TAMPA — A season-ending injury to a player of O.J. Howard’s caliber would be catastrophic to most teams. The Bucs simply turn to Cameron Brate.
As Howard emerged as one of the NFL’s best pass-catching tight ends this season, Brate became a sort of forgotten man. After averaging 52 catches, 625 yards, seven receiving touchdowns and 11.9 yards per catch the two previous seasons, Brate hasn’t recorded more than three catches in a game this year.
“Anytime you lose a player like O.J., it’s going to hurt your offense,” Brate said Wednesday. “I thought he was having a Pro Bowl-caliber season. I feel really bad for him. Obviously, its not the way he wanted his season to end, but I can’t say enough about how well he played the first 10 games. Guys are going to step up in is absence. … (The other tight ends) are probably going to be asked to do a little bit more, and we’re ready for it.”
Howard’s 16.62 yards per reception led all starting tight ends. His 565 receiving yards ranked fifth among tight ends, and his five receiving touchdowns tied for third at the position.
Ten weeks into the season, Brate has 17 catches for 159 yards and three touchdowns this season. He is averaging just 2.6 targets. Some of that has to do with Howard’s emergence. The Bucs’ multitude of receiving weapons is also a factor.
“Just like any receiver you like to get targets,” Brate said, “but I think our offense has kind of been rolling outside the Washington game. … I think all the skill position players have been playing well for us and it probably costs me some target but that’s alright.”
Brate’s 14 touchdowns in 2016-17 were the second-most about NFL tight ends, prompting the Bucs to sign him to a six-year, $40.8 million contract with $18 million in guarantees. Bucs receiver Mike Evans believes he will step up in Howard’s absence.
“Cam just got paid and [it] was well deserved what he got paid and he’s been a really good player for us from the jump,” Evans said. “He was an undrafted guy, worked really hard. He started getting reps and he became on of the best tight ends in the league. And I still believe he is one of the best tight ends in the league, especially with some of the opportunities he’s going to have now.”
Jameis Winston’s return to starting quarterback should help Brate, as least if history is any indication.
Since the beginning of the 2017 season, when Fitzpatrick joined the Bucs, Winston has completed 66.2 percent of his pass attempts to Brate, compared to 55.2 completion percentage with Fitzpatrick. Brate’s 8.0 yards per target with Winston is better than the 5.3-yard average with Fitzpatrick.
Two of Brate’s three touchdown passes this season have come from Winston, and Brate went without a reception over the season’s first two games with Fitzpatrick as the starter.
“Me and Jameis have been working together for four years and we continue to make strides and put in all the work during practice and after practice,” Brate said. “For some reason, me and him have always clicked and hopefully we’ll take advantage of that moving forward these next six games.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at [email protected] Follow @EddieInTheYard.