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2022 State of the Bucs: Tight Ends

Taking a position-by-position look at the Buccaneers heading into the 2022 offseason, continuing with the tight ends

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Position Group: Tight End

Players: Cameron Brate, Rob Gronkowski, O.J. Howard, Codey McElroy

2021 Evaluation: Tampa Bay's tight ends combined to catch exactly 100 passes during the 2021 regular reason, turning them into 1,182 yards and 11 touchdowns. In two postseason games, that group produced another 15 catches for 164 yards and one score.

The majority of that output was provided by Rob Gronkowski, who missed five games and almost all of a sixth but still finished third on the team with 802 receiving yards, scoring six times among 55 receptions. He added another touchdown in the playoffs while catching nine passes for 116 yards. Cam Brate provided his usually steady production and strong work in the red zone, hauling in 30 passes for 235 yards and four touchdowns.

O.J. Howard played in all 17 games and made nine starts but finished with a career-low 135 yards on 14 catches, scoring once. He did not catch a pass over the final seven games of the regular season, though he did snare two for 10 yards in the postseason. Down the stretch, Howard continued to see semi-regular playing time as he worked largely as a blocker in two-TE sets.

The Buccaneers also had three other tight ends see spot action during the regular season, all after being elevated from the practice squad on game days. Those three were Deon Yelder, Darren Fells and Codey McElroy. Yelder caught one pass for no yards.

After coming out of a one-year retirement in 2020 to reunite with Tom Brady, Gronkowski notably started all 20 games that season, including the playoffs. He had missed time due to injury in each of the previous seven seasons in which he played, prior to that short-lived retirement in 2019. Gronkowski didn't have the same luck in 2021, as noted above, missing significant time due to related ribs and back injuries. However, in the games in which he appeared, Gronkowski played 80% of the team's offensive snaps as he continued to shine as one of the NFL's better blocking tight ends.

2022 Outlook: The Buccaneers currently have just two tight ends under contract for the 2022 season – Brate and McElroy. Both Gronkowski and Howard are due to become unrestricted free agents on March 16.

Gronkowski will potentially hit free agency after finishing the second of two consecutive one-year contracts with the Buccaneers. The first was actually inherited from the New England Patriots in the team's trade for the Pro Bowl tight end in 2020; Gronkowski then signed another deal to remain with Brady and the Buccaneers in 2021. Howard just finished up his initial rookie deal after being selected in the first round of the 2017 draft; the Buccaneers exercised their fifth-year option on the contract prior to the 2020 season.

Gronkowski indicated at the end of the 2021 season that he would take some time to think about whether he wanted to extend his playing career or retire for a second time. He said that his decision would not be dependent upon what happened with Brady, who did choose to retire at the end of January. If Gronkowski does elect to continue playing, he could return for a third season with the Buccaneers or test the free agent waters. Howard, who had roughly 100 catches, 1,500 yards and a dozen touchdown catches over his first three seasons in the league, may look for an opportunity elsewhere to regain a larger role in a team's passing attack.

Over the past four years, Brate has averaged right around 30 catches for 300 yards and four touchdowns per season, while starting a total of 10 games. McElroy has spent most of the past two seasons on the Buccaneers' practice squad and could definitely factor into the depth at the position in 2022, but he has just one catch in his NFL career.

As such, the Buccaneers have worked to do at the tight end position. There would be less need to address the position in free agency or the draft if either Gronkowski or Howard returns, but the Bucs may be hard-pressed to get both of them back. Other than Gronkowski, tight ends have not been featured heavily in Bruce Arians' passing schemes over the past three years, so the Buccaneers may not need to pursue big names at the position. Still, one or two additions seem necessary before the team goes back to training camp next summer.

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