The best players in the NFL always make plays on the field, but the best humans in the NFL always make plays off the field.
There are plenty of instances where this scenario happens in the NFL. Dozens of stars give back to their communities without hesitation and the results are always beneficial to all involved.
And while Tampa Bay Buccaneers tight end O.J. Howard’s star is still on the rise in the NFL, he’s already a star off the field.
Howard led the Hyundai Youth Football Camp in Tampa Bay on Saturday where around 400 kids got to hang out in the AdventHealth Training Center and participate in various football drills with Howard and co.
Philanthropy is not an unusual word for Howard. He was nominated for the 2015 Allstate AFCA Good Works Team when he played at Alabama and established his “Got Da Juice Foundation” soon after he was drafted. Before you could say “Bucs”, he was handing out backpacks with school supplies to around 300 kids in July of 2017.
His foundation is an annual football camp that is hosted at his high school alma mater, Autauga Academy, in Prattville, Alabama. Last year, 200 kids from ages 7-17 were able to attend the camp and all of them received a free lunch, t-shirt, and football instruction from Howard and his crew.
Howard also helped raise $75k for pediatric cancer research and shaved his head for the cause in 2018 - a moment that still sticks with him today.
“One of our coaches, his son was a part of it, he was going through some things at the time with cancer,” Howard told me over the phone after the first round of the Hyundai Camp ended. “So, just the opportunity to go be apart of that with him and him telling his dad it was, ‘one of the best days of his life’ touched my heart, because I didn’t know it was going to happen until that day. That was a special moment for me.”
And none of this takes into account the other work he has done, such as spending time with military veterans and providing shoes for children associated with the Boys & Girls Club of Tampa Bay.
The best part about all of Howard’s involvement is the fact that it’s not fabricated. Howard is involved in the process of coming up with a lot of these ideas and it’s something he does on the regular. “I sit down with my family every offseason and talk about things I want to do,” he said excitedly. “I give them a lot of ideas then narrow it down with my mom and my sister.”
Great way for kids to learn & have fun with new friends! My son made memories he won’t forget. Such a good experience for kids who want to develop their love for football! Thank you @Hyundai & @TheRealOJHoward for making this possible! #BetterByHyundai #BecauseFootball pic.twitter.com/pufnHFCCvB— raeanne (@raeanne03361937) June 1, 2019
Starting the first day of summer with @TheRealOjHoward and @Hyundai ! It's bigger than football with these guys. Thank you for providing such a memorable experience for these kids! #BetterByHyundai #BecauseFootball pic.twitter.com/wg8xQTZliE— Jennifer Chamoun (@psprincess18) June 1, 2019
The fact that he is involved in the process from start to finish shows the level of dedication he has to making these kids’ lives better.
And the relationships aren’t short-lived, either. There have been plenty of instances where Howard gets to reconnect with a lot of the kids he meets later down the road and as you can imagine, it’s a satisfying feeling for Howard to be able to catch up on their progress.
“The cool thing about it is that when I do a camp back home, there’s always kids I remember from when they were smaller or younger. Just being able to see them come to the camp grown up and seeing them become men and being able to still talk to them is cool.”
And speaking of progress, the third-year player is set for a breakout season in 2019. He was on his way to a sure-fire Pro Bowl selection - maybe even an All-Pro nod - until ankle and foot injuries cost him the final six games of the 2018 season.
But the rehab is going well and Howard is ready to get on the field and make things happen in 2019.
“I feel good about the injuries. I’ve been doing a lot of rehab, even to the point where it gets to aching. That’s the biggest thing for me. I’m excited for the year. We have a new coaching staff and I’m liking what I’m seeing from those guys. We have weapons all around us, so it should be a big year for us and I’m excited for sure.”
It’s not a stretch to think he can become one of the league’s best tight end. Howard was tied for fifth in receiving yards and third in total touchdowns among tight ends before he went down in Week 11. He’s improved his numbers each year as well, going from a 26/432/6 line in 14 games in 2017 to a 34/565/5 line in 10 games in 2018.
His 16.6 yards per reception are the most out of any tight end in their first 24 games since Walter White (yes, badass, I know) did it for the Kansas City Chiefs during the 1975-1976 seasons.
Outside of staying healthy, the secret formula to Howard’s success may be the simple fact that he needs to be used more. The Bucs do have a very talented tight end group, but Howard was surprisingly underutilized when he was on the field the past two seasons.
To put it into context, I compared Howard’s numbers to Travis Kelce’s and Zach Ertz’s numbers through 10 games in 2018. Kelce and Ertz are arguably the two best tight ends in the league (sorry, 9ers fans), so I wanted to see how he stacked up against them.
According to Pro Football Focus, through 10 games, Ertz averaged around 66 snaps per game and blocked on about 36% of his snaps. Kelce averaged around 60 snaps per game and blocked on about 40% of his time on the field. Howard averaged around 43 snaps per game and blocked during 40% of his snaps.
Based off those numbers, that means Ertz ran about an average of 42 routes per game, Kelce ran around 36, and Howard ran around 26 routes per game.
Ertz held a 77/804/5 line through 10 games, while Kelce held a 57/787/6 line.
Howard’s numbers? They weren’t too far off. He finished 2018 with 34 catches for 565 yards and five touchdowns.
Now, I’m not that great at advanced math, but if were Howard used more as the Bucs’ feature tight end, then I’d be hard pressed to say he couldn’t be at the top of the list when it comes to numbers.
With a new head coach in Bruce Arians - who’s never had a tight end like Howard before - the sky is the limit and Howard is fully aware of what Arians can do for this offense. It’s only a matter of time before Howard’s name is up there with the other greats who are currently playing the game.
“Knowing his resume – winning a Super Bowl, his play-calling ability – and the knowledge and authority he brings on the field everyday is amazing,” Howard said as he continued to commend his new head coach. “He makes everyone around us better and he treats everyone on the field the same. That’s all you ask out of a coach – to coach us hard and stay on everybody. That’s what he does and we love it.”
As for making more plays on the field? Well, Howard sees no issue there at all. In fact, he expects for the Bucs’ tight ends to make plenty of plays in 2019.
“I’ve already been here for a month now and learned the offense, so I see how the tight ends are getting used and it’s a lot. We have a lot of opportunities to make plays. I mean, out here at practice, we are making plays every day. When the season comes around, I expect nothing less. I’m just excited about it and looking forward to the regular season.”
With a player like Howard on the roster, how can you not be excited?
Check out pictures from the day’s event below: