TAMPA — There are times when it is hard to find points of light for the Bucs, even with a new head coach, even as the team enjoys its 0-0 offseason.
We have no idea about the quarterback, still. The starting running back might not start on 31 other NFL teams. The Bucs threw tens of millions of dollars at the offensive line, and we’re not sure that has made it better. Ndamukong Suh will try to prop up a Jason Pierre-Paul-less defensive line. Top draft pick Devin White will try to invigorate linebackers. The secondary is a cast of thousands. And there is a kicking competition, like always.
But there is O.J. Howard.
O.J. Howard, the heart of a stout group of tight ends. O.J. Howard, the former Alabama star who fell in the Bucs’ lap in the first round of the 2017 draft. O.J. Howard, who was probably on his way to the Pro Bowl last season (34 catches, 565 yards, five touchdowns) before an ankle injury ended his season. O.J. Howard, who is averaging 16.6 yards per catch in his career and who hits all the right notes off the field, too, befitting his small-town upbringing.
O.J. Howard, who found a new play pal during the offseason (more later), who is back and healthy at Bucs mandatory minicamp this week, who will command mandatory attention from opposing defenses this season and who, maybe best of all, doesn’t shy away from the “G” word:
“I want to be the best, one of the best ever,” Howard said after practice Wednesday. “When it’s all said and done, if I’m not in that conversation, I feel like my career isn’t what it should have been.”
This team could use one of those. Howard holding the football up for everyone to see in the end zone after a touchdown — that is a Bucs point of light.
We don’t even know the who the 6-foot-6, 251-pound Howard will be as a professional. At 24, he has just begun to scratch the surface. But he’s the kind of kid you build around, the kid the Bucs should start saving up to keep when his big payday comes due in a couple of seasons. Might have thought about using some of the Suh money to get a jump on it.
And though coach Bruce Arians isn’t known for offenses heavy on targeting tight ends, he will have to reconsider in the face of Howard.
“A lot of potential,” Arians said of Howard. “He’s an interesting guy, because he can hold the point of attack, and he’s obviously a mismatch for safeties and linebackers, so you’re trying to use him in a lot of different ways. Matching up those three tight ends should be a lot of fun this fall.”
Howard should be fun all by himself.
Speaking of fun, after missing the final six games last season, Howard took it slow before getting back to working out after the Super Bowl. One of his first real workouts came in March, in Fort Worth, Texas. There was this other guy there, a quarterback who came into the NFL in the same draft class as Howard, going nine picks ahead of him:
There they were, Howard and the 2018 league MVP, Mr. 50 Touchdown Passes himself. Greatness to chasing greatness.
“It was awesome,” Howard said. “It was great to watch him work, those throws he makes. Those throws you see him make, across his body, no look, he works those. I caught all of them. To see the way he works shows me why he was so great last year.”
O.J. Howard is chasing that. He ran down humble a long time ago, growing up in Prattville, Ala. In a tight-knit family. That’s one reason he is quick to give back, like at the camp he held for kids last week at Bucs headquarters. There were 400 campers. Among Howard’s helpers: Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston.
“That was me in those shoes once,” Howard said. “I was the kid, somebody giving out backpacks to.”
He also did what players usually do when they make their dream come true: He helped his parents, Lamesa and Kareem, into retirement back in Prattville. Well, sort of.
“I bought them an ice cream truck,” Howard said, grinning. “They love it, man. O.J.’s Frozen Treats. I have a van, and I have a big trailer. Softball games, baseball games for youth, concerts, anything in the city. That’s what Mom and Dad wanted.”
Life isn’t all ice cream. That injury last season spoke to that.
“It’s one of those things where you can’t get too down about it,” Howard said. “Stuff happens. You just have to trust God and let him do the work sometimes.”
You don’t have to look to the heavens to realize the sky is the limit for this kid on this team in this town.
“Who knows?” Howard said. “That’s the goal this year, just to stay healthy. Just put together a whole season, and the rest will take care of itself.”
He believes in Arians and the program. The Bucs need to target Howard more, even with Cameron Brate, Mike Evans and Chris Godwin in the mix. Howard isn’t worried.
“They know that we have a lot of talent,” he said. “Mike, Chris, they’re going to get double-teamed a lot. We know we have to win the one-on-ones.
“Ever since I was 7 or 8 years old, I always wanted to play in the NFL,” Howard said. “I wouldn’t be respecting that young O.J. Howard to come this far and not try to be the best. I can’t run from it.”
He thought of Pat Mahomes. And greatness.
“It shows it can happen to anyone,” O.J. Howard said. “But you have to chase it.”
Contact Martin Fennelly at email@example.com or (813) 731-8029. Follow @mjfennelly.