SR’s Fab 5 is a collection of inside scoop, analysis and insight from yours truly, PewterReport.com publisher and Bucs beat writer Scott Reynolds. Here are a few things that caught my attention this week at One Buc Place and around the NFL.
FAB 1. HOWARD IS A COMPLETE WEAPON FOR BUCS AT TIGHT END
It’s first-and-goal from the 6-yard line and Tampa Bay head coach Dirk Koetter is excited. He deploys “12” personnel, which means the Bucs have two receivers, two tight ends and one running back on the field together – but not just any receivers and tight ends.
We’re talking about two 6-foot-5 receivers in Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson and two 6-foot-5 tight ends in Cameron Brate and Austin Seferian-Jenkins, in addition to running back Doug Martin, who was a Pro Bowler and the league’s second-leading rusher in 2015.
Because Koetter has deployed “12” personnel, the Bucs’ opponent is in base defense – perhaps even goal line. With four 6-foot-5 targets on the field there is going to be a size mismatch somewhere – likely more than one – for quarterback Jameis Winston to throw to. Or he could simply hand the ball off to Martin and let the offensive line, Brate and ASJ pound the ball into the end zone.
With that lineup in Tampa Bay’s “12” personnel grouping, the options for Koetter seemed endless. But that dream never became reality in Tampa Bay due to injuries and unfortunate circumstances.
The vision of general manager Jason Licht’s “Dunkaneers” never came to fruition. When Licht and former head coach Lovie Smith selected the 6-foot-5 Evans and the 6-foot-5 Seferian-Jenkins in the first and second round of the 2014 NFL Draft, respectively, and paired them with the 6-foot-5 Jackson the term “Dunkaneers” was born.
Yet getting them all on the field together proved to be a real challenge. Seferian-Jenkins missed seven games in his rookie season due to ankle and knee injuries. He missed nine games the following year with a shoulder injury. After just two games last year, the Bucs cut Seferian-Jenkins, who had become a head case, after a DUI arrest.
Jackson missed six games in 2015 due to knee injuries, and was placed on injured reserve after a partial ACL tear after the fifth game of the season in 2016, which was the final year of his contract. At age 34 he’s likely done in the NFL.
Evans missed a game and a half during his rookie season and the season opener in 2015 due to hamstring injuries. He played a full 16 games for the first time in his career, but only played with ASJ and Jackson in the first two games of the season this year.
Of course the Bucs saw the emergence of another 6-foot-5 weapon in tight end Cameron Brate, who became Winston’s second-favorite target behind Evans in 2016. After catching 23 passes for 288 yards and three touchdowns in 14 games during the 2015 season, Brate exploded for 57 receptions for 660 yards and eight touchdowns last year. His eight touchdowns tied a franchise record for TDs by a Bucs tight end in a single season and were also tied for the most in the league last year from the tight end position.
But Koetter’s dream was to have Evans, Brate, Seferian-Jenkins and Jackson all on the field together. Instead, only half of those weapons proved to be reliable, and that greatly diminished the playmaking ability on offense last year.
Tampa Bay will certainly draft a starting-caliber receiver (or two) to replace Jackson this year, or find a veteran playmaker in free agency, but expect Koetter and Licht to take advantage of this year’s bumper crop of tight ends in the draft, too. That’s where Alabama’s O.J. Howard, who is PewterReport.com’s first-round pick at No. 19 in our latest Bucs’ 7-Round Mock Draft, comes in to play.
Drafting a wide receiver in the first round makes sense and fills an obvious need, but what if Clemson’s Mike Williams, Western Michigan’s Corey Davis and Washington’s John Ross are all off the board when the Bucs are on the clock? Don’t be surprised to see Tampa Bay select Howard, who starred at the Senior Bowl, if he’s still available.
So why should the Bucs spend a first-round pick on Howard when the team has an emerging star in Brate? There is certainly no harm in having two weapons in the passing game from the same position – even at tight end. That’s what Koetter was planning on having with Brate and Seferian-Jenkins prior to the 2016 campaign.
Also, the Bucs saw what life without Brate looked like in the final game and a half of the 2016 season. Brate suffered a back injury in the third quarter of the team’s 31-24 loss at New Orleans after catching a first-half touchdown pass, and Tampa Bay was only able to score 10 points in the second half without him and missed the playoffs as a result of that defeat. The next week against Carolina, the Bucs offense was sluggish and inconsistent with Brate available. Tampa Bay prevailed, 17-16, but had to rely on a pick-six from cornerback Brent Grimes as the offense accounted for just 10 points against the Panthers.
Sometimes you don’t know what you have until it’s gone. Without Brate the Bucs scored just 20 points over the last six quarters of the season.
Don’t think the Bucs have a need for a dynamic, playmaking tight end to give Winston another target and provide an insurance policy in case something happens to Brate? Of course, especially when the only other tight ends are Brandon Myers, Luke Stocker and rookie Alan Cross – none of who offer much yards after catch ability.
New England’s offense has thrived for years with two pass catching tight ends. This year’s duo, Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett, combined for 80 receptions for 1,241 yards and 10 touchdowns in the regular season. Despite missing the final eight games of the season and the playoffs with a back injury, Gronkowski still led the Patriots in catches of 20 yards or more with 12 in the regular season. Wide receivers Julian Edelman and Chris Hogan were tied for second with 11, followed by Bennett, who had 10.
Despite having playmaker Aaron Hernandez on the roster the Patriots drafted Gronkowski, a player who had first-round ability, but back surgery in college forced him to miss his junior year and his stock slipped to the second round as a result. In 2010 during Gronkowski’s rookie season, he and former Hernandez combined for 87 catches for 1,109 yards and 16 touchdowns. Hernandez had 45 catches for 563 yards and six scores, while Gronkowski had 42 receptions for 546 yards and 10 TDs.
In 2011, Gronkowski established career highs with a monster year in which he caught 90 passes for 1,327 yards and 17 touchdowns. Hernandez’s production actually went up too as he hauled in 79 catches for 910 yards and seven scores.
Gronkowski and Hernandez teamed up for 106 catches for 1,273 yards and 16 touchdowns in 2012 before Hernandez was arrested on homicide charges during the 2013 offseason. Injuries limited Gronkowski to just seven games in 2013 and there was no other receiving tight end on the roster, which hampered New England’s offensive production, especially in its playoff loss at Denver.
Because the tight end is integral to the Patriots’ passing game, head coach Bill Belichick made sure there was another receiving tight end on the roster to complement Gronkowski and act as an insurance policy for him in case of injury. Belichick got six touchdowns out of former Bucs tight end Tim Wright in 2014, and four out of Scott Chandler before signing Bennett this year. As fate would have it, Gronkowski suffered a season-ending injury this season, and it’s hard to imagine the Patriots making the Super Bowl without Bennett, who is New England’s second-leading receiver, stepping up this year.
Which brings us to Howard, who was being closely observed by the Bucs at the 2017 Reese’s Senior Bowl. While in Mobile, Ala. I had the chance to speak with Koetter about the tight end position, and he made it clear he’s looking for a tight end that can not only catch passes, but also block to help Tampa Bay’s struggling running game.
“We believe offensively that you have to tailor what you’re doing to the strengths and weaknesses of the players,” Koetter said. “Everyone would like to have two really good pass catching tight ends, but everyone also would like to have tight ends that can block somebody so you can also run the ball. It’s hard enough to run the ball in the NFL and it’s even harder if your tight end can’t block anybody. It’s just rare.
“There are not a lot of teams that have the exact perfect combination of tight ends. Now in the little time I’ve spent [watching college tape] it looks like this is a really good year for tight ends. I’m sure we’re not the only team that’s going to be interested in that.”
It is a very good year for tight ends with as many as 20 prospects carrying a draftable grade. But only a handful can truly block and be a threat in the passing game, and that’s why a player like Howard is so appealing to Tampa Bay.
There are several tight end prospects that have tantalizing size, but spent most if not all of their college careers in the slot as an H-back or flanked out as a receiver and didn’t line up at the line of scrimmage, among them is Virginia Tech’s Bucky Hodges (6-6, 246), Arkansas’ Jeremy Sprinkle (6-5, 256), Shepherd’s Billy Brown (6-3, 254) and Texas A&M’s Ricky Seals-Jones (6-5, 240). As a result there is no film of them showing NFL teams they can in-line block at the point of attack and seal the edge in the running game.
“There’s no tape – no doubt about that,” Koetter said. “I don’t think there’s any coach or personnel guy that wouldn’t say that. The way the college game has evolved – and it’s fun to see these 6-foot-6 guys flying down the field – but when they have to line up and block an NFL defensive end that’s a different story. Unfortunately that’s the way it’s going to be in the NFL.”
With the Crimson Tide running the ball quite a bit with the likes of T.J. Yeldon, Kenyan Drake, Derrick Henry, Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough over the last four years Howard blocked a lot at the University of Alabama – perhaps too much. College football commentators and fans, in addition to NFL scouts, wondered why a player with Howard’s skill set would only catch 114 passes for 1,726 yards and seven touchdowns in his career.
“I have no idea man, there was kind of a question mark my whole career about that,” Howard said. “I never could get an answer to this day. I’m just glad I came out of Alabama with a great career though and had a lot of learning experiences and played in a lot of great games. I became a better player while I was doing it.”
Howard certainly became a tremendous blocker while helping Henry win the Heisman Trophy in 2015.
“Yeah, I think at Alabama we have a lot of great running backs so we’re going to run the ball,” Howard said. “It’s only right, but to be able to help your team be successful you want to be at your best, and I think I had to become a better run-blocker to help my team be successful. Basically, I had to do it and I think it was the best thing that ever happened to me. It was definitely a great experience.”
When Howard was involved in the passing game he showed what he could do, evidenced by 14 catches of 30 yards or more. His biggest game at Alabama came on the biggest stage when he caught five passes for 208 yards with touchdowns covering 53 and 51 yards in a 45-40 win over Clemson in the 2015 national championship game. Howard’s huge performance showed NFL teams what he could do if he was featured in the passing game.
“It helped it out a lot, as far as passing and all that,” Howard said. “It was a great game and a great opportunity for me to make plays and make the most of my moments. It’s definitely something I will remember forever and definitely a great moment for me.”
Many anticipated Howard having an even bigger senior season than he did in 2015 when he caught 38 passes for 602 yards (15.8 avg.) and two touchdowns. Instead he only caught 45 passes for 595 yards (13.2 avg.) and three touchdowns – likely due to the fact that Alabama started a true freshman at quarterback in Jalen Hurts.
“I had all those goals, I had the goals of winning games and I knew we were going to win games at Alabama, but I wanted to come in and help contribute by being a playmaker,” Howard said. “I had my opportunities every now and then, but it was a good career. I definitely would like to have a little more opportunities but I’ll take what happened for my career.”
Howard concluded his college career with a tremendous week at the Senior Bowl. Despite his first-round draft status, he impressed NFL talent evaluators by going to Mobile and competing. Howard was named the Top Overall Practice Player during the week for his consistent ability to separate from coverage and make plays in the passing game in dominant fashion. In the game Howard had four catches for 39 yards, including a 24-yarder.
“I didn’t think it was a secret,” Howard said. “I think everybody kind of knew [my talent]. It was just the way it was. I wish I could have got the ball a lot more to make plays. That’s why I’m here at the Senior Bowl, at this step of my life at the next level I think I’ll have opportunities to make plays. The tight ends get used a lot more in the NFL, so I’m thankful for the opportunity to be here right now.”
Howard admits to being frustrated earlier in his career about not being more of a playmaker as a receiving tight end.
“I think at first I got upset about it, but the team was winning games, so I had to buy into it and I blocked and I wanted us to keep winning,” Howard said. “I know I could have been utilized a little more but at the moment I accepted my role as it was on the team, playing around a lot of athletes it’s hard to get the ball to everybody, I just stayed focused on what I had to do to make myself look good on film whether it’s catching or blocking.
“I think it helps out a lot – being able to block – because that’s what teams are looking for – guys that can do both. I think my play at Alabama has helped me out a lot to be able to do both.”
One of the intriguing things Howard has going for him is his combination of size and speed. He told NFL Network that he plans on running under a 4.58 at the NFL Scouting Combine, and at just under 6-foot-6, he has the big frame and catch radius Koetter prefers in receiving targets.
“By nature I prefer big receivers, so that’s just my preference,” Koetter said. “That’s totally a Dirk Koetter [preference] and not anybody else.”
Licht addressed the Bucs’ need to find some weapons for Winston during a conversation in Mobile. And after selecting Evans and Seferian-Jenkins in the 2014 draft and coining the phrase “Dunkaneers” it’s safe to say Licht likes big targets, too.
“I think it boils down to just playmakers in general,” Licht said. “I think we would love to add playmakers to this offense. They come in different shapes and sizes, too, but I think if you try to put a mold and say we need 6-foot-5 and long arms, it doesn’t always work out when you just scout and add according to dimensions. Every team in the league is looking for that long guy who can catch, run, block and do it all. There’s just very few of those guys.”
Howard is one of those few – and he’s the best. If he’s available to the Bucs at No. 19 you can’t blame them for pulling the trigger.