Is Mike Evans A Top 5 Receiver?

Last Sunday, Buccaneers wide receiver Mike Evans had a quiet day, catching 3 passes for 38 yards. Last week however, his 104 yards saw him top 1,000 yards for the season after just 11 games. In this week’s look at the NFC, I’ll talk about just how good Evans is.

I’ve been away for a few weeks, with only a weak tether to the NFL merry-go-round, and a few stories have developed that I missed out on. The Giants won 8 (came back just in time to see Pittsburgh show them up), Gronk’s out for the year, Jeff Fisher is…still employed? My favourite though, was Mike Evans finally being talked about as the top-end receiver I’ve been claiming him to be for a while now. But just how good is he at the moment? How does he rank against the league’s best?

Where Mike Evans Came From

Okay, not literally where he came from. For that, I’ll place you in the capable hands of ESPN’s E:60 piece on his upbringing in Galveston, TX. But he was a basketballer-turned-footballer by the time he committed to Texas A&M in 2011. Having redshirted his freshman year, Evans only played two years for the Aggies, but what years. Playing 26 games, falling a yard short of 2,500 and netting 17 touchdowns in the process, he was a force for A&M, a reliable and dynamic weapon for Johnny Manziel.

There’s something interesting actually. It’s easy to use the hindsight-o-matic when one of a QB as his top receiver pans out, and the other doesn’t. With Evans’ success, it’s easy to say that Manziel was only successful because he had Evans to throw to. That’s not the case, obviously, but there’s obviously a grain of truth in that – a pocket-escaping, last-gasp-throw extraordinaire leads a big, reliable target who can win 50-50 balls regularly, and that’s what Evans did.

Anyway, Evans was picked 7th overall in that wide receiver class. You know, 2014. Watkins, Beckham, Benjamin, Robinson, Landry, Cooks, Matthews, Adams, Bryant, John Brown. That 2014 class.

2014 and 2015

Unsurprisingly going straight into the lineup, Evans took a few weeks to get going, being #2 weapon behind Vincent Jackson for…err…Josh McCown? I totally forgot he was Tampa Bay’s QB for a year! Anyway, he had his first 100-yard game first week in November, his second the week after that, and the week after that had a 209-yard, 2-TD effort against Washington. This is the point I, and a bunch of other people, sat up all “holy wow”. Evans was just better than everyone else in that game. He ended up with 1,051 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2014, which is pretty damn impressive, right?

2015 was a trickier year, though he upped his yardage total to 1,206, touchdowns dropped to 3 and worryingly, he dropped 15 of 89 catchable balls – a far cry from dropping just 4 of 72 catchable balls in 2014. Which isn’t to say 2015 was a bad year – Washington (again) saw him rack up 164 yards and a TD against them, among his five 100-yard receiving games.

(Evans has struggled a bit with drops in 2016 too – 6 out of 82 catchable balls so far is among the league highest total, but not so bad as a total %.)

By the end of 2015 though, despite his struggles Evans was hyped for a bounce-back year (if 1,200 yards is sufficient for one to ‘bounce back’ from), with a quarterback entering his second year in the league, and his previous competition for the WR1 role, Vincent Jackson, aging and seeing his production decline.

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Fear the Mike Evans stiff arm (Getty Images)

Mike Evans In 2016

Through 12 games, Evans ranks third in receiving yards (behind Julio Jones and TY Hilton) with 1,058 yards. He’s second in receiving touchdowns (behind just Antonio Brown, and tied with Jordy Nelson) with 10. Of players with more than 20 catches, he’s behind only Michael Floyd in the % of his catches that result in first downs, giving him 9 more first downs than any other player. If fantasy points as a measurement are your thing, he’s behind only Antonio Brown in terms of points scored by wide receivers. He’s also the most targeted player in the league, with a whopping 11.3 targets per game.

Let’s look at that his gamelog of this year and see if there isn’t a few things we can pull out from there.

mike-evans-gamelog

(via NFL.com)

The first thing that jumps out is some of the teams he’s put up big performances against. We know the Seahawks were without Earl Thomas in Week 12, but Evans still put up 104 yards and 2 touchdowns against that secondary. And this was a game in which ProFootballFocus viewed Thomas’ usual cohort Kam Chancellor, and his replacement Steven Terrell, as having played well!

The Bucs have played the Falcons twice. Evans’ stats across those games? 16 catches for 249 yards and 3 touchdowns. The Chiefs – no slouches in the secondary themselves – allowed a 100-yard game. Denver, however, kept Evans relatively quiet (5/59/0), and though the Cardinals allowed 70 yards and a touchdown, it was in a blowout so the usual analysis is maybe not quite so relevant there.

Elsewhere, in one-touchdown games, his receiving stats are: 5/99/1, 10/132/1, 6/89/1, 4/50/0, 6/105/0, 3/38/0. Mostly impressive! San Diego and Oakland (somehow?!) are the low outliers there. So, like even the best receivers, Evans can be inconsistent, but it seems somewhat less so. There are no 200-yard games here, and nothing really approaching a goose egg. Being reliable and dynamic, that’s pretty useful! So how does he do what he does?

What Does Mike Evans Do Well?

Well, for a start he’s flipping huge. As you’d expect for a former high school star basketball player, he stands tall at 6’5”, and big at 231 lb. As noted at the combine, his arms are pretty much three feet long. His vertical jump is just over 3 feet. What does that mean? Well, basically you can throw a ball twelve feet in the air, and he’ll have a decent shot at grabbing it. That’s a huge advantage for anyone. Literally.

You can see that in the catches he makes, too. This catch against Atlanta is all that comes up if you google “Mike Evans catch”, and his reach to snag the ball one handed is fantastic. I mean, we know Odell Beckham caught a better one, but he’s actually agile. Evans looks like a huge lump, yet is all up there extending himself and keeping his feet under control! And feet under control, that’s an important thing for any top wide receiver to be able to do. This catch against the Rams last year demonstrates that all-important toe tap, so he makes the catch in bounds, first down. Actually, this is another example of his height coming into play. The ball is, as you’d expect with that quarterback, miles away from where Evans seems to be, yet he’s nowhere near fully extended when he makes the catch! Again, Evans demonstrates his strength and athleticism, extending himself fully for this redzone touchdown grab against San Francisco. If you pause the video at the moment Evans makes the catch, you can see the defensive back looking up in awe, and looking utterly tiny! It’s almost funny.

He’s got speed, too. Against Washington in 2014, here he burns the defender downfield for a 56-yard touchdown. There’s a dose of good play design here, as Evans gets matched up with Perry Riley Jr, a linebacker. But Riley’s one of the faster linebackers in the league, and Evans just glides past him. You get a good idea of his functional speed in this catch against the Giants. He makes the catch not at full stretch (though it’s still roughly 4 miles off the ground), and is instantly into his stride. He sprints away from defenders at first, and only when he has to navigate the defender his teammate’s blocking does he start to hesitate and get caught by defenders. So he’s not the fastest, but he’s still one of the faster players, capable of burning away from the middling players who populate the league.

As you’d expect from looking at him, there’s a good deal of strength here too. Look at him making a fool of Richard Sherman right here, shaking off his attempts to jam Evans at the line of scrimmage, and possibly a bit of defensive PI downfield, to make the full-stretch catch and fall into the end zone. I know this website’s scion doesn’t rate Sherman terribly highly (and I disagree – I think Sherman’s a marvellous corner), but we can all agree Sherman’s skill is in using physicality – especially at the line of scrimmage – to disrupt a receiver’s routes in those first five yards, giving him more chance of making a play on the pass. Here, Evans makes him look ordinary in that regard!

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Making a touchdown catch on Nolan Carroll (Getty Images)

What Does Mike Evans Do Not So Well?

Evans doesn’t have the smoothest change of direction you’ll see. Here his quarterback extends the play, but Evans is still matched up on Josh Norman, and comes absolutely nowhere near shaking him off. You can make an excuse, say that maybe we’re in a two-minute drill at the end of the quarter and everyone’s a bit knackered, but if that’s your rationale, so is Josh Norman. But hey, everyone slips.

A more interesting indictment of Evans’ struggles is this play against Patrick Peterson. From the video, all you see is a ball hurled downfield that Peterson intercepts. But how we get there is probably the thing that tucks Evans snugly behind the very best receivers in the NFL, rather than among them. Peterson is giving about 8 yards to Evans on 1st & 10, as if he knows the deep pass is coming. Evans starts off like a runaway train, but Peterson instantly can track him and set off too. Evans’ route seems to take him in a straight line, pretty much. Peterson is right on him by the time he’s forced to slow and adjust for the ball. Peterson has better line of sight on the ball, meaning he’s the favourite to make the catch, which he does. Evans had time to throw a couple of kinks in his route here, to try and throw Peterson off – in fact, he might’ve been better adjust for the pass even if he’d tried. That’s maybe a dose of inexperience, but it’s also in knowing that his huge frame is a greater strength of his than his route-running.

Is Mike Evans A Top-5 Receiver?

You can see from there being basically one aspect in the “not so well” that Evans is a top-quality receiver. His huge frame is a massive advantage, but the NFL is riddled with huge receivers who can’t play a lick. In fact, often huge guys have over-relied on size, and then can’t adjust when they hit the pros. Evans uses his frame well, and he’s at least a good enough route runner that against your average defensive back, he’s got enough separation to make the catch on the inevitable errant throw. He has speed, he’s reliable, to be targeted so much and not have his body break down, he’s healthy and full of stamina. Despite a lot of drops in 2015, you have confidence in his hands, and that you can – as Tampa Bay have on numerous occasions – put your team on his back and have him carry you to victory.

But he’s not a Top 5 receiver. I look at the elite in the NFL. At the top you’ve got Antonio Brown and Julio Jones. Different styles of receivers, but add them together and you’ve got a similar total of excellence. Take a step down, and your next batch of elite receivers are Odell Beckham Jr, Larry Fitzgerald and AJ Green. Again, three different kinds of receiver. But in all cases, their weaknesses are perhaps just that bit stronger than Mike Evans’. All five of these guys are better than Evans.

No-one else is, though. Evans has shown through his reliability how valuable to the team he is (much like those five guys up there). I see elsewhere teams that can cope without a Jordy Nelson, a TY Hilton, an Amari Cooper. Evans makes his team better to a greater degree than those guys. He might not be as technically proficient as Nelson, but I’d put his physical ability a greater degree greater (if that makes sense). He’s in a tier 3 all on his own. Say that’s elite if you like, say it’s not. Don’t care. I love watching Mike Evans because he uses his physical gifts effectively, but economically. We know he’s never going to be a polished route runner but he’s worked on that enough that it’s only going to be a weakness against the very, very best cornerbacks in the league. The ones who are shutting down every receiver ever invented. Mike Evans isn’t a top 5 receiver, but so what? He’s still awesome and fun to watch. We’re living through halcyon days for NFL wide receivers. Enjoy them.

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