Welcome to Bucs Report’s “Make-Or-Break” series!
We are going to highlight the players heading into their final contract year and discuss what they need to do on the field in 2021 in order to obtain another contract with the Bucs. One prerequisite that must be checked off in order to qualify: The profiled player(s) have to be in the final year of a multi-year deal. Players who signed one-year deals in 2021 will not be considered.
O.J. Howard and the Buccaneers so far…
OJ Howard is the true enigma in this series. While players like Ronald Jones and Jordan Whitehead have all enjoyed some level of prominent success, the 2017 first round pick has yet to put together a full season – much less a strong one. Marred by injuries throughout his four-year career, we have yet to see what a full 16 game season looks like for the incredibly talented tight end.
Howard was described as an elite tight end prospect coming out of Alabama. A solid blocker, but a player who also had rare speed and athleticism for his size. Howard was hailed as a mismatch nightmare. Too fast for linebackers to cover. Too big for safeties to cover. A large catch radius, reliable hands, and a dangerous red-zone threat.
So far, we have only seen glimpses of that player.
In his first four years as a Buccaneer, Howard has totaled 105 receptions for 1,602 yards and 14 touchdowns. Those are decent stats, but the key here is that he’s missed 22 of a possible 64 games. Overall, this isn’t the kind of production you want to see out of a top-20 draft pick.
His best season came in 2018. He recorded 34 catches for 565 yards and five touchdowns, but he still missed six games due to injury. There is definitely talent to build upon, he just needs to stay healthy and put it all together.
It looked like Howard and Tom Brady were developing some chemistry before he went down for the season, which is encouraging. He caught the first pass from the elite quarterback to start the 2020 season and snagged 11 balls for 146 yards and two touchdowns before going down for the year in Week 4.
What does he need to do in order to get that second contract?
Let’s just be honest, here: Howard has to stay healthy.
He has all the aforementioned tools and skills to be an elite tight end in the league. Granted, injuries are part of the game. But Howard’s injuries have unfortunately played a big role in his inability to reach his true potential. Which is a shame, because it looked like the time spent in the offseason at Berkley Prep looked to be paying off. Building upon that connection with Brady -but mostly just being available- will be imperative for Howard if he wants to have a breakout season in 2021.
The Buccaneers picked up Howard’s fifth-year option last year, but he still has a lot to prove before he cash in next year. The ability to pick the mind of both Brady and fellow tight end Rob Gronkowski should help improve his knowledge and understanding of the game and help raise it to the next level.
How are his prospects shaping up for 2022?
Again, it all comes down to availability for Howard. If healthy, Howard should be in line for a big role the 2021 season. Going back to last summer, head coach Bruce Arians had spoken about wanting to use more 12-personnel on the field. 12-personnel for those who don’t know, features two tight ends on the field at the same time. The advantage of this personnel grouping, especially paired with Gronkowski, is it will highlight Howard’s versatility. This malleable personnel grouping will make it hard for defenders to match up against him in on a snap-by-snap basis.
Howard’s height, catch radius, and jump ball ability will also make him a dangerous threat in the red zone. He’s also very dynamic with the ball in his hands. 209 of his 565 yards came after the catch during his best season as a pro. With Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, and Rob Gronkowski on the field it will be near impossible to double Howard. This will leave him one-on-one with defenders slower or shorter than him, which will allow him to exploit the weaknesses in the whatever defensive is being ran at the time.
If the chemistry Howard and Brady displayed at the onset of the 2020 season picks up where they left off, Howard should have a big year in 2021.
I promise I’m not trying to be repetitive, but as I’ve stated, Howard’s health in 2021 will likely drive what happens in 2022 and beyond.
Howard should be fully recovered in time for training camp and he should be plenty hungry after watching his team win Super Bowl LV from the sidelines. I’m also sure he’ll be aching to help the Bucs “go for two”. He’ll be dialed in from the start and he’ll implement everything he learned from Gronkowski while taking advantage of his elite talents.
With a $6 million cap hit in 2021, it is possible the Buccaneers may ask Howard to take a pay cut and/or turn salary into incentives for the season after missing so many games over the last four years before they offer an extension. In a contract season, if Howard wants to prove to the Buccaneers, the league and himself he deserves a big payday he’ll have to prove it first on the field.
We’ve seen the physical abilities, but the skepticism is still out there regarding Howard. Whether he can simply stay healthy over a 16-game (potentially 17-game) season. With uncertainty looming at the tight end position in 2022, the position could go from a strength to a weakness. Having said that, if Howard is able to make an impact and stay healthy I have no reason to see why the Buccaneers wouldn’t bring him back for the 2022 season and possibly beyond.