Amidst all the other articles out there, one team that doesn’t seem to be getting talked about enough is the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
I’m kidding. I am well aware Tampa has been (for once) the most covered team at a national level this offseason. But there are reasons for that—and we all know it’s not because of some national media bias toward what’s happening in Tampa Bay.
The Buccaneers started making headlines when they made it clear they were not that interested in bringing back the NFL’s passing leader, Jameis Winston, on a second contract. On paper, certainly an eye-opening move, but signing Tom Brady in Winston’s place sure made up for it—and was the catalyst for even more attention in Tampa Bay.
If it was just about bringing Brady in, the Buccaneers would have been talked about, but people would have eventually moved on. But when tight end Rob Gronkowski got thrown into the mix, then it was a series of “what’s next for Tampa Bay?”
Gronkowski returning to football is good for all lovers of the sport because the greatest tight end of all-time, who many thought hung up his cleats too early, will be back on our television screens for at least another year. He also joins an already stacked group of tight ends to form what is certainly the most talented tight end room in the NFL—and one of the best that has ever been assembled.
Gronkowski joins O.J. Howard, who is coming off three years of flash production, but really has to put it all together to be consistent, Cameron Brate, who is one of the more underrated players in the NFL, and a tight end who consistently shows up in the red zone and on third downs, Antony Auclair, a strong special teams player and strong blocker in 12 and 13 personnel (two or three tight end sets), and Tanner Hudson, who led the NFL in receiving touchdowns and was second in the league in receiving yards last preseason.
With Gronkowski not in the picture, there may have been some wiggle room for Auclair and Hudson to see some extended action this season. But with Gronkowski onboard, the Buccaneers tight end offense will be, for the most part, a three-man rotation, and a strong one at that.
"We've always been a huge 12-personnel team – ever since Pittsburgh," Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians said. "That's our base offense. If those are the best matchups, then that's what we'll have. Each week is finding out the best matchups."
Though there are plenty of coaches out there who like to use 13 personnel (one running back and three tight ends), few can really pull it off. Arians even mentioned earlier this offseason that they would like to utilize that formation more than the two percent (24 snaps) of total offensive snaps they used it for in 2019.
Though we can expect to see 12 personnel as Tampa's base as well as even more three-tight end sets from the Bucs in 2020, the main reason we’re here is to find out how the Buccaneers can use all three of these tight ends in streamlined roles where they are getting the maximum value out of each when they are on the field, regardless of whether it's two or three out there at one time.
Let’s start with the new guy.
I don’t think we have to mention too much of the obvious here with Gronkowski. If you’ve watched football at all over the last 10 or so years, you’re well aware of what Gronkowski can do over the middle of the field when catching through traffic. I don’t think there would be much to gain showing you too many clips like that—we already know he’ll do plenty of that in Tampa Bay, no matter where he is lined up.
Instead what I wanted to do was point out areas of tight end play where Gronkowski’s presence can really shine. The first is in aligning him to the outside. In the play above, Gronkowski was lined up on the line of scrimmage isolated to the outside, the same sort of placement we’d see of an “X” wide receiver.
Over the last 10 or so years, the tight end position has been molded to be a mismatch position. With teams finding the freedom to use tight ends all over the field, a main objective for them is how they can exploit a potential weakness of a defender. That can come from a variety of traits. It can be a fast tight end schemed in the right spot to be guarded by a slow linebacker, or a big tight end placed in a spot where a smaller defender is asked to cover them; things like that.
That’s exactly what the thought process was in the play above, and it worked to perfection.
Gronkowski’s size and strength were far too much for the smaller cornerback to handle on the outside. Due to the chemistry Gronkowski has with Brady when it comes to ball placement, it was an easy conversion.
Take that same thought process and apply it to the red zone within the 10-yard line and you have yourself a recipe for a touchdown. This kind of play is all over Gronkowski’s career highlights. Part of what makes him the ultimate weapon is that you can get as versatile as you want with him. That means wherever a team might be weakest when it comes to defending tight ends, Gronkowski can go there.
Specifically, though, the Buccaneers being able to play their tight ends on the outside away from the line of scrimmage really opens things up. Gronkowski is very comfortable in that role, and not many defenses are comfortable guarding it.
Speaking of red zone work, Gronkowski is going to be nearly unstoppable in heavy packages on the goal line when the Buccaneers decide to pass off play-action.
Can you imagine the play above with Gronkowski, Howard, and Brate? Who do you guard? How do you guard? The answer is: you don’t.
The play above is from a 23 personnel look with two players in the backfield and three tight ends. The Buccaneers have the manpower to make calls like that happen, and truth be told, not many defenses have the manpower to stop it.
Let’s move on to what the Buccaneers should be doing with O.J. Howard.
In theory, Howard can do everything. He can play in-line at the line of scrimmage with his hand in the dirt, he can line up behind the line of scrimmage, he can line up in the slot, and he can even do some of that outside “X” receiver stuff we saw above in Gronkowski’s tape. Howard’s versatility is what makes him so valuable, but within that, the trait that makes him a potentially rare player is his speed.
The Buccaneers need to allow Howard to make the most of his speed. Plays like the one above won’t happen often (screens to the tight end aren’t normally the move), but in that play Howard showed you how effortless it is for him to get to top speed. When you scheme him into open space (screens, mesh routes, dig routes, wheel routes, ect.) he can really eat up grass.
A consistent way to allow Howard to use his speed against slower defenders is by allowing him to attack the seam down the middle and other vertical routes that get him about 15-20 yards down the field quickly.
Plays like the one above are pretty straight forward for Howard: just go. When coming off the line of scrimmage against man coverage, defenders rarely have the combination of size and speed to contain Howard. He’ll either create separation by out-muscling a smaller slot defender in the contract window or he’ll blow by a linebacker who probably can't keep up once he gets into his strides.
Week-to-week, depending on how the defense is defending the slot, Howard can really capitalize as long as he can improve inconsistencies in execution from previous years.
Like Gronkowski, the Buccaneers will use Howard in plenty of ways. But for those certain plays designed for Howard specifically, they need to be emphasizing his speed as the point of mismatch. They have enough talent at wide receiver and with the rest of their tight end group to make that happen.
When describing Brate to those who might not watch much Buccaneers football, the words that come to mind are: reliable and fearless.
This dude is one tough S.O.B. He’s taken some of the hardest blindside shots over the middle that I have seen a player take over the last three or four years, and yet he seems to come down with the completion more than you’d think. It’s as if he tells his brain to make sure his hands don’t let go until he touches the ground before telling his central nervous system to signal to the rest of his body that he’s actually in pain.
On a team with talented tight ends such as Gronkowski and Howard, one would think it would make sense to move on from or just cast Brate off. Few players have the size and speed combination that Gronkowski and Howard possess, and that is what makes them rare, but to be as consistent, sure-handed, and tough as Brate is in the most dangerous parts of the field is what makes him rare, too.
While fantasy football players and national media might not understand why Brate gets as many snaps as he likely will this season, those who follow the team closely know—and Brady will too.
This final clip is an example of how the Buccaneers will be able to utilize the players who are listed as tight ends on their roster at non-tight end positions.
In the play above, the Buccaneers got creative and used Brate as a running back out of shotgun formation on 4th-and-1 on the goal line. It was a way to confuse the defense, and it worked to perfection. This is a role that can be executed by Brate, Howard, and even Gronkowski.
Though the Buccaneers’ tight ends will be making plenty of typical tight end plays both in-line and in the slot—catches over the middle on in routes, quick curls, and inside posts—each of the three tight ends have traits that, if emphasized, give them mismatch options every week of the season.