Think Pro Football Focus’ grade for O.J. Howard is ridiculous? Here’s an explanation.

While Twitter and message boards burned with outrage, we talked to someone who knows about PFF’s methodology.
Lowest-graded first-round draft pick? Bucs tight end O.J. Howard is just one of 19 tight ends in NFL history to catch at least six touchdown passes in his rookie season. What is Pro Football Focus thinking? [Getty Images]
Lowest-graded first-round draft pick? Bucs tight end O.J. Howard is just one of 19 tight ends in NFL history to catch at least six touchdown passes in his rookie season. What is Pro Football Focus thinking? [Getty Images]
Published Jan. 11, 2018

So Pro Football Focus gave Buccaneers tight end O.J. Howard the lowest grade of all the 2017 first-round draft picks.

The reaction was swift and, of course, measured. The 41.9 grade became ammunition for the my-eye-test-is-better-than-your-spreadsheets crowd.

PFF is garbage!

John Ross ahead of Howard? lol!

What do they know about football? They probably never played a down in their life!


Dismiss the grade if you’d like, but there is information we can glean from it.

First, it’s important to note that it’s a “rating” and not a “ranking.” Just because Ross earned a 45.9 grade despite playing only 17 snaps for the Bengals doesn’t mean he had the better season. Think of it this way: Falcons receiver Mohamed Sanu threw one pass this season — a 51-yard touchdown pass. While he earned a perfect 158.3 passer rating, no one would argue that he should replace quarterback Matt Ryan.

Second, PFF isn’t just box-score scouting. Howard’s 26 catches, 432 yards and six touchdowns tell us something. But they don’t tell us everything.

RELATED STORY: Why isn’t anyone covering O.J. Howard?

The Bucs asked a lot of him this season. He played more than 600 snaps. He ran a route on about 40 percent of those snaps. What happened on the other 60 percent?

Chances are most people weren’t paying attention. Television has trained us to track the ball, not individual players. That’s where PFF’s analysts come in. They watch every player on every play.

They watched Howard’s blocking during runs. They watched his blocking during passes.

It wasn’t good. And that’s what the Bucs asked him to do the most often.

Was it bad enough to cancel out his production as a receiver? His run-blocking grade rated 47th out of 54 qualifying tight ends. His pass-blocking grade rated 69th out of 74 qualifying tight ends. To deem his blocking as “below average” would be kind.

“In my opinion, tight ends are arguably one of the hardest positions to grade at a high rate, because they are tasked with much more than any other player in our system,” said Cam Mellor, editor at Pro Football Focus. “They are expected to pass block, run block and run snaps in route. There are more chances for negative graded plays than positive, and so, someone like a Rob Gronkowski, who does all three things almost equally as well, will grade high, while someone like O.J. Howard, who struggled in two of three facets in his rookie year, will fall.”

The grades are harsh, but they don’t contradict what coach Dirk Koetter has said about Howard.

“He is going to be a tremendous, tremendous player,” he said last month. “It’s only starting to come with him in his route running, his balance and body control, his aggressiveness and going against grown (men). We ask a lot of him. He not only has to be really, really tough and really fundamental in his run game, but he’s also got to be a receiver for us vertically. ... I think he has an unbelievable ceiling. This floor is still really high.”

That’s coach speak for “Howard has a lot to work on, in particular his route running and run blocking.”

What about his six touchdowns? Those must factor into PFF’s grade, right?

They do. In PFF’s system, however, not every touchdown is the same. Take, for instance, Howard’s 58-yard touchdown against the Giants in Week 4. He receives credit for the play, but PFF also weighs New York’s defensive lapse.

“He did exactly what was expected of him on that play, caught a wide open pass and ran up the sidelines,” Mellor said. “Not saying he doesn’t receive a positive grade, because he does, but it’s not going to be a needle mover, so to speak, in terms of shifting his grades up extremely high because he did was was expected of him.”

To view PFF’s grade as some kind of rejection of Howard would be to miss a larger point. Yes, it contains a decimal and feels precise, but that doesn’t mean it’s some kind of definitive judgment. It’s not a predictive statistic. It’s not Moses descending Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments.

Here’s what it is, besides a reason to feel outraged: It’s one part of the player evaluation process. Even to those of us who watch game film and parse quotes, it calls our attention to something that easily could be (and has been) overlooked. Howard’s blocking was a weak point. For the Bucs offense to run at peak efficiency, it has to get better.

Until then, carry on.


Contact Thomas Bassinger at Follow @tometrics.