It’s official, we are in the NFL dead period. The draft is over and we are still weeks away from camps or any significant team activities. So what do we as fans do? We try to imagine what our teams will look like next season and we build hype around players who we’re expecting to break out this year. I am no exception to this; building almost unreasonable amounts of hype around the Bucs passing attack and the front seven of the defense. In terms of individual players, no one has fallen victim to my unreasonable expectation than OJ Howard.
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Since the beginning of last year I have described him as “the best tight end prospect I’ve ever seen”. Over the course of the draft process I have said several times that Howard will be in the hall of fame one day as one of the best tight ends to ever play the game. I said these things then and I stand by them now. However, myself and many other Bucs fans are getting too far ahead of ourselves.
Despite being an incredible talent, it’s not fair to expect Howard to have a breakout year as a rookie. Historically, even the best tight ends struggled as rookies. Some struggled with the blocking aspect and couldn’t initially get on the field. Some struggled in adjusting to the speed of the NFL game. Most struggled with both aspects to a degree. Whatever the reason, rookie tight ends usually take a while to adjust to the NFL. Here’s what I mean.
Tony Gonzalez- 33 Receptions 368 Yards 2 Touchdowns
Eric Ebron- 25 Receptions 248 Yards 1 Touchdowns
Jordan Reed- 45 Receptions 499 Yards 3 Touchdowns
Greg Olsen- 39 Receptions 391 Yards 2 Touchdowns
Antonio Gates- 24 Receptions 389 Yards 2 Touchdowns
Rob Gronkowski – 42 Receptions 546 Yards 10 Touchdowns
Above is a list of some big name tight ends you may be familiar with. Some are the best tight ends in the game today (Reed, Olsen and Gronk), some are the best to ever play the position (Gates and Gonzalez) and one in Ebron is the last tight end to be drafted as high (higher actually at 9th overall) as Howard was. As you can see, most of these guys weren’t game changes as rookies.
Only Gronkowski hit the 500 yard and 5 touchdown mark, which historically has made for great rookie seasons for tight ends. His rookie year was one of the absolute best you’re ever going to see from a rookie at this position. If Howard comes close to these kind of numbers I would consider it an incredibly successful season. However, to expect one of the best seasons in the history of the NFL from a rookie tight end doesn’t really seem fair for even a player of Howard’s magnitude. With that said, here’s what I’m expecting from Howard in the upcoming season.
I believe Howard will start the year somewhat slow. He probably won’t be the starter initially and will probably need a few games to adjust to the speed of the NFL. Even if he does make some noise vs the weak coverage units of teams like the Dolphins and Bears, I wouldn’t expect him to hit the ground running and sustain success for the entire year. I would expect him to really start picking things up around week seven and potentially even take the starting job at that point. From there I’d expect consistent, if not spectacular, production from Howard. I’d expect him to average around 40-50 yards per game in the second half of the season.
Where I think Howard will have an impact all year long is in the redzone. With his excellent blocking ability, he’s going to be on the field in sets where the Bucs want to run the ball with power. Many times that’s in the redzone where they won’t be able to stretch the field. It’s in these sets that I expect the team to utilize him in play action and look to find him in the end zone. We saw what Winston can do with a tight end last year, hitting Cameron Brate for 8 touchdowns. I expect similar numbers from Howard this year, even with Brate still getting looks as the initial starter.
If I had to guess at final totals to end his rookie year, and it would truly be a total guess at this point, I would say Howard will finish the year in the ballpark of 40 catches for 480 yards and 7 touchdowns. With the combination of rookie tight ends struggling and Brate still being the starter for now, I can’t expect anything more than that. Keep in perspective, this would still be an excellent year for a rookie at this position. So for those of you like me who think Howard will be a Hall of Famer 20 years from now, don’t panic when he doesn’t dominate this season. It won’t be until 2018 that he really establishes himself as one of the best tight ends in the NFL.