As an NFL general manager, Jason Licht has to make a lot of difficult decisions. This was not one of them.
On Monday, during his annual pre-draft press conference, Licht revealed that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers had exercised the fifth-year option on the contract of Pro Bowl wide receiver Mike Evans. That will keep Evans in a Tampa Bay uniform through at least the 2018 season, and Licht has repeatedly stated the obvious: the Buccaneers would like to have their star wideout around a lot longer than that. He said so again on Monday.
The Buccaneers had until May 3 to pick up Evans's option year, but it had long been clear that they would do so. The decision to do so on Monday coincided with the beginning of the team's 2017 offseason program. The seventh-overall pick in the 2014 draft is one of five players in NFL history (along with fellow '14 first-rounder Odell Beckham) to begin his career with three straight 1,000-yard receiving seasons. Evans has increased his yardage total each year and scored a total of 27 touchdowns in just 46 games, culminating in last year's Pro Bowl numbers: 96 receptions for 1,321 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Since the new Collective Bargaining Agreement was put in place in 2011, all first-round draft picks have received four-year contracts with a fifth-year option for the team. That option must be exercised or declined between the player's third and fourth seasons. Choosing to pick up the option on Evans does nothing to affect the team's efforts to keep him beyond 2018; the Bucs and Evans may continue discussing a new long-term contract whenever they wish. In the short term, by picking up the option year, the Bucs have guaranteed that Evans will be paid the equivalent of the average of the top 10 salaries at his position in the NFL.
The Buccaneers did not have a first-round pick in 2013, having traded it to the Jets for cornerback Darrelle Revis. The team hit big on Evans in 2014, and that could begin a trend of option years for the team, as early returns on 2015 first-rounder Jameis Winston and 2016 first-rounder Vernon Hargreaves have been very good.
Just 23 years old, Evans is a key part of an exciting young core on offense for the Buccaneers. He and the 23-year-old Winston have helped Tampa Bay's offense record two of the top three total yardage and passing yardage season totals in franchise history. Winston is the first quarterback in league history to open his career with consecutive 4,000-yard passing seasons, and the Buccaneers have made an effort to surround him with an increasingly potent array of weapons. Most recently, Tampa Bay used free agency to add a premier big-play receiving threat in wide receiver DeSean Jackson. The 10th-year veteran adds explosiveness to an offense that also features such promising young players as tackle Donovan Smith, guard Ali Marpet, tight end Cameron Brate and wide receiver Adam Humphries.
Evans, though, is sure to remain Winston's favorite target. That will likely be true through the 2018 season, at least, and the Bucs hope it will remain so well beyond then.