Why Mike Evans Is Primed for a Bounce-Back Season in 2016

Sean Tomlinson@@SeanGTomlinsonNFL AnalystJune 3, 2016

TAMPA, FL - DECEMBER 27: Mike Evans #13 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers looks on during the game against the Chicago Bears at Raymond James Stadium on December 27, 2015 in Tampa, Florida. The Bears defeated the Buccaneers 26-21. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

During his rookie season, Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Mike Evans shattered position molds the same way he nearly shattered Terence Newman.

At 6'5" and 231 pounds, he shouldn't be able to win with speed; size should be his weapon of choice. For the most part, it is, yet there he was in Week 11 of 2014 gliding toward 209 receiving yards against the Washington Redskins. That came at the conclusion of a three-game stretch where Evans averaged 21.8 yards per reception.

It would have been excusable if Evans struggled as a rookie. After all, he came from a freewheeling college spread offense at Texas A&M run by a quarterback (Johnny Manziel) who treated structure like it was a rare strain of the flu. But he finished with 1,051 yards on 68 receptions during his rookie season, all while catching passes from Josh McCown and Mike Glennon.

Evans' wingspan looks like it could wrap around the kind of giant redwood tree featured in an entry-level tourist shot. Combine those outstretched claws with sticky hands shown off immediately in rookie camp, and there was only one possible trajectory for Evans’ career: soaring.

Instead he chose a different route in 2015: plateauing.

Evans followed his splashdown into the NFL with a step back. He succumbed to the sophomore slump, an evil beast that lurks deep inside the psyche of every rookie.

He even dared to utter those words when speaking to Greg Auman of the Tampa Bay Times in April:

At first it's hard to see how exactly the slump monster bit Evans. He had more receiving yards in 2015 (1,206) than in his rookie season, along with more receptions (74) and yards per catch (16.3, up from 15.5), and averaged over 10 more yards per game overall.

Dive a little deeper, however, and the source of his slump—and the reason Evans has been logging extra film-study time with quarterback Jameis Winston this offseason, according to ESPN.com's Britt McHenry—reaches up to whack you in the face. His hands went from being coated with sticky syrup to bathing in butter.

Evans suffered from a chronic case of the yips, dropping balls that would have been routine catches during his rookie season. That's why this chart showing the turfed ball leaders in 2015...

Most drops in 2015
ReceiverCatchable ballsDrops
Amari Cooper9018
Mike Evans8915
Demaryius Thomas11712
Brandon Marshall12011
Randall Cobb8910
Julio Jones14610
Source: Pro Football Focus

...leads to instant shivers and thoughts of impending doom, especially when we dispel the notion Evans flubbed balls simply because a lot of them were thrown in his direction.

According to Pro Football Focus, Evans was targeted 146 times, which ranked eighth and was only seven targets behind the Giants' Odell Beckham Jr., who finished with just four drops. Then there's the Falcons' Julio Jones, who was targeted 193 times and still dropped five fewer balls than Evans.

Let all that soak in for a second.

Look at Evans' 2015 season a little more, though, and it doesn't take long to land on a completely different emotion heading into 2016: optimism.

If you believe in the power of a middle ground and numbers normalizing as he becomes more comfortable with Winston, then Evans is the NFL's best bounce-back candidate heading into his third season.

Believing in Evans gets easier if you become less hyperfocused on a few blips. Or specifically, this one:

That's from a disastrous Week 9 outing in 2015 against the New York Giants. Evans did his unsuccessful juggling act with five balls, tying him for the highest single-game drop total over the past decade.

What's confusing and maddening is that those five drops came during an afternoon when Evans managed to wrangle eight other passes for 150 yards, which included a 68-yard reception. He had his second of three 150-plus-yard days on the season, but it's hard not to view that production with bitter disappointment.

In fairness, some of his drops against the Giants were catchable only in the broad sense of the word, as he was often under heavy duress in traffic. That was the case when Winston laser-beamed a ball into Evans' chest after he had found space short up the middle:

Credit: NFL GamePass

The ball was lodged between his arm and midsection for a fleeting second. He should have squeezed to secure it, and he should have finished this play. But let's not pretend it's easy to corral a throw like this when you're bracing for and beginning to receive contact, and a fist is coming around to knock the ball loose.

If every Evans drop from his nightmare game against New York looked like that, shrugging without breaking into hives as you think about his future would be simple. But there were other, more frequent moments when Evans was lonely on the field, with only his thoughts stopping him from wrapping his hands around a football.

And that was enough here:

Credit: NFL GamePass

Here:

Credit: NFL GamePass

Oh, and here:

Credit: NFL GamePass

None of those plays ended with a ball landing softly in Evans' massive mitts, even though he was either wide open or had shaken coverage and faced little pressure.

I can't read minds, so there's admittedly a heaping helping of speculation here. But when you watch all of Evans' targets from that game (as I did) and see a talented receiver fight with himself while still averaging 18.8 yards on the eight balls he did catch, it seems fatigue may have set in.

That would be understandable. As much as we want the football players in our lives to be superhuman, running deep routes and physically grappling with defensive backs while being targeted a season-high 19 times would become exhausting—particularly for a second-year receiver who had eclipsed the 15-target mark only one other time in his NFL career at that point.

But let's assume he was of sound body and mind. Even though he left piles of yards on the field, a high-target afternoon adds to the early lessons Evans is learning. And when it comes to opportunities and game experience, few have had more than Evans at a young age, as RotoViz editor Frank DuPont noted:

Two games jump off the screen from Evans' second season: the Week 9 game against the Giants and a Week 3 loss to the Houston Texans. He recorded a combined eight drops in those games, yet still finished with 100-plus receiving yards in each.

That number over only two games doubled Evans' drop total from his rookie season. His three-drop game against the Texans was sandwiched between four dropless weeks. And after the borderline historic debacle against the Giants, he let a modest five balls leak through his hands over an eight-game stretch while still managing a heavy workload of 9.1 targets per game.

The late-season run when Evans' hand slipperiness was minimized included a 17-target game with only one drop. It was a string of games more in line with the Evans we saw in 2014 who had a drop rate of 5.56, according to Pro Football Focus, which ranked tied for 16th among the 50 receivers who saw at least half of their teams' targets. That's dramatically lower than his 16.85 rate in 2015.

Drops also played a role in Evans' red-zone-production decline. But so did a lack of familiarity with Winston. If we assume the former problem regresses to the mean, while the latter is gradually fixed along with Winston's accuracy (second-lowest completion percentage among starting quarterbacks in 2015), then a touchdown spike surely lies ahead.

A red-zone conversion rate of just 17.6 percent isn't remotely sustainable.

As Rotoworld's Graham Barfield observed, Evans' red-zone reliability has never been in that neighborhood, which indicates a positive correction is likely coming. In 2014, he converted 40 percent of his 15 red-zone looks into touchdowns, according to Barfield. Even better, he was successful on 36 percent of his red-zone opportunities throughout his time at Texas A&M.

No sane-minded individual with proper eyesight will deny that, overall, Evans struggled through some issues with drops in 2015. Evans himself admitted as much, and new Buccaneers offensive coordinator Todd Monken told reporters he'll take it "personally" if those drops continue.

Evans is still developing, like any receiver headed into his third season. There will be more wince-inducing drops ahead, because that problem won't be cured instantly. But the goal within reach is to make those winces a passing memory and eliminate the cringe-filled games.

As Evans does that and grows alongside Winston, he'll keep maturing into a large-bodied bruiser who can dominate physically, as we've already seen often over two seasons.

Getting there requires a rebound first, and working hard while having a short memory. Pure talent and draft pedigree tell us Evans has it in him to reach another tier at a young age. There's also plenty of statistical evidence showing us that we should focus on the larger body of his work both in college and the NFL, instead of a few drop-filled games.

Everything is lining up for a new Evans to emerge in 2016. Now the hardest part is ahead: executing.

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