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The O.J. Howard turnaround begins now

Why the Bucs’ last eight games matter: Tampa Bay would be wise to get its tight end more involved in the pass offense, even if it doesn’t plan on keeping him.

Before the season, it seemed as if Buccaneers tight end O.J. Howard was on the verge of a breakout. Now, it seems as if he and the team are headed toward a breakup.

There might be no greater disappointment through eight games than Tampa Bay’s inability to feature the former first-round draft pick. The disappointment is so great largely because the expectations were so high. Football Outsiders projected Howard would set career highs in targets (75), catches (55) and receiving yards (813). Instead, he’s on pace to fall short of each of those projections by more than 50 percent (36 targets, 26 catches and 352 yards). That’s like trading Rob Gronkowski for Jeff Heuerman.

Bruce Arians warned us. Years ago.

While with the Cardinals in 2015, he said this: “We pay Larry (Fitzgerald) and those guys too much money to throw it to the tight ends. They’re here to block.”

That makes sense if your tight end is Rob Housler, but Howard is the type of player a coach builds his offense around. Dirk Koetter, Arians’ predecessor in Tampa Bay, got it.

Arians likes to say that the “coverage dictates where balls go,” but that’s a half-truth. Offenses can dictate matchups and coverages. The facts are that the Bucs have seldom featured Howard in the passing game, preferring to use him primarily as a blocker. Last season, he lined up in the slot or out wide on more than 40 percent of his snaps. This season, he has done so on only about a quarter of his snaps.

It wasn’t until Week 6, against the Panthers in London, that Tampa Bay lined up Howard in the slot more than a handful of times.

MORE BUCS: O.J. Howard hasn’t disappeared. The Bucs are just using him differently.

“It’s one of those situations where obviously I want to be more involved,” Howard said. “I just can only hope for more opportunities. There’s not really much I can say. They call the plays, and I do what I’m asked to do. Hopefully, I get more plays called my way and when the opportunities come, I make the most of my plays.”

The Bucs would be wise to listen because:

1. At 6 feet 6 inches and 250 pounds, Howard is a matchup nightmare and can help them, you know, score points and touchdowns and stuff like that, and;

2. Even if they don’t feel he is part of their future, they need to restore his trade value.

Either way, Sunday should be a win-win for all involved.

Howard, who said he is 100 percent healthy after sitting out the past two games because of a hamstring injury, should see plenty of targets against a Cardinals defense that is allowing 8.2 catches (third most) and 90.9 receiving yards (second most) to opposing tight ends. Looking ahead, the Saints (6.5 catches, 50.4 yards), Jaguars (6.0 catches, 44.0 yards) and Lions (6.0 catches, 60.9 yards) also are favorable matchups.

In an ideal world, the Bucs figure out over the next eight games how to take advantage of Howard’s versatile skill set and retain him. Because of his youth (he’s not yet 25), enormous potential and reasonable cap hit next season ($3.5 million), he remains an asset. If teams were interested in trading for him a few weeks ago, they’ll be interested again in a few months. The only way Tampa Bay can mismanage this situation is if it keeps doing what it has been doing.

Statistics in this report are from Football Outsiders, Pro Football Focus and Pro Football Reference. Contact Thomas Bassinger at tbassinger@tampabay.com. Follow @tometrics.

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