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Can Bills unlock O.J. Howard's gifts? They're giving it best shot


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It’s easy to see why the Buffalo Bills’ coaches think O.J. Howard could be a versatile chess piece in the offense this season.

Asked what he thinks of his role so far in training camp, the big tight end said:

“Being ready to be able to do more than one position is what I've noticed. That everybody has to be in different positions at any time and be able to play any position on the offense. So that's really what I noticed and just being able to be utilized in all areas of offense so you can always get utilized, so that's what I've learned the most really.”

Howard is lining up all over the offense, and he’s hard to miss because he’s a giant at 6-foot-5¾ and 251 pounds.

Can the Bills unlock more of the obvious talent in the former first-round draft pick from the University of Alabama?

It is a question that is uncertain, and fans probably are not going to learn the answer until the regular season gets rolling.

The Bills used two-tight end formations, with one running back and two wide receivers, on just 6.5% of snaps last season, according to Buffalo News charting. That’s arguably a couple of percentage points low, because there were some plays on which fullback Reggie Gilliam lined up like a tight end or H-back. Still, it was less than half the league average of 20 percent, according to Football Outsiders, for 12 personnel.

The Bills are not going to veer away from their strength – the three wide receiver set, which they ran 70% last year, and which by far represents the majority personnel group in the NFL. (The league average is 60%).

Still, the potential is there for more two-tight end sets. A little more diversity is good, if the talent on the field justifies the strategy.

Howard had a relatively quiet first week of camp. He has shown flashes of his talent. He had a good day Monday. Howard ran a sharp route and used his body on cornerback Cam Lewis to catch a 9-yard pass from Case Keenum. He caught a pass of at least 25 yards from Josh Allen, who led him perfectly over the middle for a good run after the catch.

“I think Josh did a great job of slowing me down,” Howard said. “I guess he saw the backside safety, he pulled me up that allowed me to read the defense when I caught it and cut back. So that was really all him. That was the route, but the quarterback did a great job of pulling me up.”

Howard also has used his big body a couple times to help shield defenders and let running backs gain the edge on run plays. One reason to use two tight ends is to exploit smaller personnel when the defense keeps five defensive backs on the field.

Howard ran a blazing 4.51-second time in the 40-yard dash coming out of college, which easily is in the top 5 percentile for the position. Bills starter Dawson Knox ran 4.59 coming out of Ole Miss, also an outstanding time.

The 6-4 Knox looks like a more explosive player running routes, and he’s the unquestioned No. 1 for the Bills. Knox can’t help be impressed by Howard’s body.

“He’s a freak athlete, first of all,” Knox said. “He makes me feel small. The dude’s like 6-6, his arms are massive. Just having another weapon like that is going to make us that much harder to stop. I think he’s just going to push me to be better, too. ... It’s going to be fun to bring us in, run the ball some, spread us out, get matchups on linebackers. It’s just an extra piece that’s going to be a nightmare to defend for a defense.”

Howard said his mission in spring was learning the offense.

“I think for sure OTAs helped a lot,” he said. “That was the biggest thing for me, that I went there early and got a chance to go to all the OTAs and learn the offense. And then coming out of training camp, taking a couple of weeks off, you kind of lose a little bit. But then two days in, you're like, 'Oh yeah, I remember that.' Then just the little details and it allows me to play fast. So yeah, I'm picking it up for sure.”

He said playing with Tom Brady in Tampa last season helped his acclimation in Buffalo. The Bills’ offensive structure was created by Brian Daboll, who comes from the New England/Brady system.

“I'll say it in the meetings all the time to my coach. We talk about it that way because that's what helped me learn it quick," he said of the carryover. "You know, 'Oh, this this is what Tom was talking about.' The terminology is different, but it’s the same concepts. I think that really helped me the most. Just understanding sometimes who you're trying to get open or what read are you in that concept, so it definitely helped a lot.”

Howard caught 34 passes in both 2018 and 2019 for Tampa. He missed almost all of the 2020 season with a torn Achilles tendon. He came back last year and essentially was the No. 3 tight end behind Rob Gronkowski and Cameron Brate. He had 14 catches on just 21 targets.

Knox caught 49 passes last year. If Knox stays healthy, Howard is not catching 40 passes this year. The Bills have too many other weapons at receiver and running back.

If Howard catches 25 – Brate had 30 for the Bucs last season -- that would mean the Bills are using the two-tight-end set more and adding versatility to the offense.

“We’re trying to figure out what guys do best and we’ll try to maximize them and use them as much as possible,” offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey said. “We’re still working through it, it’s early.

“I love O.J. I’m glad he’s here, and I think he's going to continue to grow in our offense,” Dorsey said. “The more comfortable he gets, the faster he’s going to play and the more physical he’s going to play. And I’m excited with the direction he’s going.”***

The Bills held a walk-through session Wednesday that was closed to fans and media. The team practices at 9:45 a.m. Thursday at St. John Fisher. Friday’s 5:30 p.m. practice at Highmark Stadium is sold out.

“There he goes. One of God's own prototypes.

A high-powered mutant of some kind, never even considered for mass production.

Too weird to live, and too rare to die.”


Twitter: @HKTheResistance


HipKat, on *** other h***, is genuine, unapoli***tically nasty, and w**** his hea** on his ******. jc856

I’ll just forward them to Bridgett. comssvet11

Seek help. soflabillsfan

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