Don't Reach for O.J. Howard in Fantasy Football Drafts

Many people are ready for an O.J. Howard breakout in 2019, but has his fantasy value exceeded the price people should be paying?

It's fair to say that, after two seasons in the NFL, Tampa Bay Buccaneers tight end O.J. Howard hasn't been a rip-roaring success as a pro. He's far from a failure, of course, but his production has left many -- fantasy football team owners included -- wanting more. However, Howard is far from the first tight end to start his NFL career off slowly.

There is a fair amount of optimism surrounding the Buccaneers in general, and Howard in particular, heading into the 2019 season. His quarterback recently declared that his upside "is the moon". Is Howard ready to break out, and if he is, does this make him a player that fantasy owners need to be aware of heading into this season?

Volume vs Efficiency

Injuries have restricted Howard to just 24 games in his first two seasons, games in which Howard has amassed 997 yards from 60 receptions, with 11 of his grabs resulting in touchdowns. These numbers are not mind-blowing, but his per-play efficiency is something to behold.

Howard averages 11.46 yards per target as a pro, as well as 16.62 yards per reception. Both of these numbers are the highest by a tight end in their first two seasons in the NFL going back to the start of the 2000 campaign. Howard also has a highly-tuned nose for the end zone. His 12.6% touchdown rate is the highest among the 27 tight ends with at least 80 targets between 2017 and 2018.

Howard's efficiency has also been evident using numberFire metrics. His two seasons have seen him record Target Net Expected Points (NEP) per target marks of 0.54 and 0.59, respectively, which ranked fourth- and fifth-best in those seasons. Last season, he was an absolute superstar when he got the ball in his hands. He led all tight ends with 1.09 Reception NEP per target (you can learn more about NEP in our glossary).

There are a large number of targets suddenly open in the Buccaneers' offense, which should enable Howard to see a significant workload in the new season. DeSean Jackson and Adam Humphries are no longer on the team, taking 179 targets with them, or 29% of the Buccaneers' total from a year ago. Mike Evans and Chris Godwin are likely to feast on the bulk of these targets, but Evans was already commanding 22.4% of the Buccaneers' targets in 2018, while Godwin eked out a living on a 15.3% share. Even if we project Evans to see a share in the 25% range, and Godwin's share may begin to nudge closer to 20%, that still leaves more than 20% of the available targets needing a home. That someone could well be Howard.

The Arians Effect

The new offense is also one that would seem to offer fertile ground for pass catchers, if past history is anything to go by. In his previous stint as the Arizona Cardinals' head coach, Bruce Arians oversaw offenses that had, on average, a 1.52 pass-to-run ratio. Arians loves to pass the ball, and Howard has shown the ability to turn catches into more than five-yard hooks. Despite playing only 10 games last season, Howard was 11th among all NFL tight ends in air yards and yards after catch.

These factors are no doubt huge drivers behind the groundswell that is seeing Howard being taken as the seventh tight end overall in Fanball draft. However, it would be irresponsible of me not to comment on some of the hurdles Howard will face if he is to make good on this promising ADP.

The most obvious stumbling block would seem to be Arians himself. It is no secret that tight end is not a position that Arians has had a great deal of use for in the past, at least from a receiving point of view. This is evident when we see his teams' TE1 in years where he has been an offensive coordinator in the NFL.

Year Player Targets Target % Recs Yards TDs PPR Pts PPR Rk
2001 O.J. Santiago 27 5.20% 17 153 2 44.3 30
2002 Mark Campbell 46 7.84% 25 179 3 60.9 27
2003 Steve Heiden 31 5.67% 18 134 0 31.4 44
2007 Heath Miller 61 12.45% 47 566 7 145.6 8
2008 Heath Miller 65 11.67% 48 514 3 117.4 15
2009 Heath Miller 98 16.72% 76 789 6 190.9 8
2010 Heath Miller 67 12.84% 42 512 2 105.2 24
2011 Heath Miller 74 12.74% 51 631 2 126.7 19
2012 Dwayne Allen 66 9.88% 45 521 3 115.6 25
2013 Rob Housler 57 9.27% 39 454 1 90.4 27
2014 John Carlson 54 9.06% 33 350 1 74 28
2015 Jermaine Gresham 32 5.42% 18 223 1 46.3 44
2016 Jermaine Gresham 61 8.87% 37 391 2 88 29
2017 Jermaine Gresham 46 7.09% 33 322 2 77.2 30
Average 56.1 9.62% 37.8 409.9 2.5 93.9 25.6

Even the player with whom he got the most out of, namely Heath Miller of the Pittsburgh Steelers, waited until the year after Arians left to enjoy his career season.

You might be saying, "But Arians has never had a player like Howard." This is true, as but a cursory glance at the names above would reveal. But having gone throughout his career without such a player, does it automatically stand to reason that Arians will know how to use him? Arians was famously outspoken regarding the role of his tight end back in his time with the Cardinals, stating that "they’re here to block".

Arians stated that the money the Cardinals were paying to players like Larry Fitzgerald was good enough to reason to ignore tight ends in the interest of his team getting the most bang for their buck. So we must note that receiver Mike Evans is on the third-richest wide receiver contract in the NFL in 2019.

Looking Ahead

Availability is often spoken of as one of the best abilities a player can possess, and if this is true then it is one that Howard will need to work on. He has missed eight games in two seasons, which has contributed to his seeing only 7% and 8% of his teams targets in 2017 and 2018. If we adjust for games that he actually played, Howard commanded an 11.7% share of the targets last season.

Howard will need to command more looks than this if he is to reward his fantasy owners. Of the 12 TE1s in 2018, only four players commanded a target share of less than 15%. These were Austin Hooper (14.6%), Kyle Rudolph (13.7%), Vance McDonald (11.5%) and Evan Engram (14.7%).

As previously noted, Howard has been able to find the end zone a lot more frequently than a player with his opportunities would normally be expected to do. So if he is not to command a huge share of targets between the two 20-yard lines, he may be able to reward his owners with a few weeks of touchdown boosted production. This would probably mean the Buccaneers utilizing him in the scoring areas, which is not something they have done too regularly over the course of his career. He has a mere 13 red zone targets in 2017 and 2018 combined, a number that trails Godwin, Cameron Brate and Evans on his own team.

There is also the issue of the guy who will be charged with getting Howard and the other pass catchers the ball, namely Jameis Winston. Winston and Howard have been efficient when hooking up, with Winston boasting 12.32 adjusted yards per attempt (AYA) when targeting Howard over the last two seasons. But while Howard has been efficient with Winston, he was more productive with Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback.

The Fitzpatrick/Howard AYA combo was only worth 10.32 yards, but in the seven games Howard played in and that Winston took no part in, he averaged 56.3 receiving yards, 0.57 receiving touchdowns and 12.2 PPR points. With Winston under center, these numbers dipped to 37.7, 0.44 and 8.8, respectively.

Howard has the tools to be a successful NFL tight end, and as a result, a viable fantasy option. But the factors working against him make his current ADP a little too rich for my blood. The competition for targets and the mindset of the head coach are not to be taken lightly, although Howard has shown that he is capable of ridiculous efficiency in the face of limited opportunity.

If Howard had fallen to the later rounds because of Arians' tight end reputation, that would be a different story. But to see him going 30 spots ahead of McDonald and Hooper, players who have fewer obstacles within their own offenses, makes him a pass at his current draft cost.