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Can O.J. Howard meet expectations in final eight weeks?

The third-year tight end is facing his second stretch of high expectations as he comes back from his latest injury

NFL: New York Giants at Tampa Bay Buccaneers Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

O.J. Howard entered his third season as an NFL tight end for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers facing high expectations. Despite back-to-back eleven loss seasons for his team, and an uncertain future for his quarterback, the story around Howard was about his emergence as one of the best tight ends in the league.

History be damned, Bruce Arians and Byron Leftwich had never seen a tight end of Howard’s caliber before, and never had the pleasure of incorporating one into their shared and individual offensive schemes.

If Winston was going to be successful, Howard was going to be part of it. He believed it himself. In May, Howard said this during an appearance on Good Morning Football,

“I’ve been working really hard. Trying to get on a page with my quarterbacks. Just improving my game with route running (and) blocking. And I think when you do that, the things in the season that come along and they come easy. And you just gotta keep perfecting your craft and once you do that, you become one of the best tight ends in the game.”

Going back and watching the interview, it’s not said with bravado or unsupported cockiness. These were the words of a hard working young player with the potential to become the best in his position, who was excited for the season yet to come.

Of course, the hopes and expectations have not been rewarded with production and achievement. Through six games, Howard had amassed just 13 receptions for 176-yards and zero touchdowns. On pace to have fewer than 35 receptions, fewer than 500-yards and no scores in 2019.

In 2018, Howard brought in 34 passes for 565-yards and five touchdowns despite missing six games due to injury. So when we talk about a disappointing start, it’s no exaggeration.

Then came the hamstring injury, and the rumors swirling around it Howard would be dealt before the trade deadline. Some even speculated the injury might actually be a secret move to prevent real injury as the team looked to find a trade partner and suitable deal.

By the time the trade deadline passed, Howard was a member of the Buccaneers still, and would go on to miss his second-straight game last week as his team fell to the Seattle Seahawks earning their sixth loss of the season.

Eight games in, the team, the coaches and O.J. Howard among others have all failed to meet the expectations set for them by themselves more than anything.

This team has not met their maximum potential and they know it. Howard himself had not played his best ball before missing the final two games of the first half, and he knows it.

But Howard had his first full week of practice since injuring his hamstring, so all expectations are he’ll be good to go for Week 10 against the Arizona Cardinals. And this means he and the team both get their chance to start the back half of the season off right.

It’s also a whole new set of expectations. And the team has maintained their high expectations of themselves. Playing hard is great, but winning is the goal, and it remains the goal.

While fans and media start turning one eye towards the 2020 NFL Draft, the roster and coaches have their focus pointed straight ahead at the task at hand.

If Howard is going to meet career highs in his third season, he’ll need to bring in at least 22 receptions for 389-yards and six touchdowns in the final eight games of 2019. Those numbers average out to three receptions for 49-yards and he has to average basically a touchdown per game from here on out.

Doing so would get him back in the top tight end conversation, and would send expectations higher than ever for 2020. Such is the business of being successful. But I’d bet Howard and his teammates would gladly face higher expectations following a strong finish to this season, than face a second half matching what they’ve experienced up to now.

But Howard can’t focus on getting all those numbers right now. They won’t come in one week. Instead, the young tight end is looking forward to the opportunities ahead of him.

“The week I got hurt coming up to the game, we had some opportunities for some great plays for myself, but I went down with a hamstring injury,” Howard said, “There were opportunities that we were drawing up for me to play...but like I said, I got hurt. But I definitely saw some opportunities where I could see myself in that situation in the game.”

Fantasy football experts are saying to start Howard this weekend against the Cardinals. For what it’s worth, I’m starting him in my league as well. Partly because Evan Engram is injured, but partly because I also believe Howard could be in for a big second-half of the season.

Nobody knows right now if Howard will be able to bounce back to the point where he sets new career highs or not. For now, it’s a positive to see him likely returning to game action at all. Stats or no stats, there’s no arguing he’s the most versatile and talented tight end on this roster.

The talk means little and simply being there won’t win games. For the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and their star in the making at tight end, it’s all about producing to meet their goals and expectations. And it starts against the Arizona Cardinals, this Sunday afternoon.