What Could O.J. Howard's Role With Buccaneers Look Like In 2021?

Photo: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been a near picture-perfect ride for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers since the start of 2021. For one, they haven’t lost a football game yet, and in the process won their second Super Bowl in franchise history. 

Once Tampa Bay’s successful Super Bowl run was over and the offseason began, the talk of the NFL was which teams were going to poach talented players from the Buccaneers’ roster; there were plenty of players on both sides of the ball who were scheduled to hit free agency. As free agency came and went, the answer was: no one. 

Tampa Bay brought back almost all of its starters from the previous season immediately, and on April 28 made it official by re-signing wide receiver Antonio Brown; all 22 starters from the previous season were back in Tampa Bay for another title run. But just because the Buccaneers brought back their starters didn’t mean they were done adding talent. They, of course, had their original selections in the 2021 NFL Draft, highlighted by pass rusher Joe Tryon and quarterback Kyle Trask. There is another player who the Bucs won't technically be adding from last year’s group, but one who is returning from injury and will feel like a new addition and that is tight end O.J. Howard.

Last summer, Tampa Bay exercised the fifth-year option on Howard’s rookie contract, which means he would be on the team for the next two seasons. Unfortunately, that first season was short, as Howard tore his Achilles tendon against the Los Angeles Chargers in Week 4. To that point, Howard was averaging a career-high in receptions per game and recorded 11 catches for 146 receiving yards and two receiving touchdowns.

So, where does a returning Howard fit into this tight end room?

The Buccaneers still have Rob Gronkowski, who will certainly be the top tight end option in both the run and pass games. But Howard brings a lot of versatility to the position too. With both Howard and Gronkowski, the Buccaneers can run a lot of 12 personnel sets; both pass-catching tight ends can be a reliable target for quarterback Tom Brady or stay in to block. Health was on Gronkowski’s side last season, as the 31-year-old played in and started every game of the regular season and the playoffs. If Gronkowski were to miss any time, Howard would be able to step in. He likely wouldn’t be as impactful, but it’s not as big of a dropoff as it would be if the more receiving tight end Cameron Brate were the only option.

According to multiple reports, head coach Bruce Arians said Howard looks good and talked as if Howard should be good to go once the season rolls around.

“I see O.J. every day. Yeah, he’s really close now,” Arians said. “He looks fantastic working out every day.”

Tampa Bay was a top-12 team in the league last year when it came to 12 personnel (two tight ends) frequency at 264 offensive plays (22%). The previous season the Buccaneers were top 10 in that category at 23%, which means we can expect them to lean on the multi-tight end grouping again with around 20-25% of their offensive plays. 

Howard has never played a full season for the Buccaneers. In his rookie year, he played and started in 14 games, but in his second season, he played in just 10 games and missed the rest due to foot and ankle injuries. The following year he once again played in and started 14 games, and then of course, there was last year with his injury. Howard has been hit and miss with his health throughout his rookie season, but what he can bring to this team is a bonus.

Whatever Howard is for Tampa Bay in 2021 will be another example of the rich getting richer.