View some of the top photos of TE O.J. Howard from the 2017 season.
Barring a dramatic trade of some sort, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will add another first-round draft pick to their roster on the evening of April 26. There's a good chance that player will immediately assume a big role on the 2018 squad, particularly if he is of top-10 pedigree.
The Buccaneers hope that newcomer will help in their efforts to rebound from a 5-11 season and surge back into playoff contention in 2018. Of perhaps equal importance to that effort is how Tampa Bay's last first-round pick performs this coming fall.
A year ago, Tampa Bay brass was surprised to see Alabama tight end O.J. Howard still on the board at pick 19, where they eagerly snapped him up. It was the first time the franchise had ever used a first-round pick on a tight end, and it was part of an overhaul of Jameis Winston's cast of weapons that also included the signing of free agent wide receiver DeSean Jackson and the selection of Penn State wide receiver Chris Godwin in the third round.
Obviously, Tampa Bay's talent evaluators thought very highly of Howard – as did the football community as a whole – and those opinions haven't changed. That said, it can take even the most talented prospect some time to adjust to the NFL level and fully realize his potential, and the Buccaneers don't believe that Howard has come close to peaking yet.
In short, the Buccaneers expect to get a lot more out of Howard in 2018, and that could have an impact as great as any rookie newcomer.
"That rookie year is such a whirlwind," said Head Coach Dirk Koetter. "You're a first-round draft pick; everybody's got high expectations. O.J. played in an elite college program in Alabama. I know he had tapes that he was studying over the offseason and I think O.J.'s going to see that his room for improvement is immense. He can do so many things better, and he's capable of doing that."
Howard certainly didn't disappoint in his debut campaign. He tied fellow tight end Cam Brate for the team lead with six touchdown receptions and he had three of his five best games of the season from Week 10 on, before a shoulder injury put him on injured reserve with two weeks left. Howard also played 64% of the Bucs' offensive snaps despite missing those last two games, most among the team's tight ends. His blocking as a rookie may not have been the strongest part of his game, but the Bucs think he is on track to become an excellent all-around threat at a position that features a lot of one-dimensional players.
"That's one of the things we loved about O.J. is that he's a do-everything tight end," said Koetter. "He's a top-of-the-line blocker, he's got great speed, he's got great size. Everyone sees the plays where he was wide open and he catches touchdowns, or he splits the safeties and he catches it, but there are so, so many little things that O.J. can do better. If O.J. comes in with the right attitude about improving, I think he is a player that has a chance to take a big leap in Year Two. And there's nothing that I know about O.J. that wouldn't suggest that he is the type of player that will be ready to do that."
The Buccaneers also think very highly of Brate, their other primary tight end. That was evident when they re-signed him to a lucrative new long-term deal just before the start of free agency. He is an outstanding red zone threat whose own blocking has steadily improved, but he likely doesn't have the same ceiling as Howard in that latter category. Still, Brate's presence is part of what makes a potential breakout from Howard so exciting for the Buccaneers.
Tampa Bay ran 175 plays with Howard and Brate on the field together last year, which figures to about 13 per game in the 14 contests in which both played. When the Bucs passed out of that package, it went pretty well, with an average of 8.53 yards per play. For the sake of comparison, Tampa Bay's offense averaged 6.77 yards per play on all pass dropbacks. However, the Howard/Brate combination did not lead to great results in the running game, with the team averaging 2.09 yards per carry with them on the field together. Tampa Bay's rushing attack was not good overall in 2017, but its overall rate of 3.73 yards per carry was better than that.
Koetter has been known to make good and frequent use of tight ends throughout his career as an NFL play-caller. He would probably not hesitate to put Howard and Brate out there more often if it produced even greater results in both the running and passing games. If Howard takes a big step forward in 2018, as Koetter believes he can, there's a good chance that will happen, and the Buccaneers' offense as a whole will also improve significantly.