Nearly three decades after the Redskins selected him in the first round of the NFL draft, Desmond Howard is set to experience the NFL’s showcase offseason event in person for the first time.
Despite being a surefire top-10 pick in 1992, Howard, the former Michigan star and 1991 Heisman Trophy winner, hosted a party at his home in Cleveland rather than making a draft-day trip to New York City, where then-NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue announced teams’ selections in the ballroom of the Marriott Marquis. This year’s draft, which begins Thursday at the Cowboys’ 100,000-seat AT&T Stadium, will have a slightly different feel and draw quite a few more viewers.
“The draft was always big, but obviously everything has just gone off the charts with social media and all these networks covering it,” Howard said last week.
Howard will be a part of this year’s expanded television coverage, as ESPN’s popular “College GameDay” pregame show will make its NFL draft debut with shows Thursday from 5-7 p.m. and another Friday from 5-6 p.m. on ESPN2. Howard and his fellow “GameDay” hosts and analysts, including Rece Davis, Kirk Herbstreit, Lee Corso, David Pollack, Booger McFarland and Joey Galloway, will help supplement ESPN’s primary draft telecast with a more laid-back format that draws upon the insight and knowledge they’ve gained about players while watching them develop during their college careers.
“You don’t assume that these NFL fans really know a lot about these players, so we can come in and fill in the blanks,” Howard said.
Most NFL fans knew Howard after his Heisman Trophy season with the Wolverines. As the top offensive playmaker in the 1992 draft, the only question was how early he’d be selected. The Indianapolis Colts used the first two picks on Washington defensive end Steve Emtman and Texas A&M linebacker Quentin Coryatt. Then the Los Angeles Rams selected Pittsburgh defensive end Sean Gilbert. The Bengals were slated to pick fourth, but they traded the pick to the defending Super Bowl champion Redskins for the sixth and 28th picks in the first round. (Washington had acquired the sixth overall pick in a trade with the San Diego Chargers the previous year.)
“You always look for guys with no holes,” Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs, who called Howard with the news of the draft-day deal, told The Post at the time. “We looked at films forever on the top guys, and Desmond is one guy who had no holes.”
“Back then you could still keep a secret; nowadays, it seems everything gets leaked,” Howard said. “Obviously you’ve got reporters everywhere now. A lot has changed since then. When I got that call on the draft day, that the Redskins had traded up and they were going to pick me, that was a huge surprise.”
Howard grew up a Cowboys fan, but he was excited to join the NFL’s highest-scoring team, which was coming off its third Super Bowl title and featured established receivers Art Monk, Gary Clark and Ricky Sanders. It soon became clear he wouldn’t make anyone forget about “The Posse.” Howard had three catches for 20 yards as a rookie and scored his only touchdown of the season on a 55-yard punt return after catching a lateral from Brian Mitchell, with whom he split return duties. Howard had 63 catches over his next two seasons with the Redskins, who left him exposed in the 1995 expansion draft. The Jaguars took Howard with their 28th pick.
“It was a different experience, because these guys were accomplished, experienced,” Howard said of joining the Redskins. “Heck, they had just won a Super Bowl. It doesn’t get any better than that. My role wasn’t defined. Normally, a player drafted in my position is going to a team that needs his services immediately, and that wasn’t the case for the Redskins. It was a really odd and unique situation.”
After one season in Jacksonville, Howard signed with the Packers and led the NFL in punt return yards (875) and punt return touchdowns (3) in 1996. The finest moment of Howard’s NFL career came in that season’s Super Bowl, when he returned a kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown to win MVP honors in Green Bay’s 35-21 win over the Patriots. Howard played his last NFL game for the Lions in 2002 and joined ESPN as a college football analyst three years later.
It doesn’t change the fact that Howard failed to live up to expectations in Washington, but the 1992 draft as a whole was short on players who went on to become NFL stars. The Bengals took quarterback David Klingler and safety Darryl Williams with the first-round picks they acquired from Washington. Had Cincinnati not agreed to the trade, the Redskins were prepared to take Notre Dame tight end Derek Brown with the sixth pick. Looking back, Howard said he has no regrets about his time in D.C.
“I have very fond memories of my time in Washington,” said Howard, who played for three different coaches in his first three seasons. “It was a situation where I think because of Gibbs’s retirement [after the 1992 season], things started to spiral out of control. It’s not like I was the quarterback and didn’t play well and the team went south with my performance. We lost our leader, the great Joe Gibbs, and I think if you were a Redskins fan, that’s what you would have to say was where the downward spiral began.”
Looking ahead to Thursday, Howard mentioned fellow Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield as one of the players he’s most looking forward to seeing take the next step in his career.
“The one thing about him that I really like and appreciate more than anything is his resilience,” Howard said of the former Oklahoma quarterback, a projected first round pick. “He obviously has a lot of self confidence. He has some moxie. That’s good in college, but at this next level, these guys, they’ve got some moxie too. A lot of the theatrics, they get dialed back by guys on the other side of the ball. They’ll let you know; we play for keeps. This is the big time now.”
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