O.J. Howard has not had the career many envisaged since entering the NFL in 2017. Still, his top-ranked performance by Offensive Share Metric (OSM) from his rookie season provided a window into how he can turn his career around with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2020.
Howard was selected in the first round of the draft by Tampa Bay three years ago but has too often found himself an afterthought in the Buccaneers offense. With Rob Gronkowski coming out of retirement and Cameron Brate in the tight end room as well, there would appear to be the risk of Howard becoming even more of a forgotten man in a passing attack that features elite wide receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin.
However, the opposite may be true, with head coach Bruce Arians – per Buccaneers.com – indicating Tampa Bay will look to use more two and three tight end sets in the coming season.
That may mean more opportunities for Howard to catch the ball and, with Gronkowski, Evans, and Godwin likely to command a lot of attention from opposing defenses, benefit from the disguise that was pivotal to his hugely productive day against the Buffalo Bills in Week 7 of the 2017 campaign.
In the latest in our OSM Back to the Future series, we reflect on that display.
O.J. Howard’s top-ranked performance from 2017
Howard caught all six of his targets for 98 yards and two touchdowns in a 30-27 to the Bills.
It earned him a monster OSM score of 61.13, the highest individual game grade of any tight end in 2017. OSM uses the NFL’s NextGen Stats and a series of algorithms to assess a player’s contribution to his offense’s production by looking at the factors only he could control.
Howard did an excellent job in the areas of the game he could control, with his grade indicating an elite level of performance. But it was the Buccaneers’ success in getting him into space that proved the key to his top-ranked performance.
The art of deception
After beginning his day with 21-yard and 19-yard completions in the first half on which he benefited from free releases, Howard enjoyed a tremendous second half.
The drive that ended in the first of Howard’s two touchdowns saw him get the Buccaneers out of a hole on second and 17 as he picked up 14 yards on a short out-breaking route, with the play turned into a 29-yard gain because of an unnecessary roughness penalty assessed against Buffalo.
On this play, Howard, having acted as if he was going to block the defensive end, got a one-on-one matchup with a linebacker courtesy of the deep routes executed by the two wide receivers on the same side of the formation. The short route up the middle by the running back helped Howard gain crucial extra separation by putting the linebacker in two minds.
Howard was again utilized as decoy blocker on the seven-yard touchdown catch that ended the drive, the use of play-action, and Jameis Winston holding the defense with his eyes allowing Howard to roam free across the middle of the field and stroll into the endzone.
Howard then tied the game at 20-20 with a 33-yard touchdown throw from Winston on which his task was again a relatively simple one. Another play-fake sucked up the Bills defense, and the addition of Winston’s rollout to his right forced Buffalo to flow in that direction as – having survived heavy contact from the defensive end – Howard broke free down the left side.
Winston’s throw back across the field was perfect, and Howard snagged a wide-open grab that marked the highlight of a display that was as much about then head coach Dirk Koetter’s play design as it was about the tight end’s undoubted physical gifts.
A breakout year in 2020?
Arians is highly regarded for his play-calling talents, but it is Byron Leftwich who takes on that responsibility on his staff in Tampa Bay.
Still, Arians and Leftwich have had all offseason to plot ways in which they can utilize their plethora of weapons at the offensive skill positions. Thus, Howard should be in a position to prosper from the use of deception akin to what Koetter produced back in October 2017.
The switch from Winston to Brady at quarterback may also positively impact Howard. While Winston is known as an aggressive quarterback, Brady’s 2019 season was one in which the numbers indicated he is becoming a much more conservative player reliant on his pass-catchers’ ability to make things happen after the reception.
Indeed, according to NextGen Stats, Brady finished 2019 averaging 5.6 completed air yards (CAY) and 7.6 intended air yards (IAY) per throw. Winston, by contrast, was second in the NFL in both metrics with 8.2 CAY and 10.5 (IAY).
Brady frequently threw short of the first-down marker, as indicated by his performance in the air yards to the sticks (AYTS) metric. AYTS shows the amount of Air Yards ahead or behind the first down marker on all attempts for a passer. Brady finished the year averaging minus 1.6 yards, with Winston again second in the NFL with an average of 1.4 yards ahead of the sticks.
The disparity in these numbers suggests that, whereas Winston would frequently push the ball downfield, Brady may look more to get the ball out quickly on shorter passes and let his receivers do the work in the open field.
That would play into the strengths of Howard, who has the athletic ability to dominate in space. Ahead of the 2017 draft, Howard received a Relative Athletic Score (RAS) – a composite metric on a 0 to 10 scale based on the average of all of the percentile for each of the metrics the player completed either at the Combine or pro day – of 9.76 for his efforts at the Combine.
Howard earned elite speed and agility grades, the problem he has had since coming into the league is that his chances to show those traits off have been all too few. His 53 targets last season represented a career-high but saw him ranked 25th among all tight ends, according to Football Outsiders, and were two fewer than Brate received.
Yet there is plenty to suggest he will become a more significant part of the Buccaneers offense in 2020.
Tampa Bay looks set to make greater use of its tight ends in the coming campaign and will do so with a quarterback who thrived in New England, relying heavily on the Patriots’ playmakers at the position. If the Buccaneers can find ways to utilize their masses of offensive talent to get Howard in space as they did during his top-ranked performance in 2017, the former first-rounder could be in line for a breakout year.