OJ Howard was a popular NFL fantasy tight end draft selection coming out of Alabama. He was heralded as a tough matchup and sure-handed receiver. In the preseason, the smartest prognosticators were preaching caution based on the typical learning curve for rookie tight ends, not to mention Cameron Brate on the same team.
Brate is still the principal tight end for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, with far more targets and snaps than Howard. But Week 7 saw several plays designed for the rookie tight end. He responded with 6 catches on 6 targets for 98 yards and 2 touchdowns.
Is that the sign from Tampa Bay? Did OJ Howard just become a must-start NFL fantasy tight end?
Tampa Bay has been bringing Howard along slowly, like most tight ends. He needed to learn the blocking assignments first. By all accounts, he has been picking up both pass and run blocking techniques well enough.
He saw very few targets, with only five catches in five games prior to Sunday. His biggest moment was in Week 4 against the Giants. Howard snuck along the offensive line like a blocker and emerged wide open in an unmanned zone. The play resulted in a 58-yard touchdown. Not a single defender got a hand on him.
Howard repeated that effort as part of his six-catch day Sunday. This time it worked for a 33-yard touchdown. No defender was within 20 yards of him when he caught the ball. In both cases, it looked like Howard was not the primary receiver. The first time, I was positive it was just a mistake by the Giants’ defense and a good job by Jameis Winston to spot him.
Against the Bills, it looked like Winston waited to see if Howard would slide out of the blocking battle wide open again. If this is a designed play, it is brilliant.
What is certain is that there were other plays where Howard was the primary receiver. His six targets almost matched his total for the first five games. That he caught all six was icing on the cake. He has so far, lived up to his reputation as far as the soft hands go.
The Buccaneers could make Howard a bigger part of their passing offense. Winston still gave Mike Evans (10), DeSean Jackson (8), and Cameron Brate (9) their usual load of targets. Howard’s six came from third receiver Adam Humphries and the running backs. 44 passes are not that unusual for the Buccaneers although they were playing catchup in the fourth quarter.
The conflict here is that Brate still saw nine targets, too. He does not appear pushed out by Howard. The Buccaneers used a bunch of two-tight end sets, but not much more than their previous history. Howard is a taller target than Humphries. Is it possible Tampa Bay simply took advantage of a matchup they liked with Howard? Or did he take a step forward in the Buccaneers’ pecking order?
So… is he or isn’t he a must start?
It’s too early to tell, but given the unreliability of most tight ends this season, he is as good a bet as anybody this week against the Panthers. Carolina has a tough defense, ranked 12th in points-per-game to tight ends. But if Tampa is using their tight ends more than usual, that might not amount to much of a concern. Two receiving tight ends with wideouts like Evans and Jackson sounds like a formidable offense.
Brate still gets the nod ahead of Howard for his consistency and team-leading red-zone targets. But unless I have one of the rare, consistent, NFL fantasy tight ends on my roster, I would consider playing Howard ahead of most streamers. The next games will determine whether he falls back into the pack or becomes a must-start.
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