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Not many current Buccaneers incite negative fan reaction like the mere mention of O.J. Howard’s name. Selected in the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft, Howard was expected to be the next big thing at the position, eventually joining the likes of Travis Kelce and George Kittle atop the NFL. For a myriad of reasons, that expectation has not become reality.

I don’t think it’s necessary to spend column space re-hashing in detail Howard’s career path. He was raw coming out of Alabama, flashed a bunch as a rookie, began to take off with an impressive 2018 season, got hurt 10 games in, struggled with injuries and a slow start under the Bruce Arians regime in 2019, then tore his Achilles after a hot start in 2020. The injury sidelined Howard for the final 12 games of the 2020 campaign and all of the postseason.

With the Bucs clinging to Howard’s fifth-year option, the rangy tight end has one more year to deliver on his promise. Yes, Howard has to stay healthy, which has eluded him over the course of his career. Howard has missed 20 of his past 48 potential games while never playing all 16 contests in one season. Yes, he’ll need to rebound from one of the more difficult injuries to come all the way back from in the NFL, especially when you add it to his previous nagging maladies.

But if Howard can do those two things, I still think a big year is coming for the Alabama product. What Howard showed in 2020 should give Bucs a ton of confidence that he can be a difference maker in Arians’ offense, especially with Tom Brady at quarterback.

The Growth Of Howard

Back in August 2020, I wrote the following about Howard’s game after an exciting offseason of growth, much of which the tight end credited to Brady.

Howard may have some inconsistencies, but he’s not a bust – nor has he played like a player on his way to becoming one. Yes, he needs to finish more consistently in high-degree of difficulty situations and he needs to brush up his routes in order to reach Round 1 level of play, but Howard has already put enough positive plays on tape to prove he isn’t just untapped potential. He’s a good player with the ceiling to become a great one.

As a receiver, two key areas Howard needed to grow were route-running and finishing tough catches. Increased physicality helped Howard in both of those areas, as he consistently worked through contact in his routes, using his size and strength to his advantage.

Chargers dime linebacker Kyzir White tries to jam Howard at the top of his route, but the towering tight end wards off the blow and accelerates for the touchdown.

Bucs TE O.J. Howard

Off the line of scrimmage, Howard bulls through a chip from outside linebacker Anthony Chickillo, then wins down the seam with ease. Only an underthrown ball from Brady prevents a big play.

This catch against Denver was one of the toughest grabs of the year, by any player. The concentration, the timing, the strength, the hands … just an awesome finish by Howard on a 50-50 ball. That will earn Brady’s trust in combat catch situations.

Bucs TE O.J. Howard

I think the most underrated part of being a receiver is catching low throws. It takes exceptional hand-eye coordination, balance and focus to dig out low throws while moving as quickly as you need to on a football field. Digging out low throws while getting hammered in the back is even more difficult. This is an overlooked, but exceptional catch from Howard back in Week 1.

Now, we are clearly talking about a ridiculously small sample size in 2020, as Howard caught 11 passes on 18 targets for 146 yards and two touchdowns before his injury in Week 4. I don’t think Howard will ever be elite at creating separation as a route runner, and he’s probably always going to have a few head-scratching drops every season. But his confidence, physicality and ability to win in contested situations was definitely better in 2020. That’s a big step in the right direction.

Blocking Still Coming Along

There is no doubt that Howard improved as a blocker last season, but there is still work to be done. As Howard told me before last season, a lot of the issues stem from his footwork, which should be fixable over time. It got him in trouble a few times last season, but Howard still posted a career-high Pro Football Focus grade as a blocker with a 62.8.

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

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

One of the advantages for Howard was playing as the No. 2 tight end outside of Rob Gronkowski on many of his 59 run blocking snaps in 2020. That gave him more ideal match-ups and less situations against defensive ends. Howard was also on the backside of a healthy percentage of run plays, allowing him to be an athlete and cutoff pursuit rather than move people off the ball. It was a better fit for him than blocking in 11 personnel as the lone in-line tight end.

Still, if Howard ever wants to be a true No. 1 tight end playing every down in this offense, he needs to be able to handle the blocking. The tight end is a critical part of the Bucs run game, which is why Gronkowski is such a good fit. If Howard has his sights set on a second contract in Tampa Bay, this will be the area where he really needs to prove himself.

Ideal Situation For Howard

Don’t get me wrong, it would be silly to expect an 800-yard season from Howard with all the Bucs weapons and the greatest tight end ever playing alongside him. But the situation is ideal for Howard to finally find stable footing in the NFL, especially in an offense well-suited for his skill set. Howard may never be a great cutter as a route runner, but in Arians’ vertical passing attack, he doesn’t have to be.

Lost in the struggle to pick up the entirety of Arians’ offense (especially the blocking) and the injuries is the fact that this offense is perfect for Howard. Four of Howard’s 11 catches last year went for 15 or more yards, including two over 25 yards. If he can continue to ascend as a blocker, he’ll be on the field enough to produce as a receiver. When that happens, big plays will follow.

Howard may not be the most explosive receiver in his first couple steps, but his long speed is deadly. With the match-ups the Bucs can generate for him in 12 personnel packages, linebackers are going to be no match for Howard down the field. It was an issue for teams over the first couple games last season, and it’ll be an issue again this year. Every time Howard is on the field, he’ll have the most favorable match-up on paper. And he’s way too talented for the opponent’s weakest link to handle.

Howard Hasn’t Been A Bust

In predicting a breakout year for Howard, it’s critical to remember he has not been a bust in his NFL career. There have been ups and downs, but we are still talking about a guy who has been highly productive on a per catch and even per target basis during his NFL career. Staying healthy has been by far the biggest thing holding Howard back. I wrote the following about him in a Bucs Briefing last year.

Bucs TE O.J. Howard

Bucs TE O.J. Howard – Photo by: USA Today

Since 2000, only 22 rookie tight ends have had more than Howard’s 432 yards in their debut season, and none have averaged better than the Alabama product’s 16.6 yards per reception. Howard’s six touchdowns are tied for the fourth-best mark for a rookie tight end in the past 20 years, another mark that shows how hot his start was compared to most at the position.

As a second-year player, Howard didn’t just look ready to break out – he did break out. Yes, he still made the occasional mistake, but the big tight end dropped just two passes and completely eliminated the fumbles that plagued him the year before.

In the meantime, Howard made the most of his 47 targets, catching 34 passes for a ridiculous 565 yards and five touchdowns. That’s an average of 16.6 yards per catch yet again for Howard, continuing to be a big-play machine in an offense where opportunities were hard to come by. Heading into 2019, Howard appeared to be on the cusp of breaking into the league’s Top 10 tight ends.

Before his injury in 2018, Howard was on pace for a 54-catch, 903-yard, 8-touchdown season through 10 games. Production like that would have immediately vaulted him into the conversation as one of the next great tight ends in the NFL. 2019 was an underwhelming campaign for several reasons, but Howard seemed to turn the corner late in the year. From Weeks 13-16, Howard caught 16 passes for 226 yards, including several big plays down the field. He finished the year with a respectable, yet underwhelming 34 catches for 459 yards, but scored just once.

Howard seemed to be on pace for a bounce back in 2020, with a 44-catch, 584-yard, 8-touchdown trajectory before his injury. In this Bucs offense, those numbers would have represented a big impact, without many balls to go around.

The 2021 season can be the year that 2020 would have been for Howard, with the obvious caveat that he needs to stay healthy. Yes, the wait for Howard to become a stud has been far more turbulent than anyone wanted it to be. But there is tremendous talent here, and the situation is perfect for the big tight end to thrive. Howard may never be the star tight end he was drafted to be, but the best is still yet to come for the first-round pick.

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About the Author: Jon Ledyard

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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eaustinyoung
3 months ago

Doubtful, and I was big on him when he fell to Tampa. His ceiling seems huge, especially as a large deep threat TE. But he has played an average of 10.5 games per season since being drafted. He has the non-contact injury curse which is next to impossible to overcome fully. Hope he proves me wrong. When they’re all humming and healthy, Gronk/Howard/Brate is easily the best TE trio in the league.

Naplesfan
Reply to  eaustinyoung
3 months ago

Your scientific opinion is that a “curse” is what ails Howard?
Superstitious fans are impossible to debate with.

eaustinyoung
Reply to  Naplesfan
3 months ago

Lets see. 2017: Howard suffered a high ankle sprain on a blow to his right leg as he went into the end zone in the 1st quarter against the Falcons. He spent the final 2 games on IR. 2018: Howard suffered unspecified injuries to his right foot and ankle on the same play in the 4th quarter of Week 11 and landed on IR. 2018: Howard sustained unspecified injuries to his right ankle and foot on the same play in the 4th quarter of Week 11. He missed the rest of the season. 2019: Howard was limited in Buccaneers’ practice… Read more »

DerLutz
3 months ago

I hope Gronk shows him some skills, so he can improve his play.
The toughest thing with Howard will be to decide to pay him next Offseason or not

Naplesfan
3 months ago

We’ll see. It is not unusual for eventual NFL stars to take a few years to reach peak performance. Like, oh, say Tom Brady for one. Or Ronde Barber for another. Or Travis Kelce, who averaged only 715 yards per season over his first four seasons, but doubled that in 2020 with 1,416 yards.

inspecto
Reply to  Naplesfan
3 months ago

Or Travis Kelce, who averaged only 715 yards per season over his first four seasons “
ONLY 715 yds ?? only that’s all.

Naplesfan
Reply to  inspecto
3 months ago

Apparently math is not your strong suit. 715 yards does not equal 1,416 yards. 700 yards for a tight end is pretty good for a tight end, mainly because most NFL teams don’t use their tight ends for much besides blocking Kelce plays for a team and a coach who loves to use tight ends, and he got more targets than anybody else on the Chiefs last season, even more than Tyreek Hill, considered by many to be the best wide receiver in the game. In 2020 a dozen starting tight ends produced 600-700 yards in receiving, so that’s nothing… Read more »

Last edited 3 months ago by Naplesfan
Horse
3 months ago

Okay Jon, I hear you. Here’s something you may not know about? You haven’t been here long enough to remember Luke Stocker whose path so far resembles OJ Howard path? Both have problems staying healthy; however there are a couple differences between the two. Stocker was a 3rd round pick who had a lot to learn while dealing with consistent nagging injuries; and he was paid way less than Howard. We let him go and the next team he went to, he stayed healthy. I can remember the conversations back then about “what’s wrong with our training exercise/weight lifting program”.… Read more »

toofamiliar17
Reply to  Horse
3 months ago

Any concern for Howard being healthy to start the season is based on a lack of understanding of his injury and a lack of knowledge of where he’s at in his recovery process. The recovery time range for an achilles tear is 6-9 months. It’s been almost 8 months since he tore his. Reports are that he’s running at full speed, has ample strength in his legs, and is at somewhere around 90% of his normal self. The start of training camp is still almost THREE full months away. Kickoff for week one will make just over 11 months since… Read more »

scubog
Reply to  Horse
3 months ago

Horse: Luke Stocker was a 4th round pick who, by the way, is still playing in the league. Not too bad.

German Buc
3 months ago

Kittle was a fellow draftee to OJ in 2017 – only 129 positions after him. So I doubt anyone hoped, OJ could be ‘joining (…) George Kittle atop the NFL‘.

Naplesfan
Reply to  German Buc
3 months ago

Well, excerpt that Kittle averaged nearly 1,000 yards a season his first three years, but last year he only started 8 games due to injury and ended up with just 634 yards. Injuries can impact anyone at any time, regardless of their talent or attitude. Also, the role any given tight end plays in his offense varies by extreme amounts. In Kittle’s best season on the 49ers, 2018, he got 1,377 yards – more than three times what any wide receiver on the team got. He was the centerpiece of the 49ers offense that season. In that same 2018 season… Read more »

toofamiliar17
Reply to  Naplesfan
3 months ago

Kittle didn’t have more than 3x the yardage production of any WR on his team that year, but yea, I’m with you overall. Great points.

Charlie
3 months ago

Boring, Steven Cheah came on to the Podcast a couple months ago and really laid out the deets for Howard’s 2018 season that Jon is enamored by…had to have wide open routes designed for him. Lapses in concentration constantly. Has made like 2 contested catches in his 4 years here. Yeah he can be a nice player. My biggest beef woth Jon’s TE analysis always has been that he wants to get rid of Cam Brate because he supposedly makes too much money. Well when the man has essentially had to step in for Howard every year, stop trying to… Read more »

toofamiliar17
Reply to  Charlie
3 months ago

The issue with Brate is that he’s an extraordinarily expensive insurance policy. Imagine buying a car for $25k, then paying $17.5k per year in insurance premiums for a policy that will replace that car if it goes down. Insurance, generally, shouldn’t cost you almost the same amount as a new car would out of your pocket, lol. And with Gronk here now, Brate’s value is even less than it ever was. Last season, despite taking over OJ’s snaps in week 4, Brate produced just 28 receptions, 282 yards, and 2 TDs at a cost of $4.25M. For similar production, the… Read more »

drdneast
3 months ago

I never thought Howard was a bust but I do think he has been overhyped by PR and other media types. It has also puzzled me how many question the money Cam Brate is making but don’t seem to feel the same way the oft injured Howard rakes in. What is even more puzzling is your comments about Howard’s blocking limitations. When he first came out of college all I read about was Howard’s ability to block because he went to Alabama. Now, not so much. When he came out all I read about Howard was the he was a… Read more »

eaustinyoung
Reply to  drdneast
3 months ago

No one complains about Brate’s contract because he’s reliable.

eaustinyoung
Reply to  drdneast
3 months ago

At least, no one with any logic complains about Brate*

Naplesfan
Reply to  eaustinyoung
3 months ago

Well, yeah, many do … because Brate can’t block. He is a fine receiving tight end, but OJ Howard, even though he is well below the skill level of Gronk when it comes to blocking, is far better than Brate at blocking.
A tight end who can’t block is like a running back who can’t run, or a wide receiver who can’t catch. In most NFL offenses, with only a couple of exceptions, the primary role of tight ends is to block for the quarterback and the running backs.

toofamiliar17
Reply to  drdneast
3 months ago

I’ve never had issue with us keeping OJ because all of his money has always been guaranteed. As a top 24 pick, the entire first four years of OJ’s contract were guaranteed the moment he signed on the dotted line. His 5th year option, which we picked up last season, was guaranteed for injury. In order for us to be able to have gotten out of the deal, he would have had to have passed a full physical on March 17 of this year (the first day of the league year). Having torn his achilles in October, that was impossible,… Read more »

Last edited 3 months ago by toofamiliar17
fredster
3 months ago

All the talent on the world doesn’t matter if you can’t stay healthy. Hoping just been bad luck and he can but doesn’t look good at this point.

James Taylor
3 months ago

Jon, the issue isn’t OJ Howard. He flashes some impressive talent and we were excited to see his connection with Brady from the start of the season. He could be a dangerous downfield weapon this year. But can you please stop trying to get Cam Brate cut? I know you are a transplant from Pittsburgh, but Cam Brate has just been workman-like and dependable from the time he came to this team. He has sure hands and he gets open and rarely fumbles. He makes key third down catches and seems to find the end zone despite not having elite… Read more »

inspecto
Reply to  James Taylor
3 months ago

” Also, he saved the Lombardi from falling into the river.”
That was worth $80,000 alone and saved TB from reticule .Keep Brate as he always comes thru.

Naplesfan
Reply to  James Taylor
3 months ago

Cam Brate is only a receiving tight end who is a poor blocker – the primary job of ALL tight ends in the league. Even Gronk, when hounded last season for a “slow start” in receiving replied, truthfully, that his number one job was to block for Tom Brady and the running backs. Nimrods who don’t know better mocked that response, but it only shows how ignorant they are of the NFL game.

lambeau
3 months ago

OJ was on with Pat McAfee today and seems to have a great attitude. He said he doesn’t view Gronk as a rival, but someone he can learn from. It seemed genuine. Plus, he laughed, he needed help with all the run blocking he was asked to do. Sounded very likeable and humble.

seat26
3 months ago

I think one of the issues with Howard, beyond that he has been hampered with injuries is that he has been in a room with so many other talents. Actually, he was a strange pick to begin with because Brate was so good. He definitely was not a priority need. His first year he shared catching duties with Brate and both players probably suffered from it. Once they brought in Gronk to please Brady, Howard’s fate was sealed, regardless of the injury problems, I think Howard is doomed. Too bad. Somebody is going to get a fantastic TE who is… Read more »

Naplesfan
Reply to  seat26
3 months ago

OJ is a much better blocker than Brate. Nimrods think the main job of a tight end in the NFL is to catch passes, but that is simply not true. The main job of a NFL tight end is to block. Any pass catching they do is a bonus.
Lots of NFL tight ends make a long career out of only blocking, with very modest pass catching records. As great a receiver as Gronk has always been, he loves to block as his first priority.

Barnz1
3 months ago

OJ has always been overrated dating back to his Alabama days. Scouts looked at his 40 time and size and made excuses for some lack of production in areas by blaming Alabama’s scheme and game plan. Years later when he has been healthy he still has drop issues, route running sloppiness and general lack of football IQ. He’s always been a what if case not a what he actually does. Availability is also the best trait in an athlete. Coming off an achilles injury is going to make it even harder for OJ. That is a career ender for many… Read more »

76 Fan
3 months ago

Bust.

Naplesfan
Reply to  76 Fan
3 months ago

Bullshit

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