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Fennelly: Bucs' offense takes huge step by drafting O.J. Howard

TAMPA — This is a 10-win Bucs offense.

Maybe an 11-win offense.

Whether it's an 11- or 12-win Bucs defense is another question. Whether the Bucs will be a playoff team next season is still another question.

But this offense took a huge step Thursday night — in the way it will look, in the way it will eventually perform. The new man, O.J. Howard, arrived at One Buc Place on Friday, the latest toy for Jameis Winston, a stunner, dropping into the Bucs' laps in the first round. I didn't see one mock draft the past three months that had Howard lasting past the 15th pick.

But he did. A surprising first-round run on quarterbacks, a receiver or two or three, Carolina overdrafting Christian McCaffrey, it all factored in. The Bucs walked into one here, a gift. Howard, a 6-foot-6, 251-pound tight end out of Alabama, will change this offense for the much better. The Bucs are a lot closer to being a playoff team than they were before the draft. You have a potential Pro Bowl player at his position who you didn't expect to get.

I think Howard was a no-brainer pick, but give general manager Jason Licht credit: One day we might be looking at his four-year run of first-round Bucs picks — Mike Evans, Winston, Vernon Hargreaves and now Howard — as the best in franchise history. Seriously.

Maybe it's about time for payback for this franchise's dreadful stretch of first-rounders: Broderick Thomas (1989), Keith McCants (1990), Charles McRae (1991) and Eric Curry (1993), who constitute the Bucs' Four Horsemen of the Draft Apocalypse.

Licht and coach Dirk Koetter urged calm and patience after the Howard hoopla. But they're pinching themselves. Koetter is scribbling new plays in his brain. He knew he wanted Howard awhile back.

"First day of Senior Bowl practice in pads. Jason and I were sitting on the 35-yard line, and O.J. is putting on a clinic out there," Koetter said. "After about two periods, I stood up and said to Jason, 'I've seen the guy I want,' and I walked down the stairs."

Howard has a chance to change the way the Bucs do business. He joins Cameron Brate. You see tight ends all over NFL formations, often two at a time, sometimes three at a time.

"It just puts a lot of stress on the defense," Licht said. "Then you can dictate what you're doing and they have to figure out how they're going to cover it. Hopefully, once things get humming, it's going to open up every area of the offense. It's going to help your run game, help all of your outside receivers, help your slot, help everything."

Help everything.

More and more, you see offenses that feature a tight end who's just a better athlete, too big for safeties, too fast for linebackers. Trouble.

With the addition of Howard, that opposing safety who would be doubling over the top on Bucs newcomer and speed receiver DeSean Jackson is instead going to have to try to stay with Howard.

Think this doesn't help Winston? He can throw the type of routes that tight ends can kill with, those deep seams. Winston is awesome on those. You're taking advantage of his strength by having a guy who is going to get open like that.

And there's the red zone. The Bucs weren't very good down there last season. Winston looked shaky all the time when they were down there. Chaos. The Bucs couldn't even try to run it in. As soon as Winston dropped back, he was under pressure. He ad-libbed as best he could, scrambling into circus plays, but sooner or later that circus closes.

Howard can change that. Out of the game comes Jackson. His speed does you no good down there. In the red zone, you need bigger targets. Now there's the 6-6 Howard, the 6-5 Evans and the 6-5 Brate. Targets all. Big targets.

The Bucs seem more legit today. More touchdowns, fewer field goals. The road to the playoffs doesn't seem quite as long.

Fennelly: Bucs' offense takes huge step by drafting O.J. Howard 04/28/17 [Last modified: Friday, April 28, 2017 9:46pm]
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