Tight ends have always been valuable in the NFL, but in today’s game there is a premium placed on top-tier talent at the position. A big, athletic, fast tight end can be a matchup problem for defenses that will help an offense get to the next level.
Fortunately for Tampa Bay, they have not only one, but two guys who can break a game open in Cameron Brate and O.J. Howard.
Brate was second on the team in receiving touchdowns with eight in 2016. Both Brate and Howard tied for the team lead in receiving touchdowns last season with six.
They are perfect complements for each other. Howard is big and athletic and Brate is more of a technically sound grinder - someone who you can rely on to make a tough catch in traffic - as we’ve seen multiple times before.
They aren’t just redzone targets, either. Both players combined for the third most receiving yards amongst tight end combos in the NFL behind Rob Gronkowski/Martellus Bennett and Zach Ertz/Trey Burton last season. Brate averaged a healthy 12.3 ypc, while Howard recorded an incredible 16.6 ypc.
Oh, and don’t forget the fact that Howard missed the last two contests of the year. Who knows what would’ve happened in those final two games?
Both players managed a close split in yardage production as well. Brate recorded 57% of the yards amassed between the two, with Howard recording the other 43% - while out-snapping Brate 595-469 on the season.
The difference here is that Gronk was responsible for close to 80% of New England’s production and Ertz was responsible for around 77% of Philadelphia’s - making it pretty clear that Burton and Bennett were primarily serving as backups while Brate and Howard rotate frequently with a greater impact on the team because of their roles.
The numbers don’t stop there. Both Bucs were considered top-10 players at the position, according to Football Outsiders. Howard is considered a top-five player at the position when it comes to value per play, while Brate is considered top-five in overall effectiveness.
All of this leads up to the perfect storm of these two players becoming the best tight end duo in the NFL in 2018.
Jameis Winston loves to throw to his tight ends, that’s been obvious since his days at Florida State. The Bucs used both players all over the field in 2017, but were used noticeably more on seam routes both in-between the twenties and in the redzone last season and it worked very well most of the time.
Tampa was also able get Howard on the field more than Brate as a rookie in order to take advantage of Howard’s abilities as a run blocker.
It’s almost obvious what Dirk Koetter needs to do with these two. Run more 12-personnel sets. The Bucs could actually run a lot of their offense through 12-personnel with more variety than one realizes.
Think about it - both Howard and Brate are at their best when running vertical seam routes down the middle of the field. Howard is a very good run blocker, but Brate isn’t the best at taking on linebackers; however, he is good enough to play the slot position in the 12-personnel grouping.
Having the option of either player in the slot would allow for Tampa to take advantage of matchups in the receiving corps while also keeping the threat of the running game alive. This would be key in not only the tight ends’ impact on the team, but in elevating the offense as a whole in particular.
Both Howard and Brate can make plays after the catch (see below), which bodes well for whenever Koetter draws up one of his vertical seams. Whomever gets the cleared-out route underneath the seam should have all kinds of space to make plays - not to mention what the running backs could do with a pass play coming out of the backfield in this scenario.
The fact that Tampa really likes to throw over the middle should make this a viable scheme to draw up and this was evidenced by their league-leading 43 pass attempts in that direction over the course of 2017. The Bucs were decently efficient in this area, logging close to 42% completion on these types of throws.
Howard could fill the slot role in this package and create all kinds of headaches for opposing defenses. His ability as a run blocker will continue to get better, too - allowing the Bucs to continue to develop this area of their offense.
Koetter must find a way to get these two on the field at the same time - a lot.
The Bucs paid Brate over the offseason, signaling that they plan to keep him around long-term while Howard develops. As long as Howard continues this pace, then Tampa Bay will be stacked at the tight end position for the next half decade.
Combining Howard’s athleticism and blocking ability with Brate’s hands and technique will allow this Tampa Bay team to terrorize opponents for years to come, all while solidifying themselves as the best tandem in the league.
It’ll be exciting to see how it all unfolds.