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This is a big year for O.J. Howard and the Buccaneers. Here's why

As he seems to have become the “forgotten man” on the team, O.J. Howard was having an excellent start to his 2020 campaign before it was derailed by injury.
Credit: AP
Tampa Bay Buccaneers tight end O.J. Howard (80) before an NFL football game against the Carolina Panthers Sunday, Sept. 20, 2020, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Mark LoMoglio)

TAMPA, Fla — With the Tampa Bay Buccaneers projected to be one of the best teams in the NFL (and potentially repeat as champions), there’s little that people can say regarding the talent or adoration the current roster has. It’s another year in the same system, a full offseason to get the playbook down, with the same players returning. What else can you hope for?

For the Buccaneers, they can hope for a full season from tight end O.J. Howard.

As he seems to have become the “forgotten man” on the team, Howard was having an excellent start to his 2020 campaign before it was derailed by injury− something Howard is no stranger to in his short NFL career. Before missing out on the final 12 games, Howard was leading all tight ends in receptions (11), yards (146), and touchdowns (2). Yes, Rob Gronkowski was still getting reacclimated to the NFL game after a year off, and Cameron Brate hadn’t emerged as the postseason hero he would become, but Howard’s rare combination of size, speed, agility and athleticism made him a favorite of Tom Brady early on.

For the Buccaneers to reach their full potential, which is a scary thought in and of itself, Howard has to be able to survive a full 17- game schedule, plus any additional postseason games. To date, the most games Howard has played in a season is 14, which he did in his rookie year as well as his third year.

On top of all of that, Howard is playing for a contract. He’s currently on his fifth-year option and with the Bucs facing a slew of free agents after the season (Jason Pierre-Paul, Leonard Fournette, Gronkowski, Chris Godwin, Antonio Brown, Ryan Jensen and Ndamukong Suh just to name a few), he has to prove that not only can he remain healthy for a full season but that he is a player the Buccaneers cannot afford to go on without.

There was a lot of frustration among fans when the Bucs made Howard the 19th-overall pick in the 2017 draft, with many viewing Howard as a luxury instead of drafting a need−such as running back Dalvin Cook or outside linebacker T.J. Watt−and many of those fans feel vindicated due to Howard’s running injury problems. This is the season that Howard has to prove how valuable he truly is to the offense, the team and the franchise as a whole.

Yes, the Bucs won a Super Bowl without Howard, but there’s no guarantee Gronk will return. If Tampa Bay truly is a “12 personnel,” as head coach Bruce Arians says, then the Bucs need a healthy Howard out on the field as much as humanly possible. Brate is a solid pass-catching tight end, but he can’t do all the things Howard can as far as blocking in the run as well as the pass game. His blocking ability causes linebackers to freeze, knowing that he can slip out for a pass at any time or that he may stay in and be a blocker to free up Gronk, Brown, Godwin or Mike Evans.

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Many love to bring up how dangerous the offense is and the mismatches they can create with the loaded pass catching weapons surrounding their seven-time Super Bowl champion quarterback. One more weapon like a healthy O.J. Howard only further creates chaos for the opposing defense and nightmares for opposing defensive coordinators.

Too much of a good thing isn’t really a bad thing.

For more on this story and for more on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, check out the Locked On Bucs Podcast.

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