Four days after the 2020 NFL Draft came to an end, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are making a move with their top pick from the 2017 draft, tight end O.J. Howard.
On Wednesday, the Buccaneers officially exercised the fifth-year option in Howard's initial NFL contract, which would cover the 2021 season. He was the team's first-round pick in the 2017 draft, and 2011 all first-round picks have received four-year deals with a team option for a fifth season. Each team must choose whether to pick up that option before the player's fourth season. The specific deadline to do so this year was May 3.
This is the fourth year in a row in which Tampa Bay has picked up that option on the relevant first-rounder, having done so with wide receiver Mike Evans in 2017, quarterback Jameis Winston in 2019 and cornerback Vernon Hargreaves last year. Evans subsequently signed a new long-term deal with the Bucs in 2018, while Winston played through his fifth season before departing in free agency. Hargreaves was waived last season and ended up with the Houston Texans.
The Buccaneers loaded up at the tight end position last week with a trade for former Patriot Rob Gronkowski, who caught 90 touchdown passes from Tampa Bay's new quarterback, Tom Brady, when the two were teammates in New England. Even with that addition, the Buccaneers believe they can utilize multiple tight ends to good effect, including Howard and Cameron Brate.
Howard, the 19th-overall selection in 2017, has played in 38 games with 36 starts in his first three seasons with the Buccaneers, catching 94 passes for 1,456 yards and 12 touchdowns. His career average of 15.5 yards per catch is an indication of his downfield play-making ability, and he led all qualifying tight ends with a 16.6-yard average in 2018. He also scored 11 touchdowns in his first 24 NFL contests.
While the 2019 season, Howard's first in Bruce Arians' offense, was his least productive on a per-game basis, with 16 catches for 226 yards in a four-game span from Weeks 13-16.
Prior to the last four years, the Bucs had not picked up a fifth-year option under the new CBA rules. Clayborn, noted above, was their first opportunity. They had two first-round picks in 2012 in safety Mark Barron and running back Doug Martin, but Barron was traded to the Rams prior to the option decision and the team declined to pick up Martin's fifth year, though he was subsequently signed to a second contract. The Bucs traded their 2013 first-round pick to get veteran cornerback Darrelle Revis.