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The Case for O.J. Howard as TE4

By Jared Smola 8:06am EDT 6/19/19

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What You Need to Know:

  • Howard leads all TEs in yards per catch and yards per target over the past 2 seasons.
  • He’s in for a big volume boost this year with the departures of Adam Humphries and DeSean Jackson, who combined for 179 targets last year.
  • Howard has missed 8 games through 2 NFL seasons with right foot/ankle injuries.

The easiest way to spot a breakout player is to find a talented dude set to see an increased role. That describes Howard to a tee.

Prospect profile

The 19th overall pick of the 2017 draft has always looked like a high-upside fantasy prospect. Howard averaged a big 15.1 yards per catch across 4 seasons at Alabama and finished 3rd in receiving yards on loaded squads as both a junior and senior. The 6’6, 251-pounder boosted his stock by registering an 84th percentile SPARQ score at the Combine. That included a 4.51-second 40 time.

Elite efficiency

Howard has been uber-efficient through 2 seasons with the Bucs. His 16.6 yards per catch not only leads all 27 TEs with 50+ grabs since 2017 … it also ranks 5th among 158 players with 50+ grabs across all positions. Howard has posted a solid 69.0% career catch rate, giving him an average of 11.46 yards per target. That also leads all 27 of those TEs — by a huge margin. Rob Gronkowski is #2 on that list with 9.98 yards per target. Only 2 other guys (Vernon Davis and George Kittle) have topped 8.73 yards per target.

After ranking 5th among 41 qualifiers in yards per route run as a rookie, Howard climbed to 3rd among 40 last year — behind only Kittle and Travis Kelce and right ahead of Zach Ertz. That’s elite company. Howard has ranked 21st and then 3rd among TEs in Pro Football Focus’ receiving grades. Again, only Kittle and Kelce bested him last year.

Howard has also been a TD monster, scoring on 11 of 60 career catches — a big 18.3% TD rate. He’s converted 7 of 13 red-zone targets into TDs and also scored long ones from 58 and 75 yards out. Very few TEs have that kind of big-play ability.

The problems

For all that, though, Howard has finished just 20th and 15th among TEs in PPR points the past 2 years. Injuries have been part of the problem. He missed the final 2 games of his rookie campaign with a right high-ankle sprain and then missed the last 6 games of last season with another injury to his right foot/ankle.

Howard’s other issue has been volume. He averaged just 2.8 targets per game back in 2017, garnering a 7.4% target share in his 14 outings. He climbed to 4.8 targets per game and an 11.7% share in 10 games last year. But even that pace would have left him just 11th among TEs in targets over the course of a full season.

2019 outlook

There’s room for those numbers to rise significantly in 2019 — even beyond the natural growth we’d expect from a 3rd-year player. The Bucs lost WRs DeSean Jackson and Adam Humphries in free agency this winter. Those guys combined for a whopping 179 targets last season — 28.6% of the team total. With free-agent Breshad Perriman and 6th-round rookie Scott Miller the most significant additions to this pass-catching corps, Howard — along with Chris Godwin — is a candidate to pick up a bunch of those leftover targets.

He’ll be operating in a new offense this year under HC Bruce Arians, which could be considered a concern for Howard if you look at Arians’ history with TEs. In 14 seasons as a HC or OC, Arians has produced just 2 top-12 TE seasons — both from Heath Miller in Pittsburgh. But these have been his lead TEs other than Miller: O.J. Santiago, Mark Campbell, Steve Heiden, Dwayne Allen, Robert Housler, John Carlson, Darren Fells, Jermaine Gresham.

We can definitively say that Howard is at least the 2nd best TE Arians has ever worked with. And there’s a good chance he passes Miller for #1 on that list. Widely considered a smart offensive mind, Arians figures to make Howard a big part of his passing game this season.

Draft Sharks Bottom Line:

Howard has been 1 of the most efficient pass-catching TEs in the NFL through 2 seasons. Muted volume and injuries have kept him from truly breaking out, though.

Now he’s set up for a big spike in targets with the departures of Adam Humphries and DeSean Jackson, who combined for 179 targets last season. So if he can stay healthy, Howard has every shot to climb into fantasy’s top 5 TEs.

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