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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

2020 Buccaneers Position Preview: Tight Ends

The 2020 Position Preview series rolls on with a look at Tampa Bay’s stacked tight end group.

With the expected start of training camp approaching, we’re going to dive into the 2020 Tampa Bay Buccaneers position by position. Today, we continue with the tight ends.

The Buccaneers have had a pretty formidable tight end group for a few years now, particularly going back to the Dirk Koetter era. With productive receiving threats like O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate—plus the blocking ability of Antony Auclair, the team’s No. 3—no one would’ve necessarily considered tight end a position of weakness for Tampa Bay heading into 2020.

But signing Tom Brady to be your new quarterback has certain effects, and Tampa Bay was more than happy to experience those effects this spring. Leading up to the draft, the Bucs dealt a fourth-round pick to New England for the rights to Rob Gronkowski, Brady’s longtime tight end who had decided to come out of retirement to reunite with his quarterback in Tampa. Now, the tight end room has gone from formidable to completely stacked. But before we dive into the 2020 group, let’s take a peek back at 2019.

NFL: Houston Texans at Tampa Bay Buccaneers Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

Rewind

Heading into 2019, there were questions about how the Bucs would utilize their two main tight ends—Howard and Brate. There seemed to be some uncertainty because Bruce Arians, who was taking over as the team’s new head coach, hadn’t always featured the tight end position much in his offense. And depending on who you ask, that uncertainty turned out to be warranted—at least partly. Howard was projected by many as a potential breakout heading into last year, but he largely disappointed. Trade rumors even began to surface during the season, but nothing ever came of those. By the end of the year, Howard had caught 34 passes for 459 yards and just one touchdown. His 34 catches matched his 2018 total, but he played four more games in 2019, so it was a bit of a step down.

Brate had a more productive season than Howard did, at least in terms of receptions and touchdowns. He caught 36 passes for 311 yards and four scores, bringing himself to a tie for fifth-most touchdown receptions in franchise history. Auclair, the team’s third tight end heading into the season, was limited to just eight games, catching one pass for 11 yards.

Tanner Hudson, who was the star of the 2019 preseason, played in nine games—partly due to Auclair’s injury—and caught two passes for 26 yards. In the season finale, Codey McElroy caught a 30-yard pass, marking his lone catch and lone target of the year. Overall, the tight end wasn’t completely ignored in Arians’ offense, but it didn’t live up to the production that may rightfully be expected from a group headed by two talented pass-catchers like Howard and Brate.

NFL: Tampa Bay Buccaneers-Training Camp Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Meet The Group

For much of the spring, the Bucs’ tight end group looked exactly like it did in 2019. Howard and Brate were at the top of the depth chart, followed by Auclair, Hudson, McElroy and Jordan Leggett. There were more trade rumors surrounding Howard, but again, nothing came of those. General manager Jason Licht maintained that they were happy with having Howard on the roster and then went and backed that up by electing to pick up his fifth-year option for 2021—even after making a splash move that shook up the entire dynamic of the tight end room.

As mentioned before, Tampa Bay went and rattled the NFL world during draft week by trading for Gronkowski, who had decided to come out of retirement to team up once again with Brady. Even coming off a year spent hosting television shows, dressing like a tiger on The Masked Singer and winning the WWE 24/7 Championship, Gronkowski is now set to be a major part of the Bucs’ offense in 2020. How that affects Howard and Brate remains to be seen. It seems that both will still be with the team this season, but their roles may suddenly change drastically.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Who’s New?

The one and only newcomer in the tight end group is Gronkowski himself. The three-time Super Bowl champion, five-time Pro Bowl selection and four-time All-Pro caught 521 passes for 7,861 yards and 79 touchdowns in nine seasons with the Patriots. He effectively cemented himself as one of the greatest tight ends in the history of the NFL, as evidenced by his spot on the NFL 100 All-Time Team, which was assembled last year to celebrate the league’s 100th season. Simply put, Gronkowski is a freak athlete. He stands at 6-foot-6 and played at around 260 pounds throughout his career, making him an absolute force at his position.

Gronkowski did drop weight and leaned out after he stopped playing football in 2019, but by the time he had announced his return to the field—and his arrival in Tampa—he said he was already close to being back near his playing weight. He said back then that he was just a few protein shakes away from being back to 260. By now, I’d assume he’s had those shakes and is right back to where he was when he caught six passes for 87 yards in the Patriots’ Super Bowl LIII victory over the Rams.

Super Bowl XLIX - New England Patriots v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Biggest Question: What Will Post-Retirement Gronk Have to Offer?

The Bucs trading for Rob Gronkowski and adding him to an already-talented tight end group was—and still is—big news. You don’t add a player of Gronk’s caliber without making some headlines. So, a new-look Tampa Bay offense that features Brady and Gronkowski in addition to the likes of Mike Evans and Chris Godwin should be unstoppable, right? Well, we’ll have to see. But not all that long ago, it came out that there are NFL defensive coordinators who aren’t too worried about Gronk as a threat in the Buccaneer offense. Perhaps it’s his injury history, his year off or simply the fact that there are Evans and Godwin to worry about. But for coaches to not be concerned about a guy like Gronk, with the pedigree he’s put together?

It’s at least worth talking about. No one truly knows what Gronkowski will bring to the table in 2020 after taking a year off from football. Maybe the time off actually helped his body and allowed him to recover from any injuries he had been carrying with him. If that’s the case, we could see a revitalized version of Gronk. But there’s also a chance that a year away from football impacts him negatively. He turned just 31 in May, but he’s put his body through a lot over the years. So, what the Bucs are going to get out of him could be a major question heading into whatever version of the 2020 season we get.

One thing we do know, however, is that Brady and Gronk have a connection. Yes, they have a personal connection, but they also have a noticeable connection on the field. That doesn’t seem like something that just goes away, so at the very least, it should be helpful for Brady to have a reliable target he knows he can turn to. Not to mention, a healthy Gronk will give Tampa Bay some options. Perhaps he’ll line up in the slot or out wide to maximize the snaps for Howard and Brate. Even if that doesn’t happen all that often, it seems reasonable to expect Arians to run a lot of 12 personnel in 2020. And running 12 personnel with the amount of talent the Bucs have at tight end could be a thing of beauty.

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