Cover 3 is a weekly feature column written by PewterReport.com’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers beat writer Trevor Sikkema published every Tuesday. The column, as its name suggests, comes in three phases: a statistical observation, an in-depth film breakdown, and a “this or that” segment where the writer asks the reader to chose between two options.
Sikkema’s Stat of the Week
Is two really better than one? Well, not always.
Having two homework assignments due at once, for example. That’s not great. Having two sets of bills to pay, also not ideal. How about having two superiors you’re trying to impress or keep up with at work? Nobody likes that.
But, then there’s the flip side where two of something can be pretty great. For example, two burrito bowls at Chipotle instead of one. Or being able to buy two pairs of shoes for the price of one. Or how about having two Top 20 tight ends on the same NFL team?
As much as I would enjoy writing about two different Chipotle bowls, the subject of this week’s Cover 3 pertains to that last one and the luxury the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have with tight ends Cameron Brate and O.J. Howard.
Brate had a career year in 2016. In that season, he saw his most games started (10), most targets (81), most catches (57), most receiving yards (660) and most receiving touchdowns (eight). Brate was a key instrument in the development of second year of quarterback Jameis Winston. He proved to be a reliable target that Winston could go to when teams really keyed in on wide receiver Mike Evans and was an any-down-and-distance player.
After finishing the season 9-7, the Buccaneers wanted to beef up their offense even more. They thought they were solidified in enough areas and they went into the offseason looking to diversify their options at wide receiver, bring in an extra mismatch player at tight end and shore up the depth at their running back position. The first thing they did was sign wide receiver DeSean Jackson. The third part they did by drafting Jeremy McNichols. And the middle part they accomplished by getting a player many thought was the steal of draft night, Alabama tight end O.J. Howard, who was last year’s first round pick in Tampa Bay.
Howard and Brate, in theory, was a match made in heaven for head coach Dirk Koetter’s vertical offense. Two capable tight ends on the field at the same time would give them the option to stay versatile out of any formation and could disguise what they were trying to do, either run or pass. Two viable options instead of one is great, in theory, but you still have to figure out how to use both knowing that an increase in options doesn’t mean an increase of offensive plays run or balls the quarterback has to throw – it becomes a matter of efficiency.
In 2017, the Buccaneer ran out of 2-TE and 3-TE sets 383 out of 1,088 offensive plays. That was 35 percent of their offense. They were in 2-TE sets for about 29 percent of the time and 3-TE sets at around four percent. The league average for 2-TE sets was right around 25 percent, so the Buccaneers clearly emphasized their two tight ends more than the rest of the NFL. But, their three to four percent use of three tight ends was actually below league average. That tells me that this team emphasized their tight ends more as passing options and less as run help.
Bucs TEs O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate – Photo by: Mark Lomoglio/PR
O.J. Howard’s efficiency was through the roof for a rookie with with 20th most receiving yards (432), 7th most receiving touchdowns (6) and highest yards-per-catch average (16.6) among all NFL tight ends with at least 25 catches. Basically what that’s saying is that when they threw Howard the ball good things happened. Even Brate’s numbers were a little bit better in 2017 as he averaged a higher yards-per-catch ratio than he did in 2016 and finished with just nine less catches and just two less touchdowns while running next to Howard.
Now, you’re probably thinking that next I’m going to tell you that the rest of the offense couldn’t keep up, but that’s not true, either. As the team’s No. 1 wide receiver, though he didn’t get as many yards or catches, Evans actually averaged a better yards-per-catch ratio in 2017. And of the second wide receiver position, Jackson increased that category for the team, too. Throw in the fact that Winston had the highest completion percentage, highest yards-per-attempt average, lowest interception ratio and highest quarterback ratings of his career in 2017 and you’ll see that adding Howard to the mix as a clear emphasis at the percentage of plays they ran 2-TE sets out of meant that whatever they wanted to do in the passing game was working.
They just couldn’t score enough touchdowns.
Brate is a restricted free agent this offseason, meaning the Bucs could potentially lose him, but it is more difficult than it would be if he was unrestricted. As a restricted free agent, Tampa Bay will have the chance to match any contract offered to him. Over the last two season, only two tight ends in the NFL have caught more touchdown passes than Brate: Seattle’s Jimmy Graham and Minnesota’s Kyle Rudolph.
Scoring touchdowns is important – like, really important – something the Buccaneers learned the hard way as Tampa Bay had the No. 4 passing offense in the NFL, yet had the No. 18 scoring offense in the NFL. Brate will be coveted in free agency, even with that restricted tag on him, around the league because when you have guys who have a knack for scoring six, you keep them around. But, the Buccaneers are in a unique situation. They have a guy they know is efficient in Brate, but also have their stud draft pick from 2017, Howard, who, in theory, will only get better and better after having as much end zone success as Bratehad in 2017. Brate received more targets and thus more catches, but will Howard be able to do that on his own soon? We know Howard is the superior blocker, so will it be worth top tight end money to keep Brate if in two years he’s just a TE-2 behind an All-Pro-caliber player like Howard could become?
If you ask me, yes, Brate is still worth it – if you sign him correctly. The numbers of the process don’t lie; the Buccaneers are better with him and Howard on the team. The more mouths to feed theory doesn’t hold water so long as Winston keeps his and everyone else’s ego at bay and just makes the right throws. Brate will likely get a new deal worth between $6.5 million to $7.5 million per year, and will include most of the guaranteed money up front in the first two years. That’s what director of football administration Mike Greenberg wisely does.
What will likely happen is that the Buccaneers will time when Brate’s guaranteed money ends and when Howard’s rookie contract ends. That way when it comes time for Howard to sign a new deal, if he really has become the clear-cut focal point of both the passing offense and the blocking offense from the tight end group, Tampa Bay will be able to move on from Brate with ease while opening up more money to retain Howard.
For now, there is no player on the team who has as guaranteed of a connection with Winston like Brate does, and that is not worth losing. Brate should be extended by this team, but it has to be strategically. I think such a plan above will line up with a budding star in Howard.
On the next page we’ll dive deep into Howard’s rookie season and view just how quickly he might be overtaking Brate as the team’s top tight end option in the passing game, and view all the possibilities of what he can and perhaps cannot be for this Bucs team.
Trevor Sikkema is the Tampa Bay Buccaneers beat reporter and NFL Draft analyst for PewterReport.com. Sikkema, an alumnus of the University of Florida, has covered both college and professional football for much of his career. As a native of the Sunshine State, when he's not buried in social media, Sikkema can be found out and active, attempting to be the best athlete he never was. Sikkema can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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