In the spring of 2017, for the first time in franchise history, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers used a first-round pick on a tight end. This year, they did nothing at all to the position until free agency and the draft has passed, merely fleshing out the depth chart with a trio of undrafted rookies. That's not too surprising – given the selection of O.J. Howard with that 2017 first-rounder and the continued production of former undrafted signee Cameron Brate, the Buccaneers could understandably feel set at the position.
They definitely got a lot out of the tight end spot last year, with five players combining to catch 84 passes for 1,124 yards, 13 touchdowns and 58 first downs. Tampa Bay's tight end group ranked fourth in the NFL in yards and first downs and third in touchdowns. Essentially, the only teams that got more out of the position than the Bucs were Kansas City, Philadelphia and New England, all of which included a single tight end with at least 800 yards and eight touchdowns (Travis Kelce, Zach Ertz and Rob Gronkowski, respectively). Tampa Bay was the only team to field two different tight ends who each exceeded 400 yards, and the only team with two different tight ends who each scored at least six touchdowns.
Furthermore, it's a young group, with some additional intriguing talent between Brate and Howard. The Buccaneers want to get more out of their tight end position – particularly when they are using multiple TEs to try to help the running game – but they can do so by further development of what they already have on hand. Any one of those rookie free agents could force his way into the mix, much as Brate, Antony Auclair and Alan Cross have in recent years, but for the most part the production is likely to come from the top two players at the position.
"The fact that we have a great group of tight ends and being able to spread the ball both to O.J. and Cam [is good]," said Tight Ends Coach Ben Steele. "They're obviously going to be both competing for plays and for reps, but at the end of the day, we're trying to get the best matchup we can and two great options right there with Cam and O.J. They obviously were productive. I think they had six touchdowns each, so we're obviously trying to build off of that."
As the Buccaneers' offseason workout program nears its completion, we are taking a new position-by-position look at how the 90-man roster will stack up for the start of training camp in late July. With free agency essentially over and the draft in the rear-view mirror, that roster is essentially set, though there could be a few changes on the back end before camp opens. Last week we broke down the quarterbacks and running backs and on Monday we looked at the wide receivers, which like today's position saw little offseason change.
Today's position: Tight Ends
Addition(s): Donnie Ernsberger (undrafted free agent), Tanner Hudson (undrafted free agent), Jason Reese (undrafted free agent)
Returning Players: Antony Auclair, Cameron Brate, Alan Cross, O.J. Howard
Even without any veteran arrivals or departures, there was still some contract work to get done this offseason in the Bucs' tight ends room. The target was Brate, who was due to become a restricted free agent and in another year could have tested the unrestricted waters. If Brate had delivered another season in 2018 that resembled his last two, he likely would have drawn plenty of attention from other teams in the spring of 2019.
Instead, Brate and the Buccaneers agreed on a new six-year deal just before the start of free agency, a pact that could run through the 2023 season. Meanwhile, as a first-round pick, Howard got a four-year deal with a fifth-year team option, potentially keeping him under contract through 2021. In other words, the Buccaneers have this position handled for the foreseeable future.
Auclair was last year's undrafted success story, a rare NFL prospect to come out of a Canadian university (Laval). The Buccaneers had a draftable grade on the French-speaking player but chose to go a different way in the later rounds after Howard surprisingly lasted to the 19th pick in the opening frame. Fortunately, Auclair went undrafted and the Buccaneers got him anyway. They astutely signed him to a three-year deal, originally, probably with the belief that he had a good shot at making the active roster. He did, and now he has a chance to continue developing in Tampa for several more years.
"I'm really excited about Auclair," said Steele. "Obviously we've got some time late in the season when O.J. was hurt. He missed all of last season's OTAs with a hamstring injury. Those reps were invaluable because he's still trying to learn the offense. Well now he's got a full offseason [to develop] the strength and the power that he has as a blocker. A guy that's 270, or high 260s, and can run like he can – I'm excited by what he's going to bring to the table. We've got a great group of tight ends.
As Steele noted, Auclair's playing time increased when Howard landed on injured reserve for the last two games. Even before that, Auclair was getting a longer look as his rookie season progressed, eventually taking over Luke Stocker's role as the third tight end and a blocking specialist in multiple-TE sets. The Buccaneers eventually released Stocker as the baton was passed, but they carried a fourth tight end in Cross, who had made it as an undrafted rookie in 2016. Cross is a different sort of tight end for the Bucs, more of an H-back who can provide lead blocking in the running game and go out on short routes.
"He's a jack of all trades," said Steele of Cross. "He's a guy that fit in that Atlanta game, the second-to-last game of the year [when] we had Cam and O.J. out, actually. We threw Alan in there and he caught a big fade on the sideline. He's reliable, he's got great hands and a great work ethic. He's a special one because he can kind of do it all."
Ernsberger, Hudson and Reese are the newcomers. Ernsberger, out of Western Michigan, was one of the team's top targets in undrafted free agency. He could compete for the same type of role that Cross has played the last two years. Offensive Coordinator Todd Monken volunteered the names of Hudson and Reese when he was asked about any young players who had stood out in early OTA practices.
"I like our new group, new rookies," said Steele. "We've got three great guys; right now they're just trying to get lined up, to be honest with you. Their heads are spinning because they're behind on the installs but they're putting in the time. I think it's still early but I do like the group that we have, definitely a solid group."
Notable 2017 Numbers:** We noted the Bucs' combined tight end totals above, most of which was provided by Brate and Howard. To be specific, Brate caught 48 passes for 591 yards and six touchdowns to lead that group, which was a near duplication of his breakout 57-660-8 line from the year before. It's notable that Brate's production only dipped a bit despite the addition of Howard, who was a lock to take away some of his targets.
Howard caught 26 passes for 432 yards and six scores of his own. His most notable number was his average of 16.6 yards per catch, which led all Buccaneer players, wideouts included, who caught at least 10 passes. In fact, across the entire NFL, no tight end who caught at least 20 passes in 2017 had a better yards-per-reception mark than Howard, who proved that part of his sparkling scouting report true right away. He definitely has the speed to exploit mismatches and can work the seams downfield.
That scouting report also suggested that Howard could dominate as a blocker in the NFL and thus develop into that rare commodity of a true all-around "Y" tight end. The Buccaneers do believe he possesses that talent, but Howard is going to have to put in more work to bring them out. There's little doubt he will put in the effort.
"He is his own biggest critic," said Steele, who noted that Howard studies film and makes a point of pinpointing his own shortcomings before coming to his coach for help. "He is a guy that is super humble and he knows the stuff that he needs to get done. Now it's those details. He's a guy that he's athletic enough to get away with using bad technique, but at the end of the day, that stuff is going to catch up to him. He's got to fine tune his details and he's got to get more efficient with his footwork and his hands, crisper routes and that is the stuff that we are working on now and I am excited to see where he's going to go with that."
Howard missed the last two games of the season with an ankle injury but he surpassed 50 yards in three of his last five outings. In the first nine games of the season, he had contributed some big plays and even had a 98-yard, two-touchdown performance in Buffalo, but he also had long stretches where the ball didn't find him. Steele shared that he had told Howard that "the great ones show up every day," and Howard was receptive to the message.
"So, [it's] not just making a play here, it's got to be consistent," said Steele. "Every single day that you're in there, it's got to be consistent. A great quarterback has to have a feeling where we're at. So, when those guys are working reps after practice, Jameis knows where they're going to be. Cam obviously has benefitted from those extra reps and then O.J.'s been out there too with him, so it's been good."
Key Question: Can the Buccaneers produce better results on the ground out of the two-TE set?
There are plenty of obvious concerns here, even with such a talented group. Can Brate avoid some of the many hard hits he took last year, which kept him from playing at full strength at time? Will Howard take the expected next step towards stardom in his second year? How much playing time will there be for the promising Auclair of Brate and Howard remain healthy?
The question we've chosen here, though, could be of hidden importance. Last year, in the 14 games in which they both played, Brate and Howard were on the field at the same time for an average of about 13 snaps per game. That works out to about a fifth of a typical number of plays in a single game, which is right around league average for two-TE plays. And, in fact, with Auclair getting snaps of his own, the Bucs' percentage of two-TE plays was actually a bit higher.
Still, this seems like an approach the Bucs could use even more often in order to make their intentions harder for opposing defenses to diagnose. If Brate and Howard are again two of the team's more dynamic offensive weapons, the Bucs will surely look for ways to maximize their input. That could involve having them both on the field more often.
The problem is that the Buccaneers did not run the ball very well out of two-TE sets that featured Brate and Howard last year, averaging just 2.09 yards per attempt. Obviously, the offense needs to be able to pose a legitimate ground threat out of a heavier package like this, or that will diminish the level of disguise in the play. With some changes to the offensive line and the drafting of Ronald Jones, the Buccaneers are making an effort to improve their rushing attack, which has been well below their own standards the last two seasons. Brate and Howard can help with that, too, with improvement of their own, and in the process probably create more pass-catching opportunities for themselves.