Wednesday, November 22, 2017
Tampa Bay Buccaneers

How the Buccaneers will benefit from O.J. Howard

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Myles Garrett fires his hands into O.J. Howard's chest and churns his legs as the Alabama tight end tries to hold his ground. As they collide, Garrett extends his arms, driving Howard back.

Whether the play is successful hinges on Howard's next move. If he cedes more ground to the Texas A&M defensive end, the lane for the running back will close.

Howard keeps fighting. He halts his backward momentum and recovers his balance by planting his left foot. Damien Harris squeaks through what's left of the opening between Howard and left tackle Cam Robinson and picks up 16 yards.

All heart.

That's how former Buccaneers tight end Todd Yoder describes Howard's blocking on that play against Garrett, the first overall pick in this spring's draft. Yoder, who is entering his fifth season as the head coach at Calvary Christian High School in Clearwater, joined me recently to discuss how Tampa Bay's offense will benefit from Howard.

"Once you get engaged like that, it comes down to strength and it comes down to how much heart you've got just to hold that guy off by that much," he says.

It has been a little more than two months since the draft, and the buzz from Howard's fortuitous fall to the Bucs at No. 19 hasn't subsided. And for good reason. He was one of the most complete players in the draft.

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As the example against Garrett shows, Howard can set up next to an offensive tackle, put his hand in the ground and run block. Or from the same position, he can run to the flat and catch a pass. Or he can line up in the slot and challenge defenses deep.

Size. Speed. Strength. Howard checks all of those boxes.

Think of the trouble Panthers tight end Greg Olsen has caused for the Bucs in recent seasons. Since 2014, only Julio Jones of the Falcons has more receptions and receiving yards against Tampa Bay. Howard can be that kind of matchup nightmare.

"Olsen's one of those what I call a throwback tight end where he'll get his hand in the dirt and he'll block," Yoder says. "Some of these guys anymore — and it's probably because they play a spread offense in high school, they play more of a spread offense in college — they don't know how to put their hand in the dirt."

That ability makes Olsen dangerous in Carolina's pass game, particularly in short-yardage situations.

Here's an example from when the Bucs and Panthers met in September 2014. It's third and 2, and Carolina comes to the line in the power I-formation. Olsen and another tight end, Ed Dickson, line up on the right side of the formation.

It's as if the Panthers are declaring, "We're going to run this ball down your throat." After the snap, everyone on the line, including Olsen, sells the run and blocks hard to the left. Derek Anderson, however, fakes the handoff and runs a bootleg to the other side. As Anderson rolls out to the right, Olsen releases and races to the flat, where he is wide open. He picks up the first down and then some before linebacker Lavonte David brings him down.

It's a simple play-action fake, but Carolina executes it effectively because of Olsen's convincing run blocking. Alabama used Howard in a similar way.

Let's go to the national championship game that capped the 2015 season. Alabama adds reinforcements to the line, putting a tight end next to each offensive tackle. Howard is on the right side.

The blockers sell run, the quarterback fakes the handoff and Clemson "takes the cheese," Yoder says. Like Olsen, Howard pivots to the flat and has plenty of space to not only catch the ball but also pick up yards afterward.

"He's catching the ball out at the 20, but he's getting you 15, 16 yards after the catch," Yoder says. "That's an explosive play just in itself right there."

Reversing last season's decline in big plays was the Bucs' top priority this offseason. The signing of DeSean Jackson was the centerpiece of the team's Explosives Recovery Plan. Then along came Howard. Now imagine Mike Evans, Jackson and Howard on the same field. How does a defensive coordinator scheme for that? All three are dangerous deep threats.

Alabama only occasionally used Howard to stretch the field, but we found one such instance in the Texas A&M game.

On second and 10, Alabama lines up three receivers to the left. Howard sets up next to the left tackle. Texas A&M crowds the box with eight defenders. It leaves one safety deep. Spoiler alert: That wasn't enough.

The two receivers on the outside run straight down the field. Howard bursts off the line and immediately draws the safety's attention. That safety, by the way, is future teammate Justin Evans, Tampa Bay's second-round draft pick.

Howard's not running in a straight line, though. He drifts to the right, running to a window between Evans and a cornerback who bit on quarterback Jalen Hurts' play-action fake. His job isn't just to get open; he's also trying to pull Evans as far as possible from the middle of the field.

Meanwhile, on the left side of the field, receiver ArDarius Stewart blows past his man. Hurts heaves the pass to Stewart, who makes a leaping grab 46 yards down the field. It's an impressive catch, but one made possible because of Howard's vertical push.

"That could be DeSean Jackson being wide open right there," Yoder says.

If there's any reason to temper expectations for Howard, it's the NFL learning curve. By all accounts, he has the tools to become a star, but it's rare for a rookie tight end to be a productive pass catcher right out of the gate. Over the past 20 seasons, only 10 rookie tight ends have gained more than 500 receiving yards, led by Jeremy Shockey's 894 in 2002.

Even Rob Gronkowski needed some time. While he became the first rookie tight end since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970 to score 10 touchdowns, the bulk of his production for the Patriots came during the second half of the 2010 season.

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As polished as Howard might be, it'll take time for Jameis Winston and him to build chemistry.

"It's quarterbacks getting comfortable, confident," Yoder says. "'If I put that ball in a box from chest high to wherever, my tight end is going to catch it. I don't care who's covering him. I don't care what the body position is. If I give him a chance in that box, he's going to catch the ball.' That's just reps after reps after reps."

Even if Howard doesn't catch five or six passes a game, he's one more formidable weapon that defenses will have to monitor. Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson might face more one-on-ones than they otherwise would have. Running backs might see more lanes. Winston might not absorb as many hits.

But if Howard and Winston click ahead of schedule, look out, NFL, Yoder says.

"I think this offense that the Bucs are about to unload on the world might be one of the funnest to watch this year in the whole league."

Contact Thomas Bassinger at tbassinger@tampabay.com. Follow @tometrics.

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