did a decent job last season, but has he plateaued, or will he continue to improve? Backup tackle King Dunlap probably won't survive final cuts.

"I'm just taking it day by day," Howard said. "Working hard and trying to do the little things the coaches ask you to do and just trying to work hard. You can always be a lot better. Rookies tend to get better every day. Hopefully, that'll be the case with me."

Watching him play this summer, it's hard to figure out how this kid didn't get drafted in April. Maybe it's because he's played tackle for only 2 years, switching from tight end after his sophomore year. Maybe it's because he played at a Division I-AA school. Maybe it was his minor knee problem in his senior year. Maybe it's all of the above.

He appeared on the Eagles' radar early in his senior year. Eagles assistant Juan Castillo's son, Greg, is a cornerback at the University of Iowa. He was in Iowa City last August when Northern Iowa almost upset the Hawkeyes before losing, 17-16. Howard shut down Iowa's top pass-rusher, Adrian Clayborn. When he got back, Castillo raved about Howard to Eagles general manager Howie Roseman.

"He was a good athlete," Roseman said. "A converted tight end. So we knew he could move his feet. He's got long arms, which you need on the outside. And he's got a great position coach. Juan does a great job of working with these young guys. The ones that have talent like [Howard], combine that with the teaching he's getting and you can see an application of that out on the field."

Howard was a tight end his first 2 years at Northern Iowa, but moved to tackle after starting tackles Brandon Keith and Chad Rinehart graduated.

"[Playing tight end] was fun while it lasted, but [tackle] was where I needed to be," Howard said. "I just kept getting bigger and bigger, and got stronger in the weight room. I just fit the role [of a tackle]."

Despite playing at a smaller school, Howard never doubted he was good enough to play in the NFL. Northern Iowa scheduled Division I teams, including Iowa, Iowa State and BYU, and Howard always held his own against the tougher competition.

Still, he went into the April draft prepared for the possibility he might not be drafted.

"The more expectations you have, the more disappointment it can lead to," he said. "I just went in there with the attitude of, if it happens, great. That'd be a blessing. But if it doesn't, as long as I get a shot. The way it turned out, I really couldn't be any happier with where I landed.

"I've pretty much had the underdog mentality my whole life. It's no different here. I'm working hard and not taking anything for granted." *

Send e-mail to pdomo@aol.com.

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