When he came out of the University of Alabama in 2017, tight end O.J. Howard had a reputation as an exceptionally gifted athlete with the potential to grow into an NFL star.
But that’s not the same player the Buffalo Bills have been seeing through the first offseason activities, an insider says. While the free-agent acquisition showed off some of his abilities at the team’s minicamp this week, he has lacked the speed of fellow tight end Dawson Knox and raised worries that he had the ability to compete for the starting job, noted The Athletic’s Joe Buscaglia.
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Howard Struggles in Drills
As Buscaglia noted, Howard is a very gifted athlete and will be an asset to the Bills offense, but his contributions as a pass-catcher are a little unclear.
“At 6-foot-6 and 250 pounds, he’s enormous and you can’t miss him on the field, and he’s been consistent in his catch opportunities this offseason,” Buscaglia wrote. “He also looks like he can be an excellent blocker for 12 personnel while still offering a pass-catching threat. But his movement skills are well below what Knox brings to the table.”
Buscaglia wrote that Howard has not been quick getting out of his breaks, leaving him struggling to get separation from Bills defenders. There were some caveats — Buscaglia suspected that Howard would fare better in real-game situations, and noted that he still looks to be a regular in the team’s offensive rotation due to his other strengths.
“Part of those difficulties must be from the multiple lower-body injuries Howard has suffered since entering the league,” he wrote. “There’s just a difference between what his draft reputation was and what he is as a player now. It’s also fair to wonder whether his separation ability will increase when defenders put pads on because it’s a bit of an equalizer. Regardless, Howard will still be a solid contributor to the team in 2022 and looks perfectly suited to the backup tight end role.”
Howard is coming off a career-worst season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, making just 14 catches for 135 yards and one touchdown.
Knox Has Big Aspirations
Not many expected Howard to supplant Knox as the No. 1 tight end, especially after a breakout season where Knox caught 49 passes for 587 yads and nine touchdowns, nearly double the production of his first two seasons combined.
Knox said he hopes to build on that in the upcoming season.
“I think it’s important to have confidence and to know that you can go out and do what you want to do,” Knox said, via Spectrum News. “But at the same time, you don’t ever want to feel comfortable or complacent. So it’s all about building on it and just taking another step too, because I don’t feel like I’ve hit the pinnacle of my game. I feel like I’ve just started to scratch the surface. So ready to take another step.”
But Howard and Knox together may be able open up a new facet to the Bills offense. The team rarely used two tight-end sets last season, as Knox was the only effective pass-catcher among the group, but Howard’s addition could allow the team to put both on the field.