In 2016, Buccaneers’ Cameron Brate was tied for a league-leading eight touchdowns for a tight end. In the 2017 NFL Draft that followed, Tampa Bay selected an insanely talented tight end from Alabama, O.J. Howard, at No. 19. This offseason, after luring legendary quarterback Tom Brady, the Buccaneers acquired former Patriots and future Hall of Fame tight end Rob Gronkowski after his return from retirement.
As we near the scheduled start of the 2020 season, all three players as well as Tanner Hudson — who, in the 2019 preseason, was second in receiving yards and first in receiving touchdowns across the league — and Antony Auclair — a key special teams player and blocker on jumbo packages — make up Tampa Bay’s TE depth chart.
There has been detailed analysis of the potential production of Gronkowski and Howard, but there's a good chance most of those articles have been viewed from the perspective of each individual player. When, in reality, to correctly project what might happen with the top players, the roles of the remaining players, in this case, the tight end room, must first be acknowledged.
Tampa Bay was a top-10 team last season when it came to 12 personnel usage or two tight end sets. The Buccaneers were in 12 personnel 23% of their offensive snaps, which equaled 23% of the total season snaps and 10th most in the NFL, according to Sharp Football Stats. And this should only increase. Coach Bruce Arians likes to throw the ball, but he also likes having control. Tampa Bay didn't have much of a rushing game last season despite running the ball 25 times per game, which was 13th most in the league. Imagine what the Buccaneers will do with a hopefully upgraded running back room and an even deeper tight end group to play in-line.
Quarterback Jameis Winston only threw off play-action 107 times in 2019, which was in the bottom half of the NFL. However, his 1,133 passing yards off play-action were fifth-most. Part of the production certainly comes from Winston's nature of taking shots down the field, but as the Buccaneers hope to have a stronger running game in 2020, the play action game and utilization of 12 personnel should also increase.
Let's look at the roles.
We have to assume that Gronkowski is healthy. If that is the case, he will be the top tight end on the team; he has proven himself as a blocker and as one of the best receiving tight ends to ever play the game. But Howard won't be far behind when it comes to usage.
Last season, Tampa Bay used Howard as its main target when it came to tight end packages that involved play-action since he was the strongest blocker. Howard was fourth in targets (53) and yards (459) in 14 games and likely would have been third behind Mike Evans and Chris Godwin had he not gotten hurt and effectively replaced by Breshad Perriman. This year, the Buccaneers will have more creativity and more options for mismatch potential due to how they can align both Howard and Gronkowski.
But Gronkowski also boosts the potential presence of Brate.
Brate has been one of the most reliable tight ends in the NFL over the past four years. Brate has not gone away with the arrival of Howard. In fact, last season, Brate caught four more touchdowns than Howard (one) and even saw two more targets (55) than Howard (53) did overall. Brate is used as the chain mover, the go-to third-down player, the red-zone threat. Just because his yards per play aren't that of wide receivers or Howard, he isn’t forgotten or replaceable. His role will continue and even increase in its effectiveness with the eyes shifted toward Gronkowski.
There is only one ball to throw, and on a team that features Evans and Godwin as two of the best receivers in the game, attention to the tight end group can only be so focused. However, there is creativity and emphasis from the coaching staff to make the most of the deepest and talented tight end room in the league due to how their roles with a concise vision and successful execution.