The NFL and the NFL Players Association have come to an agreement on how to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, and NFL training camps have opened up across the country, including in Tampa Bay. PewterReport.com offers up its analysis of each position on the Buccaneers as new quarterback Tom Brady and his teammates prepare for the 2020 season.
Table of Contents
Rob Gronkowski | Age: 31 | NFL Exp.: 10th season | 6-6, 268 O.J. Howard | Age: 25 | NFL Exp.: 4th season | 6-6, 251 Cameron Brate | Age: 29 | NFL Exp.: 6th season | 6-5, 245 Antony Auclair | Age: 27 | NFL Exp.: 4th season | 6-6, 256 Tanner Hudson | Age: 25 | NFL Exp.: 3rd season | 6-5, 239 Codey McElroy | Age: 27 | NFL Exp.: 2nd season | 6-6, 255
On a team with two productive tight ends, nobody was expecting the Bucs to add a third pass catcher to their room, especially one that could dwarf the others’ impact this season. But that’s what happened on April 21, when, in less than an hour, Gronkowski un-retired and was traded from the New England Patriots to the Bucs along with a seventh-round pick in exchange for a fourth-round pick.
Bucs TE Rob Gronkowski – Photo by: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
After his rookie season, Gronkowski spent every year of his career as Pro Football Focus’ No. 1 ranked tight end, until the 2018 season which was waylaid by injury. The future Hall of Famer then made the surprising decision to retire, only to return to action this spring once his long-time buddy Tom Brady landed in Tampa Bay.
Gronkowski will join Howard as the team’s top two pass-catchers at the position, and it is no surprise that Bruce Arians has been verbally excited about the potential of both players. Since Howard entered the league three seasons ago, the top two tight ends with 100 targets or more in yards per target are Howard (first) and Gronkowski (second).
That means that the orchestrator of one of the most vertically aggressive offenses the NFL has ever seen now has two of the most successful vertical weapons at the tight end position in the league. Howard started slow under Arians last year, but picked things up nicely over four of the final five weeks of the season.
The Alabama product needs to take his route-running to the next level and consistently finish in combat catch situations, but Howard appeared to be on his way to stardom in 2018. Howard has logged 400 yards in each of his three seasons in the NFL, in addition to totaling 12 touchdowns, and all the talent is there for him to breakout again this season.
As for Gronkowski, some believe his best days are behind him, and while that may be true to some degree, it’s naive to believe that one year away from football to get healthy will render Gronk as a middle-of-the-road tight end. He’s never been reliant on transcendent athleticism to win, yet he’s been more successful than any other tight end in NFL history. And don’t forget he’ll have more immediate chemistry with Brady than anyone else on the Bucs roster.
Bucs TE Cameron Brate – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
Where Gronkowski might provide the biggest lift to the Bucs’ tight end room is as a blocker. He’s been one of the best in the NFL over the course of his career, where Howard, Brate and Auclair all struggled last year. If the Bucs are to restore a once-proud rushing attack, the blocking at tight end must improve. That could be one of the reasons Gronkowski leads the room in snap counts early on in the season.
Keeping at least four tight ends may be the smart move for Tampa Bay, as Auclair has upside as a blocker that the team seems enamored with, while Brate is ol’ reliable in the short-intermediate game as a receiver. He was Jameis Winston’s favorite red zone target with 27 touchdowns over the last five seasons, including four last year, he may become that valuable to Brady near the goal line, too.
Hudson and McElroy have both had a cup of coffee in the league as well, with McElroy snagging a 30-yard strike from Winston against Houston in Week 16 last year. He played just three snaps to Hudson’s 103 however, and the odds are long for either player to crack the final roster. Hudson starred in the preseason last year, leading all NFL receivers with 27 targets and 19 catches for 245 yards and three touchdowns, but he failed to come close to that production in the regular season.
Tampa Bay will run more 12 personnel – two tight end sets – in 2020, and that means the Bucs will keep at least four tight ends on the 53-man roster. Barring an injury, Gronkowski, Howard, Brate and Auclair seem to be set, with Hudson and McElroy vying for the practice squad.
Camp Battle To Watch: Brate vs. Auclair
At first glance, this may not look like much of a battle, and not just because the Bucs are likely to keep both players on the final roster. But while Brate is certainly the more accomplished of the two players and probably offers more as a receiver, the only time he would likely see the field in 2020 is if he’s splitting time with Howard or playing in 13 personnel (one running back, three tight ends, one wide receiver).
Bucs TE Antony Auclair – Photo courtesy of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers
I’m expecting Gronkowski and Howard to be the clear-cut top two tight ends on the team, which means three tight ends sets could be Brate’s path to playing time. The problem there is that teams hardly ever throw out of 13 personnel, which means that the better blocker of the two, Auclair, would be more likely to play in those situations.
That leaves Brate as an odd-man out, unless Gronkowski or Howard can’t stay healthy, which is a valid concern as both players have struggled with injuries before. Brate is a solid player who can definitely help a team, but Tampa Bay is so talented at the position that I’m not sure where exactly he will steal some reps.
Given that the Bucs already asked Brate to take a pay cut to stay in Tampa and that the team seems content with their tight end room, the Harvard graduate seems unlikely to be on the trading block. The Bucs will boast impressive depth at tight end this season, a campaign that could very well be Brate’s last in Tampa Bay.
The Sleeper: McElroy
I don’t expect McElroy to make the final roster, but could he stick around on the 16-man practice squad? There is no question he has the size and talent to be an intriguing developmental prospect despite his inexperience and lack of polish.
Bucs TE Codey McElroy – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
The 6-foot-6 pass catcher was a 19th round draft pick of the Atlanta Braves after playing baseball for one year at the University of Texas, played in the minors for two years and then walked on at Oklahoma State to play basketball – and he made the team. From there McElroy played a year of football at Southeastern Oklahoma, catching 14 passes and getting signed as an undrafted free agent by the Los Angeles Rams. After a brief stint with the Cowboys, McElroy has been with the Bucs since last season, earning three snaps and catching his aforementioned lone target on the season.
Codey McElroy just made his first NFL catch. His story is wild: -Played baseball at Texas. Was drafted by the Atlanta Braves -Played two years in the minors before going to play basketball at Oklahoma State -Went undrafted out of SE Oklahoma State -Activated by Bucs on Thursday pic.twitter.com/gkGuA3zRNc
You can see the basketball background in McElroy’s game, which is always intriguing with a quarterback like Brady who loves his tight ends in the red zone. McElroy will obviously need a few breaks to make the roster, and at 27 years old his upside is probably pretty limited, but he’s certainly made the most of his opportunities in life so far.
Jon Ledyard is PewterReport.com's newest Bucs beat writer and has experience covering the Pittsburgh Steelers as a beat writer and analyzing the NFL Draft for several draft websites, including The Draft Network. Follow Ledyard on Twitter at @LedyardNFLDraft