Coach Bruce Arians’ “no risk it, no biscuit” philosophy on offense hasn’t been big on tight ends. But that might change in 2019 as Arians takes the reins of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who have former Alabama standout O.J. Howard available at tight end.
In his second NFL season, Howard caught 34 passes for 565 yards and five touchdowns before an ankle injury ended his 2018 campaign prematurely.
In his 14 previous seasons as an NFL offensive coordinator or head coach, Arians has had only three tight ends who exceeded the receiving yardage that Howard compiled in 10 games in 2018, and none of Arians’ past tight ends ever matched Howard’s per-catch average of 16.6 yards.
During a press conference at the NFL Scouting Combine, Tampa Bay general manager Jason Licht said Howard had Arians excited about tight end.
“When I pointed out O.J. to Bruce, one of his first days in the office, OJ was rehabbing out on the field,” Licht said, “and Bruce’s eyes got about this big, so I know he’s excited.
“He’s a big guy. He can run. He can block. He can catch. He was averaging — what? — 17, 18 yards a catch before he got hurt. So I know if you want to draw up a tight end and what you want him to look like, it’s O.J. Howard, so I know that Bruce is excited about that.”
Jenna Laine of ESPN has speculated that Arians might use Howard as he used wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald during his five seasons as coach of the Arizona Cardinals.
Fitzgerald already had played nine NFL seasons when Arians arrived in Arizona in 2013. Under Arians, Fitzgerald often lined up in the slot, ran routes like a “glorified tight end” and caught plenty of passes. In Arians’ five seasons with the Cardinals, Fitzgerald caught 470 passes for 5,132 yards and 33 touchdowns. He caught at least 107 passes in each of the final three seasons.
After the Buccaneers selected Howard with the 19th choice in the 2017 NFL Draft, he caught 26 passes for 432 yards and six touchdowns as a rookie.
In 2018, Howard was on pace for 904 receiving yards when he was injured. The Tampa Bay single-season record for receiving yards by a tight end is 884 by Kellen Winslow II in 2009.
Both of Howard’s NFL seasons have ended early because of ankle injuries, and each injury came when he was tackled after a big play. In 2017, it was a 30-yard touchdown reception. In 2018, the injury occurred at the end of the 24-yard gain.
Even though he missed six games, Howard finished 14th in receiving yards among the NFL’s tight ends in 2018.
Howard’s average of 56.5 receiving yards per game was exceeded by only three tight ends — the San Francisco 49ers’ George Kittle, Kansas City Chiefs’ Travis Kelce and Philadelphia Eagles’ Zack Ertz (the three tight ends with 1,000 receiving yards in 2018) — and none of the tight ends ahead of him in receiving yards could match Howard’s average gain of 11.77 yards per target, thanks to a 70.8 percent catch rate.
Before playing on Alabama’s 2015 CFP national-championship team, Howard earned All-State recognition three times at Autauga Academy — as a linebacker in 2010, in the athlete slot in 2011 and as a tight end in 2012.