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.
“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.
“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.