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FAB 1. Howard Needs A Big Year To Remain A Buc

The good news for tight end O.J. Howard is that the Bucs picked up his fifth-year option despite battling through injuries in his first three years of an up-and-down stint in Tampa Bay. Howard only played in four games last year and saw his season end prematurely due to an Achilles tendon injury in Week 4. The bad news is it hasn’t worked out so well for the Bucs that have recently had their fifth-year options picked up.

General manager Jason Licht picked up the fifth-year option for quarterback Jameis Winston, the team’s first-round pick in 2015, for the 2019 season. But after watching Winston throw a league-high 30 interceptions Licht wisely walked away and pursued Tom Brady instead. The move was undoubtedly the right one was it resulted in a Super Bowl championship last season.

Licht also picked up the fifth-year option for cornerback Vernon Hargreaves, Tampa Bay’s first-round pick in 2016, but he didn’t even make it to the 2020 season as the team cut him during the 2019 campaign.

Here’s hoping Howard has better luck.

He needs it.

When Howard has played well, he’s gotten hurt. And when he’s been healthy, he hasn’t played well.

In four year since being drafted 19th overall Howard has yet to play in all 16 games of any season. He showed promise in Dirk Koetter’s offense as a rookie, catching 26 passes for 432 yards (16.6 avg.) with six touchdowns. That earned him a 61.4 overall grade from Pro Football Focus and a 64.8 receiving grade. An ankle injury caused him to miss the last two games of the 2017 season.

Howard had an even better year in 2018. He a career-high 34 receptions for 565 yards (16.6 avg.) and five TDs. Yet he missed the last six games of the season due to a knee injury. Howard struggled to adjust to Bruce Arians’ offense in 2019 and had a career-high four dropped passes. Some of those drops resulted in costly interceptions. Howard also a big fumble in the season opener against San Francisco.

Yet he still caught 34 passes for 459 yards (13.5 avg.), but only scored one touchdown. A year after posting an 88.9 overall grade from PFF and a 90.2 receiving grade, Howard had a career-low 54.7 PFF grade with a 58.8 receiving grade in 2019. The dropped passes and lack of touchdowns negatively affected Howard’s confidence.

Howard’s Career In Tampa Bay

2017: 14 games – 26 catches for 432 yards (16.6 avg.), 6 TDs
2018: 10 games – 34 catches for 565 yards (16.6 avg.), 5 TDs
2019: 14 games – 34 catches for 459 yards (13.5 avg.), 1 TD
2020: 4 games – 11 catches for 146 yards (13.3 avg.), 2 TDs

Howard refocused heading into the 2020 campaign. He was also excited to work with Brady and future Hall of Famer Rob Gronkowski, who was a great mentor for him. There was talk in the media that Howard might be traded with the addition of Gronkowski. But that was never the Bucs’ plan at all.

Bucs TEs OJ Howard and Rob Gronkowski
Bucs TEs OJ Howard and Rob Gronkowski – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR

“I think the trade talk was outside the building,” Arians said during training camp. “I never talked to him about it. All I talked to him about was getting better and he was going to be here for a while and believe it. I think with Tom helping him confidence-wise. And watching Gronk work, they’ve been a good combination helping each other – him helping Gronk learn the offense. It’s been great for him. He’s still a young player, and to be around a great player [will] elevate your game.”

Howard had a sensational camp and he and Brady quickly developed a rapport, especially in the red zone.

“He’s had a great camp,” Arians said in August. “He came back in great mental shape and physical shape. He’s making plays every single day, so I can’t say enough about him right now.”

Bucs tight ends coach Rick Christophel noted that Howard made some serious strides in August.

“I think compared to last year, right now he’s probably a lot better than what he was,” Christophel said. “He’s starting to learn to run routes – how to get out of routes. And I think being around Tom has helped him too because Tom’s given him some pointers. I’ve been in the business so long, [but] I don’t have all the answers. I know there are other guys that know how to do things better, and that’s only to help him. And I think once he keeps doing those things, and he sees those things, it’s going to help him become an even better player than what he is right now.”

Despite being the No. 2 tight end behind Gronkowski instead of the starter, Howard was off to a great start through the first four games of the 2020 season. He caught 11 passes for 146 yards (13.3 avg.) and two touchdowns, including a key score against the Chargers in the Bucs’ comeback win despite trailing by 17 points. Unfortunately he ruptured his Achilles tendon right after his TD and was placed on injured reserve. In limited action, Howard earned an 80.1 PFF grade, including an 85.3 receiving grade.

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

Had Howard stayed healthy for the 2020 season and continued at that pace he would have set new careers with 44 catches for 584 yards and eight touchdowns. But that’s been the problem – staying healthy.

Howard is scheduled to make $6,013,000 in 202o. In order for him to cash in on a long-term extension he’ll need to avoid injuries and pick up where he left off from.

“What a huge addition to have him back because he was having a great year,” Arians said last week. “I think, again, the sky’s the limit for what he can do in this offense.”

Arians noted that Howard’s recovery is progressing to the point where he could be available to participate this offseason.

“He’s really close,” Arians said. “He’s not running on the grass yet but he’s really close. The last time I checked it was 85% body weight running in ‘AlterG’ and [he] looks fantastic. I don’t see any setbacks. If and when we can get together in this offseason program, he’ll be ready to go.”

Now that he’s spent two years in Arians’ system he’s much more comfortable in his role and ready to become the weapon he was drafted to be in the first round.

“It’s always a tough position in a lot of offenses from the different things they ask you to do in the position,” Howard said during last year’s camp. “But here, like coach said, it was kind of a different level taken to it with some of the things we had to learn in the offense. Last year it took some getting used to [in 2019]. Year two has slowed down for everyone in our room. … It’s just different things that they ask us to do in this offense at the tight end position that you may not have done in the past. Year two, like I said, is a lot simpler. It makes a lot more sense and now it’s making sense to all of us in the room.”