During a press conference last week, Tampa Bay Buccaneers tight endO.J. Howard said: “It was always the production was there, but I just couldn’t really stay healthy.”
Returning from his latest injury, the former Alabama standout is trying to make sure that quote doesn’t become an epitaph for his NFL career.
Howard‘s rookie season was ended by an ankle injury on a 30-yard touchdown reception in the 2017 campaign’s 14th game. Howard missed the final six games of the 2018 season with an ankle injury that occurred as he was tackled at the end of a 24-yard gain.
In 2019, Howard missed two games because of a hamstring injury.
Last season, Howard suffered a ruptured Achilles tendon in the fourth game and missed the rest of the 2020 campaign, including Tampa Bay’s 31-9 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LV. He’s back on the field at the Buccaneers’ training camp.
“It’s awesome to be back,” Howard said. “Nine months of just working to get back to where I want to be, so it’s good to be back around the guys and in the huddle again. The Achilles feels good. It’s one day at a time for me right now, but I’m just so happy to be back.”
On Monday, Tampa Bay coach Bruce Arians said Howard was working his way into form after his latest injury.
“He’s getting back,” Arians said. “He’s not there yet. Had a chance to make a couple of grimy catches in the end zone today and didn’t come up with them, and I expect him to make those. He’s still catching up to the speed of it and the physicality of it. He’s been out a long time, so he needs this camp.”
A three-time All-State player at Autauga Academy, Howard has 105 receptions for 1,602 yards and 14 touchdowns in 42 games since entering the NFL as a first-round draft choice in 2017.
Howard has gotten breaks during training camp as he ramps up toward the regular-season opener in one month.
“We’re getting it in, but we’re being smart about it,” Howard said, “because the most important thing for us is Sept. 9 and playing weeks after that.”
His injury history caused Howard to evaluate his football preparation.
“I changed my whole regimen about how I get ready for practice, my recovery now,” Howard said. “The injuries really were one of the best things to happen for me because they just made me realize my body and learn it a lot better because if I stay healthy, everything else should really take care of itself. My biggest focus is preparing my body to go 17 weeks plus and being available for my team because when I do that, I know good things will happen.”
Now Howard engages in what he called “prehab,” which involves “staying on the mobility of the ankles, attacking the calf muscle, the hip flexors – all those things, they go together.”
While recovering from the Achilles injury, Howard said he tried to use the time to increase his football IQ by studying video.
“Went nine months with just getting mental reps, so that helped my confidence a lot,” Howard said. “Seeing the game from a different point of view. All I’m seeing for nine months is just me visualizing me in position to make the plays, so that just helped me when I came back with the offense kind of already ready to know what to expect. …
“I took the top guys at my position pass-catching-wise and then took the top guys at my position run-blocking-wise and studied all six of them and just tried to steal things from their tapes and tried to elevate my game, and I think it’s been translating over to the field as I’ve been getting acclimated back to team activities.”
The Buccaneers’ preseason schedule starts against the Cincinnati Bengals on Saturday, followed by the Tennessee Titans on Aug. 21 and Houston Texans on Aug. 28. Tampa Bay faces the Dallas Cowboys on Sept. 9 in the first game on the NFL’s 2021 regular-season schedule.
Mark Inabinett is a sports reporter for Alabama Media Group. Follow him on Twitter at @AMarkG1.
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