FAB 2. Brate Battling Back From Hip Injury
Buccaneers tight end Cameron Brate is back and feeling better than ever after offseason hip surgery to replace a torn labrum. He’s running and catching the ball without pain, and ready to perform like he did during the 2016 and ’17 seasons when he was one of the main weapons in Tampa Bay’s passing game.
If Brate didn’t look his usual self last year, producing just 30 catches for 289 yards and six touchdowns following two seasons where he averaged 52 catches for 625 yards, it’s because he wasn’t close to being his old productive self from a health standpoint.
I had the chance to catch up with Brate last week for an exclusive interview, and for the first time he opened up about an injury that hampered his play during the entire 2018 campaign.
According to MayoClinic.com, a hip labral tear involves the ring of cartilage (labrum) that follows the outside rim of the socket of your hip joint. In addition to cushioning the hip joint, the labrum acts like a rubber seal or gasket to help hold the ball at the top of your thighbone securely within your hip socket.
That sounds painful. Brate felt that injury with every step taken while walking or running, and trying to block and achieve the necessary torque through the hips to engage a defender was absolutely painful. I had heard at the Senior Bowl from a source that Brate’s injury actually happened during the 2017 and that the hope was that it would heal during the 2018 offseason and wouldn’t require surgery.
“So that was the initial thought, and we didn’t know the extent necessarily,” Brate said. “The imaging isn’t always necessarily right, until you go in there surgically you don’t really know what’s happening, so we didn’t really know the extent and we tried non-surgical options. In retrospect I definitely should have done it last year, but we just didn’t know.”
As the start of the 2018 season drew closer and Brate was still in pain, he and team doctors sat down with Dirk Koetter and general manager Jason Licht and discussed either playing through the injury all season or going on injured reserve. For Brate, who had just signed a six-year, $40.8 million contract extension in the 2018 offseason, missing the entire year wasn’t an option. He decided to tough it out the entire season, participating in nearly every practice and playing in all 16 games.
“We kind of made the decision before the season started,” Brate said. “We sat down and thought we were going to try to get through the season and reevaluate it after, and then O.J. [Howard] got hurt as well, so then I had a little more on my plate at that point to. In my mind, I.R. wasn’t really an option, so that’s kind of how things worked out.”
The normally sure-handed Brate might have suffered through more drops last year than he probably had in his previous four seasons combined as a result of the injury, which was difficult to block out because the pain was felt with every step he took.
“Yeah, personally I wish I would have played better last year and everything like that, but I just don’t think I was able to prepare for the season the way I wanted to dealing with the injury. Week to week I wasn’t able to prepare for the games the way I normally would. It was more just kind of getting through the season. More than anything I’m just glad I was able to get it taken care of. I won’t have to deal with that moving forward.”
It is human nature to protect one’s self. Self-preservation is a basic human instinct, and I asked Brate if there was a part of him during the season that was just looking forward to January so he could finally get the surgery he needed to repair the torn labrum in his hip.
“Yes and no,” Brate said. “I was doing everything I could to try and help out the team. The season kind of got away from everyone as a collective group, and in a season like that, a lot of guys almost have that mindset toward the end of the year – it’s hard not to. You really have to tell yourself, ‘Okay, this is important. So many people would love to be in our shoes and it doesn’t matter that it’s Week 17 and you know you’re not going to make the playoffs.’ You kind of have to take a step back and realize what a great opportunity it is. I’m looking forward to not having to deal with an injury anymore, but I was still having fun playing football last year.”
After not catching a pass in the first two games of the year, Brate finally had three catches for 34 yards and a touchdown against Pittsburgh on Monday Night Football in Week 3. When Howard went down with an injury in Tampa Bay’s 38-35 loss at New York, Brate had to pick up the slack down the stretch and responded with 13 catches for 130 yards and three touchdowns down the stretch. Brate had nearly half of last year’s production in the final six games of the year, including two touchdowns against the Saints, when his hip was hurting him the most.
Although Brate finished with a career-low 9.6-yard average last season, he did have six touchdowns, and his 20 touchdowns over the past three years are the most of any tight end in the league during that span. Part of the reason for that production is his rapport with quarterback Jameis Winston, who was reinserted as the team’s starter down the stretch.
“So much of that is on the quarterback as well, and Jameis has a lot of faith in me down in the red zone, we work on it all the time,” Brate said. “Down there the throws and the windows aren’t going to be huge so the quarterback has to have a lot of faith in where you’re going to be. You’re going to have to have an idea of where the quarterback is going to throw the ball. That’s something that just comes through practice and preparation and that’s something Jameis and I have worked on since he came into the league in 2015.”
Those touchdowns and that rapport with Winston was a big reason why the Bucs re-signed Brate to a long-term contract extension. Over the past two years, Brate and Howard were able to coexist in Koetter’s two-tight end offensive scheme.
But what about new head coach Bruce Arians’ scheme, which typically calls for just one tight end and three receivers on the field? Brate said that both he and Howard will see plenty of playing time this year, noting that Arians really only had one tight end that could catch the ball and be featured in Arizona in Jermaine Gresham. Now Arians has two.
“We kind of talked about that in the tight end room and stuff and it seems like we’re definitely going to be heavily involved in the offense,” Brate said. “I’m really excited about the role that I think both of us are going to play. We haven’t really talked with Bruce about it, but our tight end coach has been telling us about all the things we’re going to be doing with us, so O.J. and I are really excited, and I think everyone in the room is excited about the opportunities we’re going to get in this offense.”
Arians’ offense centers around the vertical passing game and will involve working the seam down the middle of the field a lot with slot receiver Chris Godwin, in addition to vertical seam routes for both Howard and Brate. But Brate wants to be known as a complete tight end, and with his surgically repaired hip, he’s actually excited to block more in Arians’ scheme, too.
“Hopefully I think I’m going to be blocking a little more, which is something I wasn’t able to do a ton last year,” Brate said. “I couldn’t really get the work I wanted to with the injury, so I kind of got phased away from it a little bit, but I think with both of us on the field a little bit more in the run game together will definitely open up some stuff in the pass game – working different play actions off of that and I think that’s definitely going to be utilized in this offense.”
Brate is still getting to know Arians, but loves what he has heard thus far from the fiery, intense new coach.
“I’ve only directly talked to Bruce a couple of times, we’ve only had one or two team meetings so far, but I think he’s just a no-nonsense kind of guy,” Brate said. “He’s going to give it to you straight and I think he challenged us from the start. We’re going to work hard, we’re going to practice on two fields, so skill position players, it’s up to us to get in shape because he’s going to run the heck out of us in training camp.
“I think the guys are all really excited to work with him a little bit more, the meetings have been going well. Learning a new offense in the NFL is hard, and it takes time because those playbooks are thick. I think all the guys are excited about the change. I’m going to miss Dirk. I don’t want to talk bad about Dirk at all. I think he’s a good coach, but I think we’re all a little excited to hit the reset button and start fresh in this year.”
Brate indicated his rehab is going well, but that he would likely miss the team’s pre-draft mini-camp on April 23-24. Brate said he will be cleared for training camp, but will likely miss the OTAs and the mandatory mini-camp the first week of June.
Brate entered the 2018 season wounded, but made the decision to play an entire season hurt instead of going on injured reserve and gutted his way through all 16 games. The team repaid that loyalty by keeping him and his $7 million salary on the roster this year, rather than making Brate a cap casualty even though Tampa Bay needed to clear some salary cap room. Brate’s $7 million became fully guaranteed on March 17.
“It does mean a lot to me, and hopefully I’m going to do everything in my power to prove them right, get back to playing the way I’ve played in the past,” Brate said. “Just focus on a couple extra months of getting healthy and hopefully be all systems go come the fall. I’m excited.”