Before he saw his season end six games early on an awkward tackle in the Meadowlands, second-year tight end O.J. Howard was building a compelling case to be included among the elite at his position. Now the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' high-powered passing attack will be without Howard's 56.5 yards and 0.5 touchdowns per game for the stretch run…but at least in the estimation of some that offense will still feature one of the NFL's best tight ends.
Howard was fifth in the NFL among all tight ends in receiving yards and tied for third in touchdowns, and his season average of 16.6 yards per catch tells the story of a big man who is fast and athletic enough to make plays down the field. That's not an easy asset to replace, and some teams in this situation would have to simply pivot away from the tight end and rely more on the other "skill positions." The Buccaneers, however, have a still-healthy tight end who has 122 catches for 1,410 yards in the last three years and is tied for third among all tight ends with 17 touchdown catches in that same span.
That tight end is Cam Brate, and the other high-flying targets in Tampa Bay's passing game fully expect him to step up in Howard's absence.
"He's been a really good player for us from the jump," said wide receiver Mike Evans, the Bucs' leading pass-catcher. "He was an undrafted guy, worked really hard, started getting reps and then he became one of the best tight ends in the league. And I still believe he is one of the best tight ends, especially with the opportunities he's about to get now."
Brate averaged nearly three-and-a-half catches per game over the 2016-2017 season, the second of which he shared the tight end targets with Howard, then a rookie. As Howard has blossomed in 2018, Brate has seen a downturn in his targets, though he still has three touchdown catches. Brate is averaging close to three targets per game this year, and a little under two receptions per outing. He expects to hear his number called more often down the stretch, and thinks there will be additional opportunities for fellow tight ends Antony Auclair and Alan Cross, too.
"Anytime you lose a player like O.J. it's going to hurt your offense," said Brate, who first joined the Buccaneers as an undrafted free agent out of Harvard in 2014. "I thought he was having a Pro Bowl-caliber season. I feel really bad for him; it's obviously not the way he wanted his season to end, but I just can't say enough about how well he played the first 10 games. Guys are going to have to step up in his absence, whether that's me, Antony or Alan. We're probably going to be asked to do a little bit more, and we're ready for that."
The Buccaneers already had a productive tight end on hand in Brate when Howard surprisingly fell into their lap in the opening round of the 2017 Draft. They didn't draft Howard as Brate's replacement and they fully expected the two to excel in tandem. That certainly happened last year when Brate and Howard tied for the team lead with six touchdowns and the two combined for over 1,000 yards, led by Brate's 591. The dip in Brate's production this year, after he signed a lucrative new deal in the offseason, is less a product of a shift away from him to Howard and more the reality of an offense that has at least six dynamic pass-catchers and is using them to put up historic numbers. Brate understands this.
"There's only one ball to go around and the guys who have been getting the ball a little more have been doing an awesome job," he said. "Just like any receiver, you like to get targets but I think our offense has been kind of rolling, outside the Washington game. We still put up a lot of yards, we just didn't score a lot of points that game. I think everyone, all our skill-position players, have been playing really well for us. It probably costs me some targets, but that's alright."
Brate's rise to front-line status coincides with Jameis Winston's return to the starting lineup, beginning this Sunday against San Francisco. Since the start of 2017, the Buccaneers have had 16 games started by Jameis Winston and 10 by Ryan Fitzpatrick. Brate has averaged roughly twice as many catches per game (3.1 to 1.5) and almost three times as many receiving yards per game (38.4 to 13.6) when Winston has been the starter, and seven of his nine touchdown catches have come in Winston starts.
"Yeah, it definitely helps," said Brate. "Jameis and I have been working together now for four years. We continue to make strides and put in all the work, during practice, after practice. For whatever reason, he and I have always clicked and we'll take advantage of that going forward the next six games."
As Brate noted, Auclair and Cross should see an uptick in snaps, too, though that doesn't necessarily mean they'll garner a high number of targets. Auclair has mostly been used as an in-line blocker and Cross has filled more of a fullback/H-back type of role, sometimes lining up in the backfield in two-back sets. It is Brate who is most likely to keep the team's pass-game production up at the tight end position in the absence of Howard.
"You don't take a guy like O.J. out [and easily replace him]," said Koetter. "It's a fact that Cam is a really good football player, but there aren't five more of guys waiting in the wings. That just doesn't happen. Anybody that's on our team I always have confidence in him. Antony Auclair will play a bigger role, Alan Cross will play a bigger role – those guys have done a good job in the roles that they've had so far. They'll now have bigger roles.
"Before there was an O.J. Howard, Cam Brate was a pretty good player. I mentioned those other guys will have bigger roles, Cam will have a much bigger role."