When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers selected Alabama O.J. Howard with the 19th-overall pick in the 2017 draft, it marked the first (and still only) time the franchise had ever taken a tight end in the first round. By the end of his rookie season he had caught 26 passes for 432 yards and six touchdowns despite missing the last two games due to a high ankle sprain. It was a bit of a fluky injury, as his right leg was hit from behind just as he was reaching the end zone on a 30-yard touchdown against Atlanta in Week 15.
While those rookie numbers might seem a bit pedestrian, they were certainly no cause for concern. In fact, they were quite representative of the fact that tight end is one of the most difficult positions at which to make the transition from college to the NFL. Even when considering only tight ends drafted in the first round, Howard's rookie output was about what the Buccaneers should have expected.
Prior to the 2021 draft, which was highlighted by Atlanta's record selection of Florida tight end Kyle Pitts at number four overall, there had been 33 tight ends drafted in the first round over the previous two decades. Those 33 players, including Howard, combined to produce an average of 28.4 catches for 318.4 yards and 2.4 touchdowns as rookies. This is a group that includes the likes of Greg Olsen, Vernon Davis, Dallas Clark, Todd Heap and Tony Gonzalez but none of those eventual stars strayed far from those averages as a rookie. The only real outliers in the group are Evan Engram (64-722-6) and Jeremy Shockey (74-894-2).
Not only did the Bucs have little cause for concern after Howard's rookie season, there were some very positive signs in his numbers. His six touchdown catches were as many as any player in that list of 33 tight ends, and only matched by two others. More significantly, his average of 16.62 yards per catch was easily the best of any player on the list. No other player even reached 15 yards per catch.
No, the problem proved to be those last two games in which Howard didn't play. Poor injury luck has followed Howard early in his career, as he has finished three of his four seasons so far on injured reserve. A foot fracture, another injury that seemed flukey, cost him the last six games of 2018. He didn't go on I.R. in 2019 but was out for two weeks with a hamstring strain. Worst of all, a good start to 2020 in a loaded Buccaneers offense being directed by Tom Brady ended after four contests due to a ruptured Achilles tendon.
Now Howard is recovered from that most recent injury and ready to enter the fifth and final year of his rookie contract. The Buccaneers picked up that fifth year after a 2019 season that was, statistically, Howard's worst in several ways, indicating they still saw a great deal of potential. And they kept Howard very much involved early last year even after trading for Rob Gronkowski and making him the new starter. Given what he's experienced in his first four years in the league, the main goal for Howard is to make it to the finish line and then see what the numbers look like.
"The biggest thing for me was … it was always the production was there but I just couldn't stay healthy," said Howard. "I changed my whole regimen about how I get ready for practice, my recovery now. The injuries were really the best thing to happen to me because they made me realize my body and learn it a lot better. If I stay healthy, everything else is going to take care of itself. My biggest focus is preparing my body to go 17 weeks plus, and being available for my team, because when I do that I know good things are going to happen."
Achilles tendon tears are certainly not minor injuries and the recovery process was long. Howard didn't take part in any offseason practices and he was on the sideline for the first few workouts of training camp. The team is ramping up his reps slowly and still giving him occasional days off. Howard has been pleased by how the Bucs have treated his recovery process.
"I'm very thankful and appreciative that they understood that," he said, noting that he has no fear of any further problems with his Achilles. "I know the offense so there was no need for me to go out there and run the plays that I already know. I know the mental part is a big thing, so participating in the walk-through was huge for me. My conditioning level is really good right now but getting into football shape of course is different. We're getting it in, but we're being smart about it. The most important thing for us is September 9th and playing weeks after that. I'm just very thankful that everybody was on the same page and understood where we were coming from."
Overall, Howard still maintains a 15.3-yard per-catch average, excellent for a tight end. In fact, it's the best mark by any tight end in the NFL with at least 30 catches since 2017. His 14 touchdown catches in 42 games is promising, too. Last season, he was actually leading all Buccaneer tight ends with 11 catches for 146 yards and two touchdowns at the time of his injury. Again, those are not overwhelming numbers but the Bucs have so many pass-catching weapons that it's hard for anyone to inflate their statistics. If he had played a full season at that pace, Howard would have finished with about 40 catches for 600 yards and eight touchdowns.
And he's comfortable in the offense, despite going out after just four games last year.
"I went nine months just getting mental reps," he said. "That helped my confidence a lot, seeing the game from a different point of view. All I was seeing for nine months was just me visualizing being in position and making plays, so that just helped me when I came back to the offense kind of already ready to know what to expect."
Even if some of his injuries did indeed seem fluky, Howard has taken measures to try to minimize his risk of missing more time. He has worked hard on the mobility of his ankles and understands that he also has to strengthen his calves and the other muscles in that area to keep his lower legs from injury. If one muscle isn't pulling its weight, so to speak, that can put strain on other muscles in the area and lead to injury. The key, he says, is being consistent with that kind of work on a day-to-day basis.
And he has worked on his overall game as well. For a while, that couldn't involve any running around on the field, so he dived into film study and looked at some of the best in the business at his job.
"That's what I did this offseason," said Howard. "I just tried to study every aspect of my game. I took the top guys in my position pass catching-wise and took the top of my position run-blocking wise. I studied all six of them. I just tried to steal things from their tapes and try to evaluate my game. I think it's been translating over to the field as I've been getting acclimated to the field.
"As far as my production on the team this year, I think I'll be able to come in and make plays when it's time. We'll have our opportunities based on who we have out in our receiver corps. My position, in general, is going to have a chance to open the middle and make plays, so when we get those chances, we must be ready. I think we'll have a lot of those this year."