Last season, in Tom Brady's last season as a New England Patriot, he only completed 37 passes to tight ends, with no one in that group catching more than 17 balls. That was a big shift from recent years, in which the New England offense made massive use of its tight ends, routinely getting more than 1,000 yards and double-digit touchdowns from that position.
Of course, much of that had to do with the massive and massively-talented Rob Gronkowski, who spent the 2010s being one of the NFL's scariest matchup issues. There aren't many players like Gronkowski, but Brady might be able to help another talented tight end on his new team develop into a top producer.
Brady's signing with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last Friday has already drawn some excited responses from the players like Chris Godwin and Mike Evans who will now be catching his passes. According to Head Coach Bruce Arians, fourth-year tight end O.J. Howard should be feeling good, too.
"I think anytime you have a quarterback come in that has thrown a bunch of touchdowns to tight ends your eyes light up," said Arians. "[Howard's] eyes should light up. It's still going out on the practice field and earning that trust. I think that will be his number-one focus. You have a quarterback that likes to throw to tight ends, go earn it and get balls thrown to you."
Howard isn't quite as big as Gronkowski but he's plenty big (6-6, 251) and faster than most people that size. He's a gifted athlete who has at times in his first three seasons shown the ability to make big plays down the seams and on contested balls. Tom Brady has seen it all over 20 years in the NFL, but perhaps his eyes will light up a little bit, too, when he first gets to see Howard running routes on the practice field.
That could be a while, of course. The restrictions necessitated by the Coronavirus pandemic mean there's no clear idea of when NFL teams will be able to practice. Assuming that such restrictions are eventually eased, Brady and his new pass-catchers, including Howard, will have a lot of catching up to do. That will be Howard's opportunity to start forging a connection with his new quarterback, who clearly likes throwing to tight ends.
"Whether it's on the practice field or on a college stadium, wherever they go, all the guys usually get together anyway," said Arians. "It's going to be more of an importance when everything is cleared, and they can travel to get together before we start. I think Tom wants to get a handle on the offense and get his family settled and then reach out and see if guys can meet somewhere, start throwing and get to know each other a little bit better and building that rapport."
The Buccaneers drafted Howard with the 19th overall pick in the 2017 draft after he surprisingly fell just out of the top half of the first round. It was the highest pick the team has ever used on a tight end. Howard showed considerable promise in his first two seasons, particularly with his 16.6 yards per catch and 11 touchdowns in 24 games, but a pair of fluky ankle injuries cut into both seasons. He was drawing Pro Bowl chatter in 2018 before the second injury cut off his season just after the midway point.
Arians arrived last year and though his offenses in Arizona had rarely produced big numbers from the tight end position he also never had a player with Howard's skill set during that time. There were high hopes for a breakout season for Howard, but instead his yards per catch, yards per game and yards per target all dropped significantly. After a late-season surge he finished with 34 catches for 459 yards and one touchdown.
During the NFL Scouting Combine, while addressing persistent trade rumors around Howard, General Manager Jason Licht said that the Buccaneers had a plan for Howard in their offense in 2020. This was before the signing of Tom Brady. For Howard, call that good news followed by more good news. The former first-round pick could finally have his breakout season catching passes from the G.O.A.T. in 2020, though as his head coach says, he'll have to earn it.