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Injury analysis: Buffalo Bills TE O.J. Howard

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Tampa Bay Buccaneers v Philadelphia Eagles Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Just when you thought the Buffalo Bills would stay quiet during free agency, they caught everyone by surprise and signed former Tampa Bay Buccaneers TE O.J. Howard to a 1-year, $3.5 million contract Wednesday. Looking to bolster the tight end room, the Bills brought in the veteran on a cheap deal that could pay out exceptionally well for the team.

However, Howard does come to Buffalo with several injury concerns, landing on injured reserve three out of the five seasons of his career so far. Below are all the publicly known injuries for OJ Howard.

Injury History

2017 Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Missed two games. Howard was incredibly productive for a rookie tight end, securing 26 receptions for 432 yards and six TDs. However, his season ended early against the Atlanta Falcons in Week 15 when he suffered a right high-ankle sprain hauling in a 30-yard touchdown. The injury was the result of getting hit from behind, likely pinning his foot to the ground before he twisted outward, causing the injury.

Example of a high-ankle sprain
Research Gate

Considering the Buccaneers went 5-11 that season and there were only two games left, it only made sense to shut Howard down. Had he played, he would not have been effective anyway and could have caused further injury.

2018 Buccaneers

Missed six games. Howard suffered an MCL knee injury, side not specified, in Week 4 against the Chicago Bears. He was set to miss 2-4 weeks but was only questionable for the next game against the Falcons before continuing to play. It’s worth noting that he had the bye week to rehab and recover that season. Despite the injury, he was still incredibly productive, hauling in four touchdowns in the next four games.

Regrettably, Howard’s season ended in Week 11 against the New York Giants with a foot/ankle injury. The specifics and side of the injury are not clear, but some reports indicated it was an ankle injury while the team website reported it was a foot fracture as the result of a tackle.

Details of the injury are not known, but it was severe enough to cost him the six remaining games of the season, landing on injured reserve.

2019 Buccaneers

Missed two games. Despite finishing the season for the first time in his career, Howard still could not avoid injury. He suffered a hamstring strain, side not specified, possibly in Week 6 against the Carolina Panthers. He missed the following two games plus a bye week before returning in Week 10 to secure the only touchdown catch of his season.

2020 Buccaneers

Missed 12 regular-season games, four postseason games for 16 total games missed. He missed a majority of the season with a right Achilles tear suffered against the Los Angeles Chargers in Week 4. Howard admitted that he didn’t even know what happened at the time, telling trainers that someone kicked him while his teammate scored a touchdown. Trainers told him after the fact that no one was around him and the “kick” was his Achilles tearing.

He spent the remainder of the season rehabbing and returned to training camp for the following season, still not 100% according to reports.

2021 Buccaneers

Missed zero games. For the first time in his career, Howard appeared in every regular-season game and two playoff games. The only injury he suffered was an ankle injury in Week 6 against the Philadelphia Eagles. He was questionable for the following week but did not miss any time.

His playing time dropped off considerably once Rob Gronkowski returned from his rib fractures, hitting only a high of 36% of snaps for the remainder of the season.

Buffalo Bills Impact

Despite the Buccaneers picking up Howard’s fifth-year option last year, he either wasn’t worth a contract extension or he wanted to bet on himself on the open market. His career has been relatively lackluster after being a first-round selection in 2017 out of Alabama. However, missing 26 games over four seasons doesn’t exactly inspire confidence to invest money into a player.

Looking at his overall injury history, his career has been marred by foot and ankle injuries with the exception of the hamstring strain in 2019. The hamstring along with the high-ankle sprain isn’t too concerning as he has not had a recurrence upon returning. The foot/ankle injury that was reported as a fracture and the Achilles tear are the big concerns.

Assessing his snap counts, he was a heavy focus of the offense during the first three years of his career. One has to consider if there was a load management issue where his body simply could not keep up with the demands of the season. Yes, some of the injuries were unavoidable such as the high-ankle and the ankle/foot injuries the first two seasons, but still, he was unavailable. Tampa Bay is known as a team to play most of their players despite a questionable designation, which suggests that players may not be getting the full rest they needed to perform.

The biggest concern coming to the Bills is the Achilles injury suffered in 2020. Despite the injury, he managed to play in every game, which was pretty remarkable in itself. Research shows that 61.3 percent of players return to play the following season after an Achilles repair, so Howard already hit one benchmark.

Achilles rupture
Mayo Clinic

Performance following the Achilles repair decreases the following season but appears to rebound the years following the injury. Furthermore, the risk to re-tear is roughly 3-5% on a surgically repaired Achilles tendon. Power ratings following an Achilles repair dropped by 50% and specifically targeted tight ends. The power ratings within the article are a formula designed to determine how productive a player was during that given season. Expectedly, a player coming off an injury may not be as productive due to the lack of either availability or ability. The concern is whether they can increase the power rating in the following seasons.

He was a highly touted draft pick at a position that is notoriously slow to develop. He has had several significant injuries that have stunted his growth along with a ton of mouths to feed in Tampa Bay in recent years. I do have some concern that he will suffer further injury including but not limited to another Achilles rupture, but that re-tear rate is rather low.

Considering the fact that Howard shouldn’t likely be called upon to be TE1 means that the team can focus on load management with him. He can be a big addition to the offense, but not having to play heavy snaps may allow him to stay healthier and be available in key moments.

I fully expect Howard to eclipse his offensive totals from last season of 14 receptions for 135 yards and one touchdown. This addition has the potential to pay dividends if utilized correctly.

Looking at the player as a whole, I like the signing. It’s a low-cost, short-term deal that doesn’t shackle the Bills to something they’ll regret this year or next with a longer-term contract. If he produces, then both parties win. If not, then the Bills can move on without issue. This could be a signing that helps provide that extra wrinkle in the offensive game plan towards getting over the top in 2022.