The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were a relatively fortunate club in 2020 when it came to injuries, which is not an uncommon trait for Super Bowl champions. Only one of the 22 players who started the regular season opener was unavailable to play by the time the Super Bowl rolled around, as right guard Alex Cappa broke an ankle in the Wild Card round. Only two players on the opening-day 53-man roster missed 10 or more games due to injury, and one of those – Vita Vea – actually returned for the final two games of the playoffs.
That is, of course, little comfort to the other player on that list, tight end O.J. Howard, though the Super Bowl ring he is sure to get should provide some. Howard played the first four games of the season before suffering a ruptured Achilles tendon late in the fourth contest, a comeback 38-31 win over the Los Angeles Chargers. In the third quarter of that game, Howard had pulled the Bucs within three points with a 28-yard touchdown catch, part of a rally from 17 points down.
Howard's three catches for 50 yards in that game was part of a very promising first month for the fourth-year tight end. Rather than seeing his production diminished by the arrival of veteran tight end Rob Gronkowski, Howard had thrived in two-TE sets. His 146 receiving yards through the first quarter of the season were the most by any tight end on the team and third among all players behind Mike Evans and Scotty Miller. He had scored twice in those four games, joining Evans as the only Bucs with multiple touchdown catches in that span.
The Bucs did not technically lose a starter when Howard was hurt, as he hadn't opened any of the first four games. But Vea, the starting nose tackle, went down the next week to an ankle fracture and was widely expected to miss the rest of the season. When the Bucs made a run in the playoffs, it gave Vea just enough time to make his surprise return. The recovery time for Howard's injury was always known to be longer, so simply due to bad luck he was unable to contribute to the Bucs' title run over the last 16 games.
All of which means Tampa Bay's offense in 2021 could be even better simply by getting Howard back in the mix and hopefully playing more than four games.
"What a huge addition to have him back because he was having a great year," said Head Coach Bruce Arians. "I think, again, the sky's the limit for what he can do in this offense."
Arians confirmed that Howard's recovery is going well, and it looks as if he'll get to participate in offseason field work…if there is any offseason field work. At the moment, Howard is progressing towards his return to the field by using a special treadmill that adjusts the amount of body weight a runner is putting on his legs.
"He's really close," said the coach. "He's not running on the grass yet but he's really close. The last time I checked it was 85% body weight running in 'AlterG' and [he] looks fantastic. I don't see any setbacks. If and when we can get together in this offseason program, he'll be ready to go."
The Buccaneers drafted Howard 17th overall in the 2017 draft, the highest pick the franchise has ever used on a tight end. The former Alabama star was productive when on the field during his first three seasons, though he missed time due to injury in all of them. With his early stats from 2020 included, Howard has played in 42 games and caught 105 passes for 1,602 yards and 14 touchdowns.
Most notably, Howard has averaged 15.26 yards per catch since entering the league, which is the highest by any tight end in that span with at least 50 receptions. Second on the list is Gronkowski, at 14.84. It's not hard to see why Arians and the Buccaneers defied the trade rumors and held on to Howard after Gronkowski's arrival via trade last April. Before his injury, Howard saw 72% of his snaps in two or three-TE sets, almost always with Gronkowski also on the field.
The Buccaneers actually made two significant transactions regarding the tight end position in a nine-day span surrounding the 2020 draft. The Gronkowski trade went through on April 21. On April 29, the Buccaneers elected to pick up the fifth-year option on Howard's original rookie deal. For that reason, Howard is still under contract for 2021, when he'll have a chance to show he's ready to deliver on a second NFL deal, ideally with the Buccaneers. And, of course, Howard will hopefully get the chance to make a much bigger contribution to the team's hunt for another Super Bowl title.
"Knock on wood," said Arians. "With a little luck, with health, I think we can be better. Obviously, throwing O.J. back into the mix, having Vita healthy…if we can keep all our guys healthy through the preseason, I think we'll be much, much better than we were Week One last year. Now, in Week 20, we should be measurably better, I think."