Bruce Arians was the head coach of the Arizona Cardinals from 2013-17, in that span winning more games than any other Cardinals coach that came before him. His teams generally threw the ball well; Arizona's passing attack ranked in the top 15 in each of those five seasons, in the top 10 twice, and peaked at number two in 2015.
It has been pointed out, however, that those Cardinal offenses rarely involved the tight end very much, at least in terms of catching the football rather than blocking. The position was clearly not prioritized in the red zone, as no tight even had a five-touchdown campaign in that span. The highest TD total for any Arizona tight end from 2013-17 was three, and neither of those seasons featured particularly robust receiving lines. Darren Falls scored three times among 21 catches for 311 yards in 2015 and Ricky Seals-Jones had three touchdowns among 12 grabs for 201 yards in 2017.
So does that mean Tampa Bay Buccaneers fans should expect to see the tight end position de-emphasized now that Arians has arrived as the team's new head coach? Doubtful. It is more likely a matter of personnel. Arians never had a pass-catching tight end of the caliber of O.J. Howard or Cameron Brate in Arizona, let alone two of them at the same time. Rather, those Cardinals teams rightfully emphasized receivers like Larry Fitzgerald, John Brown and Michael Floyd and pass-catching backs like David Johnson and Andre Ellington.
Howard looked like he was advancing on the NFL's elite at the tight end position last year before an ankle injury knocked him out for the last six games. Brate has proved himself as one of the NFL's best red zone threats among tight ends and clearly has a special rapport with quarterback Jameis Winston. Brate was slowed by a hip injury last year but should be in better shape this year after having offseason surgery. Howard is fully recovered from his injury.
Clearly, Arians is excited about the possibility of utilizing Brate and Howard, especially at the same time in "21" personnel, which puts two tight ends and one running back on the field.
"We had traditional, blocking-type guys [in Arizona]," he said. "When you don’t play with a fullback, then the defense can’t put eight in the box. We’ve got tight ends that can split out, line up tight, one can get in the backfield. It just gives you more down-and-distance calls from the defensive coordinator than personnel calls. You put a fullback in, they know the six plays you’re going to run and you’re limited in passing."
So let's assume that Howard and Brate will still be heavily involved in the offense and collectively very productive, and then set a more specific goal. All this week we're looking at potential first-time accomplishments for the Buccaneers and their players in 2019. We've already discussed the possibility of a first Tampa Bay regular-season win outside of the United States, an AP First-Team All-Pro selection at wide receiver and an AP Defensive Rookie of the Year winner. Now we're wondering this: Could the Buccaneers have a tight end score 10 touchdowns in a season for the first time in franchise history?
POTENTIAL BUCCANEER FIRST: A TIGHT END WITH 10 TOUCHDOWN RECEPTIONS
To be clear, we mean at least 10 touchdowns for a single Buccaneer tight end in 2019. Eleven would certainly be fine by us, and 12 would be superb. Thirteen would be a new team record for a player at any position.
The first thing to establish is that this is not an unreasonable bar to cross. No, it hasn't been accomplished by a Buccaneer yet, but two Tampa Bay tight ends – Jimmie Giles in 1985 and Cam Brate three years ago – have gotten to eight. And 10 or more touchdowns in a season is not an uncommon achievement for tight ends around the league. It's been done 22 times in the last 10 years, or roughly twice a year, and the only season in that span in which no tight ends got to 10 was 2016, the year Brate tied for the league lead with his eight.
There were two 10-TD tight ends last year, as a matter of fact: Eric Ebron in Indianapolis and Travis Kelce in Kansas City. Ebron's 13 touchdowns in his first year in Indy (after four with Detroit) were a surprise, as his previous career high was five. Kelce scored eight times the previous season, so that was less surprising. Those 22 10-touchdown campaigns were accomplished by 12 different players, though Rob Gronkowski (five) and Jimmy Graham (four) dominate the list.
And the Buccaneers have two obvious candidates to join that group in 2019. Brate has the eight-TD season, as mentioned, and over the past three seasons has scored 20 times, tied with Philadelphia's Zach Ertz for second-most in that span behind Kelce and his 22. Even though that hip injury slowed Brate last year, his catches and yards dropping from 48 for 591 in 2017 to 30 for 289 last year, he still scored six times.
Howard has shown something of a scoring touch early in his career, too, with 11 touchdowns in just 24 games played so far this year. In fact, over the past two seasons, Howard has scored a touchdown on 23.5% of his receptions, which is just ahead of Brate's 23.2% in the same span. Those two rank 11th and 12th in that category among tight ends with at least 50 catches over the past two years combined.
Tampa Bay's offensive arsenal also includes Mike Evans, who gobbled up eight touchdown passes last year and has already been to 12 in two different campaigns. Chris Godwin emerged as a scoring threat last year, too, with seven in his second campaign. Adam Humphries and DeSean Jackson, who combined for nine scores last year, are gone, but there's a new deep threat in Breshad Perriman and a potential new weapon in the slot in rookie Scotty Miller.
In other words, Winston will have plenty of options and neither Brate nor Howard are likely to be in a situation like that of Kelce, Ertz or San Francisco's George Kittle. All three of those players were the top option in their team's passing attack last year. However, Tampa Bay's tight end\position\ has accounted for at least 11 touchdowns in each of the past season. Moreover, there should be plenty of scoring opportunities to go around. The Buccaneers' offense generated 36 touchdown passes last year, seven more than in any previous season in franchise history.
When it comes to getting to 10 touchdowns in one season, the main problem for Cam Brate and O.J. Howard is…well, Cam Brate and O.J. Howard. Those two may have combined for 23 touchdowns over the past two seasons but neither one had more than six alone in either campaign. When Brate peaked (so far) at eight and tied the team record in 2016, it was the year before Howard arrived.
Those are good reasons why the Bucs may not be able to get a tight end to 10 touchdowns this year, but we're here to discuss why they can. First, there is still room for improvement in the Bucs' passing game. Those 36 touchdown passes may have been a team record, but they only tied for third in the NFL. Arians believes that Winston can be a star in his offense, and will be trying to make that into a truth this very year, as it is the last one on Winston's initial contract. Mostly, Winston needs to cut down on his turnovers – 14 interceptions in 11 games and nine starts last year – and if that can be accomplished more drives will have an opportunity to continue on towards the opposing end zone.
One could also imagine that this year, unlike the last two, the touchdowns won't be split so evenly between Howard and Brate, if simply by chance. Give Howard a handful of Brate's red zone targets, or vice versa, and the scales could be tipped, getting one of them within range of double digits. Howard probably has a better chance to get there, given that he is developing into a very good downfield weapon and an exploiter of seams in the secondary.
Howard averaged 16.6 yards per catch last season, which is excellent for a tight end. Of his 11 touchdowns in his first two seasons, four have come from 30 or more yards out, including a 58-yarder and a 70-yarder. Brate is an absolute terror from the 20-yard line in, particularly when Winston is under center, but his longest career touchdown is 28 yards. If Howard and Brate end up with a similar number of opportunities on plays that start inside the 30, Howard's additional possibility of long-range scores would give him a better shot at getting to 10.
Obviously, the Buccaneers will be happy if they continue to get big production from the tight end position, no matter how it is split between Brate, Howard and anybody else in that stable. Still, if things happen to tilt in one direction, the franchise could have its first-ever 10-touchdown tight end in 2019.