At this weekend’s rookie mini-camp, when asked about the Cardinals’ depth at safety, Steve Wilks indicated that he and his coaches are intrigued and pleased with what they are seeing from the group. Earlier in the week the Cardinals released FS Harlan Miller (2016 6th round pick) and having released former icon Tyrann Mathieu at the start of free agency, the Cardinals have only three returning players at safety: FS, Antoine Bethea; SS Budda Baker; and FS Rudy Ford.
For Steve Wilks to be pleased with the depth at the safety position, that would mean that he and defensive backs coach David Merritt are high on the UDFAs they brought in. Wilks and Merritt were very involved in identifying the top undrafted safeties and it would appear that he found a potentially promising one in A.J. Howard from Appalachian St.
Howard’s bio from the App St. website is as follows:
2017: Started all 13 games at strong safety, bringing his career total to 38 starts in 51 game appearances (every game as a freshman, junior and senior – two players who have played in the NFL or appeared in an NFL camp were the starting safeties in 2015) … Also a key member of several special teams units ... Finished the season with 66 tackles (41 solo), one interception, 2.5 tackles for loss and eight passes defended … Made a stop on a catch at the 1-yard line seconds before time expired in a 20-13 win at Texas State, which had started its drive at its own 1-yard line … 61-yard interception return to the Georgia State 5 helped the Mountaineers take a 24-7 lead in a 31-10 victory … Had seven solo tackles (five in the first quarter) as App State limited run-oriented Georgia Southern to 191 total yards in a 27-6 win … With Howard playing an important role, App State’s defense ranked first or second among Sun Belt teams in both points allowed per game and yards allowed per game in each of the last three seasons.
2016: Started all 13 games for Appalachian at strong safety … Part of an App State defense that was sixth nationally with 20 interceptions in 2016...App is third in the FBS over the last two seasons with 38 total interceptions...App was 11th nationally in pass efficiency defense in 2016 and was 31st in passing yards allowed...ranked sixth on the team with 57 tackles (43 solo, 14 assists) … recorded a season-high seven tackles in the season opener at Tennessee … snagged three total interceptions, all in a span of four weeks … his first career interception came at Georgia Southern (Oct. 27) … second interception came just two weeks later at Troy (Nov. 12) with a 71-yard pick-six, also his first career touchdown … posted his third interception inside the Appalachian State end zone versus ULM (Nov. 19) … tallied at least two tackles in every game he played, including six games of five tackles or more … notched four total pass breakups, two against Georgia State.
2015: Appeared in 13 games for the Mountaineers at strong safety, with Doug Middleton and Alex Gray starting every game… 10th on the team in tackles with 35 (22 solo) ... recorded at least two tackles in nine of 13 contests … notched a season-high six tackles at South Alabama … tallied a tackle for loss against Howard, Georgia State, Georgia Southern, Troy and South Alabama … recorded half a sack at USA … notched a pass breakup at ULM.
2014: Started all 12 games as a true freshman at strong safety ... ranked third on the team and 37th in the Sun Belt Conference with 64 tackles ... 64 stops were good for eighth among all Sun Belt freshmen ... 64 tackles were the most by a true freshman at Appalachian State since Lanston Tanyi recorded 70 stops as a rookie in 2008 ... also recorded 2.5 tackles for loss, two pass breakups and a forced fumble ... tallied at least four tackles in 10 of 12 games ... opened career with seven stops at Michigan ... had four tackles and forced a fumble at Southern Miss ... recorded eight tackles at Georgia Southern ... amassed 13 tackles in overtime loss to Liberty — the most tackles by an Appalachian State defensive back since Corey Lynch had 13 stops against Montana State in the second round of the 2006 NCAA Division I FCS playoffs (Dec. 2, 2006) ... 13 stops against Liberty included a tackle for loss ... made six tackles and was in on a stop behind the line of scrimmage during win at Troy ... also had six tackles in come-from-behind win over ULM ... combined for seven stops in back-to-back impressive road wins at Arkansas State (three tackles) and Louisiana (four tackles).
In summary---Howard was a dynamic 4-year player at App St. who thrived in their stingy defense. Highly productive performer for four straight years.
In terms of measurables, A.J. Howard’s numbers are not that far off from Budda Baker’s and Tyrann Mathieu’s.
Howard (5-10, 203) ---4.50 40---24 reps---32.5” VJ---7.06 3 cone.
Baker (5-10, 195) ---4.45 40---15 reps---32.5” VJ---6.76 3 cone.
Mathieu (5-9, 186) ---4.5 40---4 reps---34” VJ---6.87 3 cone.
When you watch Howard on tape, he exhibits some Budda-esque qualities. He has a nose for the football, both versus the run and versus the pass. He makes quick decisions and breaks on the football. Ever the aggressive tackler, Howard has a knack for taking ball carriers out at the shins.
App St. played A.J. Howard much like Washington played Budda Baker---moving him around depending on the situation from SS, to slot CB to FS. The short video here features his play in all three roles:
Like Budda Baker, A.J. Howard should be able to make his presence felt immediately on STs.
Howard wasn’t getting much notice until his pro day. After running a 4.5, benching 24 reps and sporting a 32.5” vertical, several teams met with him, including the Rams, Chargers and Titans. One Titans’ scout told Howard that his pro day performance would get him drafted. The Lions and Matt Patricia brought him in for a private workout.
The Cardinals were right there in full force at Howard’s pro day. App St. alum Steve Wilks was anxious to see how Howard would do and offensive line coach Ray Brown was there to work out two of the offensive linemen, RT Beau Nunn and G Colby Gossett.
Wilks, a former DB at App St., likely sees a little of himself in A.J. Howard. For Wilks to return to his alma mater as an NFL head coach and to recruit App St.’s top DB has all the makings of a football odyssey.