O.J. Howard returned to practice at AdventHealth Training Center on July 30 for the first time since his Achilles tear in Week 4 of the 2020 season, ready to continue proving himself within a Tampa Bay Buccaneers offense that is stacked with talent.
The 26-year-old, fifth-year NFL tight end was putting together what appeared to be a career season last year before going down with the injury against the Los Angeles Chargers, accumulating 11 receptions for 146 yards and two touchdowns. Despite his early production, Howard now finds himself a bit behind the 8-ball after Rob Gronkowski and Cameron Brate were able to hold down the position in his absence.
That hasn't dampened his attitude, though.
“It’s awesome to be back. I’m just working to get back to where I want to be," Howard told Buccaneers media on Monday. "It’s good to be back around the guys and be in the huddle again. The Achilles feels good. It’s just one day at a time for me right now, but I’m just so happy to be back.”
Taking a slow and steady approach to practice considering his injury, which sidelined Howard throughout the summer and the beginning of training camp, Howard has been fixated on further developing the mental side of his game until he's capable of going 100 percent on the gridiron.
“That’s what I did this offseason. I just tried to study every aspect of my game," said Howard. "I took the top guys in my position pass-catching wise and took the top of my position run blocking wise. I studied all six of them. I just tried to steal things from their tapes and try to evaluate my game. I think it’s been translating over to the field as I’ve been getting acclimated to the field."
Howard had a veteran's day off on Sunday after two days of work where he was limited in practice action. Head coach Bruce Arians indicated on Sunday that he's looking forward to Howard participating in practice in its entirety.
Once Howard is able to do so, all eyes will focus on what type of role he can carve out. Gronkowski emerged as a two-way playmaker while Howard was on the injured reserve, making key blocks and regaining his form as a receiver following a temporary retirement. Brate was successful in a primary pass-catching role behind Gronkowski on the depth chart and in 12-personnel.
On top of that, an additional six Buccaneers' pass-catchers - at wide receiver and running back - hauled in at least 20 receptions.
That being said, Howard is an immense talent at the tight end position, combining his impressive 6-foot-6, 251-pound frame with top-tier athleticism which makes him hard to defend in the passing game. Howard can continue to develop as a run blocker to further entrench his spot in the offense, although his PFF run-blocking grade of 62.8 (average) was the best of his career. One way or another, at full health, Tampa Bay should be able to re-incorporate Howard into the offense.
"My conditioning level is really good right now but getting into football shape of course is different," said Howard. "We’re getting it in, but we’re being smart about it. The most important thing for us is Sept. 9 and playing weeks after that. I’m just very thankful that everybody was on the same page and understood where we were coming from.”
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