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It’s been a long road back for Bucs tight end O.J. Howard to be ready to play during the 2021 season. Tampa Bay’s first-round pick in 2017 ruptured his Achilles’ tendon in Week 4 against the Los Angeles Chargers last season. After countless hours of rehab post surgery, Howard has finally returned to practicing with his team at training camp over the weekend.

“It’s awesome to be back,” Howard said on Monday. “Nine months of working to get back to where I want to be. It’s good to be back around the guys and in the huddle again. The achilles feels good, just one day at a time for me right now, but I’m so happy to be back.”

The Bucs have been cautious about easing Howard’s way in back to fully practicing. It’s understandable after Howard’s career has been marred by injuries throughout the year. He hasn’t been able to play a full season yet, and now the schedule is expanding from 16 to 17 games.

Bucs TE O.J. Howard

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

Howard played in 14 games as a rookie and another 14 games in 2019. He was limited to just 10 games in 2018 and only four last season when he caught 11 passes for 146 yards (13.3 avg.) and caught two touchdowns.

After missing the first four days of training camp, Howard was back on July 30th. But even then it was on a limited basis as he just practiced with individual groups. The next day he was out with the whole team for 11-on-11’s. With the depth the Bucs have at tight end, the team can afford to let Howard take his time, which was exactly what he needed.

“I’m very thankful and appreciate that they kind of understood that,” Howard said. “I know the offense, there was no need to go out there and run plays that I kind of already know. I know the mental part is a big thing, so participating in walk-throughs was huge for me. My conditioning level is really good right now but getting in football shape of course is different. We’re getting it in, but we’re being smart about it because, like you said, the most important thing for us is September the ninth and our playing weeks after that.”

A significant injury like an Achilles could cause a player to have doubts upon return. This hasn’t been the case for Howard, though, thanks in big part to all the time he was allotted.

“There was no fear really because we took our time with it,” Howard said.  “They didn’t rush me back, so it was making sure it was 100 percent healthy. When I got out there, I was already doing things that I knew that I would be participating in with the team and the team’s element, so the confidence was already there. I was just kind of getting back with the football aspect of it, just being around the guys, defenders grabbing on you, stuff like that.”

Howard mentioned that while rehabbing, the only things he could really work on to get better was his upper body and overall football I.Q.

“Studying film was the biggest thing for me,” Howard said.  “I waited nine months and just did mental reps. That helped my confidence a lot seeing the game from a different point of view, all I’m seeing for nine months is me just visualizing being in position, making plays, so that just helped me when I came back with the offense, kind of already knowing what to expect.”

Tampa Bay picked up Howard’s fifth-year option this season. It’s a crucial season for him in a contact year while he balances a return from injury. It’s a big year for sure, but Howard has no concerns about what’s ahead in the future because his play speaks for himself when he’s available.

Bucs TE O.J. Howard

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

“No, not really,” Howard said about if there’s extra pressure this year. “The biggest thing for me was just like you said, it was always the production was there, but I just couldn’t stay healthy. I’ve just been focusing on watching – I changed my regiment on how I get ready for practice, my recovery now, the injuries made me realize my body and learn it a lot better because if stay healthy, everything else is going to take care of itself. My biggest focus is just preparing my body to go 17 weeks plus and being available for our team because when I do that, I know good things happen.”

Howard’s best years in Tampa Bay were his first two where he averaged 30 catches for roughly 500 yards and five touchdowns before injuries set in. The Alabama product should be able to better those numbers this year if he can stay healthy for all 17 games.

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About the Author: Matt Matera

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1 month ago

I Love Love Love Howard’s strengths and skill set and potential, it’s just the injuries that are concerning. In sports like Football, there’s only so much an athlete can do to try and prevent injuries and in the end it just seems to be that some people are built to last and others are built to be injured in sports like Football. It’s not often someone comes in and is hurt for the first 4 seasons and then magically stays healthy for the next 8. There’s always a chance, sometimes these are nagging, weakens areas of the body from all… Read more »

Reply to  Spitfire
1 month ago

Can’t argue with your logic but to me it’s not just “some are built to get hurt.” Some have shit luck too. If he’s hurt again this year you have to start thinking it’s his body.

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