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Drafting Buccaneers: TE, O.J. Howard

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Howard is one of the league’s emerging stars at the tight end position, but is he a top-tier fantasy option yet?

Tampa Bay Buccaneers v Carolina Panthers Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

There is a lot of hype surrounding Buccaneers tight end O.J. Howard as the 2019 season approaches. The 2017 first-rounder has shown his big-play ability in his first two seasons with Tampa Bay, averaging 16.6 yards per catch in both years. He is coming into his own as one of the league’s top tight ends.

But is he a reliable TE1 for your fantasy football team yet? In 2018, Howard finished 10th among tight ends in overall points with 86.5. A season-ending injury kept him from ranking higher, and his overall place in the tight end group is actually pretty remarkable when you break it down. Howard scored 86.5 points in 10 games, finishing ahead of New England’s Rob Gronkowski (84.2 points in 13 games played) and Green Bay’s Jimmy Graham (75.6 points in 16 games).

As mentioned above, Howard was the No. 10-scoring tight end a year ago. All nine of the guys ahead of him played in all 16 of their team’s games. Despite that, Howard was within 10 points of being the sixth-highest scoring tight end. He was within 10 points of Chicago’s Trey Burton, Atlanta’s Austin Hooper, Cleveland’s David Njoku and Minnesota’s Kyle Rudolph (the four guys who finished directly in front of him). All of those guys played in six more games than Howard did. The fact that he was within that range despite missing so much time speaks volumes about his pre-injury production.

Howard caught 34 passes for 565 yards and five touchdowns in those 10 games. No longer will he fly under the radar in your fantasy leagues. The 24-year-old, if he can stay healthy, could be a true breakout fantasy star in 2019.

But before we look at Howard’s potential in 2019, let’s look back at his 2018 fantasy season.

O.J. HOWARD’S 2018 FANTASY FOOTBALL SEASON

Howard went from the 17th-scoring tight end in 2017 to 10th in 2018. In the first half-plus of the season, he was Tampa Bay’s No. 1 tight end option. He and Jameis Winston developed a strong connection that led to Cameron Brate — the No. 8 fantasy tight end in 2017 — taking somewhat of a backseat. There were plenty of positives for Howard as a fantasy prospect in 2018, with one big drawback. Let’s get into both sides of it.

THE GOOD: CATCH RATE, SCORING ABILITY

In Howard’s 10 games last year, he did a lot of good things. A couple of those things could bode well for his fantasy potential this year. For one, his catch rate was up there with that of the best fantasy tight ends in the league. He caught 34 of 48 targets, good for a 71% catch rate. Of the nine tight ends ahead of him in the final 2018 scoring rankings, only three of them had better catch rates than Howard, while one had the same rate.

Catch rate isn’t everything, but it’s important for Howard considering he had a relatively low number of targets last year. The time he missed played a major part in that, but his usage in the 10 games he did play was inconsistent. So, if your fantasy team’s tight end is only going to average 4.8 targets per game, you better hope he catches a high percentage of them.

Howard’s ability to find the end zone was also a part of his rise in 2018. He did put up a lower total than his rookie season — scoring five, which was one fewer than his 2017 total — but a five-score season coming in 10 games is pretty solid. Two of those scores came against the Carolina Panthers, who of course he will see twice in 2019. Presumably, the more Howard is available, the more targets and touchdowns will come his way. His minimal sample size from a year ago can’t tell us a whole lot, but the aforementioned trends should help project what he can do in a full season.

THE BAD: INJURIES CUTTING HIS SEASON SHORT (AGAIN)

It’s been mentioned all throughout the earlier portions of this profile, but the main factor that really dragged Howard down the charts last year was his lack of availability. He didn’t get the number of looks that fantasy owners would like, and his production from week-to-week ranged from modest to solid. But the biggest knock on him as a fantasy tight end in 2019 is the uncertainty about his health.

Howard has missed nine games in the last two years combined, failing to make it through a full season to this point. His first two seasons in the league have ended with him heading to injured reserve. That’s an unbelievable level of frustrating, especially for a guy who has so much talent and can be such a mismatch against most defenses. The targets, in all likelihood, should increase this year. Considering his size and overall ability, he should be more of a force in the red zone as well. But if he can’t stay out of the trainer’s room, none of that will matter.

A healthy O.J. Howard could work wonders for your fantasy team this year. But therein lies the issue: can you count on a healthy O.J. Howard?

O.J. HOWARD’S 2019 FANTASY FOOTBALL POTENTIAL

When Howard was drafted, a lot was made of the two-tight end sets that the Bucs were going to be able to run with him and Cameron Brate. Under Dirk Koetter, that never fully got to the level that was expected. With Bruce Arians leading the way these days, that’s even less likely to come together. Arians hasn’t been known to feature tight ends all that heavily, so the thought of him featuring two is pretty much unheard of.

Despite that reputation, though, I’d expect Arians to feature Howard heavily in his offense. He’s too big of an asset to be ignored, and Arians knows that. Brate can be a nice weapon as well, but Howard has taken over the top spot for Tampa Bay. It’s worth noting that Brate went undrafted in every 12-team fantasy mock draft we conducted. His role isn’t what it used to be.

Howard clearly became the No. 1 tight end for the Bucs in 2018, but that doesn’t mean Brate will stay on the sidelines full-time. Howard will get the majority of snaps, but Brate will more than likely take some away. Despite that, Howard projects as a top-tier tight end option, according to FantasyPros. The site projects a stat line of 56.8 catches, 817.7 yards and 6.4 touchdowns, which would equal out to 118.9 fantasy points.

The health aspect works against Howard. Brate might take some snaps away. But even still, the mismatch that Howard can be is too enticing to ignore. He might not be an elite PPR guy, but he will make the big plays and find the end zone.

There’s certainly an argument to be made for him to be in that top tier of fantasy tight ends, but he’s either on the lower end of the top tier or right on the verge of joining the elite tight ends. He needs to prove that he can stay healthy and contribute consistently in order to be an elite fantasy option.

In 12-team leagues, Howard is being drafted 58th overall on average (Round 5, Pick 10). When compared to the elite tight ends that are known fantasy commodities, he falls behind. Travis Kelce is being drafted 16th overall on average, while Zach Ertz is going 23rd overall on average. George Kittle is right behind Ertz, being selected an average of 24th overall. So, yeah, Howard isn’t quite there yet. But for where he’s being drafted? There’s value there.

Overall, Howard is worth taking a chance on in 2019. Bruce Arians will take advantage of him in space and very likely in the red zone. Brate might steal some of his teammate’s looks in the red zone, but Howard’s ability to score from anywhere on the field will be showcased in Arians’ offense. He’ll get looks from Jameis Winston. He’ll catch the majority of those looks, and he’ll hit somewhere between the five and seven-touchdown mark, unless we see a scoring boom from him. Howard, as long as he stays on the field, will easily be starting-quality for your fantasy team this fall. He has legitimate TE1 potential by year’s end, if things fall the right way.

2019 PROJECTION: TE4; Draft in the *5th round, likely in the second half (best-case scenario, he’s an early 6th-round steal)

*Draft projection based on 12-Team Leagues