The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have done virtually nothing to change their tight end depth chart during the 2019 offseason, but they really didn't need to. All the Buccaneers need more of in order to field one of the more productive groups at that position is good fortune when it comes to injuries.
In fact, Tampa Bay's current cast of tight ends has already ranked among the league's best. Two years ago, led by Cam Brate and then-rookie O.J. Howard, the Buccaneers' tight ends combined to produce 1,124 yards and 13 touchdowns. Only three teams got more yards from that position in 2017, and only one got more touchdowns. Those numbers dipped for Tampa Bay in 2018, to 911 yards and 11 touchdowns – which is still quite good – and the reason was injuries. Howard missed the last six games of the season with an ankle injury and Brate, while he appeared in every game, was limited all season by a hip ailment.
Howard has recovered from his ankle injury, which did not require surgery. Brate did have surgery on his hip, which should allow him to return to his unfettered 2016-17 form, during which he was among league tight end leaders with 14 touchdown catches. Those two represent the most offensive-minded and well-rounded tight ends that new Bucs Head Coach Bruce Arians has had a chance to deploy, which has led to plenty of speculation as to what that will mean for Arians' offense. In fact, that's our "burning question" below!
The process of reshaping the roster for a new season and a new coaching staff is mostly done, at least in terms of fleshing it out through free agency and the draft. Now comes the opposite assignment, when the current list of 90 players is slowly whittled down to 53 for the regular season. With the training camp roster largely in place, we are taking a position-by-position look to see how things have changed and where the Bucs stand at each corner of the depth chart heading into the new season. We'll provide an overview of the assets at the position, discuss what some of the numbers from last season indicate about its strengths and weaknesses and then finish with that aforementioned burning question.
Last week we examined the quarterbacks and running backs. This week we're looking at the pass-catchers, starting with the wide receivers on Monday and now moving on to another very talented group: Tight Ends.
Subtraction(s): Alan Cross (retired)
Returning Players: Antony Auclair, Cameron Brate, Donnie Ernsberger, O.J. Howard*, Tanner Hudson
(* Howard was on injured reserve at the end of the 2018 season.)
The Buccaneers got their dynamic duo of tight ends in two very different ways. Brate arrived as an undrafted free agent in 2014, didn't really play much until 2015 and even then had to be hastily retrieved after spending a week on the New Orleans Saints' practice squad. Howard, meanwhile, was the 19th overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft.
Brate, a former Harvard standout, had to develop much of his game after arriving in the NFL, particularly in regard to his blocking. However, it didn't take him long to become a legitimate red zone threat, as well as a favorite target of quarterback Jameis Winston. Rick Christophel, the Buccaneers' new tight ends coach under Arians, knew before meeting Brate that he had a valuable weapon in his meeting room.
"That was the most impressive thing watching him on film and coming in and seeing him, the way he uses his body," said Christophel. "He's so smart – the leverage issues he uses and how he makes himself available to Jameis. Last year he would do things in the end zone, in the red zone, just one step here, two steps here where he could get his body in front of the ball. It's almost like he was playing basketball, boxing a guy out."
Fortunately for Christophel, he's probably an inheriting a player who is better than what his 2018 tape suggests. Brate isn't practicing with the team yet but he should be ready by training camp and will get a fresh start after a challenging year.
"I didn't know he was hurt until somebody said something to me," said Christophel. "What he did – everybody talks about toughness and stuff like that, but the things he had to do to get ready to play? That takes a lot of toughness. He is very mentally tough. I know right now it really hurts him not to be on the field because he's a competitor and we'd like to have him out there."
Howard, meanwhile, was a first-round pick specifically because he has the tools to be a true "Y" tight end, one who can be on the field for any type of offensive play and who can dominate both as a pass-catcher and a blocker. Christophel said those types of players are becoming increasingly rare in the NFL, so the Buccaneers are lucky to have one. Howard looked like he might be on his way to the Pro Bowl in his second season last fall before his unlucky injury, as he had 565 yards, five touchdowns and a robust 16.6-yard per-catch average in roughly nine and a half games.
"There are two or three guys in the league that are like him that come to mind," said Christophel. "Travis Kelce, when he came out he had that kind of speed but O.J. was unique, he was a little more fluid when he came out. Those guys [who are] able to stretch the field, go across the middle and catching passes because they're big and end up on the line of scrimmage blocking are few and far between. He has the unique ability to do all those things."
The rest of the Bucs' tight end depth chart is also filled with returning players. Antony Auclair has been the Bucs' third tight end since the last third of his 2017 rookie season, after arriving as an undrafted free agent from a Canadian college. He is best known for his blocking abilities, which has made him a common presence in two-TE sets. The Bucs also have two first-year players who got late promotions last year in Donnie Ernsberger and Tanner Hudson. The two former undrafted free agents are largely unproven, of course, but it says something about their promise that the new coaching staff didn't replace them with a new crop of rookie tight ends.
"Tanner and Donnie have both played, so that gives them a chance, experience-wise," said Christophel. "It's hard to tell in the spring because you're not in pads and you're not doing a lot of things that you would normally do during the season. They have adapted well, and one thing I can say about all those guys is they've come to learn and done a great job of adapting to our offense."
Notable 2018 Numbers:
As noted above, Howard averaged 16.6 yards per catch, a rather high number for a tight end, one that suggests he is very good at working the seams and getting downfield. In fact, that average was the highest among all NFL tight ends with at least 10 catches last year. Despite being deployed downfield more often than many players at his position, Howard was still a high-percentage target for his quarterbacks, catching 70.8% of the passes thrown in his direction. That was ninth-best among all tight ends with at least 30 catches, and only one of the eight players above him even averaged 12 yards per catch. Even with those numbers, Howard might be able to become an even more efficient pass-catcher in his third season.
"I think the biggest thing is learning to adapt to what people are doing to him," said Christophel. Slow his process down on catches. I think he had a couple drops last year where he was trying to run before he caught the ball. Those are little things you can work on – slowing the process, getting the ball in, stuff like that, and continue to work on his techniques in blocking."
Brate finished 2018 with a career-low 9.6 yards per catch and a total of 30 grabs, his lowest since 2015. Again, however, those numbers can be interpreted in a positive manner, as Brate was clearly limited by his injury and thus would seem to have serious bounce-back potential when he's healthy. Even with his limitations, he caught another six touchdown passes last year, giving him 20 over the past three seasons combined. That's as many as Eagles' Pro Bowler Zach Ertz has in the same span, and only the aforementioned Kelce of the Chiefs has more, with 23.
Last year, under Dirk Koetter's staff, the Buccaneers' offense was in "12" personnel (two tight ends) on 26% of their snaps, which is just a little bit above the league average. Of course, that number might have been higher had injuries not hit Howard and Brate. In his last season as the head coach in Arizona, 2017, Arians' offense utilized 12 personnel on 35% of their plays, well above league average. Which leads us to…
Key Question: How thoroughly will Bruce Arians exploit the best combination of offensive tight ends he's ever had as a head coach?
The highest single-season totals any tight end had during Arians' five-year run in Arizona was 39 catches and 454 yards, both by Rob Housler in 2013. It's not clear that this is a matter of offensive philosophy, however. It might just have been dictated by the personnel on hand. And Arians has very different personnel heading into his first year at the Bucs' helm.
"No, never," said Arians when asked if he'd had a pair of tight ends like Howard and Brate before. "We had traditional, blocking-type guys. John Carlson was probably the closest thing to Cam. When you don't play with a fullback, then the defense can't put eight in the box. We've got tight ends that can split out, line up tight, one can get in the backfield. It just gives you more down-and-distance calls from the defensive coordinator than personnel calls. You put a fullback in, they know the six plays you're going to run and you're limited in passing."
"You can dictate a lot of things with two tight ends that can run and catch but still block."
It sure sounds like Arians is going to make use of his new tight end riches. His aggressive, "no risk it, no biscuit" approach to play-calling suggests he would look to get Howard into those seams to stress opposing defenses. While Brate will benefit from better mobility and should see his numbers rebound, it's Howard who might take the next step into NFL stardom. Together, they could give the Buccaneers one of the most dangerous "12" packages in the league.
"We're going to be able to do some different things with those kinds of guys," said Christophel. "They both have unique talents to their own bodies. To get them both on the field at the same time will give us some advantages and matchups for the defense. I think it will be fun to see how that all works."