One Year Early: The OJ Howard Saga

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Did you know that OJ Howard is a Tampa Bay Buccaneer? I ask because it'd be easy to lose him among the star-studded supporting cast to Tom Brady's lead. Shiny new toys in Leonard Fournette and Rob Gronkowski. A less shiny toy in LeSean McCoy. Staples in the offense in Mike Evans and Chris Godwin. The formerly-likely-to-break-out-candidate-but-Bruce-Arians-is-the-worst Ronald Jones. There's even been some hype for Scotty Miller during this training camp. What's gone unnoticed is the emergence of OJ Howard as an absolute monster of a redzone threat throughout camp.

We fell for this trap last season, though, right? OJ was drafted as a top-five tight end in 2019, and with good reason. He profiles to be one of the best tight ends in the game. He was getting Bruce Arians, a notable offensive coach. He had Jameis Winston to throw him the ball (for better or worse). The Buccaneers defense was nothing special, so throwing was going to be a necessity. But things didn't quite go as planned for OJ.

What Went Wrong?

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Just... a lot. But a lot of it can be placed on us: the fantasy community. His value to the Bucs actually wasn't as bad as it's perceived to be. According to The Football Outsiders, OJ Howard was actually 3.2% better than the average tight end in the NFL in 2019; ahead of Zach Ertz, Greg Olsen, Evan Engram, Mike Gesicki, and a ton of fantasy-relevant guys. How is that possible? The answer is simple: OJ Howard is an elite blocker. His 6'6, 250-pound frame allows for him to bully edge rushers and create space for running backs or time for quarterbacks. Because of this, he was on the field for nearly 70% of snaps, despite his fantasy irrelevance.

Blocking doesn't count for fantasy points, though. OJ Howard simply was not good at catching footballs in 2019. His drop rate jumped 7.3 percentage points and it was evident when you turned a Tampa game on. His hands could most accurately be described as cinderblocks, merely pointless extensions of his forearms.

Okay, that may be harsh; but when you drop nearly 1 of every 10 footballs thrown your way, it's warranted.

Then there was the issue of Bruce Arians and his historical use of tight ends. Across his entire four-year stint in Arizona, the available tight end targets fell below 100 each year. Was that partially due to Jermaine Gresham and Rob Housler being the primary tight ends? Maybe. And maybe that's why we, as a fantasy community, decided that nugget of information didn't matter when discussing OJ Howard's 2019 outlook.

And then the big one: Cameron Brate. It was ignored that OJ Howard was probably the second-best receiving tight end on the preseason roster heading into 2019. Cameron Brate saw more targets than OJ Howard in 2018 (albeit by just one) and was always going to be a main cog in the machine for the 2019 Buccaneers.

We chose to ignore that. We were mistaken.

A Change in Philosophy

So I just stated that OJ Howard was potentially the second-best receiving tight end on his team in 2019. The Buccaneers added Rob Gronkowski. So now, he may be the third-best receiving tight end on his team headed into 2020. How in the world would that information equate to fantasy success in 2020?

The lack of a quality third receiver in Tampa Bay is going to do wonders for OJ Howard. Scotty Miller, while a nice player, doesn't incite fear in defenses like some of the other names I mentioned above. And for this reason (and probably some others), the Buccaneers have made it clear that their base offense will be 12-personnel in 2020. For those who don't know, 12-personnel is a 1RB-2TE-2WR set. That means that there will be a ton of Gronk and OJ on the field this season. The blocking capability these two tight ends possess is second-to-none as far as duos in the NFL right now. The options for Bruce Arians and Tom Brady will be endless out of 12. Despite Gronk's dominance years ago, you have to expect him to be more of a decoy. Teams will scheme around his chemistry with Tom Brady, leaving a good majority of tight end targets for OJ Howard.

Bruce isn't an idiot. What worked for Jameis Winston in 2019 would not have worked for Brady in 2020. The introduction of a second tight end on the field is a direct response to the signing of Tom Brady.

Tom's Tight End Infatuation

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Brady made the move to Tampa Bay to show us a couple of things: that he can win without Bill Belichick and that he's still got it. One of Tom's best statistical seasons came in 2011. He threw for 5,235 yards, 39 touchdowns, 12 interceptions, and completed over 400 passes. In that same season, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez combined for 237 targets, 169 catches, 2,237 yards, and 24 touchdowns. "But Christian, Mike Evans and Chris Godwin are there! Brady can't possibly need to use two tight ends." Wes Welker and Deion Branch combined for another 263 targets. To put that into perspective, Chris Godwin and Mike Evans combined for 239 targets in 2019 in a year in which the Buccaneers attempted 630 passes. If there's a quarterback that can support two receivers and force-feed his tight ends, it's TB12.

Interestingly enough, Bruce Arians coached against this version of the New England Patriots, serving as the offensive coordinator for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2011. Gronk and Hernandez combined for 9 catches, 103 yards, and a touchdown. He then saw Tom again when he coached for the Colts in 2012; but in the Week 11 matchup between the Colts and Patriots, Aaron Hernandez was out. Gronk went for 7 catches, 137 yards, and 2 scores.

Bottom line: Bruce Arians is fully aware of Tom Brady's reliance on the tight end position.

So Why OJ?

OJ Howard's 2019 stats equated to his worst professional season yet. He saw just 53 targets, caught just 34 passes, and had his yards per reception come down a full 3 yards. His touchdown number took a nosedive. He averaged just 6 FPTS/G in PPR leagues.

So forgetting him has been easy and understandable. But Jameis Winston and Tom Brady are two vastly different quarterbacks. Bruce Arians has committed to 12-personnel, and OJ Howard is still a freak of nature. His 97th-percentile 40-yard-dash time (4.51s), 98th-percentile Speed Score (123.9), 97th-percentile Agility Score (11.01), and 88th-percentile Catch Radius (10.24) indicate that he should become a good NFL player.

Of course, there's just as good of a chance that OJ Howard just has terrible hands and will never be fantasy relevant. But I'd take the bet that the 2nd-year leap that we saw from 2017 to 2018 was more indicative of what's to come for the young tight end. All signs throughout camp point to a 4th-year breakout. OJ has become a redzone favorite for Tom Brady, and the extra attention that Gronk will draw against real opponents will open up this possibility even more.

There's potential that we don't get the full scope of this in Week 1 with Mike Evans hobbled with a hamstring injury, but that could mean extra opportunity for OJ Howard. If Evans is out, I'd stream OJ Howard with confidence.

OJ Howard didn't finish very high in my personal rankings, but he did finish as the TE1 for Tampa Bay. If he reaches the potential that we hyped for him last season, I would not be shocked at all. Here's to hoping we were just one year too early on OJ Howard.

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