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O.J. Howard shining at Bucs camp, gaining confidence alongside Gronkowski

Read any roundup of reporter notes from Tampa Bay Buccaneers practice to open training camp, and they'll include some version of "O.J. Howard is a standout."

The uber-athletic first-round tight end has been a star of camp, making highlight-reel catches, and impressing reporters, teammates and coaches alike.

During his first three seasons, Howard didn't live up to his pre-draft billing coming out of Alabama. He's compiled just 1,456 total yards and 12 TDs in three seasons, suffering from bouts of inconsistent play and dealt with injuries.

This offseason, the Bucs imported Tom Brady's favorite target, Rob Gronkowski, luring one of the greatest tight ends in NFL history out of retirement for another go with TB12. Howard doesn't view the addition as a threat to his future.

"We've got a room full of talent, mismatches, guys all over the board," Howard said, via the Tampa Bay Times. "I think coach (Bruce Arians) and Byron (Leftwich) are going to do a great job of just putting us in positions to make plays."

The Bucs are expected to run plenty of 12 personnel (1 running back, 2 tight ends) this season with a combination of Howard, Gronk and Cameron Brate, particularly in the red-zone area.

In the nascent days of training camp, Howard has noticed how good the Bucs offense can be with the diversity each brings to the table.

"Just being on the field with (Gronkowski), us together has been a big mismatch," Howard said. "It's hard to cover a lot of guys like that when we're on the field together. It's just hard to stop that. It's going to open up a lot of things for everyone, and I think it should be real fun."

When the Bucs signed Gronk, the assumption was that they could look to trade Howard, whose fifth-year option for 2021 was picked up. No trade came to fruition, leaving Tampa with a glut of talent at the position.

According to Arians, Brady and Gronk have improved Howard's confidence heading into a pivotal Year 4.

"I think the trade talk was outside the building," Arians said. "I never talked to him about it. All I talked to him about was getting better, and he was going to be here for a while and believe it. I think with Tom helping him confidence-wise and watching Gronk work, they've been a good combination helping each other."

Whether the hype extends into the season remains to be seen. The Bucs have a lot of mouths to feed in what should be an explosive offense. How big a role Howard will play will be determined early in the season.

"I think O.J. is playing at an extremely high level right now and I would not expect to see any kind of dropoff, only continued growth," Arians said.

If the growth tails off, or if Howard goes from camp standout to regular-season afterthought, the trade chatter could return closer to the deadline.

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