"I'm going to play my ass off for you and do whatever it takes to win."
That's former Texas A&M wide receiver Mike Evans and his elevator pitch to NFL teams.
Following a stellar season for the Aggies alongside mercurial passer Johnny Manziel, Evans declared early for the 2014 NFL draft, and many consider him one of the top available receivers.
"Many," of course, doesn't include Evans, who has that prototypical wide receiver confidence. When asked why he should be the first receiver taken, Evans' reply was simple: "I'm the best receiver in the draft."
Not "one of the best," not anywhere close to No. 2—simply the "best," better than all the rest.
It's taken a lot to get to that mountaintop.
Evans' father, Mickey, was murdered in 2002, when Evans was only nine years old. He describes the time as when he first started to love football and its ability to help him cope with the tragedy.
"When my dad died, I was nine years old and it was my first year playing football," Evans said. "He taught me a lot about football and died during the season. I [had been] playing just to play. After he died, I started getting passionate about it."
Evans kept that love of football but found that he also had considerable talents on the basketball court.
During high school, Evans actually gave up football for a time to focus on basketball, which seemed to hold a better chance of getting him into college. Evans compared himself to current Oklahoma State guard Marcus Smart, whom he competed against in high school, calling himself a do-it-all player who "could've gone to college for it."
In fact, ESPN still has its basketball recruiting page up for Evans (paid link). It lists schools like Wichita State, Auburn and Texas Tech as possible destinations along with giving Evans a grade of 77 (1-star). It goes on to describe him in this way:
He has a strong motor, great athleticism and true toughness...Mike rebounds the ball with two hands and is quick off the floor to grab rebounds in traffic. Mike is typically the first to jump in a crowd for a rebound...Mike has good hands and can catch tough passes in traffic and go up off the vertical and slam it home with two hands...Mike is also a big time football recruit as a wide receiver.
Missing from the profile, however, is Evans' biggest offer, which—according to Kate Hairopoulos of the Dallas Morning News—came from the in-state Texas Longhorns. Evans had already committed to the Aggies to play football, though, and stuck with them. Still, it should be noted that as a senior high-school basketball player, Evans averaged 18.3 points, 8.4 rebounds and 5.2 assists per game.
Compare that to his senior year of football, and one might not immediately see why he stuck with the more oblong ball. He only caught 26 passes in his one year of varsity football. Yet those 26 passes went for almost 750 yards and seven touchdowns.
Much like during his time at Texas A&M, coaches weren't exactly sure where Evans would end up on the football field as his body continued to mature. His high school coach, David Suggs, said this, via Mark Passwaters of Rivals.com:
I'm not sure if he's going to be a big wide receiver or a defensive back, or a tight end/H-back type. He's a tall kid and he's going to put on a lot of weight quickly once he gets into a college strength program.
Oh, did Evans grow.
Listed at 180 pounds on his ESPN.com football recruiting page, Evans had to "bulk up" according to every recruiting site in the nation. He's now over 200 pounds. His only other offer, according to Scout.com, came from Tulane. Because of his slight size, he redshirted his first year in College Station.
Asked what he learned from his time on the hardwood, Evans said, "Quickness," adding, "If you watch, a lot of times I'll post up my defender to make the catch." Those aren't just basketball skills, but basketball skills that often serve NFL wide receivers well.
Evans plays a lot of pickup basketball to this day, often teaming with Manziel—according to the Dallas Morning News, he likens their pairing to "LeBron (James) and Dwyane Wade." He's still clearly got some skills.
As he prepares for the NFL, he's been working with Hall of Fame wide receiver James Lofton at Whitfield Athletix in San Diego. Evans tells me that Lofton has been preaching that the difference between college and the NFL is that "everybody's good, and every inch of separation matters."
As he matured into the offense at Texas A&M, Evans learned more and more routes. More importantly, as he recovered from a leg injury during his freshman year, he couldn't run the longer routes.
"My first year, I was hurt so I ran a lot of stop routes," Evans said. "This year, I could take the top off, so I ran a lot of posts and nines (go routes)."
He knows, though, that the route running in the NFL needs to be at a whole new level and expressed interest in moving around, playing in the slot and learning the whole route tree in order to help his team win at the next level. He also admitted that the offense at Texas A&M was limited from a route standpoint, "but we were effective because we played so fast."
In a fantastic draft profile, Bleacher Report's Dan Hope broke down Evans' game in this way:
Combining his measurable length with great vertical leaping ability, Evans can win jump-ball situations against almost any opponent. He does a great job of attacking the football in the air, and he has strong hands to secure possession even when he takes a hit.
Body control is another one of Evans’ best traits. He has already shown on many occasions in his collegiate career how he can adjust to the ball in midair to make a tough catch, while he also does a good job of getting a foot in bounds when he is held tight to the sideline.
That body control is something I've watched and admired, repeatedly, when it comes to Evans' play. When we talk receivers, separation is often thought about as being important only when going vertically down the field. Evans, while he has speed (he plans to run below 4.50 seconds in the 40-yard dash at the combine), is more adept at creating separation vertically in the air. With exceptional ability to high-point the ball, a defender can be on his hip and Evans can still make plays.
I'd much rather have Mike Evans over Kelvin Benjamin if I'm looking for a box-out WR. Not even close in my opinion.— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) January 10, 2014
Chicago Bears wide receiver Alshon Jeffery has flourished in the NFL with that ability. Former Dallas Cowboys receiver Michael Irvin made a Hall of Fame career out of it. Evans, without outright comparing him to Irvin, has similar ability.
I couldn't get Evans off the boilerplate draft-prospect answer when it came to which team he could see himself fitting the best on or which offense he would be most excited to play in. Most prospects answer, wisely, that they would be happy to play anywhere. Evans did admit that his favorite player is Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning and that he likens himself to Chicago Bears wide receiver Brandon Marshall.
Got to see #Texas A&M WR Mike Evans train this wk in CA. Knew he was tough & had good hands. Didn't realize he had so much explosiveness.— Bruce Feldman (@BFeldmanCBS) January 18, 2014
Repeatedly, Evans highlighted his blocking skills and called himself the best blocking receiver in the draft. It's interesting, because blocking isn't something that necessarily makes a receiver stand out among his peers. It is, however, something NFL teams need to win football games (ask the Broncos post-Super Bowl).
Evans, at his most honest, isn't worried about what he has to do to stand out against Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins or any other prospect in May's upcoming draft. No, he thinks it's a given that he's going to be the best receiver in this draft class. Instead, he's hyping up what he's going to do to help a team win once he's playing on Sundays.
That's the Evans everybody knows, though. "Good kid" is the term bandied about in scouting circles regarding his demeanor and character. He wants to buy his mom a car with his first NFL paycheck. He's a bit quiet with the media. He is unassuming and mostly lets his play do the talking.
He's got a couple of tattoos, yeah, but one is in memory of his father and the second is his daughter's name. He credits her birth with helping him grow up off the field as much as he's grown up on it.
It's a long road to the NFL, and Evans has been as circuitous and winding as anyone's. Most of the time he was on it, he didn't even realize where he was headed. Now, however, his focus is single-minded and razor-sharp.
The draft will reveal if NFL teams agree with Evans that he's the best receiver in his class, but he leaves little doubt that he not only believes in his ability, but that he'll do absolutely everything within his power to make sure he achieves that goal.
Michael Schottey is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff on his archive page and follow him on Twitter. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand.