Tampa Bay Buccaneers

How Mike Evans Has Quickly Become One of the NFL's Most Dominant Young WRs

GLENDALE, AZ - SEPTEMBER 18:  Wide receiver Mike Evans #13 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during the NFL game against the Arizona Cardinals at the University of Phoenix Stadium on September 18, 2016 in Glendale, Arizona. The Cardinals defeated the Buccaneers  40-7.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Sean TomlinsonNFL AnalystDecember 6, 2016

Mike Evans is still a pup in his NFL career.

Yes, he's among the tallest breeds and the Great Dane of his position. But as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver nears the end of his third season, he's all of 23 years old.

Evans isn't remotely close to entering his prime years let alone peaking. Those days are far on the horizon.

Which is why as he pairs with quarterback Jameis Winston to drag the Bucs offense out of a crater and Tampa Bay as a whole into playoff contention, it can be startling to remind yourself that Evans is going to keep growing as a receiver.

It's a realization that could make even the most physical defensive backs stockpile frozen peas to soothe their Sunday wounds. He's developed in 2016 by striking more fear in the minds and hearts of those assigned to contain the 6'5", 231-pounder.

Evans has helped the Bucs to four straight wins by using more than his size, catch radius and red-zone steadiness, though he has plenty of all three. The main source of his rapid improvement isn't a skill that's resulted in a rising number. Instead, this particular digit has fallen as Evans floats to the top tiers of his position.

We know Evans is a massive bundle of leaping bulk, and blending that with his 4.53-second speed in the 40-yard dash makes him an athletic marvel. But the many preseason claims that Evans was a prime breakout candidate—you know, the ones written by everyone with access to a keyboard, including your pet duck—came with an important caveat.

He had to remove the butter from his hands.

Some of Evans' drops can be tolerated as a consequence of his high-volume workload. But that tolerance reached its peak in 2015, when he was among the leaders in a receiving stat that shows you're not, well, doing enough receiving.

2015 Drops Leaders
ReceiverDropsDrop Rate
Amari Cooper1820.7
Mike Evans1416.1
Demaryius Thomas1210.5
Brandon Marshall119.2
Randall Cobb1011.2
Julio Jones106.8
Source: Pro Football Focus

Evans dropped 16.1 percent of the 87 catchable balls thrown at him in 2015, according to Pro Football Focus. That resulted in a mix of frustration and encouragement from those brimming with optimism.

It actually didn't take much reaching to be in the latter group there—the one filled with positive vibes about a receiver who's still maturing. Those rosy thoughts sprouted from how Evans' sophomore season ended.

Even with those drops that at times made Tampa Bay fans invent new, colorful adult language, and even with the yards he left on the field, Evans was still only just shy of being a top-10 receiver, finishing 11th in the league with 1,206 receiving yards.

Evans' games filled with drops would also be sprinkled with long receptions. The height of that phenomenon occurred against the New York Giants in Week 9, when Evans dropped five balls yet still finished with 150 receiving yards.

"They came in bunches, and they came from frustration," Bucs offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach Todd Monken said. "He's a prideful guy, and he wants to be a great player. That's half the battle. You've got the God-given talent, and the guys before me have coached him well. So he has the really great skill set, but he allowed things to snowball."

It was all a little maddening and showed just how sky-high Evans' ceiling would be if he could make even a marginal pass-catching improvement.

Let's check in on him through 12 games in 2016 and see where his drops fall on the manageable-or-maddening scale.

Evans' Drops Over Past 2 Seasons
YearDropsCatchable BallsDrop Rate
2015148716.1
20166827.3
Source: Pro Football Focus

With four games remaining, Evans is already approaching his 2015 total for catchable targets. He also leads the league in targets with 133, which is well clear of the Pittsburgh Steelers' Antonio Brown (124).

Evans is averaging 11.1 targets per game, putting him on pace to have 177 balls thrown in his direction. That would shatter his previous single-season target high of 146 in 2015. Yet the significant increase in what the Bucs are asking forand desperately needfrom Evans hasn't pulled his drops total up in equal measure.

In fact, the opposite has happened, with Evans' drop rate down by more than half.

That far exceeds the preseason caveat for all Evans breakout predictions. A moderate improvement as a pure pass-catcher would have been sufficient because of Evans' targets and the chunk yardage he's able to collect even while dropping balls. But he's gone way beyond the minimum.

How has he done it? Through maturity, according to his teammate and fellow rising receiver Adam Humphries. And through dedication to the hard work of nailing down the intricacies of his position.

Evans has averaged 15.2 yards per reception over nearly three seasons and 42 NFL games.
Evans has averaged 15.2 yards per reception over nearly three seasons and 42 NFL games.Jason Behnken/Associated Press/Associated Press

"He's greatly improved as a pass-catcher," Humphries said. "Our new receivers coach and offensive coordinator Todd Monken has really done a good job in that department. The No. 1 priority for us and our job is simply catching the football, and the quickest way to get fired is drops.

"We stay after practice for 20-30 minutes every day catching balls at different angles and working on different types of catches, whether they're low, high or behind you. There are all sorts of things we do to perfect our craft, and I think Mike has really taken that process to heart.

"The more balls you catch, the more confident you'll be on game day. That's one thing you see out of Mike this year. He just has unbelievable confidence. Every ball that comes his way, he's coming down with it."

Monken agreed, saying it's easy to detect a renewed air of confidence about Evans. Most importantly, he said, Evans has overcome the mental hurdles that can be challenging for young receivers.

"He has enough belief and faith in himself to know that, sure, he's still going to drop a ball every now and then, but now it's easier to move on," Monken said. "Pass-catching often ends up being the least of what you spend time on all the way through your development as a young receiver. A lot of times you need to catch balls on your own and watch film on your own. Then you need to take things from the film room and what we talk about on the practice field and work the muscle memory of routes and hand placement when you're catching."

"You have to be willing to do that. You have to put in the time, because that's what will make the difference. Mike has done that. He's embraced everything. When you ask him to do seemingly minuscule, junior high-feeling things that allow him to get better as a player, he doesn't frown upon it, whereas some guys would."

That confidence has been matchup-proof, too, even when Evans is standing across from one of the league's premier shutdown cornerbacks.

The Galveston, Texas, native posted back-to-back 100-yard receiving games in Weeks 11 and 12, and the second came against the Seattle Seahawks' Richard Sherman. The Pro Bowl cornerback entered that game with only a 47.6 passer rating allowed in coverage, per PFF. Then Evans lit him up on his way to 104 yards on eight catches.

Sherman's passer rating allowed in that game was 125.8, which included being victimized by Evans' Spiderman ways on this touchdown grab:

Credit: NFL GamePass

That was one of Evans' two touchdown receptions not just in the game but also in the opening quarter.

His leaping, sprawling grab over Sherman after winning a physical battle to get separation was actually lower on Evans' personal difficulty scale. He's made hard catches look like backyard shenanigans and impossible catches look routine.

A Week 9 one-handed snatch against the Atlanta Falcons fell into the latter category. Winston's aim wasn't true on a deep sideline route, and the ball drifted behind Evans, whose momentum took him away from the laser-beamed hunk of oblong leather.

A catch didn't seem possible—unless it was going to be made by an equipment manager on the sideline. But Evans had other ideas.

Defending Evans requires a delicate balance between being physical and not too physical. Denver Broncos cornerback Chris Harris Jr. is familiar with walking that tightrope.

His secondary is one of only three this season to hold Evans to fewer than 60 receiving yards in a game. Evans finished with five receptions for 59 yards during a 27-7 Broncos win in Week 4.

"He's physical and loves contact," Harris said. "A lot of receivers don't like contact, but he's a guy who wants it. He wants the cornerback to be overly physical on him so he can return that.

"Most receivers don't like to have press coverage every time. But he wants you to press him. On his release, he'll try to pull you through. So that can be tough for a smaller corner to defend once they grab him.

"My approach was that if I pressed him, I didn't want to be overly physical. I tried to stay arm's length from him. I wanted to press him and be up there on the line on him but not overly physical so that he could use his physical abilities on me."

Harris had a sound fundamental approach, and his strategy has surely been repeated in some form most weeks. But like many plans, this one is much easier in theory than in practice because of Evans' aerial acrobatics.

He's been there for the Buccaneers repeatedly during critical moments. Like that one-handed wizardry against the Falcons, when they needed to ignite a possible late-game comeback. The Bucs still lost, but Evans finished with season highs in catches (11) and yards (150) and two touchdowns.

That was the Bucs' most recent loss, and it came five games ago in early November. They're now 7-5 and tied for the NFC South lead.

They've knocked off two likely playoff-bound teams since then. Evans sealed one of those wins, a 19-17 victory at the Kansas City Chiefs, with a diving 14-yard catch on 3rd-and-3 with just over two minutes remaining.

He's the ideal receiver cocktail. His routes are getting crisper, he separates at the top of them with speed and he provides a consistent comfort during game-changing and chain-moving moments.

In just 42 career games, Evans has scored 25 times. That's tied for third among wide receivers since he entered the league in 2014, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com.

His clutch nature gets better. Those end-zone catches are sexy because scoring points is pretty important. But advancing into scoring range is sort of a big deal too, and getting fresh sets of downs sure helps.

As Ira Kaufman of JoeBucsFan.com noted, all but 11 of Evans' catches through Week 12 resulted in first downs. That's well ahead of the pack:

Evans is just the fourth player in NFL history to record 1,000 receiving yards in each of his first three seasons, according to ESPN Stats & Info. That puts his name alongside John Jefferson, Randy Moss and the Cincinnati Bengals' A.J. Green.

He's been that damn good. This season, he's second in the league with 1,058 receiving yards. Evans has especially sizzled since the Bucs' Week 6 bye, averaging 87 yards per game with six touchdowns in seven games.

That's the production of a receiver who's diligently worked to fix a flaw in his game. Remember, Evans focused on basketball until his senior year of high school.

"I always tell him, 'I think you want to be known for being more than just a guy with size and wingspan,'" Monken said. "I think he wants to be known as a guy who's among the best in the world at route running, contested catches, runs after the catch and all those things.

"I've coached other guys with talent, and they didn't aspire to do those things—or didn't put in the time."

Evans' height and basketball background have always dominated descriptions of his game. But he needed to get rid of the drops to become a smoother pass-catcher and climb the next stair on his ascent up the league's wide receiver tiers.

Now, he seems ready to form one half of the Bucs' offensive battery alongside Winston. They'll grow together—and likely keep winning together.

  

All quotes obtained by the author.

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