Coming into the season, the top tier of NFL receivers included four guys — Julio Jones, Antonio Brown, Odell Beckham Jr., and A.J. Green — and no one else.
Two years into his career, Mike Evans had settled somewhere into the group below that quartet. Last year, he dropped too many passes (15 per Pro Football Focus, good for a 10.2 percent drop rate) and didn’t catch enough touchdowns (three). He was too volatile on the field, and Jameis Winston’s rookie-year growing pains certainly didn’t help matters.
Fast-forward to now, and Evans has cleaned up the drops issue (just six this year for a 4.7 percent drop rate), he’s one of the league’s premier touchdown makers (tied for the NFL lead with 10 receiving scores), and he’s played with a previously unseen composure. With 11 weeks of game tape to back it up, there’s no longer any argument against it: Evans has made the jump, and he’s officially one of the league’s elite receivers.
Now, it’s not like Evans has come out of nowhere. As a rookie, he caught 68 passes for 1,051 yards and 12 touchdowns. He upped that yardage number to 1,206 yards in his second year, and on Sunday he quietly became just the fourth receiver in league history to post 1,000-yard seasons in each of his first three years. (The other three: John Jefferson, Randy Moss, and Green.) But in his first two seasons, his production was the result of raw talent and volume. He didn’t turn into a complete, refined player until this year; in his third season, he’s become the unguardable matchup nightmare the Bucs envisioned when they chose him seventh overall in the 2014 NFL draft.
After catching eight passes for 104 yards and two touchdowns against Seattle on Sunday, Evans moved up to third in the NFL in receptions (73) behind Brown and Larry Fitzgerald, and is now second in yards (1,020) behind Jones and tied for first in touchdowns (10) with Brown. Against the Seahawks’ top-tier defense, he showed off his unique skill set, reeling in all eight of his catchable targets. The receptions came at just about every distance possible, from a bubble screen to a mid-level zone-beater to a deep sideline bomb.
The first thing that you notice about Evans when he’s on the field is his size. He’s listed at 6-foot-5, 231 pounds, and his long arms make him seem like a 7-footer. Not many players in the league have as big of a catch radius as the 23-year-old, and that showed up early in the first quarter on a third-and-12 on Sunday. On the play, Evans sneaks in behind Seattle’s second-level zone defense and leaps up to catch a Winston lob pass.
Evans’s size helps fuel his success, but there are plenty of big receivers out there. He distinguishes himself with a veteran-like ability to create separation from defenders late in his routes. Evans’s matchup with Richard Sherman on Sunday was one of the best one-on-one battles we’ll see all year, and subtle tricks are the way you beat a superstar like Sherman.
"I mean, [Sherman is] my favorite defensive player of all time," Evans said after the game. "I’ve studied that guy for years. Ever since I got in the league. I know all his moves, how he [backpedals], how he turns his hips.’’
Late in the first quarter, Evans beat Sherman for his second touchdown of the game.
"He was right there and jabbed me with his inside hand," Evans said. "I grabbed him and pulled through on him."
At the last second, Evans subtly extends his arm enough to create separation while avoiding an offensive pass interference call, and reels the ball in for a 23-yard touchdown.
That ability to create space at the last second is something that Hall of Fame receiver Michael Irvin spoke about back in 2014, when he was asked about how to make catches against elite cover cornerbacks like Sherman:
"The one thing that I would always do is, when you have a great corner … you can’t beat him early. You have to beat him late as possible," he said. "So it doesn’t require you to be masterful in your feet, your ability, your cuts, it requires you to be masterful [in] your understanding of timing. I need to be open at the last second, when the ball’s arriving, because I’m only going to be open for that second with this kind of a cornerback."
Midway through the third quarter, Evans breaks free from coverage at the final moment again. When Winston rolls out and can’t find his first target on a third-and-2 from Tampa Bay’s 36-yard line, Evans has to improvise to get open outside of the structure of the play. With three Seattle defenders in his immediate vicinity, his push off of Sherman (this time not so subtle) creates the necessary space for Winston to hit him with the pass.
With the score at 14–5 — the ultimate final margin — the play was a demoralizing conversion, and it illustrated another key piece to Evans’s value: As a third-down target, he’s unparalleled. His 22 third-down receptions lead the NFL, and every single one of them has gone for a first down. Of course, it’s not just third downs; 63 of Evans’s 74 receptions have produced a first down — most in the league and 13 ahead of second place Antonio Brown.
Evans has had at least 11 targets in nine of Tampa Bay’s last 10 games. He’s gone over 100 yards in three of his last four outings, and he’s one of three receivers in the league with three multitouchdown games this year. He’s also easily Winston’s favorite target, as he’s seen a ridiculous 132 of the Buccaneers’ 413 receiving targets (nearly 32 percent, up from his 28 percent share last year).
Should the Bucs spread the ball around more and not force-feed their best player? Winston’s not having any of this, and with 6–5 Tampa Bay sitting just a half-game out of a wild-card spot and one game back of the NFC South lead, I can’t really blame him. Receivers come in many shapes and sizes, but Evans is the perfect complement to Winston’s downfield-passing, throw-it-up-in-traffic style.
"Y’all always ask me why throw Mike the ball so much. I never understand those questions," Winston said on Sunday. "[He] is elite."
The second-year quarterback is not wrong. How many guys are there like Evans in the league? Six feet, five inches. Huge catch radius. Dependable hands. Quick feet. Crisp route running. Ball skills. Subtle separation. Competitive as hell. That’s how you build the prototype for a perfect receiver, and Evans’s production this year has finally matched the potential.