That sound you hear is countless media and NFL scouts falling over themselves to shoot Texas A&M wide receiver Mike Evans up their draft boards.
Following a combine in which Evans measured in at 6'5", 231 lbs. and then managed to run a 4.53 40-yard dash, ears have perked up a bit. Add in a 37-inch vertical, and one can imagine the salivating that is coming from both offensive coordinators and quarterbacks around the league.
Evans is a weapon—a weapon every team could use.
NFL news aggregator Rotoworld pointed out on March 3 that Evans had jumped from No. 14 to No. 7 on NFL Network's Daniel Jeremiah's big board. On ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper's, he leapt from No. 15 to No. 6. While that's not necessarily a prediction that Evans goes in the top 10, it does mean that he probably starts to be in the conversation.
Assuming that Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins goes first among receivers, Evans may not need to wait that long after. What Evans was able to accomplish at the combine, although he did not leapfrog Watkins, was to close the gap a bit and widen the gap between him and Watkins and the rest of the field. Regardless of who your No. 3 receiver is—be it Florida State's Kelvin Benjamin, LSU's Odell Beckham Jr., USC's Marqise Lee or someone else—one would be hard-pressed to make the case they're a better prospect than Evans.
When I spoke to Evans earlier in the draft process, he believed wholeheartedly that he was the best receiver in the class. He highlighted his basketball background, his work ethic and his blocking as reasons he's the best, but throughout the process, many have wondered if he was enough of an athlete to truly flourish at the next level.
The other thing Evans made clear at the combine—through his testing and workouts—was that he is the perfect receiver for the next generation of NFL offenses.
One of my pet projects is the evolution of NFL football and the constant back-and-forth between offensive schemes and the defenses meant to stop them. Coaches and teams that stay ahead of that curve tend to be the most successful (see: Bill Belichick; Pete Carroll). Those that lag behind or stay mired in decades-old schemes often find themselves watching the playoffs from their couches (see: Leslie Frazier, Dallas Cowboys).
One of the biggest changes in NFL offenses in recent years is the opening up of the playbook to incorporate numerous ideologies. One of the harbingers of this was former Washington coach Mike Shanahan, who married the West Coast passing he learned under Bill Walsh to a zone-blocking scheme that was nigh unstoppable at that point in the NFL's history.
Shanahan did a similar "trick" when Washington brought in Robert Griffin III and married its playbook with a Baylor-style Air Raid scheme suitable to RGIII's skill set. Yet, in 2013, it was a stubborn move to take those Air Raid principals back out of the playbook and shoehorn RGIII into a West Coast style he wasn't ready for in that largely deep-sixed the Washington offense.
One cursory look around the league finds playbooks built around a solid philosophical foundation, yes, but nearly every playbook will contain principles from the West Coast, spread, Air Coryell, Air Raid and other myriad other offensive styles that decades ago never would have been mixed.
Defenses are in much the same boat as more and more teams look to hybrid fronts—mixing 3-4 and 4-3 principles—and just about every team realizes it will spend most of its snaps in nickel and dime packages. So, well-rounded safeties have become a must have, and the desire for bigger defensive backs (in order to press successfully and have enough time to rush only four) has reached record highs thanks to the Seattle Seahawks' Super Bowl victory.
Where Evans fits into this whole evolutionary progression is pretty clear.
As those defensive backs get bigger, offensive players will find it hard to out-jump and out-battle for many passes. In many instances, a smaller receiver can be markedly faster, but giving up two to three inches of height can be an awfully simple equalizer by the time the ball gets to the target. Add in the ability to press and utilize better safety play over the top, and eventually teams need to win a few jump balls if they want to move the ball down the field.
The Chicago Bears and Marc Trestman understand this full well, building their offense around two immense receivers in Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery. It's worth noting that many had concerns about Jeffery's athleticism in college as well—concerns he quickly dispelled on Sunday afternoons.
Bigger receivers won't always gain the separation of their smaller, faster counterparts. However, there's something to be said about the ability to play with a defender close to you (or "on your hip," in scouting parlance). Some receivers thrive with little to no separation because of their ability to track the ball and go up and get it at its highest point.
Evans is one of those receivers. Yet, physical size isn't the only positive.
Evans is well versed in Kevin Sumlin's Texas A&M Air Raid-style offense. While, once upon a time, that would've been a negative for any offensive player (remember the countless prospects out of Mike Leach's Texas Tech program?), it is now a plus as NFL offenses are looking more and more like Sumlin's every day.
Wide receiver screens, four verticals and crossing routes? Those aren't "niche" principles anymore. Those are bread-and-butter plays for some teams against certain matchups. While even receivers from "pro style" college offenses are running those plays themselves, Evans has undergone an indoctrination that will serve him well at the next level.
Don't consider it chance, or mere bravado, that Evans played up his blocking ability. For many receivers, blocking is just an effort thing or an extra trait one might bring to the table. Even tight ends, recently, have been far more prized for their receiving ability than for their blocking.
Yet, when Evans says he's a good blocker, offensive coaches around the league envision him lining up at X and cracking a defensive back to allow the slot receiver to break free on a screen pass. Better yet, they might dream about him down the field, pancaking a safety after a vertical route allowed a wide-open swing pass to the running back.
Sumlin's offense—much like offenses across the NFL—spreads the field horizontally. The perimeter is no longer the perimeter; it's very often where the most action happens. To have a versatile playmaker like Evans who can win in a number of ways is an absolute must.
NFL teams are not going to look at Evans and see "just another receiver." No, Evans is going to go in the top half of the first round because he can do things that no other player in this class can do. Namely, he can do exactly what teams are looking for in the modern NFL offense.
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