Only twice have the Tampa Bay Buccaneers had a tight end catch as many as five touchdown passes in his rookie season. Only four times have they had a tight end average more than 600 receiving yards over consecutive campaigns. The 2018 Buccaneers will have both of those assets, and more.
In April of 2017, Tampa Bay selected a tight end in the first round for the first time in 42 years of drafting college players. Though nothing is ever 100 percent certain when it comes to the NFL Draft, it's a fairly safe bet that the Buccaneers won't use a first-round pick on a tight end this coming spring. There's little need, as the franchise may be as set at that position as it has ever been.
A look back at O.J. Howard's 2016 National Championship performance.
The rookie and soon-to-be second-year player noted above is O.J. Howard, the surprise 19th overall pick in last year's draft. Howard, who was widely considered a top 10 pick slipped to the ecstatic Bucs in the second half of the opening round, and he did not disappoint. Despite spending the last two weeks of the season on injured reserve due after hurting his ankle in Week 15, Howard set a franchise record for rookie tight ends with six touchdown catches. He also played the most snaps of all the Bucs tight ends because, as advertised, he came to the NFL as a polished in-line blocker.
Meanwhile, third-year man Cameron Brate paced the Bucs' tight ends with 48 catches for 591 yards and also caught six touchdown passes, tying Howard for the team lead. That came on the heels of a breakout 2016 season in which Brate caught 57 passes for 660 yards and tied a team record for the position with eight scoring grabs. Other than Brate, the only tight ends in franchise history to average more than 600 yards in consecutive seasons were Ring of Honor member Jimmie Giles (1980-81) and Kellen Winslow, who did it twice (2009-10 and 2010-11).
Howard is obviously near the beginning of his rookie contract, which covers his first four seasons and potentially a fifth if that option is picked up. Brate will be a restricted free agent (RFA) in March but most RFAs return if the team is motivated to bring them back, and the Bucs will certainly be motivated to keep Brate around. They almost lost Brate early in 2015 when he was released in some early-season roster maneuvering, allowing him to sign with the rival Saints, but the Buccaneers got him back a week later. Head Coach Dirk Koetter still remembers that brief scare.
"Cam is a good story where he came from," said Koetter of the former undrafted free agent out of Harvard. "My first year we let him go and we were crushed that we let him go and he went in our division to New Orleans. We were fortunate enough to get him back. He's really developed into a nice player. Cam is always working on his game no matter how much success he has. He has made himself a much better blocker – really good body control. As I've said many times, [he has] excellent chemistry with Jameis [Winston], but also they work on it a lot."
In fact, Brate is one of three undrafted tight ends who are thriving on the Buccaneers' roster and giving that position unusual depth alongside Howard, the prized first-rounder. Antony Auclair, another rookie in 2017 and a rare NFL player who not only hails from Canada but also played his college football north of the border, came on strong in the second half of the season. The third is Alan Cross, a 2016 rookie free agent who surprisingly made the team that September, had to bide his time on the practice squad for a good portion of his second NFL campaign before coming back up in December and re-establishing an important role.
Both Auclair and Cross are under contract for the 2018 season; Auclair's initial NFL deal runs through 2019 while Cross would potentially be a restricted free agent after next year. That gives the Buccaneers plenty of time to continue developing both players, including the very intriguing Auclair. The Université Laval product is obviously raw by NFL standards but has the sort of size (6-6, 256) and speed combination that made the more developed Howard such a hot draft prospect.
In fact, the Buccaneers might have found a way to use a late-round pick on Auclair had Howard not dropped into their laps in the first round. The team had studied tape of Auclair's work at Laval – as surely the rest of the league did, as well – and then got to see him in action in their own backyard during the East-West Shrine Game week in St. Petersburg. Koetter called the acquisition of Auclair a "huge bonus" because the Bucs thought the drafting of Howard might steer the Canadian prospect to a different NFL opportunity.
"After we drafted O.J. we were thinking, 'Oh my gosh, we are never going to get this guy to come as a free agent,'" recounted Koetter, who said the Bucs had graded him as a 'draftable' player. "We love our tight ends and we love tight ends who can do multiple things. For a guy that has made the transition from going from how they play in Canada to how they play here, he is a good student, works at it, tries [and] plays physical."
The Buccaneers released long-tenured and well-respected tight end Luke Stocker in November, essentially turning his role as the third tight end over to Auclair. The rookie averaged a little over 24 snaps a game over the final seven weeks, primarily as a blocker in multiple-TE sets. He likely has more pass-catching potential than Stocker, who had settled into a role as a strong in-line blocker for most of his time in Tampa. Auclair caught just two passes for 25 yards in his debut season but will likely become more involved in the passing attack after a full offseason of further development.
Cross was used in a fullback/H-back sort of capacity, providing lead blocking on running plays and occasionally going out for passes. He contributed five catches for 58 yards in his eight games, which included four starts.
All told, Tampa Bay's tight ends accounted for a combined 84 catches, 1,124 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2017 (including three catches by the since-departed Stocker). That put the Bucs' corps among the most productive tight end groups in the NFL.
Only six of the NFL's 32 teams got at least 1,000 yards out of their tight end groups in 2017. Tampa Bay got the fourth-most yards and the third-most touchdowns out of the position, and its tight ends averaged 13.4 yards per catch, second only to New England (14.2).
NFL's Most Productive Tight End Groups (Ranked by Yards)
The three teams that got more yards from the position all had a single Pro Bowl tight end doing most of the damage (Kansas City's Travis Kelce, New England's Rob Gronkowski and Philadelphia's Zach Ertz). The Buccaneers were the only team that had two tight ends crack the 400-yard mark and the only team that had two tight ends with at least six touchdown receptions.
The Buccaneers didn't rely on one superstar tight end to get production out of the position, but they do think they have a player in Howard who will eventually join that upper echelon.
"O.J.'s got it all," said Winston after Howard was lost to injured reserve in mid-December. "I commend it to the teammates that he's been around and his work ethic. He came in and didn't look back. He was a professional and he is going to be an amazing player. He already is an amazing player."
The Buccaneers have both top-tier talent and impressive depth at the tight end position. That should be one of the team's most significant areas of strength in 2018.