View photos from the Buccaneers' 2018 Training Camp practice Friday at One Buccaneer Place.
The most memorable moments of O.J. Howard's rookie season were the splashy ones. The wide-open 58-yard touchdown against the Giants on a brilliant misdirection play. The two scores in Buffalo, including another one on a deep ball. The big touchdown in Miami on his birthday. He also had a handful of eye-catching grabs down the seam between defenders, the type of plays that make an onlooker dream of a big future for the former first-round pick.
That's not what Howard takes away from his rookie season. A relentless self-critic, the University of Alabama All-American studied his rookie tape closely and focused not on the touchdowns but on the plays that went wrong. He used that, and conversations with his coaches, to pinpoint the areas in which he needed to improve before the start of his sophomore campaign, and he used the offseason to work on those areas. That has continued into training camp, and the results are becoming obvious.
"I'm very good at taking criticism," said Howard after another camp practice on Friday morning. "I think that's the only way you can improve. If you're not true with yourself, you will be. I know what I needed to improve on – I still do know that so I'm still working hard every day until I get better at those things."
Howard made another one of those aforementioned splash plays on Friday morning, a spinning one-handed grab at the goal line in an 11-on-11 red zone drill. He's been making a lot of plays, in fact, and that hasn't escaped the notice of his head coach.
"He was fantastic [Wednesday]," said Dirk Koetter. "He had about five out-of-sight plays today. I think O.J is far, far ahead of where he was at any point last year. Really off to a fast start. Looks really good."
After being selected 19th overall in the 2017 draft, Howard finished his rookie season with relatively modest numbers: 26 catches for 432 yards. There were some very encouraging aspects to his statistics, such as a 16.6-yard per catch average, which led all NFL tight ends with at least 10 catches, and six touchdown grabs, which tied for the team lead.
There is every reason to believe that Howard's receiving numbers will tick up noticeably in his second year. Unlike running back, where rookies can often step right in and produce big numbers, the tight end position is a more difficult one at which to make the transition to the NFL. Many of the most productive tight ends in recent NFL history have seen a noticeable jump from Year One to Year Two.
Jimmy Graham, for instance, went from a 31-356-5 line as a rookie to 99-1,310-11 in his second year. Jason Witten jumped from rookie marks of 35-347-1 to 87-980-6 in Year Two. Graham, Witten, Rob Gronkowski, Tony Gonzalez, Antonio Gates, Zach Ertz and Chris Cooley all produced between 24 and 42 catches and between 314 and 546 yards as rookies. All six topped 59 catches and 621 yards the following season.
Admittedly, there is some cherry-picking going on with that group. Plenty of other tight ends have taken different routes to stardom. Julius Thomas, for instance, barely registered in his first two seasons and then exploded fully-formed into a star tight end in Year Three. Still, there are plenty of examples to back up the notion that talented tight ends often need a year or so to adjust to the league before truly unlocking their skills.
Howard knows about this trend and believes he is on the same path.
"It's a lot coming onto your plate [as a rookie]," he said. "You have to run-block, pass-block, catch balls, you have to do a lot of things. This year it's kind of slowing down for me and it's allowing me to play faster. Every year you want to get better. Things I didn't know last year, I know now and that allows me to play faster and more confident."
Through his self-evaluation, Howard pinpointed two things in particular that he needed to work hard on in order to become more of a complete and dominant tight end: footwork in his run-blocking and consistency in his route-running.
"I think those are two of the main things I want to become very good at," said Howard. "That will be hard to do, but I'm still working on it. I've gotten better as a receiver and also as a blocker. I'm not where I want to be yet but I definitely have improved a lot. I still have a long way to go."
And so, not long after making that impressive catch in the red zone on Friday, Howard did what he does virtually every day. After practice he found a willing coach (in this case, Offensive Coordinator Todd Monken) and he put in a long stretch of extra work on his game. For instance, Monken and Howard spent about 10 minutes focusing on over-the-shoulder catches downfield. When that was over, Howard shuffled over to the Jugs gun and caught two large buckets worth of additional passes.
Howard won't remember that one-handed catch for long, but he will remember the moments that didn't go as well, because he'll be using them to shape his game.
"Those plays that I don't make are the ones I remember most," he said. "I try to critique myself every day and take good coaching. I try to be very critical of myself because I feel like I have the potential to be the best."