By sheer numbers and even by consideration of available talent, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers didn't really need to make a prominent addition to their tight end position. And we probably didn't need to get dessert after our steak dinner last night, either.
Dessert might have been a questionable luxury for us but the opportunity to add Rob Gronkowski to an already solid tight end corps was one the Buccaneers couldn't let pass. Gronkowski had retired after nine incredibly productive seasons with the New England Patriots and had sat out the 2019 campaign, but Tom Brady's move to Florida – not to mention his own recuperated body – was enough to get him back into the game he dominated for nearly a decade. The Buccaneers were more than happy to ship one of their two fourth-round picks to the Patriots to reunite that duo, which accounted for 90 total touchdowns over the regular season and postseason from 2010-18.
Had Gronkowski chosen to expand his WWE career instead of returning to football, the Buccaneers could have felt reasonably content heading into 2020 with a tight end group led by O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate, particularly with the notion that Brady would bring out the best in Howard, the 19th-overall pick in the 2017 draft. Howard saw a dip in his production in 2019 but he remains big and fast with more big-play potential to be tapped. His career average of 15.5 yards per catch was second among all tight ends from 2017-19, trailing only the 16.4-yard average posted by…Rob Gronkowski.
Brate has also proven to be one of the NFL's best red zone threats, with 24 touchdown catches over the last four years. Antony Auclair, who missed the second half of 2019 with a toe injury, is back and has been frequently featured in two-TE sets the last couple years as a strong blocker. There are even a couple young and intriguing pass-catching options behind those two in Tanner Hudson and Codey McElroy, plus returning veteran Jordan Leggett.
View photos of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers roster as it currently stands.
Before adding Gronkowski the Buccaneers had five tight ends on the offseason roster, only one fewer than they took to training camp last summer. In fact, they had the exact same group as the one they started camp with in 2019, minus 2018 undrafted free agent Donnie Ernsberger. The Bucs could have easily added a sixth tight end late in the draft or, once again, through undrafted free agency, which is where they previously found Brate, Auclair and Hudson. And, of course, there are still plenty of veteran tight ends left on the free agent market, such as Darren Fells or Charles Clay, that could have been brought in for competition.
But, of course, none of those options would have tempted the Buccaneers to actually consider the dessert menu. Reuniting Gronkowski with Brady, on the other hand, was a big way to cap a big offseason and transform a position that at one point looked as if it was already set.
Over a six-week period in May and June, we will be taking a close look at each position on the depth chart now that the draft and most of free agency are complete. Some positions needed more attention in the offseason than others after the 2019 season, but every spot on the depth chart has seen some turnover. Today we focus on those players who have to pull double duty as blockers and pass-catchers.
Roster Review Schedule:
• Monday, May 18: Quarterbacks
• Wednesday, May 20: Running Backs
• Monday, May 25: Wide Receivers
• Wednesday, May 27: Tight Ends
• Monday, June 1: Offensive Tackles
• Wednesday, June 3: Guards & Centers
• Monday, June 8: Defensive Linemen
• Wednesday, June 10: Outside Linebackers
• Monday, June 15: Inside Linebackers
• Wednesday, June 17: Cornerbacks
• Monday, June 22: Safeties
• Wednesday, June 24: Specialists
As noted, Howard was a first-round pick in 2017, marking the first time the Buccaneers had ever selected a tight end in the opening frame. That only happened after the former Alabama star, widely projected to be off the board among the first 10-12 picks, slid a little farther than expected. Brate had broke out with a 57-catch, eight-touchdown season the year before and he and Howard proved to be a productive duo the next two years, particularly in terms of their 23 combined touchdowns. However, Howard did miss time in both of those seasons due to two fluky and unrelated ankle injuries.
Auclair was an undrafted find out of the Canadian college of Laval the same year that Howard was drafted, and he eventually replaced veteran Luke Stocker as the team's primary blocking tight end. Buccaneers Head Coach Bruce Arians called Auclair one of the best blocking tight ends in the NFL after the 2019 season and the Buccaneers re-signed him before he could become an unrestricted free agent this spring. Hudson is a former quarterback and punter who converted to tight end in college and, according to teammate Mike Evans, has some of the best hands on the team. McElroy has an even more varied sports background, having played both baseball and basketball collegiately before landing on football. His promotion and late-season cameo in 2019 marked the first bit of NFL action for the 27-year-old.
• Antony Auclair…Signed new one-year deal in March; Considered Bucs' best blocking tight end last season but missed eight games due to injury
• Cameron Brate…In third year of six-year deal signed in 2018; Caught 36 passes for 311 yards and four TDs in 2019 and 24 touchdown catches from 2016-19 ranks fourth among NFL tight ends
• O.J. Howard…Entering fourth-year of five-year rookie deal; Caught 34 passes for 459 yards and one TD in 2019 and career average of 15.5 yards per catch ranks second among qualifying TEs from 2017-19
• Tanner Hudson…2018 undrafted free agent signed new one-year deal in March; Played 106 offensive snaps in 2019 and was one of NFL's leading receivers in 2019 preseason
• Jordan Leggett…Signed new one-year deal in January after finishing season on practice squad; On active roster for eight weeks but inactive for each game
• Codey McElroy…Entering second year of two-year deal signed when promoted from practice squad in December; Caught one pass for 30 yards on three offensive snaps
View pictures as Tom Brady and Phil Mickelson square off against Peyton Manning and Tiger Woods for another round of 'The Match' for coronavirus relief.
• Rob Gronkowski…Acquired from New England along with a 2020 seventh-round pick in exchange for a 2020 fourth-round pick; Came out of retirement after not playing in 2019; In nine seasons caught 521 passes for 7,861 yards and 79 touchdowns
Gronkowski spent nine years physically dominating defenders in New England but that style of play took its toll and eventually led to his decision to retire in 2019. However, the year off allowed him to get rested and healthy and though he dropped about 10 pounds down to 250 he says he'll have no problem getting back to 260 if needed.
"My body feels good," he said. "I definitely worked over the last year too. It's not like I've taken off and done nothing. I mean, at some points, there was a good month or two where I didn't do anything. My body just needed that time to rest, needed that time to heal. I would say that I lost some weight too to take some pressure off my joints, to take some pressure off my body and I feel like it was totally the right decision."
Arians knows what Gronkowski is capable of on the field, but as was also the case with the Brady signing in March, the Bucs' coach expects the star tight end to make a big difference in the locker room as well. The Buccaneers have not followed his addition with a trade of either Howard or Brate, a move highly speculated in the media, and Gronkowski's addition might actually prove to be a boost for those two.
"Winner, proven winner, great passion for the game," said Arians of Gronkowski. "History of really taking care of his room – making sure if any young player needs help he's going to help them. But a proven winner – a guy that knows what it takes. For he and Tom to be together, I think it will be great for our culture."
Arians' offenses in Arizona rarely produced big numbers for tight ends, but he obviously has never had as talented of a group as the Bucs will field in 2020. He is looking forward to deploying all of them around Brady in 2020. The Buccaneers notably chose to pick up the 2021 fifth-year option on Howard's contract last month.
"I like both those guys, and we'll use three tight ends in our sets sometimes," said Arians of Howard and Brate. "Each and every one has a redeeming quality that helps us win. I think it's a great room. I think Tanner Hudson and McElroy – those are young guys too. It's a really strong room. Jordan Leggett too. I don't think anyone has a better tight end room in the league. I love playing tight ends. I know I get this thing that we don't throw to them, but when I had Heath Miller, he went to the Pro Bowl. I think it's just going to upgrade everyone. Competition breeds success."
The Buccaneers' tight ends contributed to the NFL's top-ranked passing attack in 2019 but both saw their touchdown and yards-per-target totals go down from the year before and Howard produced roughly 25 fewer yards per contest than he had in 2018. Before that season ended six games early due to a second ankle injury, Howard was drawing Pro Bowl buzz and was leading all NFL tight ends with an average of 16.6 yards per reception.
After a slow start and a two-game injury absence, Howard did see his production begin to rise in the season's stretch run. He had 19 of his catches in a four-game span between Weeks 13-16, and his average of 56.5 yards per game in that stretch was much more in line with his production in 2017 and 2018. Brate also picked it up near the end, with a 10-catch game against the Saints in November and 11 grabs over the last four weeks.
The Buccaneers utilized two-TE sets on 28.5% of their snaps in 2019, and specifically used "12" personnel (one back, two wideouts, two tight ends) on 20.0% of their plays, making it the second-most common offensive package. It was a distant second to "11" personnel (three receivers) but both of those groupings produced the same 47% success rate, according to the NFL's Next Gen Stats. The team's most common two-TE pairing was Howard and Brate, with 172 snaps together, but Howard and Auclair were on the field together for 74 snaps despite the former missing two games and the latter being on I.R. for the final eight. In all, the Buccaneers averaged 4.8 yards per play when they had two tight ends on the field, more than a yard below their overall average of 5.9 yards per play in 2019.
Hudson, who caught 19 passes for 245 yards and three touchdowns during the preseason, got a chance to play extensively during the two October games that Howard missed but finished with just two catches for 26 yards. McElroy made the most of his three snaps, using one of them to catch a 30-yard pass against Houston in Week 16.
Three Key Questions:
• How close to peak Rob Gronkowski are the Buccaneers getting?
Gronkowski was a first-team All-Pro as recently as 2017, when he produced a 69-1,084-8 line with an average of 15.7 yards per grab. His 2018 season was interrupted by injuries and he saw his production fall to 47-682-3, though the Patriots still had him on the field for almost the exact same percentage of snaps (75%) as the year before. Gronkowski exceeded 1,000 receiving yards in three of his last five seasons in New England and, at age 31, he feels well enough to be physically dominant again. Obviously, his most gaudy statistic is his 79 touchdown catches over nine seasons, the most by any NFL player in that span. In his career, Gronkowski has averaged 68.4 yards per game and scored a touchdown roughly once every game and a half. The Buccaneers would be thrilled if he approaches those numbers in 2020.
• Just how will the team utilize all three of Gronkowski, Howard and Brate?
As noted above, Gronkowski was usually on the field for the Patriots when he was healthy in 2018. Throughout his career, he has played a high snap count (more than 43 per game on average) because he is as dominant a blocker as he is a pass-catcher. The Buccaneers would like to field a more balanced offense with a more productive rushing attack in 2020 and hope the additions of Gronkowski and first-round tackle Tristan Wirfs will go a long way towards achieving that goal. If he is healthy and close to peak form, he's likely to be on the field quite a bit for the Buccaneers. Arians said above that the Bucs would have some three-TE looks but they only used three together on 22 snaps in 2019, much of it in jumbo, short-yardage situations. Putting Gronkowski, Howard and Brate on the field together for a significant amount of time would definitely be a new wrinkle in the offense. If the Buccaneers are close to their two-TE usage in 2020, or maybe use it a little bit more, they could get a decent amount of time out of all three combinations between Gronkowski, Howard and Brate.
• Will the Buccaneers find another young tight end to develop along the lines of Brate?
In 2019, the Buccaneers had at least four tight ends on the 53-man roster every week of the season, and they carried five in Weeks Eight and 15. That suggests that there is room for at least one more of the young tight ends behind Gronkowski, Howard and Brate to earn a spot in 2020. While there likely wouldn't be a lot of playing time to go around when those first three are healthy, there may eventually be opportunities if any of them miss a game or two. Hudson was promising enough in his second NFL preseason to stick on the 53-man roster and remain there the entire season. Though he likely will have to improve his blocking – as Brate had to do over the years – in order to get significant playing time, he has definitely shown pass-catching ability. McElroy has very little experience but a lot of athleticism and could be an interesting find. Leggett was a fifth-round pick by the Jets just three years ago.