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  1. Bucs

Bucs-Falcons: Is O.J. Howard about to be cleared for takeoff

TAMPA — The first thing tight end O.J. Howard learned about the NFL is that it's a job. No more classes to attend, just treatment, meetings, walk-throughs, practice and more meetings. It's a grind and a much longer season than he was used to at Alabama, where he played in back-to-back national championship games.

Each day with the Bucs, the rookie puts on a different kind of hard hat and goes to work.

"With the (fall) time change, it's dark when I leave for work and dark when I leave to go home," Howard said.

The jarring thing is how many times defenses have lost track of Howard in broad daylight.

Three times this season Howard has sneaked out of the back of a play-action run fake and found himself all alone on the far side of the field for easy catches, including two touchdowns — 58 yards for his first score against the Giants, 33 yards for a touchdown at Buffalo.

"It's one of those plays where the offensive line is going one way, it's a misdirection and you sneak out the other way," Howard said. "Those are some good plays."

He is tied with receiver Mike Evans and tight end Cameron Brate for the team lead with four touchdown receptions.

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Lately, it seems as if coach and play-caller Dirk Koetter is paying more attention to Howard. At Miami last week, Howard had three catches for 52 yards, including a 6-yard touchdown pass from Ryan Fitzpatrick.

At 6 feet 6 and 251 pounds, with 4.52-second speed in the 40-yard dash, Howard is too strong for cornerbacks and too fast and athletic for linebackers or safeties. Because he is the Bucs' best blocker at tight end, much of his work is done in the run game.

But Koetter had Howard split from the line of scrimmage against Miami and even ran a tight end screen. Howard scored on the play, a 25-yard catch and run nullified by a holding penalty.

"That was disappointing, but it was cool," Howard said. "I haven't run a screen and scored on it since, like, high school."

There is more Howard can do, and Koetter might be more inclined to let him do so in the second half of the season. But Howard has a big learning curve, even as the 19th overall pick in the draft.

In Nick Saban's ground-and-pound Alabama offense, he was underutilized as a receiver, and everybody — including Saban — knew it. But in national championship games, Saban cut Howard loose.

He had five catches for 208 yards and two touchdowns when the Crimson Tide beat Clemson to win the 2015 season championship. In January in Tampa, he had four receptions for 106 yards and a touchdown in a loss to Clemson for the 2016 season title.

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Koetter knows he can squeeze more from the team's 2017 first-round pick, No. 19 overall.

"It's obvious what O.J. can do when he gets the ball in space like that," Koetter said. "You've got to have the right defense, and we did. … As I say every week, DeSean Jackson needs to get the ball more. O.J. needs to get the ball more. Cam (Brate) only had one catch (against the Dolphins). We need to get our run game going. We'd like to target Mike (Evans) more. At the end of the day, the object is to get one more point than the other team, not see who gets the most targets and touches.

"We did throw (Howard) the screen (against the Dolphins). It was a beautiful play, minus two penalties. We got him open early on just a straight drop back on what we call a 'bow-out' pattern. He had back-to-back explosives (plays). Then on a little play down the sideline, which (Fitzpatrick) made a really nice play (on), he underthrew it, but he was under pressure. That was actually a heck of a play by (Fitzpatrick) on O.J.'s touchdown — and a really nice catch."

The Bucs are deep at tight end, but they know Howard is their future. And with a 4-6 record, it's a good time for them to start moving in that direction. Brate can be a restricted free agent at the end of the season, meaning the Bucs could match any offer from another team. In two years, when Brate can be an unrestricted free agent, it seems less likely the Bucs would be in a position to get into a bidding war for him with Howard secured.

Brate's production has stayed about the same as a year ago. He has 34 receptions for 436 yards and four touchdowns. But he's more of a receiver than a run blocker. As a result, Howard has played more snaps (431, 72.56 percent of the offensive snaps) than Brate (378, 63.64 percent).

"Are we trying to get (Howard) involved? Yes," offensive coordinator Todd Monken said. "Is he growing as a player? Yes.

"Not every player, especially a young player, does everything well yet. You also have Cam there. Trying to balance that is a challenge for us and one where we've continued to try to find ways to get them both the ball."

Many marvel at Howard's physical talent and believe he'll eventually have opportunities to dominate a game.

"He blocks his butt off," Fitzpatrick said. "In the pass game, he can obviously create some explosive plays for us, and we've seen that this year. He's continuing to get better every week. The great thing about him, too, if he makes a mistake, it usually doesn't come up twice."

As Howard learns more about the pro game — and keeps putting his work in — he's going to stay ahead of the defenses trying to contain him. Koetter will have more trust in him, as well.

"Every week we come in with a great game plan to get the tight ends involved, but some games we just don't have time to get to the plays, and sometimes we do," Howard said. "But it is awesome to be involved and have an opportunity to make plays."

Contact Rick Stroud at Follow @NFLStroud.