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The Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ 2018 Training Camp has officially started with the rookies starting today. Over the next week we will be breaking down each position group during their battles at Training Camp. What better way to start then to start with the dynamic tight ends the Bucs have on their roster.
When OJ Howard was selected 19th overall in the 2017 draft, tight end immediately became a position of strength for the Buccaneers. Some assumed he was the heir apparent to Cameron Brate. However, that idea was nullified when Cam was signed to a big extension earlier this off season.
Second year player Antony Auclair out of Canada is also likely to once again make the team. Auclair filled in admirably for Howard when he ended up on injured reserve late in the season. He’s still a raw prospect who will likely take over the Luke Stocker role as the blocking tight end as he continues to develop.
The other tight end who has a good chance to once again make the team is third year player Alan Cross. He fills the role of an H-Back quite well, and allows the Bucs to not have to spend a roster spot on a fullback.
Free Agents Battles
Behind the aforementioned known commodities at tight end, the Bucs will have four undrafted free agents vying for a roster spot this training camp. Jason Reese has ideal size at 6-5 and 255 lbs. However, he had limited production with only 29 receptions over four years at Missouri.
Tanner Hudson is a D2 prospect out of South Arkansas. He racked up 143 receptions for 2,152 yards and 25 TD’s over his career. These numbers are impressive, but temper your expectations. He did play at the D2 level and at 6-4 200 lbs he’ll have to put on some weight to have a legitimate shot at playing in the NFL.
Western Michigan prospect Donnie Ernsberger recorded 45 catches for 528 yards and 5 touchdowns over his time at WMU. Ernsberger’s strength lies in his ability to play fullback. He led the way for the countries 21st ranked rushing offense in 2017.
Who wins the battle for the 5th spot?
In Dirk Koetter’s two seasons in Tampa, he has kept five tight ends out of training camp. I think the four returners are all a safe bet to make the squad, but who will fill the fifth spot?
I believe that Jason Reese is camp meat that is unlikely to make the team. He has great size, but limited athleticism and will struggle to stand out. Ernsberger is the most likely to make the roster. He played an extensive role on special teams at WMU, which will help him succeed at the next level. With his experience as a fullback, I look for him to take over the H-back role of Alan Cross at some point.
Tanner Hudson is an interesting prospect. He is the most polished receiver of the rookies. I look for him to be a practice squad candidate. He needs time to put on weight and adjust to the level of competition. I can see him taking a similar path as Cameron Brate. It will take some time but I think given some patience he has the potential to contribute to the team down the road.
A dynamic duo in the making?
Lets get to the good stuff. Tampa Bay has a chance to be truly special at tight end. Cameron Brate has 14 touchdowns over the last two seasons. That’s good for third place in the league among tight ends. OJ was no slouch in his rookie season. He scored six touchdowns while statically being the most efficient player in the NFL on deep balls.
Brate and Howard were the only tight end duo in the league to both have over 400 receiving yards and at least six touchdowns each. While individually impressive, the most intriguing aspect of the pair is what they could possibly do on the field together.
We saw last season that Howard has a knack for getting behind defenses for deep play action passes. If the Bucs can get the running game rolling, it should create even more of these opportunities.
While Howard excels with the deep ball, Brate shines in the red zone.
Brate appears to be the favorite target of Jameis Winston inside the 20. This is a testament to the chemistry they have developed over the past 3 seasons. Brate and Howard both have their own unique skill set but can they be utilized better? No knock on either of them but we should expect more from them this season.
Can Dirk make it work?
There are a lot of mouths to feed on the Bucs offense, but it should be a priority to get Howard and Brate on the field together. Last season the Bucs ran a two tight end set on 17% of their offensive snaps. That was about the league average and the Bucs are anything but average at the tight end position.
To really take advantage of their talent, it’s important to get the pair on the field together more. They cause defenses fits individually, but imagine what they could do together. Could Brate and Howard be the key to success for the Bucs offense?
It’s no secret that Jameis Winston struggled to connect with Desean Jackson on the deep ball last season. While I hope he improves in that area, why not take some of that pressure off of him? We’ve all heard the saying that a tight end is the QB’s best friend. Well, why can’t Winston have two best friends?
Instead of forcing deep balls to DJax ,let’s get Brate and Howard on the field more and take advantage of mismatches. Over the past two seasons Winston is the ninth most efficient QB in the league when he has two tight ends on the field. The numbers show this is what Winston does best so why is the coaching staff not putting him in position to succeed more often?
With Winston’s suspension it’s imperative that the Bucs play to Ryan Fitzpatrick’s strengths in the first three weeks. Fitzpatrick is the 5th ranked QB out of two tight ends sets the past two seasons. Cam and OJ play a huge role in weathering the Jameis storm.
The Bucs should be set at the tight end position for years to come with Brate and Howard playing prominent roles in the offense. Auclair and Cross round out the position group nicely.
The success of the Bucs tight ends lies squarely on the coaching staff. Todd Monken is set to play a more prominent role in game planning this season. It’s up to Koetter and Monken to take advantage of the wealth of talent at tight end.
Let’s not make the game any harder than it needs to be. Get Brate and Howard out their together. You can’t argue against the success they have had and getting them on the field together should make things easier on the quarterback. With two quarterbacks on the roster who are prone to turnovers, keeping it simple may just equal success.
Ben Wilson was born and raised in the Tampa area and has been following the Buccaneers for as long as he can remember. He is currently a contributing writer for Full Press Coverage Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Follow @FPC_Buccaneers on twitter to see more of his work and similar work.