Bucs Briefing rolls on with our in-depth look at the 2019 tape of each key member of the Bucs 2020 roster, turning the page to the team’s returning tight ends this week: O.J. Howard, Cameron Brate and Antony Auclair.

Joining me to break down the promising trio is a familiar face: former Pewter Report beat writer and current Draft Network analyst Trevor Sikkema. Y’all are almost certainly already following him, but if you’re not, make sure you smash ‘follow’ on @TampaBayTre for all the best memes in the Twittersphere.

TE O.J. Howard – 6-6, 251 – 25 years old – 4th season

When Alabama tight end O.J. Howard fell to the 19th overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, many people were surprised, but not many expected the Bucs to select him. The value was too good for Jason Licht to pass on however, nabbing Howard to join a star-studded cast of weapons that would include Penn State wide receiver Chris Godwin two rounds later.

A certified athletic freak with rare size, speed and length for the position, Howard wasn’t heavily utilized in ‘Bama’s passing game, but always impressed when he was targeted. That’s basically been his exact same story in Tampa Bay’s offense, leading all NFL tight ends in yards per reception and yards per target since he entered the league three seasons ago.

A big-play machine with 28 of his 94 career catches going for 20 yards or more, I agree wholeheartedly with Sikkema that the perception of Howard as a “disappointment” or “bust” is solely in comparison to unrealistic expectations for what he would be this early in his career.

“I don’t think ‘struggle’ is the right word to describe Howard in the NFL so far,” Sikkema said. “It’s not totally incorrect, but the perception of Howard has a lot to do with pre-draft expectations, where we saw this incredible athlete who was 6-foot-6, 250 pounds. Because of how alluring Howard was as an athlete and how strong he already was as a blocker coming out of Alabama, people were already penciling him in as destined to be a Top 5 tight end by year two or three before he ever played a down in the pros. He hasn’t turned into that.

Bucs TE O.J. Howard – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
Bucs TE O.J. Howard – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR

“Now, he hasn’t been ‘bad,’ either. His yards-per-reception continues to be very high, as it has been every year he’s been in the league. It just seems like Howard doesn’t have the focus or the killer edge that was supposed to elevate him to a level of one of the league’s best by now. One play he’ll make a great catch in traffic or take a quick pass for an extra 20 yards up the sideline. But then on other plays he’ll just bobble the ball or not look as strong on a block as one would expect from a three-year pro. But that last part is why the word ‘struggle’ isn’t completely false either, because he clearly has the talent to be more, he just isn’t consistent in his execution yet.”

Howard enters the fourth year of his career having endured almost a year’s worth of trade rumors and the acquisition of perhaps the greatest tight end in NFL history in Rob Gronkowski. Still, the Bucs have been adamant about their belief in Howard, with his play late last season likely inspiring them to take a deeper look at how he can be maximized in Bruce Arians’ offense moving forward.

The reality is that Arians and Howard quietly had something going toward the end of the 2019 regular season, but then Mike Evans and Godwin got hurt, and Jameis Winston fell apart soon after. Although Howard caught just 34 passes for 459 yards and one touchdown in 14 games last season, 16 of those catches for 226 yards came during Weeks 13-16.

Howard isn’t one of these big, athletic pass catchers whose traits never show up on tape. When he’s targeted, those traits show up big time. His highlight reel is up there with the best tight ends in the NFL not named George Kittle, Travis Kelce or Zach Ertz. Some games, Howard has looked like he could take over, like against Jacksonville this past season, where he caught five passes for 61 yards, a few of which were big-time plays.

Two years ago, Howard couldn’t run routes like this, and although his route-running is still somewhat inconsistent, it’s a clear sign that he is heading in the right direction. Looking inside relaxes the defender, who thinks he’s in position. That allows Howard to break outside and open up a huge window. He clearly has not just the 40-yard dash speed, but the play speed to run away from defenders. Good job hanging on to the ball on a late throw that allowed the window to close, too.

This has been one of the hardest routes for Howard to master – running an out against off coverage. Against Jacksonville he did a pretty good job of keeping the pattern vertical and breaking at more of a direct angle in order to maximize what isn’t a big throwing window. If Howard had his pads out over his toes when he releases off the line of scrimmage, that defender would show more respect for him as a vertical threat and back off. But despite Howard’s upright release, it’s a good break at the top of the route and a clean finish on the ball through contact.

To give out an idea of Howard’s out-route struggles, here’s two more examples that didn’t end so well.

No vertical push, high pads, the defender sits on top of him waiting for the break. Because Howard hasn’t opened up much space with his release due to not moving at full speed or selling vertically with low pads, his break is slower and easier for the defender to match.

The Falcons defender (Ricardo Allen) already has outside leverage on this play, so in order to create space, Howard should manipulate his opponent’s position with an inside fake or body lean at the top of the route. Instead the tight end’s break is rounded off without any deceptive body language or footwork, allowing the defensive back to read the throw easily, break cleanly and knock the ball away.

Out route rabbit trail aside, Howard has clearly grown as a route runner, and in his ability to physically maneuver through contact in his routes. Those are two big steps for the young pass catcher, and if he can keep becoming more consistent, Howard has the potential to dominate in the vertical passing game.

Inside release, crosses the face of the defender, bullies through the jam, sheds contact down the field, sharply breaks off the corner route and finishes by beautifully tracking the ball over his head. That’s Round 1 stuff.

Avoids the jam with a quick swipe, uses that 4.5 speed to get vertical down the seam, then finds and adjusts to the ball with a good high-point finish. Again, this is high-level, big-time stuff.

“Howard is best at just being a mismatch,” Sikkema said. “He’s too fast for most linebackers and too big for most safeties. He’s a potential mismatch somewhere on every drive against almost every team. So, in that sense, he’s best at being a better athlete than most defenses can handle.”

How many tight ends do you see hit a double-move and create several yards of separation on a vertical route? There are probably only five tight ends in the league who can stop and start that fast – maybe less. This ball is overthrown, but Howard is a certified freak. If he can start corralling some of these high-degree-of-difficulty catches, his game will reach the next step.

Bruce Arians loves to run this Y-Leak concept off play action, and Howard’s speed makes him the perfect candidate for it. Texans linebacker Zach Cunningham does a nice job of recognizing and running with the route on this play, but Howard fails to adjust and elevate to try to make a play on this ball. It’s not his fault the pass falls incomplete on the underthrown ball, but the big dogs elevate and make this play – working back through the trailing defender to at least get a DPI call.

The speed to get down the seam this fast and the extension to snag this ball with defenders closing on him is impressive, but Howard can’t hang on as Budda Baker rips the rock away. Again, it would be a difficult catch, but the big dogs finish these in the NFL. This is what Howard was drafted to do.

Those are the big-time, tough catches that Howard can start making with more regularity that will move him closer to the top tier of tight ends in the NFL. The good news is that not only does Howard have the talent to get there, but he is also not just raw potential with no production. The guy has made plenty of big-time plays in the NFL, and he’s done it for three years now.

Yes, there are still things that need to improve. Outside of Howard’s consistency as a route runner, working through press coverage and finishing tough catches with greater regularity, the tight end’s blocking has really been disappointing early in his career. Billed as pro-ready in the run game coming out of college, Howard hasn’t been the asset the Bucs hoped he would be.

With a great blocking tight end like Gronkowski in the fold, along with Auclair’s development, Howard’s struggles as a blocker won’t be as big a deal this season, but in order to become a complete tight end, he’ll need more consistency in that area.

Bucs TE O.J. Howard - Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
Bucs TE O.J. Howard – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR

“What he needs to work on would be consistency with his hands when catching and his consistency with blocking,” Sikkema said. “It just seems like he either doesn’t focus as much or just doesn’t play with as much of an edge to be at his best play-in and play-out. His ceiling isn’t in question, it’s a consistency issue.”

Injuries stopped Howard from establishing himself as one of the better receiving tight ends in the NFL in 2018, and in 2019 his focus wasn’t there early in the season, while also struggling to pick up a new offense. Excuses, reasons – whatever you want to call them, the Bucs decided to keep Howard not just based on what he can be, but also because of what he already is. He’ll add an important dimension to Tampa Bay’s passing attack with or without Gronkowski on the roster, and his ability to be a seam-buster with an elite seam thrower in Tom Brady is only going to add to his breakout potential this season.

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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

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DavePick6FireLichtMovementDmanhoopscam Recent comment authors
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hoopscam
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hoopscam

Think you’re not giving Brate his due in your article, Jon. The dude has 26 touchdowns in the past 5 years. I’d say he’s more than succeeded with the amount of playing time he’s been given the past two years. He’s under used and underrated. Hopefully this year he’ll be used more with Brady throwing to the TEs more. Go Bucs! Rate this item:Thumb UpThumb DownSubmit Rating00 No votes yet. Please wait...

Dave
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Dave

Thats 5 TD’s per season. Outside that fluky 9 TD season, he has 17 TD’s in 4 seasons. His stats outside that one fluke season, have been miserable. He’s just not very good. Clearly the 3rd best TE on this team. He’s slow and can’t block. I’d he shocked if he got 1/4 the snaps. He should only see the field on some key 3rd downs as a 2nd TE, or maybe in the red zone as a 2nd TE , hoping the opponent ignores him because of the other weapons. Other than that, we have no use for him… Read more »

bucballer
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bucballer

Not very good! Come on now! Brate is a solid NFL TE and he has played well for the Bucs! Kid is smart and knows how to find the soft spot to exploit the defense. He has been nothing but money for the Bucs! Especially in the red zone. To say he’s not that good… well… that’s just ignorant. Brate has been solid. He did have that hip issue that he had to bounce back from. But who hasn’t had to deal with injuries in this league. Brate is exactly the kind of TE that Brady loves! Smart, runs good… Read more »

Spitfire
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Spitfire

There no such thing as a “Fluke” successful season. You’re really gonna sit there on your couch in front of your phone and reduce all of the hard work Brate out into that season, risking injury and busting his butt, getting 9 TDs as just a “Fluke?” That’s pretty disrespectful man. He broke out just before Howard came on and shared in the playing time. I wouldn’t simply call it a “Fluke” Rate this item:Thumb UpThumb DownSubmit Rating00 No votes yet. Please wait...

Dave
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Dave

First off, what does him putting in his best effort and busting his ass have to do with his TD total being fluky? Calling it fluky is correct. Ask anyone that has ever watched, played, or followed football and they will ALL tell you that TD’s are fluky and random to year. They just are. You can have Rojo have a 28 yard run and get caught from behind at the 1, then have Dare come in and get the 1 yard TD. It’s even more random from a good but not great TE that’s used heavily in the red… Read more »

Theerealdiehl
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Theerealdiehl

@Dave first off, bet you wouldn’t call Brate “fluky” to his face haha. Second, I think you’re forgetting the point of football – to score more than your opponents. Brate has been our best redzone target for the last 5 years. That amount of consistency should count for something to you. If not, all the thumbs down on your posts will. “Ask anyone that has ever watched, played, or followed football and they will ALL tell you that TD’s are fluky and random to year”. I think 26 TD’s in 5 seasons from a position that is under utilized in… Read more »

hoopscam
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hoopscam

Couldn’t agree with you more Theerealdiehl. Dave doesn’t know football. Seems like he’s got some weird thing against Brate that certainly isn’t justified. He doesn’t seem like a Bucs fan to me. Rate this item:Thumb UpThumb DownSubmit Rating00 No votes yet. Please wait...

Dave
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Dave

And you do know something about Football? Lol I actually don’t have anything against Brate. I like him, and think he’s solid. I’m just not a biased homer that thinks every single player that plays for the Bucs is a HOF’er. He’s a good but not great TE. That’s what he is. He’s slow, can’t block, can’t get any yac, and his average NFL season consists of 40 rec 425 yards, 5 TD’s, catching just 66% of his passes. You want to anoint that a great TE, go right ahead, apparently I have more common sense than that. Rate this… Read more »

Dave
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Dave

First off yes I would. Secondly, He’s been our best red zone target for the last 5 years? Incorrect. That’s been Mike Evans by a country mile. But sure, convince yourself it was Brate. And the thumbs down mean nothing to me. Because I’ve learned over the years, Bucs fans just do what everyone else does, with the exception of a few of us. Someone could post I hate Coke Zero, and if someone sees 10 likes, they don’t want to be the one to not like it, so they will too. See you’re not allowed to criticize any Buc… Read more »

FireLichtMovement
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FireLichtMovement

“He’s just not very good.” Dave I agree with most of what you say, but this assertion is just not very good. Brate is a red zone weqpon. He may not be able to run the seam route better than Gronk and OJ, but the guy knows where to sit down in zones and offers a Jason Witten type security blanket.. I’m not saying he’s Witten, because Witten was an excellent blocker and was a target monster in his heyday, but you can see a little Witten when he runs routes and understands defenses. Of all people, I didnt think… Read more »

Dave
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Dave

FireLicht. See everyone is completely 100% missing the point. I’m not saying he sucks or can’t play, but good god man, let’s for once not be complete homers and call it like it is. He’s good not great. If he was our best TE, and didn’t have anyone else, I’d want to draft another one. Because in this league you’re usually either a great blocker, or a great receiving TE. He’s neither. He’s certainly a solid pass catcher with good hands, but by no means is he elite. If he was our starting TE, he’d be in the bottom 3rd… Read more »

FireLichtMovement
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FireLichtMovement

@Dave I was responding to you saying he was not very good. I’m in no way saying he’s great. Hes a starter on a lot of other teams. What efficiency stats btw? He could be more than a part time TE, but when you have Howard, and now Gronk sitting in front of you, you’ll have a hard time getting on the field. Before Gronk, OJ was a first round pick and Brate an undrafted free agent. Howard was going to get all the chance in the world to succeed because of his draft status. It’s also not a fact… Read more »

Dave
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Dave

Well my original post was in reply to the first post that I didn’t agree with. Which stated, he doesn’t get his due based on 27 TD’s, and that he’s more than succeeded given the playing time he’s gotten the past 2 years. And also that he’s underused and underrated. Which I replied to, because I don’t agree with any of it. He hasn’t gotten his due because he’s gotten 27 TD’s over a 5 year span? Being a great TE is more than just being the open target near the end zone. And saying he’s more than succeeded given… Read more »

bucballer
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bucballer

I, totally agree hoops! 26 TDs speak for themselves. If O.J. had 26 TDs at this point in his career we would be saying he was an all world TE! Rate this item:Thumb UpThumb DownSubmit Rating00 No votes yet. Please wait...

FireLichtMovement
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FireLichtMovement

FOR REFERENCE EVERYONE! Brate has 27 TDs the last 5 years, and his best season was 8! Thought it should be mentioned lol Rate this item:Thumb UpThumb DownSubmit Rating00 No votes yet. Please wait...

bucballer
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bucballer

Strong unit these Buc’s TE are! Look for O.J. to take that next step this year. Call it the Brady effect if u will. Also, like the TE Tanner Hudson kid. In preseason he caught everything thrown at him. Kid has skills. He just needs the opportunity. A guy like Brady can make a career for a guy like Hudson just by deciding to throw to the kid if/when giving opportunity. If kid continues to catch balls thrown to him by Brady then perhaps Brady will keep throwing the ball to him! See how that works. Kid is a good… Read more »

Captain Sly
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Captain Sly

Howard’s production would be much higher if we actually had a QB who could deliver a proper pass. Most of the clips that you’re highlighting shows Winston’ throws Off Target. Brady is one of the most accurate passers in the history of the game so expect OJ to breakout this year! Rate this item:Thumb UpThumb DownSubmit Rating00 No votes yet. Please wait...

bucballer
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bucballer

Yep! True dat! Rate this item:Thumb UpThumb DownSubmit Rating00 No votes yet. Please wait...

DerLutz
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DerLutz

For me the biggest question is still Bruce Arians. Last year we talked about “he never had a TE like Howard or Brate” but the result was a big disappointment. Hopefully Brady can change something, but as much as I am optimistic for the coming season, with the TEs I want to see it before I believe it Rate this item:Thumb UpThumb DownSubmit Rating00 No votes yet. Please wait...

Dman
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Dman

Brate’s production dropped off because he was slotted behind a RD1 pick, not because he didn’t or couldn’t perform. And despite listing his physical shortcomings, all the guy did was catch TD’s and first downs when he was the starter. Our investment in this position makes no sense. If the Bucs were that confident in Howard, Brate would already be gone. Either way, I expect Brate to do well when given the chance. Rate this item:Thumb UpThumb DownSubmit Rating00 No votes yet. Please wait...

Spitfire
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Spitfire

I honestly feel like the person who will benefit the most from Gronkowski, besides Brady, is Howard. Having both of them being large, blocking AND pass catching TEs, they could be just like Gronk and Hernandez were. Basically the same kind of TEs being able to do both, Howard will hopefully learn how to do them both well from Gronk. If Howard clan learn how to focus and be confident like Gronk, they could team up to be the best TE duo in the league and leave Howard to hold it down after Gronk is done. The possibility of having… Read more »

Dman
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Dman

You could be right and let’s hope so for the Bucs sake. I’ve soured on Howard because I just don’t think he loves to play, or that he’s just a superior athlete but not a great player. Guys with all the athleticism where the sentence always starts with how much potential they have lose me after a while. Rate this item:Thumb UpThumb DownSubmit Rating00 No votes yet. Please wait...

AlexanderNascimento
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AlexanderNascimento

Auclair plays a lot of special teams, I believe his roster spot is secure Rate this item:Thumb UpThumb DownSubmit Rating00 No votes yet. Please wait...

BigSombrero
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BigSombrero

OJ can’t catch. Hands of stone. Plus, as pointed out in the article, he runs upright and stiff. In essence he looks like Tarzan but plays like Jane. Brate is a more natural pass catcher, even if he isn’t as fast. He also doesn’t have the fumbling problem that OJ has. I’ve always wondered how Auclair stays on the roster. Rate this item:Thumb UpThumb DownSubmit Rating00 No votes yet. Please wait...

Dman
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Dman

Yup, it’s just that simple. But Howard is a RD1 pick and looks like he was chiseled from stone of what a football player should look like. He just doesn’t play like one. Rate this item:Thumb UpThumb DownSubmit Rating00 No votes yet. Please wait...

Architek79
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Architek79

Jon – Thank you for breaking down the TEs in this write-up and the detailed analysis. I think I clearly see why Arians and the coaching staff piped down the utilization of O.J. last season as it is a detriment if he can’t really sell the routes and make himself a legit threat when he’s on the field. I hope he’s working on these details to refine his game in a contract year! Rate this item:Thumb UpThumb DownSubmit Rating00 No votes yet. Please wait...

Pick6
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Pick6

Gronk is the best thing that could happen to OJ. He will improve OJ’s technique and focus, and extend the guy’s career a bit also Rate this item:Thumb UpThumb DownSubmit Rating00 No votes yet. Please wait...