Fantasy Football: Will O.J. Howard Break Out in 2019?
The NFL's shift to a pass-happy league has paved the way for some monstrous seasons from the tight end position in recent years, and last year featured record-setting campaigns from some of the game's best at the position. In the final week of the regular season, Travis Kelce surpassed Rob Gronkowski's single-season receiving yardage mark for a tight end set in 2011, but he wouldn't hold the top mark for long as George Kittle topped that later in the afternoon. The top four yardage totals at the position have all been posted since 2011.
Kittle wasn't alone in setting a new high-water mark for a single-season statistic at the position, as Zach Ertz set a new position record with 116 receptions, besting Jason Witten's total of 110 receptions in 2012. Just behind that duo is Kelce's 103 receptions last season. Four of the top five single-season reception totals at tight end have been recorded in the last decade.
Kelce, Kittle, and Ertz comprise the top tier of the tight end position, but rostering any of the trio requires paying top dollar in drafts. There are a handful of intriguing young tight ends in the next tier, but could one take a step forward and join -- or at least challenge -- the elite tier ahead of them? The tight end getting the most love from drafters after the top trio is O.J. Howard of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
He's the fourth tight end going off the board in standard scoring leagues and has an average draft position (ADP) of 56 overall, per FantasyPros. Will Howard breakout this year and deliver the goods for gamers taking the plunge with a top-60 selection?
Since being selected by the Buccaneers with the 19th pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, Howard's played 24 games across two seasons. While getting acclimated to the NFL and sharing the field with other more established playmakers, Howard has been treated to only modest volume. To that end, he's averaged only 3.6 targets and 2.5 receptions per game to this point in his young career.
While he's lacked much in the way of volume, he's flashed his potential with impressive efficiency. Howard's first two seasons have been unique among his tight end brethren, to put it mildly. In order to find some peers using Pro Football Reference's Play Index tool, I loosened the restrictions a bit from my initial query which yielded only Howard. In the last 10 years, only the half-dozen players in the table below were targeted 60 or more times, totaled 40 receptions or more, averaged 13.0 yards per reception or better, and reached or exceeded six touchdown receptions in their first two seasons.
Once again looking at only the last decade, Howard's work in regards to his Target Net Expected Points (NEP) per target his first two years compares favorably to others at the position. Since 2009, there have been 356 occasions when a tight end has reached a minimum of 35 targets and 25 receptions. In that time frame, Howard's 0.54 Target NEP per target in 2017 is tied for 41st and his 0.59 Target NEP per target in 2018 is tied for the 31st best mark among tight ends in that group.
Opportunity knocks at the door for Howard seeing a substantial uptick in looks this season. Adam Humphries finished second on the Buccaneers in targets last year with 105 and signed with the Tennessee Titans as a free agent, and DeSean Jackson finished fourth on the club in targets with 74 and was dealt to the Philadelphia Eagles.
The passing game's top option, Mike Evans, remains in the fold, but the two players who probably have the best chance at soaking up the bulk of departed targets are Chris Godwin and Howard. Others, such as backup tight end Cameron Brate and free-agent addition and speedster Breshad Perriman, will join Godwin and Howard in picking up the slack from the offseason departures, but Howard has an opportunity for a significant increase in targets this season.
Impact of Bruce Arians and Jameis Winston
After spending last year in the broadcast booth, Bruce Arians returns to the sidelines as the head coach of the Buccaneers. He served in the same position with the Arizona Cardinals from 2013 through 2017, was the offensive coordinator of the Colts in 2012 and served as the interim head coach for the final 12 games of the regular season while Chuck Pagano was treated for leukemia, and he was the offensive coordinator for the Steelers from 2007 through 2011.
In his last six seasons on the sidelines (one as an offensive coordinator and five as a head coach), Arians' offenses ranked 15th or better in passing yards each year, cracked the top 10 in passing yards three times, and ranked in the top 10 in passing attempts three times. The Buccaneers ranked fourth in pass attempts last year, and Arians' recent track record suggests they can remain a pass-heavy offense.
Arians isn't shy about dialing up deep balls, and among quarterbacks who attempted a minimum of 128 passes in 2017, his quarterbacks, Drew Stanton and Carson Palmer, ranked second and seventh, respectively, in average intended air yards, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. In 2016, Palmer ranked fifth in average intended air yards. If you clicked on the two links to the NFL Next Gen Stats, you didn't have to scan too long to spot Jameis Winston.
Winston ranked second in average intended air yards in 2016 and third in 2017. Last year, he once again ranked second in that category. He's no stranger to slinging the pigskin downfield. Arians' preference for downfield strikes and Winston's propensity to sling it deep pair nicely with Howard's ability to stretch the field.
Out of 125 tight ends and receivers targeted a minimum of 43 times, Howard ranked 51st in average targeted air yards. Looking exclusively at tight ends, he ranked second only to Gronkowski. Theoretically, Howard fits in nicely with Arians' offensive philosophy and Winston playing quarterback.
Having said that, we can also look back at 2019 to see how Howard actually performed with Winston (11 games played and nine starts) compared to playing with Ryan Fitzpatrick (eight games played and seven starts). Howard tallied 0.49 Target NEP per target playing with Fitzpatrick, but that mark ascended to a team-high 0.68 Target NEP per target with Winston. In all, Howard hauled in 14 receptions on 18 targets for 227 receiving yards and a touchdown from Winston last year. The sample isn't big, but it's tantalizing.
2019 Fantasy Outlook
Our projections peg Howard for 56 receptions, 791 receiving yards, and 6 touchdown receptions this year. Those projections are good for fifth among tight ends in standard scoring leagues, behind the Big Three of Kelce, Kittle, and Ertz, as well as Hunter Henry. His projection would leave him disappointing gamers at his aforementioned ADP of 56, which has him going as the TE4.
I'm more bullish on Howard's outlook than our algorithm though, and believe he'll earn a larger piece of the offensive pie. Additionally, the outlook for scoring at tight end is bleak beyond the top of the position. Our projections call for only three tight ends to exceed 130 fantasy points and four more to clear the century mark, good for a total of only seven tight ends projected to score more than 100 fantasy points this year.
If Howard is able to kick things up to another level and the tight end landscape mostly goes according to the projections, he'll create a nice edge for gamers who roll the dice on him without costing as much as Kelce, Kittle, or Ertz. Howard's already parlayed his limited opportunities into efficient production, and even if his efficiency slips with an increased workload, the volume boost would be a plus to his fantasy value. I'll gladly take the calculated risk on a breakout from Howard around current ADP.