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Whether O.J. Howard starts for the Buccaneers is beside the point

His playing time will depend on more than just a battle with Cameron Brate.

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NFL: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Dallas Cowboys Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

For months now, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have been emphasizing that they love O.J. Howard because he fills a different role than veteran Cameron Brate does. Howard is a blocking and receiving tight end who can threaten the deep middle of the field, while Brate is more of a short- to middle-area receiver who’s limited as a blocker. The two complement each other rather than being rivals.

In that sense, any vision of O.J. Howard battling Brate for a starting spot is, at best, a bit limited. But on Thursday, Pewter Report’s Trevor Sikkema wrote about that day’s OTA practice, and suggested that first-round pick O.J. Howard might not beat out Cameron Brate for a starting job.

Brate and Winston’s chemistry is going to be tough to dethrone. Even if rookie O.J. Howard gets comfortable and shows his flashes of talent during training camp, it might be more difficult than we thought to see him as a solidified first team player, but in a good way. Brate and Winston look comfortable together.

As an aside in a lengthier list of observations this is fine, if lacking a bit of nuance. But it’s now become a bit of a thing. Pro Football Focus picked it up, for instance, as did several other sites, all suggesting that somehow this means Howard won’t get on the field much.

That’s a weird view of how NFL teams use tight ends, though. The question isn’t who starts--that’ll just depend on which player is on the field for the first snap of the game, and that could both—the question is how the Bucs will divide their snaps. And that will depend on how they use each player, game situations, and coaching preferences.

That is to say: Cameron Brate and O.J. Howard are not interchangeable players. Brate is mostly a receiving/move tight end who won’t be a deep threat, but will provide a safe outlet and a little bit of blocking prowess. Howard is more of a do-it-all tight end, a deep threat, and a quality run-blocker.

Brate, in other words, is more suited to replacing the role of slot receivers, while Howard is more all-round and more likely to be on the field on running downs, and as a potential deep threat on passing downs.

So, what will Koetter prefer? To give Jameis Winston an extra safety blanket, or to boost the running game and add a potential deep threat down the middle of the field? And how often will he prefer one vs the other, or even both?

It’s entirely conceivable that Howard’s snaps won’t come at the expense of Brate, but at the expense of slot receiver Adam Humphries, with Brate taking over the latter’s role. Or at the expense of different personnel groupings entirely—it’s difficult to tell.

But this being presented as a straightforward battle for a starting position is oversimplified. Brate and Howard will get on the field together, and some of their playing time will come at the expense of other players, too. They’re different players playing different roles.