TAMPA — There's always a lot of attention on the rookie class this time of year, rightfully so. There's a reason the Bucs focused on defense, and DT Vita Vea, CBs M.J. Stewart, Carlton Davis and S Justin Whitehead all look like they could have productive NFL careers. RB Ronald Jones, a second-round pick from Southern Cal, could post the biggest numbers since he should get 15 to 20 touches per game.
But NFL players typically make the biggest leap from their first to second year, which is why TE O.J. Howard could become a dominant player in 2018.
Howard showed how versatile and explosive he can be in the Bucs' offense during mini-camp. At 6-foot-6, 242 pounds, Howard is a big, fast target who is a mismatch for most linebackers and safeties.
"You saw two good examples of O.J. right there at the end," coach Dirk Koetter said following practice Wednesday. "He made that great catch in the end zone (Tuesday). He made that beautiful catch in the seam, then a few plays later, we threw the screen to him. I mean O.J.'s incredible athleticism just jumps out to you.
"I think with him knowing more what to expect with the 16-game schedule and six-week training camp, it's easy to see, I don't think anybody who watched those plays wouldn't see why that guy was a first-round draft pick last year."
Howard, who played in back-to-back national championship games at Alabama, unexpectedly fell to the Bucs with the No. 19 overall pick. Tampa Bay was poised to take Florida State running back Dalvin Cook, but Howard was too good to pass up.
Howard is a complete tight end and involved more in the run game than the passing game. He still caught 26 passes for 432 yards and six touchdowns. But there is so much he can improve.
"We all have to do our reports on last year's film and tell the good and bad about it," Howard said. "So I had a lot of things I wanted to improve on such as the run game, running routes, getting open a lot in man coverage."
TE Cameron Brate, who has 14 touchdown receptions over the past two seasons, still is one of the Bucs' top red-zone targets. That's becoming more of a trend with the number of teams double-teaming Mike Evans.
But Howard can hurt you at any place on the field. He had the highest yards per target average (11.07 yards) on the team last season, better than Evans (7.36) and DeSean Jackson (7.36)
The problem is that like many rookies, the long season and heavy workload wore Howard down.
"I would say maybe a little on the mental side," Koetter said. "Not that he was making huge (mental mistakes). But it's just tough to stay mentally focused that long. He ended up getting hurt at the end of the year."
Howard missed the final two games of 2017 with an ankle injury. There's only one football, but if he can stay healthy, Howard will be a bigger weapon this season.
He’s down with JPP
The Bucs weren't thrilled when DE Jason Pierre-Paul told them he wouldn't be at any of the 10 organized team activity practices. But watching him for three days at mini-camp, his size, length and speed make you realize what a force he will be in the regular season.
"When JPP first told me he wasn't going to be at the first part of OTAs, he said, 'Coach, I've been doing this a long time; there's only so many things a defensive end has to do,' " Koetter said. "I think he's done a good job. You can tell — we all know who he is from afar but when he gets here, he's a big man and he's long, 280 pounds. He plays the run a lot better than people think he does so, he's going to be fine."
This is a nervous time for NFL coaches and general managers. They lose track of players for six weeks and can only hope the phone doesn't ring.
DT Gerald McCoy had some advice for young players: immerse your time in football.
"Young players, you live football," McCoy said. … "Me? I've been doing this nine years, so I've learned how to manage everything. If you're young, live it. Don't be happy being in the NFL. So what? What are you going to do now that you're here? Do something with it. Make the best of the opportunity.
Sixteen hundred get to do this, so don't be satisfied with being one of the top 1,600 in the NFL.
"If I'm talking to Vita, go home, say hello to your family and get right back here. The only way to prepare for this Tampa heat is to be in it. You have to train in it. … Live what you're doing, man. Set a foundation now. I'm nine years in and I've set a foundation. Young guy? Football. That's it."