When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers traded for Rob Gronkowski in April and added the prolific tight end to a group that already included O.J. Howard and Cam Brate, it was assumed in some circles that a trade of Howard would be the team's next move. However, the Buccaneers weren't trying to make a one-for-one replacement at the top of their tight end depth chart; they had a plan for both players and very much wanted to keep Howard around.
That said, Howard's role in the offense has changed from 2019 to 2020, and it is something he new was coming and is ready to make the most of.
"[It is] a little different, but that was kind of the planned role this year," said the fourth-year tight end, who was the Buccaneers' first-round draft pick in 2017. "Obviously, we added Gronk and we've got Cam, so there are more reps for all of us to divide up evenly so that's just the way it's going to go. But it hasn't been weird at all, at first because I was kind of expecting that going into training camp, already had a feel for it and whatnot. But at the same time, we all know each other's positions so you never know what may happen. We all can get thrown in the fire and have got to pick up each other's positions on the fly. So we try to stay ready for that."
In essence, Howard has gone from being the primary choice for plays that feature a single tight end to seeing the majority of his snaps in tandem with Gronkowski. Last year, Howard got 54.2% of his snaps in 11 personnel, which features just one tight end, and 23.8 in 12 personnel, with two tight ends. Antony Auclair was often the other tight end in 12 due to his blocking ability while Brate did a little bit of both but didn't get as many 11 snaps as Howard.
This year, it's Gronkowski who has so far drawn the most snaps in 11 personnel, logging 82 such plays for 54.7% of his overall playing time. Gronkowski has also had 54 snaps in 12 personnel, or 36.0% of his playing time. Meanwhile, Howard has been that second tight end in 12 packages for almost every snap its been utilized and it has accounted for 55.7% of his playing time. Howard also has 27 snaps, or 27.8% of his total, in 11 personnel. Brate has only had a handful of snaps so far but will likely get his shot at some point in the seaosn.
Howard can see the plan coming together, for the tight ends specifically and the offense as a whole, as the season has progressed. The Buccaneers' most recent game, a 28-10 Week Three win in Denver, was the first in which both he and Gronkowski put up significant numbers in the passing game, in large part because the Broncos chose to roll coverage to Mike Evans all day.
"We know what we have in this room," said Howard. "As an offensive unit, we know the talent we have and we know the work that we've been putting in all offseason and all training camp. When we finally start paying off on Sundays, and seeing the improvement we're making and not making the same mistakes twice, it's very encouraging because we're special. But it's going to take us doing it every week and being consistent."
Howard has been relatively productive out of both 11 and 12 personnel, though on a per-snap basis he's drawn a higher percentage of looks when he's been the only tight end on the field. He has three catches for 49 yards out of 12 personnel and four for 38 out of 11 personnel. His nine-yard touchdown catch in the opener actually came out of a three-TE set near the goal line. Overall, Howard's eight catches for 96 yards are tops in the Bucs' tight end room, and he has that group's only touchdown so far. The Bucs may have slimmed his role down some in 2020, from a playing time standpoint, but they need him to be a dynamic player when the defense gives him an opportunity.
"You can't control what the defense does, you can't really control it," says Bucs play-caller Byron Leftwich. "If they want to put three on Mike they're going to put three on Mike. We've got to be structured in a way that the guy that gets the one-on-one matchup, the ball does go to makes the play. And I think that's what we're trying to develop. Like I tell you, don't force-feed it. We'll get guys the ball. Sometimes the ball doesn't come his way, but obviously it came his way last week. We'll see."
One of those one-on-one opportunities took a particulary impressive play for Howard to come out the winner. On the first play of the Buccaneers' third touchdown drive in Denver, Howard lined up next to Gronkowski, both of them outside the right tacke. Evans lined up wide to the right and on the snap ran a route down the middle of the field, drawing several defenders. Gronkowski stayed in to block but Howard ran across the field to the right sideline and then up. Howard ended up in man coverage from linebacker Josey Jewell, who did a good job of staying close. However, Brady threw a low-arcing dart into a very tight window and Howard caught it with one arm, his other arm draped around Jewell's helmet. Jewell was called for pass interference but it was moot because Howard held onto the ball for a 33-yard gain.
It was the kind of play that would seem to embolden a play-caller and a quarterback to look Howard's way more often, but Howard said it was actually a better throw by Brady than a catch by him.
"For sure a better throw," he insisted. "It was really good coverage and I think Tom put it in a spot where only I could make a play or no one is going to make a play. It just happened to be on the outside shoulder and high. The guy had his head turned, he couldn't see it and it just fell right in the bucket. It was a great throw."
The Buccaneers have varied in the amount that they've used 12 personnel through the first three weeks. After working with two tight ends on 24.6% of their plays in the Week One loss to New Orleans, the Bucs upped that to 35.1% of their snaps the following Sunday in the win over Carolina. It went back down, but only to 29.2% in Denver. For comparison, the Buccaneers used 12 personnel on 20% of their offensive snaps in 2019. The approach worked particularly well against the Panthers, as the Bucs averaged 8.75 yards per play out of 12 packages, by far their most productive grouping that afternoon.
It's notable that wide receiver Chris Godwin missed that Carolina game due to a concussion. Whether or not the Buccaneers purposely went to more two-TE looks with Godwin out or that's simply the way the play-calling developed on that afternoon, it proved to be a good way to make up for the receiver's absence. Godwin is not likely to play this Sunday, either, due to a hamstring injury.
"Going into each gameplan we kind of have an idea of what a lot of teams like to run on certain downs and what coverages [they use]," said Howard. "We try to put plays in, and we know we're going to have some opportunities to get those looks. Hopefully when Byron calls the plays, we get an opportunity to make a play on it. We kind of go from there and we just go into the mindset every week to help out the team and make some plays as a unit collectively."
The Bucs may need several players to step up if Godwin is joined on the sideline by wide receiver Scotty Miller and running back Leonard Fournette, both of whom are missing practice time due to injuries. That's just part of what Brady consistently refers to as the "work in porgress" that is the Buccaneers' offense right now.
"Every game, you learn something new about our offense, about our identity," said Howard. "And those are things that we write down and we speak about it when we get back to meetings on Tuesday. Then we just try to add on to it for next week and just try to go from there and just keep stacking them, and eventually we'll be on a roll."