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Dark horse Pro Bowl prediction for the Buccaneers

It’s easy coming off of a Super Bowl win with names like Tom Brady, Mike Evans, and Rob Gronkowski on the roster, to forget about one key name that will be joining this offense in 2021.

Bruce Arians and Co. managed to do something no other Super Bowl winner has ever done…not lose one starter to free agency. Add that to the fact that they also built a championship team without sacrificing any premier draft capital, they should field an even deeper roster in 2021. But it’s easy to forget a talented member of this offense was lost early on in Tom Brady’s time in Tampa Bay…O.J. Howard

The 6-6, 245-pound tight end is coming off of a week 4 tear of his achilles tendon. Just in that game alone, Howard had 50 yards receiving, including a 28-yard touchdown catch. It looks as though he’ll be ready by the start of the season and although it may be a slow start, I would expect the 26-year old tight end to eat up more share of this passing attack.

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Down the stretch, Gronkowski took a clear step back in the offense as Cameron Brate emerged as a preferred target of Brady’s. Gronk returned to favor in the Super Bowl, but it’s fair to assume that with Gronk and Brate another year older and an even longer season in 2021, O.J. Howard should not be overlooked as a huge mismatch opportunity for Brady to use to slice through opposing defenses. 

Howard is entering the 2021 season on the 5th year option of his rookie contract. His cap hit is just over $6M to the team. He’ll definitely be highly incentivized in a contract year to prove to the Bucs and the rest of the league that he is fully healthy from the achilles injury and that he is one of the league’s best weapons at the tight end position.

O.J. Howard would also be my early pick to receive the franchise tag from the Bucs next offseason. They’ll likely be losing Chris Godwin, this year’s recipient of the franchise tag, and they’ll be juggling extensions for others on the defensive side of the ball. The tag for tight ends will also be considerably less than edge rusher, which is why they should try to reach a long-term extension with Jason Pierre-Paul instead of going the tag route. Tagging Howard would also allow the team additional time to decide whether he’s a piece they’ll want their offense built around in the post-Tom Brady regime.

In a league of ever-increasing emphasis on athletic, mismatch nightmares at the tight end position, the best team in the league is getting their version of that back and it’s being completely overlooked. I fully expect 2021 to be a sort of torch passing from Gronk to Howard as the two should have a full season working alongside one another. Brate’s role in this offense looks to be a diminished one, with sporadic contributions to the passing game and really only having a more significant presence if there is an injury to one of the two tight ends in front of him.

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