INDIANAPOLIS — At the trading deadline last season, tight end O.J. Howard drew interest from the Patriots and appeared to be on his way out of Tampa Bay.
Then he came off the bye week, injured his hamstring and had a very unproductive season in Bruce Arians’ offense.
Howard actually had the same number of catches (34) as he did in 2018. But his 459 yards receiving were 106 yards fewer and his touchdown receptions have decreased every season (6 to 5 to 1).
But at the NFL scouting combine Tuesday, Arians and general manager Jason Licht appeared to have made a 180-degree turn on the former Alabama star.
“People were trying to put him in a class he has never reached yet,” Arians said. "... He ain’t done that yet. He has that potential. He got better and better as a blocker, which for me is important. He steadily got better catching the ball and holding on to it, you know.
“So can he be a threat? Every week we’re looking for the best matchups. And when you have Chris (Godwin) and Mike (Evans), the tight ends probably are not catching a hell of a lot of balls.''
Licht said the Bucs’ evaluations have them believing Howard could be much better in year two under Arians, especially now that coaches are more familiar with him.
“As we got into the offseason and the coaches looked at all the tapes, they’re more than excited now about what he can do,'' Licht said. " ... It took a little bit of acclimation from O.J. to our offense but also from our scheme to O.J. So we have a lot better idea of what we can do and what he does best.’’
Licht said the Bucs will likely pick up Howard’s fifth-year club option prior to the May deadline.
Justin Evans return pushed to June 1
Bucs safety Justin Evans, the team’s second-round pick in 2017, is entering the final year of his rookie contract and still battling foot and leg injuries. He has undergone multiple surgeries and Licht indicated that Evans may not return until organized team activities end.
“It’s coming along. It’s a little bit slower than we first thought,'' Licht said. “It’s not necessarily a bad thing. Because at the end of the day, we just want it completely healed.”
Licht also addressed what Evans’ return could mean to the Bucs safety position: "We like Jordan Whitehead and D’Cota Dixon and what he did in the short time before he got hurt. So it could become a position of strength when it’s perceived as a weakness.’’
Running on empty?
No matter what you think of the Bucs running backs, Ronald Jones did improve over his disastrous rookie year. That might not be saying much. The Bucs still need a three-down running back and it’s clear they don’t have one.
Speculation is that David Johnson, whom Arians drafted at Arizona, could become a free agent.
"Edgerrin James never came off the field. Marshall Faulk never came off the field. For me, I’m looking for that type of guy. David Johnson-type guy,'' Arians said. "I can’t use his name.”
Arians not a fan of 17 games
The new collective bargaining agreement could include an increase of regular-season games to 17. Not that he can do anything about it, but it doesn’t sound as if Arians is on board. “Who gets that extra home game? That’s what I want to know."
Quote of the day
Arians on workout wonders at the NFL combine: “You might run a 4.3, but your tape says you’re 4.6. You might run a 4.6, but your tape says you’re 4.4. The tape don’t lie. The combine lies. You can fall in love at the combine and get your ass broke.”