TAMPA — The highlights are spectacular. Bucs tight end O.J. Howard, beating a linebacker over the middle of the field, catching a pass and turning it down the sideline for a touchdown. The size, the speed, the power is so impressive.
But the lowlights are just as a memorable. Howard getting beat to the inside by a pass rush that envelops his quarterback or juggling a pass behind his back before it is intercepted the way he did in a loss to the Saints last season.
Howard matched his career-high with 34 catches for 459 yards in 2019 but had only one touchdown. He scored 11 touchdowns in his first 22 games.
He’s been the subject of trade rumors dating back to last Oct. and during the NFL draft.
The acquisition of Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski invited more speculation.
But the Bucs on Wednesday picked up the fifth-year option in Howard’s contract, days before the May 4 deadline.
The biggest reason?
The Bucs new quarterback simply can’t have enough weapons heading into 2020 and beyond.
For starters, the club option for Howard is worth just north of $6 million. Furthermore, it’s only guaranteed against injury until the start of the 2021 league year.
Gronkowski has only one year left on his contract that will pay him $10 million this season. Tight end Cam Brate took a pay cut to remain with the team in 2020.
The Bucs like tight ends Antony Auclair, Tanner Hudson and Jordan Leggette. But Howard still has the biggest upside of them all.
“We’re excited about having O.J. Howard play with Rob Gronkowski,” general manager Jason Licht said recently. “Why wouldn’t you want to have many weapons at that position? We have an excellent tight end group right now.”
Brady has had a lot of success utilizing 12 personnel, which is a two-tight-end, one-running-back formation. It worked well for him with the Patriots when he had Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez at tight end.
Howard and Gronkowski potentially could be a similar tandem for Brady.
“I like both those guys, and we use three tight ends in our sets sometimes,’’ coach Bruce Arians said. “Each and every one has a redeeming quality that helps us win. I think it’s a great room. ... It’s a really strong room.
“I don’t know if anybody has got better tight ends," he continued. "I love playing tight ends. I know I get this thing we don’t throw to them, but when I had Heath Miller (with the Steelers), he went to the Pro Bowl. It’s going to upgrade everybody. Competition breeds success.’’
Already, 11 players from the 2017 draft class have had their fifth-year club option triggered, and Carolina running back Christian McCaffrey signed a long-term extension.
Remember, a few years ago the Bucs picked up the fifth-year option for cornerback Vernon Hargreaves for about $9 million.
They decided to release Hargreaves on Nov. 12, two days after he was benched for not hustling on a play in a 30-27 win over the Arizona Cardinals.
Hargreaves, and his fifth-year option, was claimed off waivers by the Houston Texans and finished the season there. But the Texans released Hargreaves Feb. 14.
In order to maintain Howard’s value, it helps to have him under contract for 2021.
Say the Bucs get to the trade deadline in October and there is interest in Howard. If he were an unrestricted free agent heading into 2021, the compensation for a player that the Bucs may not be able to re-sign would potentially be reduced.
But more importantly, no matter what you think of Howard, he’s one of their best players. And you don’t win championships without your best players.
There’s no doubt Howard has not completely fulfilled his promise as the 19th overall pick in 2017. He was slowed by contact injuries to his ankle in each of his first two seasons.
Last year, Howard never got into any kind of a rhythm. Worse yet, following the bye week after the return from London, he pulled his hamstring in the first practice. Sometimes that’s a sign that a player may not have trained hard enough during the break.
But whatever the reason, Howard missed two games as a result.
What Howard lacks are some natural instincts for the position. At 6-feet-6, 251 pounds and able to run a 4.51 40-yard dash, he still is matchup nightmare.
Gronkowski could potentially help Howard in recognizing the rotation of defensive coverage and improve his pass protection and run blocking.
The alternative is that Howard realizes he’s going to become an unrestricted free agent after the season and is hungry to secure his future.
Uncertainty can be a great motivator. So can competition. Since the fifth-year option isn’t guaranteed, the big payday can be taken away barring a catastrophic injury.
There wasn’t that much risk, and potentially a bigger reward, so the Bucs picked up Howard’s fifth-year option.