Just two years ago, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers gave 1,343 of their 1,382 tight end snaps to a trio of players with a combined 24 seasons of NFL experience. In 2023, the Buccaneers' presumptive top three tight ends are all 25 years old or younger and were all drafted within the last 13 months.
The transition from the Rob Gronkowski-Cam Brate-O.J. Howard troop to the current assemblage of Cade Otton, Ko Kieft and Payne Durham has represented a jarringly swift youth movement. The Buccaneers likely have the youngest tight end room in the NFL, and that necessarily creates a lot of room for growth. For Otton, there's a specific archetype he wants to grow into, and his near-teammate – Gronkowski officially announced his retirement about two months after Otton was drafted last year – is the perfect exemplar.
"I ultimately want to be an every-down tight end, just never come off the field and be a big contributor in the run game and the pass game," said Otton, originally a fourth-round pick out of Washington in 2022. "[I want to] have the coaches be able to trust me on the front-side run plays to take care of defensive ends, and also to win one-on-one versus safeties. You've seen some of the greats do that, like Gronk and Travis [Kelce] and George [Kittle]. I just want to look at the greats in the game and emulate after them."
Otton recently got to meet Gronkowski when he was invited over for a game night at the Brate household. The young tight end got some pointers from the all-time great and, of course, got to soak up Brate's wealth of NFL knowledge as his teammate last season. No word on how competitive Gronkowski was at the board games, but Otton knows he was an intense figure on the practice field and that's the first thing he plans to emulate.
"I got to meet Gronk, and he's a great guy," said Otton. "I think just the biggest thing is, you see how hard he practiced every single day. He loved the game of football and brought energy every single day. That's definitely the big inspiration for me early in my career, just to try to bring that juice every single day and have a love for the craft and football."
In reality, Otton is already well on his way to being a two-way tight end, a true 'Y' who is good enough as both a blocker and a receiver to stay on the field in any situation and not have his presence tip the defense as to what is coming. As a rookie, he was on the field for 70% of the Bucs' offensive snaps in the 16 games in which he played, and in six of those contests he topped 80% participation. For comparison's sake, Gronkowski played 77% and 80% of the offensive snaps in his two seasons as a Buccaneer.
Otton was productive with that playing time, too, particularly for a rookie at a position in which NFL newcomers usually take several seasons to hit their stride. His 42 catches led all rookie tight ends in 2022 and his 391 yards were second. Of those 42 grabs, 19 created first downs, the second-highest total for a rookie tight end last year. Those numbers are likely to go up in Otton's second season, as the offense being installed by new coordinator Dave Canales is considered tight end-friendly, and the drafting of Durham last month suggests a more frequent usage of "12" personnel, which features two tight ends.
"It's a really good opportunity for us to get the ball in our hands," said Otton. "I think easy completions is a big thing in this offense, making it easy on the quarterbacks, and for us tight ends getting the ball early in the down and trying to make plays down the field. That's a really exciting opportunity for us. They're going to give us opportunities to do it and then it's just up to make the play and earn trust from the quarterbacks and the coaches.
"As tight ends throughout the league, you have to do a lot. But this offense in general, there's going to be more bootlegs, and those are just different challenges and getting the ball in different places. No matter what, you're still going to have to make plays after the catch and make plays in the seams and stuff like that. It's just going to come from different spots and different tempos and stuff like that."
Last spring, the Buccaneers drafted Otton and Kieft not yet knowing if Gronkowski was going to return for a third season in Tampa. As it turned out, Gronkowski chose to hang up his cleats, for good this time, and Otton had an opportunity to emerge as an immediate starter. He essentially became Gronk's successor, and now he wants to be more like Gronk as an every-down contributor.
View some of the top photos from Day 1 of the Buccaneers OTAs at the AdventHealth Training Center.