As we inch closer to the 2023 NFL draft, I’m going to be conducting a series of interviews with a focus on draft prospects that have been tied to the 49ers through pre-draft meetings or official top 30 visits.
I will kick this series off by highlighting Minnesota defensive back Jordan Howden, who is currently scheduled to have a top 30 visit with the 49ers in Santa Clara.
Howden comes with an abundance of experience playing against power five competition, starting 49 of his 58 career games for the Golden Gophers. He is also extremely versatile, recording over 150 snaps at free safety, strong safety, and slot corner during the 2022 season.
No matter where Howden played on the field, production followed. In his career at Minnesota, he recorded 240 tackles, with 168 of those being solo tackles, to go a long with 20 pass deflections and four interceptions.
Here are some of the testing numbers that he posted at the NFL Scouting Combine last month:
40-yard dash - 4.49 seconds
10 yard split - 1.55 seconds
Vertical jump - 33.5 inches
Broad jump - 9’ 11’’
He also has a family connection to the 49ers that can be traced all the way back to the origins of the 49ers dynasty. His uncle Saladin Martin won a Super Bowl ring with the 49ers in 1981, playing in 16 games as a defensive back for the squad that kick-started the glory days with their triumphant win over the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl 16.
I asked Howden if his uncle's experience in the league has helped him on his own journey as he prepares to make the leap to the NFL:
“As I started getting more into football, transitioning into high school and college we ended up talking more about his experiences. How he got his ring, how hard it was, how coaching was, and how different the rules are now compared to back then, we talk about a lot of things like that”
But Martin isn’t the only member of his family who played defensive back at a high level, as his father Ramsese Howden played cornerback at Grambling State. We talked a bit about how his father and uncle’s mentorship has played a role in his football journey:
I feel like I learn from experience, so once you hear perspectives from people who have played at a higher level than you, and they give you their insight, you don’t have to do what they did necessarily but hearing different things from different people and what experiences they had, giving you tips on how to play the game and stuff like that, I feel like that gives you a better chance when you get to that point in your own life.
Given the lineage of defensive backs in the family, I asked if that was something that came about organically or if his dad and uncle had some influence on his decision to play on the defensive side of the ball:
Growing up everybody is a running back, everybody plays offense. As we start getting into that seventh grade, eighth grade year, my dad is telling me playing defensive back people last longer. It’s the harder position but it’s art once you really get it down. I was playing offense but i started liking defense because I like hitting and communicating with the guys. They weren’t forcing me to play defensive back but they were giving me a bit of a heads up.
Howden did mention there was a level of excitement from his dad and uncle once it became apparent that he would be the one to continue the defensive back legacy in the family:
“Once I got it down pat and all the little techniques in there when you’re at a young age, as I started getting better and better, that’s when you see the excitement in both of them. Like I said that wasn’t forced but they were definitely expecting me to want to play that position.”
One area where Howden truly shined during his time at Minnesota was his ability to seamlessly excel, regardless of where he lined up in the defensive backfield. Despite not seeing a drop-off at any particular position, I was curious to know if there was a specific spot where he felt like his skill set would be maximized.
I prefaced my question by acknowledging the inherent value of being not only versatile, but also being open-minded to play any position. These players have to answer questions in a way that reflects their willingness to buy in to whatever the teams that are contemplating drafting them envision for their future with those respective franchises.
Having said that, I asked Howden if there was anywhere in particular that he felt most comfortable and this is where a team is going to get the best version of him:
“If you watch my film I do play all over, I’ve always been that type of dude, like if a coach needs me to play this position i’ll go play it. But since you don’t want me to say that, I would probably say strong safety. I’ll play both of them but I like strong safety because I like being in the box, and sometimes you do get to play in the post and be able guard people. So I feel like that’s where I played my most snaps at, but I also played nickel and free.”
Howden played over 3,000 defensive snaps during his time at Minnesota. I asked him about his experience in the Big Ten and how playing in such a physical conference helped his development as a player:
“My freshman year I came in at 170, skinny. You get out there and you see all these big guys and you’re like “Dang, can I play with them?”. But at the end of the day it’s all about mental, it’s all about your heart, and how much passion you put into the game.
So when I was transitioning and listening to my strength coaches and getting my body right, lifting, being able to get my muscles up. Following the meal plan, knowing what to eat and what not to eat, I feel like all of that goes into the transformation on the field and that has definitely helped me.
Last year I felt a big difference, I feel like the weight I played at last year was probably the best weight I played at since I’ve been in college. So I give props to the people at the University of Minnesota for helping me get to that point.
He then mentioned how the resources at Minnesota also aided his mental growth as well as the physical growth:
“Being in the film room, the coaches, the defense and things like that I feel like thats definitely help me see the even game faster so I can react to the ball, and be able to make plays and just have fun”
That last part really stuck with me during our conversation. In such a brutal and physically demanding sport, you have to have moments where you can have fun. The passion and dedication that is required to play such a physically and mentally demanding sport is often overlooked.
So as we talked at length about the passion that he has for the game, I asked Howden a very open-ended question. What does the game of football mean to you? His response:
“Getting into college there will be some times and days where they’re going to be hard, you got school, you got distractions outside the facilities, and sometimes you do forget the reason why you play the game. Sometimes I think to myself about why I play the game and the reason why I got to this point.
With the film room and getting better with my body, it makes me feel more confident out there, and to be able to think about how I used to play in little league. Just go out there and tackle people, score touchdowns, just have fun.
Like I’m playing with my cousin in the backyard, its still football its just at a higher level. When i’m on the field it allows me to react and be able to have fun at the same time. To be able to do your job but still have the joy of being out there with people who are on the same page as you, and be a good role model for my little brother and other people out there who would like to play the game as well.”
He then touched on how much he values the camaraderie, and why the bond between teammates is the most special part of playing this game:
“When you’re out there and you make a play and your whole team is excited, or your teammate makes a big hit, or somebody gets an interception, or a stop on fourth down, there is no better feeling than that and no better feeling than that, especially playing on defense.
That gives me the joy and the happiness, just being out there with a group of men that don’t know each other and came together and formed a team, I feel like that’s probably the best thing about football. Forming a team with people you don’t know, and you get to go out there and play with and fly around.
While Howden was a standout on the field, he excelled in the classroom as well, earning All Academic Big Ten honors in four consecutive years from 2019-2022. I was eager to hear how he was able to balance the heavy workload that comes with being a student athlete in a power five conference, and what led to the incredible success he had in both areas:
“My mom was always adamant that if i didn’t have the grades there was no football, and I have that passion for football. So if I have no grades, there is no football and then everybody is mad in the house. We don’t want that happening so i’ve always had that mentality as a student athlete, make sure i’m right on the field and right in the school. I feel time management is one thing that i’ve always been good at, knowing this time is for school, and then the other time is for studying film, plays, and getting my body right.”
As we continued our conversation, I wanted to hear a bit about how he felt about his own game. I don’t like the connotation that comes with the word ‘weakness’, so instead I asked him about what area of his game in particular that he thinks he needs to work on the most to successfully make the transition to the NFL:
“Coming off of this season, I feel like getting my angles down pat, getting out of my breaks a little bit faster, going for the ball a little bit more aggressively. I definitely think those things can be the difference between getting a PBU or a pick and things of that sort. That can change the game, and can help you play this game for eight to ten years. So if I can excel at everything else that I feel i’m pretty solid in, and be able to capitalize on that then I feel like it will help me to play for a long time.”
I then flipped to the other side of the coin, and asked him what areas of his game he is the most confident in right now:
“My tackling is pretty decent, that’s probably my biggest strength. Being able to cover in the slot and to be able to recognize plays. Recognizing a play before it happens, thats one thing i’ve consistently been working on the last couple of years, especially with my defensive coordinator. If we are all on the same page and we know what is coming within the formation, within the personnel groupings, it just makes you play faster and allows you to make plays and have fun.”
On a team as stacked as the 49ers are, it can be difficult for a young player to make the roster, let alone get snaps regularly. Typically, it is required that a player bring something to the table on special teams if they are to see the field in San Francisco during the start of their NFL careers.
I asked Howden about his level of comfortability playing special teams, and he shared he had extensive experience getting special teams reps during his time at Minnesota:
“When I first got there as a freshman I was a quad teamer. I was on kickoff return, punt return, kickoff coverage, punt coverage. We have a great special teams coach at University of Minnesota, he shows us examples of the league and how they do it in the NFL. Being there for five years I definitely took away a lot that can help me at the next level. Even as my special teams role decreased as the years went on, I still always listen and take in the points of emphasis for special teams that will help me play a long time in the league.”
I wrapped up our conversation by asking Howden one final question. What is a team, an organization, and it’s fans getting if they draft Jordan Howden?
“You’re getting passion for the game, someone that loves football, and loves being a role model. Someone that is a great person on and off the field. I bring a lot of passion, a lot of brotherhood to the game. I’ve been playing this for a long period of time, this has always been my dream to play in the NFL and to be almost at the point of what i’ve been working towards this whole time. They’re going to get everything out of me, i’m going to be a great teammate and put it all out there on every single play.”