There’s a perception around O.J. Howard that he’s been a bust, or at least is heading in that direction. I don’t think it’s even a perception commonly expressed by Bucs fans, but rather those in the national media and fantasy football fans, many of whom took one look at the tapered, 6-foot-6 frame of a tight end with 4.51 speed and assumed he’d be the next big thing at the position.
While Howard hasn’t lived up to expectations that were far too lofty (he was scarcely utilized in the passing game at Alabama, and had precious few reps against defenders in man coverage), he’s been far from a bust, or even a disappointment.
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.
That isn’t to say Howard was great as a rookie; he struggled in the run game and fumbled three times on 26 receptions. He had his typical rookie ups and downs, while still producing far better than most at a position that is typically extremely slow to acclimate to the NFL.
Bucs TE O.J. Howard – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
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.
There’s no getting around the fact that Howard was a disappointment last season. He struggled to pick up a new offense that even Bruce Arians admits is complex for tight ends, and didn’t show up to camp as physically or mentally prepared as he has this offseason. The result was a slow first six weeks of the season, then a hamstring injury put Howard on the shelf for Weeks 8 and 9.
When Howard returned from injury however, he was ready to make an impact again. 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. He also struggled with drops and wasn’t an impact player after the catch either.
It’s a fresh start for Howard in 2020 however, and everyone is already raving about how good he looks. After receiving praise from Arians and general manager Jason Licht as far back as the NFL Scouting Combine, Howard has continued to open eyes with his work during the team’s shortened offseason program. The team also picked up his fifth-year option for 2021 this offseason.
“I think the biggest thing for O.J. was just learning what we’re trying to teach,” Arians said to the media on Monday after practice. “That’s a very difficult position in this scheme and he’s come in and he’s got a great handle on it right now. I think Rob’s helped him confidence-wise – seeing how good he is and telling him how good he is. When you’ve got a guy like Gronkowski and [Tom] Brady telling you you’re good, you’re probably pretty good. I think that’s helped, but he’s playing really, really well right now.”
Then the camera pans back to Brady maneuvering in and out of four padded dummies, simulating moving quickly in a crowded pocket. He emerged to loft a pass to tight end O.J. Howard up the left sideline. Then Brady called to Howard.
“Juice!” Brady called out. “Keep those shoulders square.”
Then Brady stood in place, pumping his arms like pistons, up and down.
“Right here!” Still pumping his arms. “Last minute . . . Catch it on your hip,” Brady said, with some garbled words in the middle.
Bucs TE O.J. Howard – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
I was dying to know what it all meant. I figured Howard wasn’t sprinting full-go, and maybe Brady was urging him to have better mechanics running. But last minute and catch it on your hip . . . What was that? So I got Howard on the phone and asked him.
“You hit it on the head,” Howard said. “That’s Tom coaching me. Tom’s been coaching a lot of guys one-on-one.
“When he says, ‘Shoulders square,’ if you watch me on film, and he watched me, watched me a lot, I’d be running a vertical route, not going as fast as I should have. That’s because I’d be running a vertical route, but I’d look back and it’d slow me down. He’d say, ‘Keep those shoulders square. Don’t slow down for me. Six, eight yards, pump your arms, sell it like a go route—I’ll get you the ball.”
Unpacking: In the 2017 draft, Howard was the best size-speed player of all. At 251 pounds, he ran a 4.51-second 40, and the Bucs made him their first-round pick. Three meh seasons and some bad habits later, here’s Howard at the crossroads, on a tight-end-rich team, the subject of trade rumors since the day Gronkowski came out of retirement to wear the pewter. But if a 4.51 guy is peeking back to the line all the time, he’s not going to be a 4.51 guy—he’s negating one of the best qualities any NFL tight end has. Catch it on your hip means, in essence, “Don’t worry—the ball’s going to be where only you can catch it.” (Howard should watch tape of ex-Brady faves Chris Hogan and Malcolm Mitchell abusing the Falcons secondary with precision throws down the stretch in the Super Bowl comeback win over Atlanta. Relatively new receivers, in perfect sync with Brady. Cornerback Jalen Collins must still have nightmares over that fourth quarter and OT.)
Brady liked what he saw when Howard came to Tampa for QB/receiver workouts in May. And of all the great weapons Brady has here—it’s perhaps the best arsenal he’s ever had, and certainly since the 16-0 Randy Moss year in 2007—the one that looked the best in the two days I watched was Howard. Easy.
“When Tom does that,” Howard said of the coaching point, “it’s huge for me to hear. I worked on that all offseason, a bad habit I had to break. He puts it in my head every day. That’s what a true leader does. He does it in a humble way. So chill. That’s Tom Brady, one of the best to ever play our game, and every day he’s got something for me to make me better.”
Howard is learning and growing, and it’s exciting to see. Back in May, I wrote about exactly what King is referencing above: Howard’s struggle to sell vertically as a receiver and maximize his speed off the line of scrimmage to open up underneath throwing windows. The fact that Brady is pointing this out to him and making the former first-round pick conscious of where he can improve is a terrific sign for Howard’s future.
But even if Howard never becomes the most detailed route runner, his size, athleticism and ball skills are still good enough to make him a big play threat at a position with very few of those across the entire NFL. How many tight ends can whip defenders early in the route with pure speed, then high-point and finish down the seam in traffic like this?
Or have the size and strength to work through a semi-holding jam and get over the top on a corner route?
Or hit a double move on a defensive back like this?
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’s 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.
This can be the season where that happens for Howard. With the Bucs ready to operate their base offense out of 12 personnel (two TEs, one WR, one RB), Howard should see plenty of work and plenty of targets even with Gronkowski in the fold. In fact, as Arians mentioned, having Gronkowski alongside him may be one of the biggest reasons to be optimistic that a big season for Howard is imminent.
“There’s a lot of things as far as different ways to get open that I’ve kind of picked up on Gronk from his game as far as psyche in the route running game, just the little things he uses for techniques,” Howard said. “We’ve already made a lot of improvements in a lot of areas as he’s helping us out a lot in the run game with his footwork. Just different things in routes that he’s used over the years to get open and just being on the field with him, us together has been a mismatch and it’s hard to cover a lot of guys like that when we’re on the field together. It’s just hard to stop that, it’s gonna open up a lot of things for everyone and I think it should be real fun.”
Bucs TE Rob Gronkowski – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
Howard mentioned working to improve in the run game, and it’s a good thing he did. Coming out of Alabama, Howard was heralded for his heavy usage as an in-line blocker, showing the ability to handle tough assignments in the run game that few college tight ends were asked to do. In Tampa Bay there has been flashes of that, but Howard has also been overwhelmed more often than he’s impressed. In 2019, he and fellow tight end Cameron Brate really struggled in the trenches.
“I really honestly just want to improve in the run game,” Howard said. “Since college I took pride in the run game coming from Alabama. We ran the ball a lot. Last year it was more about my footwork and stuff, and I took a step back in that. But once I start focusing more on that in the run game – footwork and all the other stuff – the effort is always gonna be there. The passing game, I never was too worried about that. Just got to make some plays in that aspect of the game. For me, it was just the footwork in the run game this offseason and I’m working on it even now.”
Howard has another level to get to as a player, and he knows it. The reality is, he’s landed somewhere between the bust many want to label him as, and the top-tier tight end he was projected to be coming out of college. In the end, right or wrong, Howard’s career will likely be talked about in one extreme or the other, and the 19th overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft has a prime opportunity to take a step towards stardom in 2020.
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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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