TAMPA — The tight end is reborn. The tight end is having fun again, snatching a pass with great ease and running away from the defender until he reaches the end zone.
‘‘Nice catch, Juice!” Tom Brady shouted. “Way to go, 8-0!”
After only a week of padded practices, after reading reports about the team’s attempts to dangle him in a trade during the offseason, after watching the Bucs strike a deal for Rob Gronkowski, something is happening for the Bucs’ former first-round pick from Alabama.
It’s okay to be O.J. again.
O.J. Howard is having an outstanding training camp. Nobody can cover him. His feet are moving better in the run game. His hands are not failing him in the pass game.
He is lining up on the field opposite Gronkowski and creating the kind of mismatches most offensive coordinators only see in their dreams.
Howard suffered through a difficult 2019 season, cut short at times due to a hamstring injury. His production wasn’t terrible. For the second straight season, he had 34 receptions. His 459 yards were 106 fewer than his rookie season in four fewer games. Touchdowns fell from five to one.
Then there was the behind-the-butt fumble he lost against the Saints at Raymond James Stadium, a slapstick play that epitomized the season he was having. Nobody has ever doubted Howard’s physical talent. At 6-feet-6, 251 pounds, he runs a 4.51 40-yard dash.
The addition of Brady and the competition with Gronkowski seems to have grown Howard’s confidence, not fractured it.
‘‘We’ve got a room full of talent, mismatches, guys all over the board,” Howard said. “I think coach (Bruce Arians) and Byron (Leftwich) are going to do a great job of just putting us in positions to make plays.
“Just being on the field with (Gronkowski) ... it’s just hard to stop that. It’s going to open up a lot of things for everyone, and I think it should be real fun.”
Gronkowski has reminded Howard of what a force he could be in the NFL if he would improve a few facets of his game.
‘‘I would say there’s one thing that I would give a pointer to, and that’s to never give up,” Gronkowski said. “Never give up is basically what I’d say. What I do actually tell the receivers is to always be ready and keep going hard, because you never know where the ball is going to be because Tom can place it like no other.”
Case in point: Brady noticed Howard’s speed was negated because he had a habit of looking back for the football. Brady encouraged him to keep his shoulders square to the line of scrimmage, run as fast as he can and trust that he will put the football on his hip.
In exchange, Howard has worked hard helping Gronkowski understand the terminology of Bruce Arians’ offense.
Howard has always been a tremendous physical talent, which is why they used the 19th overall pick on him in 2017. Ankle injuries forced him to miss eight games over his first two pro seasons. Then last year, after the bye week that followed the Bucs’ trip to London to play Carolina, Howard pulled his hamstring in the first practice when he returned.
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“I think the trade talk was outside the building,” Arians said. “I never talked to him about it. All I talked to him about was getting better, and he was going to be here for a while and believe it. I think with Tom helping him confidence-wise and watching Gronk work, they’ve been a good combination helping each other.”
Howard still lacks some natural instincts for the game. He’s had to work on reading coverage as well as his footwork during run blocking, something he did a lot of at Alabama.
“We work on it a lot with the tackles, with our footwork and doing the things we’re supposed to do,” tight ends coach Rick Christophel said. “The first couple of days he’ll do well, and then he’ll fall back in that little lapse where his footwork gets a little sloppy. So, we continually talk about it and watch it on film because he’s a strong guy.”
Of course, experience is the best teacher, and that’s what Gronkowski and Brady can offer Howard.
“When you have one of the best to ever play help you become a better player, you listen. Sometimes those voices are better than coaches’ voices,” Arians said. “That work they put together out at Berkeley (Preparatory School) was huge for both of them. I think O. J. is playing at an extremely high level right now and I would not expect to see any kind of dropoff, only continued growth.”
The Bucs are expected to use a lot of 12 personnel this season ― one running back, two tight ends, two receivers. Earlier this week, in an end-of-game situation with only time for one play, backup quarterback Blaine Gabbert fired a pass toward the end zone that Howard needed to leap high to catch and he landed in the end zone for the winning score.
“Just being on the field with (Gronkowski), us together has been a big mismatch,” Howard said. “It’s hard to cover a lot of guys like that when we’re on the field together. It’s just hard to stop that. It’s going to open up a lot of things for everyone, and I think it should be real fun.”