The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' signing of Tom Brady last March brought with it a not-completely-unexpected bonus. Not only did the Buccaneers get vintage Brady production and leadership (and a Lombardi Trophy because of it) but they also got the "Tommy & Gronky Show."
Yes, the Buccaneers had some off-the-field fun with their two former Patriots and current best pals, but the Tommy & Gronky show was pretty entertaining between the sidelines, too. Brady's decision to start a new NFL chapter in Tampa was obviously the draw that pulled Gronkowski out of retirement and got him back in the same locker room with his long-time teammate via a trade just before the 2020 draft. Both Brady and Gronkowski needed a good portion of the season to truly start feeling comfortable in a new offense, but they were instantly comfortable with each other, and it showed. The two capped an unforgettable season by hooking up on the first two touchdowns of Super Bowl LV, setting an all-time postseason record with 14 career TD passes between two teammates.
Gronkowski moved right to the top of the tight end depth chart due to his two-way dominance in receiving and blocking, but the Bucs still made very good use of their veteran depth at the position, first primarily with O.J. Howard and then with the always reliable Cameron Brate after Howard suffered a season-ending injury. The Buccaneers spent most of the season with four tight ends on the 53-man roster and usually three active on game day after some shuffling due to the injuries to Howard and blocking tight end Antony Auclair.
All told, the Buccaneers got 109 catches and 12 touchdowns out of the tight end position in 2020, including the playoffs, and then did the same thing they have done at virtually every position in 2021: Ran it back with the same guys. This was accomplished despite the fact that Gronkowski became an unrestricted free agent in March and was only one coveted player on a very long list of free agents or potential free agents the Bucs had to navigate.
Now that free agency work is done and the calendar has flipped to June. Most NFL teams are close to finishing up their abbreviated offseason programs with a mandatory mini-camp. The Buccaneers will do so in the middle of next week, and that will be it for on-field work until the start of training camp in late July. The Bucs still could tweak their 90-man roster a bit before camp, but with the draft now in the books there won't be major changes. So, with the roster mostly set, we are in the middle of a position-by-position review of the Bucs' depth chart heading into training camp. Up now is the tight ends; here's the full schedule of those positional reviews:
- Tuesday, May 25: Quarterbacks
- Friday, May 28: Running Backs
- Tuesday, June 1: Wide Receivers
- Friday, June 4: Tight Ends
- Tuesday, June 8: Offensive Tackles
- Friday, June 11: Guards & Centers
- Tuesday, June 15: Defensive Linemen
- Friday, June 18: Outside Linebackers
- Tuesday, June 22: Inside Linebackers
- Friday, June 25: Cornerbacks
- Tuesday, June 29: Safeties
- Friday, July 2: Specialists
If one groups all the pass-catchers together, Tampa Bay's collection of tight ends only adds to the absolutely loaded group surrounding Brady. Gronkowski may no longer be the NFL's most productive and feared tight end as he was in his prime, but he proved in 2020 that he could still be a major part of an elite offense with his stout blocking and frequent big plays.
Most notably, Gronkowski played in a career-high 20 games in 2020, answering the question as to whether he could still handle the physical strain of an NFL season after briefly retiring due to an accumulation of injuries. Now he heads into 2021 believing he can produce even more with a better grasp of the offense from Week One on.
"I'm definitely looking forward to this year of just going out there and just doing it," he said. "Not thinking about the play, not thinking about what I have and just knowing it in the back of my mind so it's like second nature. That's going to make the season that much better, already knowing the playbook going into it."
Brate is the longest-tenured of the current group, originally arriving in Tampa as an undrafted free agent in 2014 and, over the next couple seasons, emerging as a real force in the NFL, particularly in the red zone. The Bucs then attempted to supercharge the position in 2017 by using a first-round draft pick on the position for the first time in franchise history. That brought in O.J. Howard, who has indeed looked like a mismatch weapon at times in his young career, though he has had bad fortune with injuries.
Howard, of course, has had to overcome that aforementioned injury to his Achilles tendon, suffered in Week Four. Head Coach Bruce Arians recently gave a glowing outlook on Howard's recovery.
"He's really close now," said Arians. "He looks fantastic working out every day.
- Cameron Brate…Headed into the fourth season of a six-year contract that was set in 2018 and restructured earlier this offseason; Contributed 28 catches for 282 yards and two touchdowns during the 2020 regular season and led all Bucs tight ends with 14 catches in the postseason.
- Rob Gronkowski…Re-signed with the Buccaneers on a one-year deal on March 22 after playing out the final season of his previous six-year deal originally signed with the Patriots; Finished third on the team and first among tight ends in 2020 with 623 yards on 45 catches, adding seven touchdowns and two more in the Super Bowl.
- O.J. Howard…Entering the final year of his 2017 rookie deal after the Buccaneers elected to pick up their fifth-year option last spring; Had 11 catches for 146 yards and two touchdowns through the first four games of the 2020 season but then landed on injured reserve with an Achilles tendon injury.
- Tanner Hudson…Re-signed to a one-year deal on March 10 prior to becoming an exclusive rights free agent; Was on the active roster for the last 18 games of 2020 and played in 15 of them, including all four postseason contests, catching three passes for 41 yards in the regular season.
- Codey McElroy…Re-signed to a new two-year contract on February 10 after his practice squad contract expired; Spent the last 15 weeks of 2020 on the Bucs' practice squad, including the playoffs.
- Antony Auclair…Signed with the Houston Texans as an unrestricted free agent on April 14; Played in eight games with two starts in 2020 but did not have a reception.
- Jerell Adams…Signed a one-year contract with the Buccaneers on May 17; Has played in 30 regular-season games with the Giants and Texans.
Even with Howard focusing on his rehab and Gronkowski and Brate joining Brady in their veteran workouts, the Buccaneers have had good tight end play on the practice field during OTAs. Both Hudson and Codey McElroy are athletic pass-catching tight ends and Hudson is known to have some of the best hands on the team. The two could end up battling for the fourth tight end spot on the active roster.
"Tanner Hudson always does. He is always making catches down the middle," said Arians after a recent practice. "And Codey McElroy – both of those tight ends looked really good."
Adams, who was signed in May after taking part in the Bucs' rookie mini-camp on a tryout contract, is the only new addition to the room. A former sixth-round pick by the Giants, he has 24 career receptions for 214 yards and one touchdown, but no catches since the 2017 season.
As noted above, Gronkowski's 623 yards on 45 receptions were the most by a Buccaneers tight end last year, and he tied for second on the team with seven touchdown catches. His 38.9 receiving yards per game marked his lowest average since his 2010 rookie season, but it was more a matter of his production going up and down from game to game. He had three straight games with 50-plus yards in October and then his first 100-yard game as a Buccaneer against the Chiefs in November, but he also had six games with 14 or fewer yards, including the postseason. He may have saved his best for last with six catches for 67 yards and two scores in the Super Bowl.
Howard was actually leading all the tight ends with 11 catches for 146 yards and two touchdowns when he went down in Week Four. At the time, Brate had played only sparingly, but he then became the primary partner with Gronkowski in two-TE sets and ended up with 28 grabs on the season. Without the nagging injuries that had slowed him in recent seasons, Brate was able to make opposing defenses pay for assuming that Gronkowski would be the main tight end target on any given game day. That was obvious and impressive in the first two games of the playoffs, when the Bucs chose to keep Gronkowski in to block more often and set Brate loose for a total of eight catches and 130 yards.
Three Key Questions:
· Can Rob Gronkowski once again play every game and be on the field for more than three-quarters of the team's offensive snaps?
One of Gronkowski's most impressive numbers in 2020 was zero. That's how many games he missed as he found himself rejuvenated after his one year of retirement. He also was on the field for 77% of the team's offensive plays right up through the Super Bowl, eventually logging 1,039 snaps. Gronkowski called it a "mission" to prove that he could play in every game, and it was one he was very pleased to accomplish.
That was in his age 31 season after nine very bruising campaigns in New England. Can he do it again at 32? Gronkowski thinks so, claiming all the way back in March that he was ready to get back to it.
"I feel like I can play another full season right now if we started," said Gronkowski after signing a new deal to stay with the champs. "So I feel really good. Everything that I've changed throughout my career is definitely paying off and it feels great. It's great to see everything pay off. I feel really good right now. I feel light, I feel flexible, I feel like I can go out and just play some football. Just go out and not be thinking and just play football and run routes and do what I've got to do out there on the field. I definitely feel like I'm ready to go, play another full season coming up this year and just take it a year at a time like that."
Since the Buccaneers' offense finished the season on a two-month tear and since the team then went to great lengths to keep that unit intact and virtually unchanged, it appears they want to take the same approach in 2021 as they did in 2020, just with Brady and Gronkowski now more comfortable in the offense. That means they probably would like to have Gronkowski on the field as much as possible again and he's ready to make it work.
· Will O.J. Howard return to a large role in the offense in the final year of his rookie contract?
Howard has yet to play a 16-game season, with assorted injuries costing him 22 games over his first four years in the league. They have mostly been non-contact lower-leg injuries, so there shouldn't be a worry that he can stand up to the physical toll of playing tight end in the NFL. If he finally runs into some better luck in the health department in 2021, Howard could be a surprisingly productive player in his fifth season.
One reason to believe that is his career average of 15.3 yards per reception on a total of 105 catches. Of all tight ends in the league with at least 50 receptions over the last four seasons, Howard has the best per-catch average in the NFL. (Gronkowski is second at 14.8.) As noted above, Howard was leading the Bucs' tight ends in catches, yards and touchdowns before his injury and Arians seemed to have big plans for him.
"You can't replace him – you just put the next guy in and put in the gameplan what he does best," said Arians after Howard landed on injured reserve. "Cam Brate, Tanner Hudson – those guys can do things, too. They can't be O.J. – O.J.'s a special guy. Obviously, we'll sorely miss him."
What makes this question even more interesting is that Howard is due to become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the upcoming season. Despite his injury issues, Howard had his fifth-year option picked up in the spring of 2019, another indication of how much the Bucs believe in his talents. The level of Howard's production in 2021 will determine how much interest he gets as a free agent and how hard the Buccaneers work to try to keep him in town.
· Will the Buccaneers increase their usage of "12" personnel, with two tight ends on the field?
The addition of Gronkowski between 2019 and 2020 already caused an uptick in the Bucs' use of 12 personnel, which features two tight ends and usually two wide receivers. In 2019, the Buccaneers had two tight ends and either one or two receivers on the field for 20.0% of their snaps. Last year, that jumped to 22.6%. Could it go up again in 2021 if Howard stays healthy and produces at a high level alongside Gronkowski?
It's tough to predict too much of a jump because the team's depth and talent at wide receiver makes it hard to keep those players off the field, too. Tampa Bay's most common offensive grouping in both seasons under Arians so far has been the traditional "11," with one tight end, one back and three receivers on the field. Last year, that was the choice on 56.2% of the plays, and that was with Antonio Brown in the mix only for the second half of the season.
Still, one thing that could lead to more 12 usage would be a more balanced offense and a stronger and more consistent rushing attack. Arians would like to see the Bucs move in that direction. Putting a 12 package on the field with two great pass-catching tight ends on anticipated running downs is a good strategy because it adds to the blocking up front but also still poses a serious receiving threat.