TAMPA, Fla. -- Perhaps no player should be more excited about quarterback Tom Brady signing with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers than tight end O.J. Howard, who found himself on the trade block last year while struggling to adjust to coach Bruce Arians’ offense.
No quarterback has thrown for more yards (16,563) or touchdowns (176) to tight ends since 2001.
When Arians was asked last week about how Brady’s signing might have an impact on Howard, he said, “[Howard's] eyes should light up. It’s still going out on the practice field and earning that trust. I think that will be his No. 1 focus. You have a quarterback that likes to throw to tight ends -- go earn it and get balls thrown to you.”
How can Howard earn more opportunities and what went wrong last year? Can Brady help him fulfill his potential?
Why did Howard take a step back in 2019?
Howard's 7.3% drop rate led all NFL tight ends with at least 30 catches last season. It was just 2.1% in 2018. There were lapses in concentration, which sometimes happen when playing in a new system, but ideally should be resolved by Week 11. That’s when Howard inexplicably attempted to juggle a pass behind his back against the New Orleans Saints that ended up being intercepted, resulting in Howard's benching in favor of Cameron Brate.
Howard played 745 snaps in 16 games (46.5 snaps per game) and ran 340 routes in 2019 (45%). He was targeted on 16.2% of routes run. In 2018, Howard played 419 snaps in 10 games (41.9 snaps per game) and ran 225 routes (53.6%). He was targeted on 20.9% of routes run. So Howard’s snaps did not change from playing in Dirk Koetter’s offense to playing in Arians’ offense, but what did change was the percentage of routes run and his targets -- both down.
So is Howard not getting open in Arians’ system? A closer look at statistics from 2018 and 2019 says no -- it’s nearly the same -- that Howard was open on 35% of routes in 2018 and 32% in 2019, and wide open 12.5% in 2018 and 13.2% in 2019. What changed was that Winston struggled getting the ball to him. Winston’s 61.3% completion rate to tight ends in 2019 was 27th in the league. It was 68.3% in 2018 and 68.4% in 2017.
How can Brady help Howard?
On the surface, Brady’s and Winston’s numbers when it comes to targeting tight ends don’t look much different. Brady relied on Rob Gronkowski for years at tight end, connecting for 7,786 yards during their careers together. Brady surely missed him last season. He did have a 69.8% completion percentage to tight ends in 2019 -- better than Winston’s 61.3% -- although it should be noted that Brady had only 53 pass attempts to tight ends in 2019 versus Winston’s 119. And in looking at the past five years, Winston actually posted a slightly better completion percentage to tight ends than Brady -- 66.5% compared to 64.4%.
Where there is a notable difference, though, is in the types of throws Brady can make to tight ends. No area of the field has given Winston more trouble when targeting tight ends than the left numbers to hash mark, where he completed 41.2% of his throws to tight ends in 2019. Last year, Brady completed 71.4% of these throws and has actually had more success with those throws than any other throw he’s made in the past five seasons (70.3%). So Howard should see more opportunities there.
You could see this against the Texans in Week 16, on second-and-10 at the Tampa Bay 34-yard line, when Winston overthrew Howard on a slant pattern. Despite having ample time to make the throw and Howard running a good route, Winston’s pass sailed high over Howard by nearly 10 yards and into the hands of Justin Reid.
Winston also struggled to hit Howard outside the left numbers, where he completed 46.7% of his passes to Howard last year (when looking at left numbers to hash, the completion percentage was 50%, while he had an even worse completion percentage to Brate at 42.9%).
Using NFL Next Gen Stats, we can track the different types of throws the quarterbacks made last year. (Data was not available prior to 2019.) Brady was significantly better at inside short passes (86% completion compared to Winston’s 64%) and outside short passes (Brady posted a 73% completion rate versus 59% for Winston). Those shorter passes typically favor tight ends in Arians' scheme, so Howard and Brate should do better there. Where Brady didn’t fare quite as well as Winston was in vertical routes -- more what you’d see from receivers in Arians’ scheme -- where Winston completed 57% of his passes versus Brady’s 45%.
How can Howard help himself?
As Arians pointed out at the end of the season regarding Howard, “Measurables don’t play, players play.”
On paper, Howard has literally everything you want in a tight end. At 6-foot-6, 251 pounds, he is 20 pounds heavier than Mike Evans but ran a 4.51 at the NFL combine compared to Evans' 4.53, and he's coming off one of his better blocking seasons.
But he is still figuring out how to use his size to his advantage in the passing game. At times, he’s lacked field awareness or hasn’t gotten his head around quickly enough. Other times, he hasn’t planted his feet to be able to leap and make certain catches. Those are technique issues that can be solved. But that’s also where having a quarterback with exceptional timing and ball placement could help, something Winston wasn’t known for in Tampa Bay. Howard can focus more on what he’s doing and think less about when the ball is coming out and trying to get it.