The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are really happy with first-round pick O.J. Howard, the Alabama tight end who fell right into their lap at number 19. Something the Bucs definitely did not expect to happen.
The Bucs have been looking for a good, two-way tight end for years. Someone who can both block and be a factor in the passing game is difficult to find, though they certainly tried to get Austin Seferian-Jenkins to be that guy. Now that they have Howard, they’re likely to try to mold most of their offensive strategy around the flexibility that he brings to the position.
All of that is why Danny Kelly of The Ringer thinks Howard is one of the NFL’s rookies most likely to help their teams win right now.
Winston has always loved to target his tight ends in the passing game. In his final year at Florida State, he targeted tight end Nick O’Leary 80 times, third most in the nation at that position. Since he came into the league in 2015, Winston has the NFL’s fifth-best passer rating when targeting players at that spot, and Tampa Bay’s Cameron Brate tied for the league lead in receiving touchdowns among tight ends last season with eight scores. Howard is even better than Brate, and was underutilized at Alabama, but it’s doubtful he’ll have that problem with Winston running the offense.
I wasn’t aware that Winston had been that good when targeting tight ends, though it makes sense. He generally throws his most accurate passes over the middle of the field, and has a very good field for the size of windows there — plus, Cameron Brate has played some pretty decent football.
One problem with this reasoning: tight ends rarely make a big impact as rookies. Rob Gronkowski barely cracked 500 yards as a rookie playing 16 games, even though he put up over 1,100 receiving yards in each season where he’s played 15 or more games.
In fact, only one rookie tight end has ever cracked 1,000 receiving yards, and that was Mike Ditka way back in 1961. Over the past decade, only 2008 second-round pick John Carlson topped 600 receiving yards as a rookie, and he went on to have a disappointing career. In recent years, Tim Wright may have been the most productive rookie tight end—yes, the undrafted Rutgers product who put up 571 receiving yards in 2013 and then disappeared.
All of that to say: it would be really remarkable if O.J. Howard managed to actually turn into a difference-making tight end as a rookie. His presence will undoubtedly help the Bucs offense and provide them with a lot of tactical flexibility, but don’t be surprised if Cameron Brate is still the team’s most productive receiving tight end, at least while Howard is still a rookie.