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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 A Pro Bowler In The Making
Buccaneers tight ends coach Ben Steele walked across the practice field at the end of another training camp practice that featured a couple of ridiculous, highlight reel-worthy plays by second-year tight end O.J. Howard.
Steele looked at me and smiled as I asked him, “O.J. had a great day. Is he going to have a breakout year this season?”
Howard is counting on that, too.
Tampa Bay’s first-round pick a year ago had a nice rookie season, catching 26 passes for 432 yards (16.6 avg.) and tying for the team lead with six touchdowns.
But that was last year.
They say that the greatest growth for an NFL player occurs between his first and second year, and Howard has his sights set on far greater numbers in 2018.
“I can be a Pro Bowler,” said Howard. “If you don’t play for that reason, then you shouldn’t play. There’s no limit on what I can do. There’s no ceiling, and I say that with the most confidence in the most humble way. That’s just the competitiveness inside me. Anything less than an All-Pro, Pro Bowler – being one of the greatest is not a great career to me.”
In order to become a Pro Bowler, Howard is going to have to assert himself in Dirk Koetter’s offense and become a featured weapon. Thanks to a year’s worth of experience that allowed him to master the playbook, that’s been happening in camp as Howard has been the primary receiving tight end – slightly ahead of Cameron Brate, who is listed as a co-starter on the depth chart.
Brate led all Bucs tight ends with 48 catches for 591 yards (12.3 avg.) and six touchdowns. After signing a six-year, $40.8 million contract extension in the offseason, Koetter and offensive coordinator Todd Monken still plan on getting the ball to Brate just as much this season. Brate has an undeniable chemistry with quarterback Jameis Winston and is often Winston’s “go-to guy” when plays break down.
But Howard has an undeniable blend of speed, size and athleticism that warranted taking him in the first round. It’s only a matter of time before he passes Brate, a hard-working, self-made undrafted free agent, in terms of production.
Consider that out of Howard’s 26 catches last year, nine went for 20 yards or more. That tied wide receiver Mike Evans, who also had nine catches for 20 yards or more – but had 45 more receptions than Howard. Wide receiver DeSean Jackson led the Bucs with 10 catches covering 20 yards or more, but he had 24 more receptions than Howard did, too.
At 6-foot-6, 255 pounds and blessed with 4.51 speed, Howard has the ability to make more explosive plays than perhaps anyone on offense other than Jackson. If he maintains his 16.6-yard average and catches as many passes as Brate did last year (46), Howard will have nearly 750 yards receiving in 2018.
But that’s not enough.
“Getting 1,000 yards is not out of the question,” Howard said. “I’ve got a chance to be very special in our offense, and it’s the way Coach uses the tight end. We have a chance to be special as a whole unit, and I think that’s why it’s important to understand the offense and do things the right way. That’s what I’ve been doing.”
Only two tight ends had 1,000-yard seasons last year. New England’s Rob Gronkowski led all tight ends with 1,084 yards and scored eight touchdowns on 69 catches (15.7 avg.). Gronk had the 10th-highest receiving yardage total in the league.
Behind him was Kansas City’s Travis Kelce, who had 1,038 yards and eight touchdowns on 83 catches (12.5 avg.). Kelce had the 13th highest receiving yardage last year.
Philadelphia’s Zach Ertz was next with 824 yards and eight touchdowns on 74 receptions (11.1 avg.). Ertz’s receiving yardage ranked 30th in the NFL in 2017.
Guess which three tight ends Howard happened to study this offseason?
“I studied Zach Ertz, I studied Gronk and I studied Travis Kelce,” Howard said. “Those are the three great tight ends that I thought of last year. There are a lot of good tight ends, but those three guys right there, they were just dominant last year, to me. I put myself in a category like, I want to study those three guys and see what made those guys so special and what made them have such a great season like they did, and I just studied them down to a tee.”
And thanks to Steele’s encouragement, Howard also studied a throwback player who is considered to be one of the greatest tight ends of all time – Tony Gonzalez.
“We also studied Tony G.,” Howard said. “Coach still does a great job of making us watch some of his routes. He has one of the craziest stick routes you’ll ever see. And the biggest thing Tony was so good at was that he made every route look the same. Every time he ran he had a short stem to whether he would run in our out. You couldn’t tell though. If you knew him you’d know he was barely leaning one way, but the defender couldn’t tell. He was just so good at making everything look the same.”
“I think the biggest thing for me is just seeing what I needed to improve on from last season the most. Then take those things every day and challenge myself to become better at those things. I think I’ve been trying to take steps forward every practice and take things one practice at a time, so I’ve improved a lot.”
The reason why second-year players typically make such a big jump after their rookie year is having an offseason dedicated to watching themselves on NFL film in their scheme – and having plenty of time to do the necessary classroom work and film work to improve. For Howard, this past offseason was a far cry from last year prior to the draft, which was much more hectic from the Senior Bowl to draft day.
“This offseason was so refreshing, not worrying about picking an agent, not worrying about the Combine training or the visits,” Howard said. “Just coming in knowing you already know a playbook, you know you can go home and study those plays, you can run those specific routes because you know those are the only things you’re going to run. I knew what routes we are going to run and what depth Coach wanted them at, and I think that’s huge when you have a plan for the offseason. And I think this is why this year coming back, I got an early jump on where I left off because I knew what to expect coming in.”
Where Howard left off was catching a 30-yard touchdown pass on Monday Night Football against Atlanta in December before sustaining an ankle injury on that play that would end his rookie season prematurely. Expect many more explosive plays and touchdowns from Howard, who is making those catches look routine in training camp. Expect a breakout year from Howard in 2018.
“In college at Alabama, a lot of people would say I didn’t get utilized the way I should have been, but it’s because I wasn’t as developed as a player as I am now,” Howard said. “But now, coming here and seeing what happens when you put in the hard work, have a good camp, and when you get into an offense that really utilizes the tight end a lot, you realize how special you can be at the tight end position.”
One thousand yards.
Those are Howard’s words used to define who he wants to be – not mine.
But after seeing him make huge strides in camp this August I certainly believe him.