When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers lured Rob Gronkowski out of retirement and traded for the longtime New England Patriots superstar, most assumed that O.J. Howard had played his last game for the team. Reportedly dangled in trade talks long before Gronk's arrival, the former first-round draft pick was widely considered a disappointment in his first year under coach Bruce Arians. Now, a month into training camp, all indications are that Howard has been one of the Bucs' biggest offseason breakouts.
Gronkowski is a sure bet to sit atop the tight end depth chart in 2020, his anticipated reunion with quarterback Tom Brady. According to Rick Stroud of the Tampa Bay Times, however, it's Howard who's been the star of camp, especially since the kickoff of padded practices in mid-August.
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.
The addition of Gronk to the tight end room, where Howard struggled to stand out in 2019 despite Arians' pass-happy offense, has seemingly boosted Howard's confidence rather than dampened it, Stroud continued.
''We've got a room full of talent, mismatches, guys all over the board," Howard said. "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."
Arians himself appears to have warmed up to Howard's role as well, downplaying the notion the former Alabama standout was ever a serious candidate to be traded.
"All I talked to him about was getting better, and he was going to be here for a while," Arians said, per Stroud. "I think with Tom helping him confidence-wise and watching Gronk work, they've been a good combination helping each other ... I think O. J. is playing at an extremely high level right now, and I would not expect to see any kind of drop-off, only continued growth."
Drafted 19th overall in 2017, Howard was both a big-play and red-zone threat for parts of his rookie season, scoring six touchdowns and averaging 16.6 yards per catch alongside Cameron Brate, who also remains on the team. Foot and ankle injuries sidelined him after just 10 games the following year, cutting short what likely would've been a career year in terms of receiving yards (565) and TDs. Howard finished with 34 catches for 459 yards and just one score in 14 starts in 2019.