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Fantasy Focus: Mike Evans

Posted Jul 10, 2017

As we consider the 2017 fantasy football possibilities of a number of promising Buccaneers, we begin with the Tampa Bay player sure to be first off the board: Pro Bowl WR Mike Evans.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' first training camp practice of 2017 is just ahead, on the morning of July 28. The Buccaneers' first game action comes two weeks later with a preseason trip to Cincinnati on August 11. The regular season opener is just over a month later, on September 10 in Miami.

Somewhere between those dates, you will probably hold your first fantasy football draft. (We're just going to go ahead and assume you play fantasy football.) Presumably, you'll do a little studying before that to prepare for your picks, and you may be particularly interested in where your interests in the Bucs and fantasy football intersect.

We are interested in that, as well. Therefore, over the next few weeks, we're going to look at the Fantasy Forecasts of the Buccaneer players who are likely to be selected in fantasy drafts. We'll give you an idea of where these players may go in your draft, how much they will hopefully produce and how this year's depth chart situations will affect those outcomes.

Buccaneers.com contributors Joe Kania and Andrew Norton are going to help me out with this, but I'll kick it off with Tampa Bay's most exciting fantasy football asset: wide receiver Mike Evans.

Buccaneers 2017 Fantasy Focus: Mike Evans

After his impressive rookie season, running back Doug Martin was a popular fantasy first-rounder in the summer of 2013. His average draft position, depending upon your fantasy platform of choice, was around the fifth pick or higher. The 2013 version of Martin was the most sought-after Buccaneer since the explosion of fantasy football's popularity.

Martin had another enormous year in 2015, finishing second in the NFL in rushing and averaging nearly five yards per carry. Fantasy general managers were a little more cautious with him in the summer of 2016, but he was still a late-first round or early-second round pick in many drafts. That simply hasn't been a common spot for Buccaneer players in fantasy football; even in its best years, Tampa Bay's success has often been driven by a great defense. All of that may be about to change.

READ: WIDE RECEIVER DEPTH RANKINGS

The Buccaneers have collected a notable amount of offensive talent, perhaps more so than at any time in franchise history. The group is led by third-year quarterback Jameis Winston, who has already amassed 50 touchdown passes and more than 8,000 passing yards in just two years. He'll be distributing the ball to some combination of Martin, Charles Sims, Jacquizz Rodgers, Jeremy McNichols, Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson, Adam Humphries, Chris Godwin, Cameron Brate and O.J. Howard. Expectations are high. The Buccaneers are likely to be very fantasy-relevant over the next five to 10 years.

Mike Evans already is. In fact, he may be the Bucs' surest first-round option since Martin in 2013. So when you're considering the prospect of getting him on your fantasy team this year, realize that you're going to have pay a premium. Here's a few things you need to know about Evans and his fantasy rankings this year:

Average Draft Position (ESPN): 8.5
Position (WR) Draft Ranking: 4
2016 Fantasy Point Production (Standard Format): 296
2016 Position (WR) Rank: 3

As you'll see throughout these Buccaneer Fantasy Forecasts, we will be using ESPN as our source for fantasy rankings, to keep it relatable from player to player. We'll also be providing fantasy points and projections based on a standard, non-PPR setup. That won't affect Evans much; he's very valuable in every format.

And well he should be. Last year, Evans was the third-most productive fantasy receiver in the game, behind only Pittsburgh's Antonio Brown and Green Bay's Jordy Nelson. The one thing they all had in common was touchdowns; Nelson had 14 while Brown and Evans had 12 each. The only other receivers to crack double digits were the Giants' Odell Beckham (10) and the Packers' Davante Adams (12).

If you want to make Evans one of the top five receivers selected this year, you need to believe he will continue to find the end zone. There's obviously no guarantee of that, but consider that this was no fluke. Evans has reached a dozen touchdowns in two of his three seasons so far. He was a far more consistent player in 2016 than in 2015, when he felt he underachieved to some extent with a few too many dropped passes and insufficient chemistry with Winston. That's all in the past. As good as the 6-5, 230-pound Evans is in the red zone and as often as he's targeted, there's little doubt that he'll get his scoring chances in 2017.

And yet…do you worry about all those other offensive mouths Winston has to feed? Evans caught 96 passes for 1,321 yards and those 12 scores last year despite frequently facing coverages that rolled in his direction. Brate and Humphries, a pair of former undrafted free agents who have developed into fine NFL players, were a distant second and third in targets. Combined, they weren't targeted as often as Evans.

In the offseason, the Buccaneers added Jackson, Howard, Godwin and McNichols. Jackson will join Evans in the starting lineup and be much more of a concern to opposing defenses than anyone the Buccaneers fielded last year. Howard is expected to stretch the seams with his dynamic talents and combine with Brate for a very dangerous two-TE alignment. With all those options for Winston, the Bucs' offense as a whole could take a big step forward while Evans' personal contributions stay the same or even regress.

READ: ROUNDTABLE - TRAINING CAMP BATTLES TO WATCH

So, again, do you worry about that on your draft night? My advice: Don't. This looks like the classic case of a rising tide lifting all boats. The presence of Jackson and Howard may draw some throws away from Evans, but it will also draw a lot of coverage off his case.

Consider this: Evans was one of the league's most productive receivers last year despite being well behind most of his upper-tier peers in the category of yards-after-the-catch (YAC). Brown, Nelson, Beckham and Adams all had YAC averages between 3.5 and 5.1 yards per catch. Evans's average was 1.8. Nobody else in the league's top 50 in receiving yards was below 2.0.

Anyone who has seen Evans play knows this YAC deficiency is not the result of a lack of athleticism. Consider this group of stats as well: Evans caught his 96 balls on 173 targets. Brown caught 106 passes on 154 targets, Beckham 101 on 169, Nelson 97 on 152, Adams 75 on 121. Evans, you might recall, made the single best catch of the 2016 season. His hands, with those 2015 drops long resolved, are not an issue. What Evans needs is more room to operate, more uncontested catches, more open field to exploit. If things go as planned for the Buccaneers' offense in 2017, he's going to get just that. If you believe that, as I do, you will have no qualms taking Evans in the first round.

Now, there is the separate question of just where in the first round you would grab the Bucs' 23-year-old star. If Evans is a no-doubt first-rounder (as this year's projections seem to indicate) and you're picking 12th, it's a pretty easy decision. If you own one of the first two or three picks, you'll probably be tempted by one of the top running backs – David Johnson, Le'Veon Bell and Ezekiel Elliott. If you're in that spot but definitely want to start with a receiver, you can probably land Brown or Julio Jones. No matter how big of a Buccaneers fan you are, you have to think with your head and not your heart here.

So the questions arrive in the middle of the first round. Sometimes you have to take a player a pick or two higher, or a round or two higher, than the projections in order to land your most coveted targets. Can you make a case for taking Evans at #6 or #7?

Doing so would likely mean you're rating the Bucs receiver ahead of Beckham, perhaps ahead of Jones and certainly ahead of running backs LeSean McCoy and Jordan Howard. The first of those is certainly defensible; Evans outscored Beckham in fantasy last year and (if you agree with the above analysis) is an improved situation in 2017. Jones is a tougher sell – he didn't have the touchdowns and missed several games last year but is a supreme talent in an amazing situation. The running back question probably comes down to preference. Would you rather end the first two rounds with a pairing of, say, Evans and running back Jay Ajayi or with a pairing of McCoy and wide receiver Dez Bryant?

That's a tough call. Personally, I would probably lean toward a running back in the 5-7 range and then hope to get someone from the Bryant-Hilton-Cooper group for my first receiver because I'm afraid of a run on backs during the first/second-round turn. If you miss out on the receiver you wanted most in the second round, there's more depth at the position to make up for it later. But I think either strategy probably works in the end. All things considered, you can probably feel comfortable drafting Mike Evans anywhere from the sixth overall pick on.