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Turmoil and Triumph: How Mike Evans Has Emerged as the NFL's Next Great Receiver

Sean Jensen@seankjensenSpecial to Bleacher ReportNovember 28, 2014

David Manning/USA Today

He didn't make the catch of the season. He didn't even make the second-best catch of the season. Those grabs, so far, belong to rookie wide receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and Sammy Watkins, respectively.

He wasn't picked before Watkins, and based on the sentiment of some fans and analysts, he shouldn't have been picked seventh overall in the 2014 NFL draft by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers over his Texas A&M teammate Johnny Manziel.

But Mike Evans is used to defying doubters and overcoming challenges.

Evans' father was murdered in 2002. He survived a car crash in 2013, despite being ejected from his Jeep because he wasn't wearing a seatbelt. And his youth—he turned 21 in August—and NFL history at his position conspired to limit his impact as a rookie on a bad football team.

Yet, entering the final five games of the regular season, Evans is posting the best statistics of any wide receiver from one of the most celebrated rookie receiver classes ever, and he is drawing comparisons to legends both past and present, such as Randy Moss and Calvin Johnson.

CLEVELAND, OH - NOVEMBER 2: Wide receiver Mike Evans #13 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers catches a touchdown pass while under pressure from cornerback Buster Skrine #22 of the Cleveland Browns during the second half at FirstEnergy Stadium on November 2, 2014
Jason Miller/Getty Images

"I'm not surprised by how I'm performing," Evans told Bleacher Report. "I'm a confident guy.

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"But it's surreal to hear my name called in the same breath as Randy Moss, my favorite receiver," Evans added. "That's the cool thing about having some success."

Evans' emergence, though, has surprised many, including Terry Petteway, who stepped in to mold him into a man after his father's death.

"I knew he could get here," Petteway says, "but I'm surprised that he's done this well.

"The best way to get something out of (Mike) was tell him what he can't do."

Man in the making

Mickey Evans gifted his passion for football to his eight-year-old son.

"He was around his daddy a lot," says Petteway, Mike's first football coach. "His daddy liked to brag and show him off when he was a nobody."

Mike immediately clicked with Petteway's son Terran, forging a brotherly bond that endures to this day.

Terry coached football and basketball, serving as a male mentor to many of the boys on his teams. A father of three boys, Terry embraced that role.

"The good thing about it is, I have a wife that supported me in doing this, trying to save some of these young men," Terry said. "I wanted to give help give them opportunities for success. That's what it's all about."

There was a sudden void in Mike's life when, in the fourth grade, his father was murdered, the result of a "dispute," according to The Tampa Tribune. Just days later, Mike's mother, Heather Kilgore, called Terry.

Could he look after Mike and provide a masculine presence in her son's life?

It wasn't a long conversation.

"Without a doubt," Terry recalls, "I would be there for him."

Terry was admittedly "very, very concerned" about how Mike would act in the wake of his father's death. So he was mindful to keep Mike around him and Terran as much as possible.

It's such willful acts of love that get Mike to speak so affectionately about Terry.

Terran Petteway
Terran PettewayEric Francis/Getty Images

"He's like a father figure to me," Mike says quietly. "When my dad passed away, he was a big role model for me. He taught me everything. I can't even think about it because it's so much."

Terry, a Galveston County constable, modeled how a man should serve his family and community, and he disciplined and pushed Mike in school and in sports, just like he did with Terran.

By the 7th grade, Mike and Terran were weight training with Terry and his adult friends. Terry acknowledges he sometimes talked "crazy" to the boys he mentored and coached. And even as the boys won tournaments and titles, Terry constantly set the bar higher and higher.

No wonder Mike shined at Texas A&M, where he caught 151 passes for 2,499 yards and 17 touchdowns in just two seasons. And no wonder Terran is averaging 21 points per game for the University of Nebraska basketball team.

"One of the things, between Mike and Terran, no one ever believes in them," Terry said. "If they do something good, people think it's a fluke."

Making an impact

LANDOVER, MD - NOVEMBER 16:  Wide receiver Mike Evans #13 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers celebrates after catching a third quarter touchdown against the Washington Redskins at FedExField on November 16, 2014 in Landover, Maryland.  (Photo by Mitchell Layton/
Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

After the Bucs went 4-12 in 2013, the Glazer family gutted the team's coaching and scouting staffs. The Greg Schiano experiment didn't even last two full years, and the Bucs entrusted the rebuilding of the franchise to veteran NFL head coach Lovie Smith and veteran personnel executive Jason Licht.

Fully grasping the significance of the seventh overall pick, Licht said he expected one key characteristic of the player they would select.

"The guy has to have mental toughness," the Bucs general manager said. "Someone who can go through the peaks and valleys."

That's why Smith later called Evans a "unanimous" choice.

The Bucs have shuffled different quarterbacks through the lineup, and there's uncertainty at the position beyond this season. But, with the exception of a 48-17 thrashing from the Baltimore Ravens on Oct. 12, the Bucs have been competitive in their nine losses.

Evans, meanwhile, has steadily improved, both in his development and his production. In his first NFL game, he finished with five catches for 37 yards, and he scored his first touchdown in a 27-24 upset of the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sept. 28.

He didn't top 100 receiving yards in a single game until November, though.

Since then, he's been on a roll, catching 24 passes for 505 yards and six touchdowns in his last four games.

There are some notable receiver classes: 1985 featured Jerry Rice, Andre Reed and Al Toon; 1988 included Michael Irvin, Tim Brown and Sterling Sharpe; and 1996 boasted Marvin Harrison, Keyshawn Johnson, Terrell Owens and Joe Horn, among others.

The 2014 receiver class is already in that conversation.

Watkins (fourth), Evans (seventh), Beckham (12th), Brandin Cooks (20th), Kelvin Benjamin (28th), Jordan Matthews (42nd), Allen Robinson (61st), Jarvis Landry (63rd) and John Brown (91st) all have at least 450 receiving yards, and Martavis Bryant (118th) already has six touchdowns for the Steelers.

This is the first NFL season that has had five rookies reaching 500 receiving yards through 10 weeks, according to USA Today, and the class is on pace to top 1986, when Bill Brooks and Ernest Givins both exceeded 1,000 receiving yards as rookies.

But Evans leads all rookies in receiving yards (841), is tied for most receiving touchdowns (eight) and is second in catches (49). In Week 11, Evans became the youngest player in league history to surpass 200 yards receiving in one game.

Evans, though, wouldn't allow stats to determine the success of his season. His goals: start every game, help the Bucs make the playoffs and win Rookie of the Year.

Only the latter is attainable now.

"Stats don't define me," Evans says. "As long as I'm running my routes at full speed, and being a dominant blocker in the run game, then that's a good game to me."

Those are among the lessons he learned during the offseason, directly from great receivers like James Lofton and Brandon Marshall, and indirectly from his favorite of all time, Randy Moss.

Evans recently watched ESPN's 30 for 30 special titled, "Rand University," which centered on Moss. The hour-long documentary inspired him.

"Don't let your opportunities slip away," Evans says. "(Moss) was a couple of chances away from being—in my eyes—the greatest receiver ever. But he was almost the greatest who never was."

Developing a plan 

Evans' agents knew receivers rarely transition smoothly to the NFL.

So after speaking to Evans' receivers coach at A&M, Deryk Gilmore of Priority Sports and Darren Jones of Maven Sports developed an offseason plan to accelerate his learning curve.

The first key decision was sending Evans to work out full-time with George Whitfield, nicknamed "The Quarterback Whisperer" based on his work with notable players such as Ben Roethlisberger, Cam Newton and Johnny Manziel.

For more than a month, at Whitfield Athletix in San Diego, Evans worked daily under Hall of Fame receiver James Lofton. They worked on running routes and reading defenses. They worked on just getting better.

"Our goal was for him to become a student of the game," Gilmore says.

CHICAGO, IL - SEPTEMBER 28: Brandon Marshall #15 of the Chicago Bears participates in warm-ups before a game against the Green Bay Packers at Soldier Field on September 28, 2014 in Chicago, Illinois. The Packers defeated the Bears 38-17. (Photo by Jonatha
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Given his size (6'5", 231 pounds), Evans recognized that he had difficulty getting in and out of his breaks cleanly. So he focused on his technique, repeatedly telling himself, "Head over shoulders, don't lean back," until it became second nature. He also learned to vary his speed.

In June, Marshall recruited Evans to work out with him for two weeks at Fit Speed, a training facility the five-time Pro Bowl receiver co-founded in a Miami suburb.

Marshall embraces the role of mentor, inviting many young receivers to train with him over the years. A fourth-round pick out of Central Florida, Marshall has seen some players come to him with an overinflated sense of self.

But not Evans. 

Despite starring at Texas A&M, the rookie was like a "sponge" in their time together, Marshall recalls.

Marshall jumped on Evans when he made the smallest mistakes, and the veteran challenged the rookie to make each step count, especially on intermediate routes. Marshall also insisted Evans take better care of his body by eating healthier and sleeping better.

Marshall's point of emphasis: consistency.

"To be a star, you have to do what other guys aren't willing to do," Marshall told Evans. "Anybody can be a one-hit wonder, but can you do it year in and year out?"

Weeks later, just before training camp, Bucs starting quarterback Josh McCown drove two-and-a-half hours from East Texas to College Station, Texas, to spend a day with Evans. They spent two hours going through the playbook, with McCown getting a feel for Evans' speed and Evans grasping how McCown wanted him to run certain routes.

McCown has played with notable big-bodied receivers such as Marshall, Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin, Alshon Jeffery and Vincent Jackson.

McCown was familiar with Evans from his play at Texas A&M, but the quarterback learned something else during their one-on-one session.

"I didn't realize how fast he was," McCown says.

For a player with his size and innate ability to find the football, that speed is just icing on the cake.

Growing into greatness

Bill Polian was the general manager who built the Indianapolis Colts and led them to a Super Bowl victory. Now an analyst for ESPN, he raved about the 2014 rookie receiver class.

Polian declined to rank the receivers, but he complimented Evans' assets.

"He's got strong hands, and he can muscle the ball away from defenders," Polian says. "He still has a way to go, in terms of route running. But he's got incredible natural gifts, and he really likes the game. He's only going to get better."

Evans isn't the boldest or fastest in his class, doesn't have the best quarterback and might not have the best hands.

But he is a juxtaposition, a contemporary freak on the outside but a throwback on the inside.

CLEVELAND, OH - NOVEMBER 2: Wide receiver Mike Evans #13 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers catches a touchdown pass while under pressure from cornerback Buster Skrine #22 of the Cleveland Browns during the second half at FirstEnergy Stadium on November 2, 2014
Jason Miller/Getty Images

He quietly confirms that he feels "disrespected" when opposing defenses single-cover him.

"When teams do that," he says, "I love it. Man, it's just you and the defender."

That scenario came to pass Nov. 16, against the Washington Redskins.

While in motion, Evans noticed a cornerback tracking with him. As he passed McCown, Evans told him he'd be open in the back corner of the end zone.

After the ball was snapped, McCown pump faked, freezing the safety, and he lofted a pass to the back left corner. Evans caught the ball for a touchdown.

"I don't know if I would have trusted a rookie to make that observation and then make it happen," McCown says. "But he was able to execute what he saw. That's pretty cool. That's pretty special."

Though he only played two seasons there, Evans had plenty of big games at Texas A&M. Licht was most impressed with his performance against Alabama, when he lit up the Crimson Tide for 279 yards on just seven catches.

COLLEGE STATION, TX - OCTOBER 26:  Mike Evans #13 of the Texas A&M Aggies has the ball go off his fingertips as he goes up between Kenny Ladler #1 of the Vanderbilt Commodores and Andre Hal #23 of the Vanderbilt Commodores in the second quarter at Kyle Fi
Bob Levey/Getty Images

"He just has a rare, rare, rare ability to track the ball and to suck it in," Licht says. "It doesn't matter if they're contested, or he's making an acrobatic toe-tap catch in the corner of the end zone.

"The ball has a way of finding him, and you almost think he's lucky. But there's only so much luck."

Mike Evans isn't a fluke, as he often believed, even if that notion was contrived by Petteway. His success isn't luck. He's adapted and evolved through the trauma of losing his father as a boy to surviving the harrowing car accident in college.

And at each step, Evans has embraced the male mentors who have entered his life: Petteway, his receivers coach at A&M, David Beaty, Lofton, Marshall, McCown, Jackson and Smith, among others.

The Bucs have won just two games, and Evans finally has more than $50 in his bank account ("That doesn't seem real," he says). But he isn't distracted, he isn't disinterested, continuing to exchange calls and text messages with Lofton and Marshall, for instance.

"All the vets I've run into, it's amazing to be around them," Evans says. "They just want what's best for me and other young guys. Those guys have been a big help. I'm very fortunate."

In a season of surprises, Evans may not get the attention of other rookies and emerging players. But in Tampa, the Bucs have no regrets about investing in Evans as a person and player. And if his rookie season and all that led up to it have been any indication, they probably never will. 

For 16 years, Sean Jensen served as a beat writer or NFL columnist for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the St. Paul Pioneer Press and the Chicago Sun-Times. He has also been an NFL contributor or columnist for AOL Sports, Yahoo Sports, Sporting News, Sports Illustrated and ESPN The Magazine.

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