When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers drafted tight end O.J. Howard with the 19th overall pick in the 2017 NFL draft in April, they envisioned having a weapon that could not only be an inline blocker but also a deadly threat downfield.
While Howard has had a good training camp, many wanted to see him perform under the lights. He got his chance Friday in the Buccaneers’ preseason opener against the Cincinnati Bengals, a 23-12 loss.
Howard was not targeted in the passing game during the first half, but still made his presence felt during his rookie debut. Howard lined up in the traditional tight end position and the Bucs had some success running behind him.
On the first possession, the Bucs faced a third-and-1 on the Bengals 39-yard line. They handed the ball to Doug Martin, who went off right guard J.R. Sweezy for a first down. On that play, however, Howard chipped then rolled inside to take on a defensive tackle, which opened up enough of a hole for Martin.
On a fourth-and-1 in the second quarter, Howard led the way for Peyton Barber, who was able to get the first down.
In the 21 snaps Howard played, according to a Pro Football Focus tweet, he lined up inline 17 times as the Buccaneers went heavy double tight ends in the first half. Howard only lined up wide once.
He’s familiar with being utilized that way. While most remember his big receiving performances in the last two national college championship games against Clemson, Howard was more of a blocking tight end at Alabama who also could get downfield if needed.
He finished his career with 114 catches for 1,726 yards and seven touchdowns. He did have 45 catches for 595 yards and three touchdowns as a senior. Yet, it was also his job to help open up holes for rushers such as Derrick Henry and Bo Scarbrough. The Buccaneers really liked that about him.
During training camp, the game didn’t seem to be too much for Howard to handle. He is big enough (6-foot-6, 250 pounds) to not only cause mismatches down the field. He also can fare well against opposing defensive linemen in the running game.
That bodes well for the Buccaneers, who can now expand their offense and use a lot of two tight-end formations while not necessarily running the football. With tight end Cameron Brate coming off a career year, Howard gives the Buccaneers even more versatility.
“The reason people go to two tight ends is, if you’ve got tight ends that can both block and run-and-catch, it makes you tough to defend,” Buccaneers coach Dirk Koetter said earlier during training camp. “If they’re playing base defense, you might have some matchup issues in the pass game. If they choose to go to sub defense, nickel defense, you should have matchup advantages in the run game. That’s the theory.
“Well, you’re going to have different packages within your two-tight end packages, and everybody has it,” Koetter said. “The team that does the best job in the NFL with two-tight end offense is New England. That’s the team everybody’s trying to emulate in two tight ends. They do the best job of creating matchups and then they execute on top of it.”
That’s eventually what the Buccaneers want to do. They feel they have the player in Howard to help them get there. He didn’t get a lot of looks Friday but the best part was he didn’t seem overwhelmed or out of place.
“I would say just always doing the little things right as a pro, as far as studying the little details,” Howard said of the lessons he’s learning as a professional. “The route-running, run-blocking in the run games — I think the little things can add up to be a positive or, vice versa, they can add up to be a big negative. I think the little things are the most important thing that I’ve noticed so far.”
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