The Buccaneers passing game is coming off a year that would be recognized as one of the greatest in recent history if it weren’t for a perpetual game of musical chairs between the starting quarterbacks and Patrick Mahomes overshadowing everyone with one of the best single-season performances of all-time. Tampa Bay led the league in passing yards and the 24.4 fantasy points per game produced by its starting quarterbacks, Jameis Winston and Ryan Fitzpatrick, ranked second among all team quarterbacks. It was also the second-highest mark since Cam Newton’s 2015 MVP season.
All that passing goodness resulted in the only offense of this century to support four top-36 PPR wide receivers—Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Adam Humphries and DeSean Jackson—in a single season (through Week 16). Tight end O.J Howard, meanwhile, finished sixth at his position in PPR points per game.
Much of this success came out of necessity—the Bucs’ atrocious defense kept the offense in negative game script, resulting in the most plays in the league run while down by a touchdown or more. With the departures of Jackson and Humphries, though, there is opportunity for Tampa’s pass catchers to ascend up the fantasy ranks, even if the passing offense as a whole takes a step back. The following will focus on how Howard fits into that equation.
With Jackson and Humphries no longer in town, along with a couple of other ancillary pieces not returning to Tampa Bay’s 2019 roster, the Buccaneers have nearly 15 targets per game available from last year, or 38% of their total target share. Of course, we can’t readily assume 620-plus balls up for grabs like last season, but it isn’t reckless to project Tampa to again be one of the pass-heaviest teams in the league, especially because of game-script concerns. As it stands, the over/under on the Bucs' win total is just 6.5 and they will largely rely on rookies to patch up their sieve of a secondary.
There is a new coaching staff in town, led by Bruce Arians and offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich. The latter is expected to call plays but Arians will be heavily involved, and his history suggests that this offense should carry over many of its recent characteristics. In his last 11 seasons as a head coach or offensive coordinator, Arians’ offenses have ranked outside the top half of the league in passing rates in neutral game script just twice. Last season under Dirk Koetter, Tampa Bay ranked 11th.
John Paulsen has Winston projected for 579 attempts, the fourth-highest attempt total in 4for4’s current quarterback projection. Last season, Howard was on pace to see just more than 12% of his team’s targets. With two of their main pass-catchers from last season out of the fold, that target share could easily jump by four or five percentage points, putting a 100-target season well within Howard’s range of outcomes. Without a clear WR3 or a reliable pass-catching back, Howard may need to hold off only Cameron Brate in order to reach the top of his target range, which would hover around 120 if the third-year tight end can sniff a 20% target share.
One of Arians’ most notable attributes as a coach is his love for the deep ball, which fits well with trends in Tampa with Winston under center. Since drafting Winston, Tampa Bay has ranked no lower than sixth in deep-ball rate (passes traveling 15 or more yards downfield). Dating back to 2007, Arians’ teams have ranked outside the top 10 in that category just once.
Winston admittedly hasn’t been good at throwing the deep ball—according to Sports Info Solutions, he ranked 26th in QB Rating on deep balls last season—but the opportunity for those plays is there and deep targets simply produce more fantasy points than medium and short ones.
Given what we know about how much more efficient balls thrown downfield are for fantasy purposes, it’s probably no coincidence that Howard has been the most productive tight end, on a per-target basis, since entering the league. In each of his first two seasons, Howard has ranked in the top two at his position in average depth of target (aDOT), finishing tops in 2018. No tight end or wide receiver with at least 75 targets over the last two seasons has posted more yards per target (11.46) or scored more PPR points per target (2.59) than Howard.
Of course, Howard’s rate stats are unsustainable. Rob Gronkowski’s 9.90 career yards per target is the highest ever recorded for a tight end, and the average target to a tight end produced 1.79 PPR points in 2018. The medicine for a drop in efficiency, though, is volume, and Howard should have plenty of it in 2019.
Put all of this together, and it’s easy to see the breakout case for Howard. He has been one of the most dynamic players at his position since entering the league, but his opportunity has been limited. With two of the Buccaneers’ primary pass catchers from 2018 off the roster, he won’t face any teammate-based restrictions. While his quarterback has been mediocre throwing the deep ball, those downfield plays are exactly what widens a pass catcher’s range of outcomes and help explain why Howard has been able to be so efficient in his career. Currently going in the middle of the fifth round, Howard isn’t cheap for a tight end, but he’s not going to be that expensive in every league. What’s more, he may prove worthy of that price tag. With the chance to eclipse 100 targets, Howard can climb into the top three or four at his position, making him one of my favorite buys when he does fall to the sixth round and beyond in drafts.