If O.J. Howard has encountered a rookie wall in his debut NFL season, he must have also found a tunnel through. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' first-round pick hasn't slowed down as the longer and more demanding pro season has dragged on; in fact, he's picked up the pace in the back stretch.
This hasn't come as a surprise to Howard, who has made a point of trying to improve his game every week. As a newcomer to the game's highest level, he's found plenty of areas for improvement.
"It's been going as I figured it would be," said Howard, the former Alabama star selected with the 19th overall pick. "There are a lot of learning experiences going on. Every week there's something new, and I try to take it out to the field the next week and try not to make the same mistakes. So it's been going pretty good."
In his first nine games, Howard caught 14 passes for 227 yards and three touchdowns, and most of that came in one huge outing at Buffalo. In Tampa Bay's last four contests, he has added 11 catches for 175 yards and two more scores. After he was an infrequent target during the season's first half – albeit while playing a high number of snaps and helping in the run game – he has been one of the league's more productive tight ends over the last month. Only eight NFL tight ends have more receiving yards than Howard in the last four weeks, and only three have more touchdowns.
Howard's size, speed and route-running skills made him a first-round lock, but it's his attention to detail and willingness to put in time off the field that has helped him start to make more of an impact in the Bucs' passing attack.
"It's more technical in the pros," said Howard. "You have to come out every day and study film. You have to see what guys do. It's more about technique. Guys are wise and they study film well. In college, there are some guys out there who may not be as good, they may be third-string players out there sometimes. In the pros, everybody's really good."
Howard's early games were marked with a small number of catches but a high rate of impact plays; he was averaging 16.2 yards per reception during those first nine games and more than a fifth of his catches went for touchdowns. As he's gotten targeted more frequently in the last month, he's still managed to keep his per-catch average at an elite level. In fact, of the top 20 tight ends on that yardage chart over the last month, Howard has the highest receiving average, at 15.9 yards per grab. Overall, his average of 16.1 yards per catch is the best among all NFL tight ends with at least 20 receptions this year.
Pictures from the Buccaneers' practice on Thursday.
Howard has also been an efficient target for the Buccaneers. Of all the tight ends in the top in yards over the last month, Howard has done it with the fewest number of targets, averaging 4.0 per game. In contrast, fellow rookie Evan Engram of the Giants has 180 yards over the last four games but has been targeted 7.0 times per game.
Howard described his rookie season as "not bad," which might be underselling it a bit.
"I just want to continue to get better in certain areas, like in the running game and some areas I can improve in," he said. "But it's been a pretty good start so far."