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Should You Worry About O.J. Howard's Production?


We all know about Week 1 and its relation with overreactions. Everybody spends the summer trying to find the next big thing. The greatest bargain and the player with the highest upside entering the still-to-unwrap season. Then the first weekend rolls around and that guy you had been targeting for long, snatched in the middle round of your league's draft, and put in your lineup absolutely confident of his production puts up a dud.

After that you choose one of two paths: sell or hold. If you went with the former, this article is not for you. On the other hand, if you're the one who held onto "your guy" for another week, then you're part of my target audience. Oh, and just in case the title didn't make it clear, "your guy" today is TE O.J. Howard, from Tampa Bay.

Here's the question: are you really in trouble if you own Howard? Did you make the right move drafting him? With two games in the books for the Buccaneers after their Thursday Night Football showdown against Carolina and a null performance by Howard, it is time to assess the tight end's long-term situation.

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How Did We Get Here?

Let's go back in time a bit to the end of the 2018 season. When reviewing what happened last season and checking the fantasy football leaderboards, we find O.J. Howard as one of the best tight ends of the year. Howard finished the season with 120.5 PPR points, ranking 15th among tight ends. Borderline TE1 production for a sophomore, and even more promising considering he missed six games.

To put everyone on the same leveled field, we can look at PPR per game instead of overall. That paints an even better picture of Howard's season. Howard averaged 12.1 PPR per game, fourth-best among tight ends only behind the elite three of Travis Kelce, Zach Ertz, and George Kittle, as well as Eric Ebron (totally out of this world season, bound to regress hard), and tied with Jared Cook (the only viable option for Oakland last year).

Those numbers were more than enough to make Howard a much-coveted target in 2019 fantasy drafts. He had an ADP of around 55 and was picked only behind the top three and, just in some cases, Evan Engram. Fair to expect excellent production from such a pricey player, right?

 

A Not-So-Encouraging Start Of The Season

And here we are now. It's been just two weeks. There is a lot of time left until we find ourselves sitting in front of our TVs watching Super Bowl LIV. But if you are one of the "unlucky" O.J. Howard owners, there are reasons for concern.

In Week 1, Tampa Bay faced a 49ers Defense that, although not the best league-wide, was still better than average against tight ends in 2018. The 49ers allowed just 9.4 PPR per game to TEs in 2018, seventh-best in the NFL, and reduced the targeted passes to the position's players to just 86 (third-fewest league-wide). Howard finished the game with four receptions in five targets for 32 yards and no touchdowns, logging 7.2 PPR.

Although that wasn't a terrible outcome, it was way below his 2018 average of 12.1 PPR. Things looked better for him against a Panthers Defense that what worse than that of San Francisco in 2018 at stopping tight ends. They allowed the seventh-most points to TE in 2018. In the lone game he played against Carolina in November 2018, Howard finished with a great line of four receptions on six targets for 53 yards and two touchdowns, getting his season-best 21.3 PPR that day.

Do you know how the game against Carolina finished this past Thursday? With doughnuts all around Howard's name.

Targets? Zero. Receptions? Obviously zero. Yards? More than obvious, zero.

That looks bad already but looking even deeper things get even murkier. Why, you say? Howard has been on the field for 155 snaps through Week 2. That is, 85% of all offensive plays. The other Tampa Bay tight ends have been fielded on just 49 snaps in the case of Cameron Brate and 40 for Antony Auclair. He has had more chances than any other player at his position. He has also run a route in 83% of the snaps, 24 in total, and been targeted in five of those.

Anybody can have a low week in the NFL. These are elite players taking on elite defenses every weekend. But O.J. Howard couldn't complain of lack of opportunity in Week 1. His five targets were only one short of Chris Godwin's. But his lack of true production seemed to kill him in the eyes of Jameis Winston for their Week 2 game.

Howard's 115 snaps in two games are third among Tampa Bays receivers. He only trails Chris Godwin (126) and Mike Evans (119). What is outright unacceptable is that he has only been targeted five times. That makes him the tied-87th least targeted player (RB/WR/TE) of the league and by far the one with the most snaps and such a short amount of targets. No other player with five or fewer targets has participated in more snaps than Howard (Damion Willis trails him with 69, followed by Peyton Barber and Taylor Gabriel with 67).

 

What To Expect Going Forward

The tight end situation in Tampa Bay doesn't look any good. That is the truth and as real as it gets. Jameis Winston isn't a consistent quarterback and he often takes chances downfield rather than looking across the middle for a shorter throw. The QB has targeted his wide receivers 37 times and the tight end duo of Howard and Brate just in nine passes. One of those, thrown toward Howard, ended in an interception in Week 1.

Tampa Bay's head coach Bruce Arians has never exploited the tight end position, so we could have expected something like this to happen. During his six-year coaching tenure, Arians has a passing distribution of 63/18/19% to WR/TE/RB. Yes, you read it right: Arians called passes to tailbacks more often than to tight ends. Pro Football Focus researched the coach and found something interesting for fantasy purposes: the top tight end Arizona to play under Arians averaged 50 targets, 32 receptions and 348 yards per season, and was around the 4th/5th most targeted player on offense. Ugh.

Perhaps the most encouraging thing for those owning Howard is that the third-year tight end is the best player at the position to ever play for Bruce Arians. While Howard finished the 2017 and 2018 seasons with 101.2 and 120.5 PPR respectively (missing two or more games in both years), no tight end racked up more than 90.4 PPR from 2013 to 2017 in Arizona under Arians. It could happen to Howard this season, but the head coach would be throwing away one of his top three weapons without reason in a foolish decision.

Last year, six players started the season in a similar way to O.J. Howard, getting fewer than 6 PPR through Week 2:

Year Player Team G Tgt Rec Yds W2 PPR W17 PPR
2018 Vance McDonald PIT 1 5 3 26 5.6 133.0
2018 Ian Thomas CAR 2 5 4 14 5.4 81.3
2018 Jordan Thomas HOU 2 5 1 27 3.7 65.5
2018 Ryan Griffin HOU 2 6 1 19 2.9 54.5
2018 Charles Clay BUF 2 5 2 29 4.9 37.4
2019 OJ Howard TB 2 5 4 32 5.2 --

Although some players such as Clay, Griffin, or even Jordan Thomas didn't end with great numbers, Ian Thomas and Vance McDonald cases should be encouraging. McDonald wasn't available for Week 1 but put on 133.0 PPR from Week 2 to season's end, finishing as TE10. Thomas' 81.3 PPR made him the TE24.

Even in the worst of projections (just taking the 5.2 PPR Howard already has through two games and calculating what they'd amount to in a full 16-game season), Howard would finish the season with 41.6 PPR. That is a mediocre production and he wouldn't even rank him among the top-50 tight ends in the league. Something closer to reality, yet still low given his ability, would be to expect 5.2 PPR per game, not per two games, going forward. Even that ugly production would help him reach a much more palatable 78.0 PPR points at the end of the season (he would have finished as TE25 with that mark in 2018.

 

Verdict

While it's been a disappointing start of the season for O.J. Howard's owners and the player himself, we should expect a rebound sooner rather than later. We know Jameis Winston and his volatility. Howard's production will depend on what or what not the quarterback can do, but his boom-or-bust profile will at least award Howard some explosive performances down the road.

You probably paid a lot to get Howard in your roster, and dropping him this early wouldn't be the most intelligent option. If we reach the bye-week and he's still on a similar path, then maybe you should consider moving to a streaming strategy for the TE position in sallow leagues were multiple options will be available each weekend. It could be harder to go that way in deeper leagues with more GM's mouths to be fed.

In DFS, of course, it doesn't look like a good plan to put Howard in your lineups at least for the time being. Look for other options who offer more upside (and probably come cheaper) at least until we see what Tampa's offense is really about after they play a few more games.

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