One of the first people to contact O.J. Howard after the Tampa Bay Buccaneers selected the tight end in the opening round of the NFL draft was an elated Jameis Winston.
From one native of Alabama to another, the Bucs’ young quarterback wanted to welcome the latest addition to what has the potential to be one of the NFL’s most improved offenses next seasons.
“He text me,” an excited Howard said. “He’s a great quarterback, a good guy. … I’m looking forward to playing with him.”
General manager Jason Licht and coach Dirk Koetter both expressed surprise that Howard, who helped Alabama win the national championship two years ago, was still available for Tampa Bay at No. 19 overall Thursday night.
While Howard said his agent projected he’d be selected anywhere between sixth and 20th and “that’s exactly what happened,” Licht referred to the prospect of landing the 6-foot-6, 242-pound tight end as a “pipe dream.”
The GM also heard from Winston.
“I got a text from him with like a million smiley faces,” Lichet said.
Winston threw for more than 4,000 yards each of his first two seasons in the NFL, however the Bucs have struggled to score points.
That’s expected to change with Howard and free agent signee DeSean Jackson joining a passing attack already featuring Pro Bowl receiver Mike Evans and Cameron Brate, whose eight touchdown receptions tied for the league lead among tight ends last season.
While the Bucs went 9-7 in 2016, they missed the playoffs for the ninth consecutive season. They haven’t postseason game since their Super Bowl run 15 years ago.
Licht is in his fourth year of rebuilding the team.
He spent his first two drafts overhauling the offense, including selecting Winston No. 1 overall in 2015, before turning his attention to the defense a year ago, when cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III was taken at No. 11 and pass rusher Noah Spence followed in the second round.
Running back remains a priority in later rounds, considering two-time Pro Bowl selection Doug Martin missed most of last season because of injuries and a suspension that extends three games into next season for violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs.
Martin was the NFL’s second-leading rusher two years ago. Without him, an inconsistent running game contributed to a slow start the Bucs were unable to overcome last season, when they won six of their last eight games to climb into playoff contention.
In selecting Howard, who had 45 receptions for 595 yards and three TDs as a senior at Alabama, the Bucs passed on an opportunity to select Florida State running back Dalvin Cook, Winston’s former college teammate.
The tight Alabama win a national championship two years ago. The Crimson Tide made it back to the title game — played in Tampa in the Buccaneers’ stadium — last season, but lost to Clemson.
Howard had a combined nine catches for 314 yards and three TDs in those games.
“He’s played big in big games,” Licht said, “and that’s huge.”.
The Bucs are scheduled to have two picks on Friday — No. 50 and 84 overall. In addition to running back, safety and defensive end are positions of need.