Sometimes, an NFL training camp makes temporary stars out of relatively unknown players. That's especially true at wide receiver, where the competitors for roster spots can make very visible big plays even before the pads go on and the intensity ramps up. There is almost at least one or two pass-catchers that become the talk of training camp.
When it comes to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 2021 training camp, the team's biggest star at wide receiver has been…well, it's biggest star. Eighth-year wideout Mike Evans started camp hot and hasn't slowed down yet. Already the first player in NFL history to open his career with seven straight 1,000-yard receiving seasons, Evans appears to be primed for one of his best years yet.
Asked if he felt like his eighth training camp was his best one yet, Evans took a moment to think it over and didn't get particularly dramatic with his answer but did eventually agree that it was.
"I would say so," he replied. "Dealing with the heat, getting more reps, the fact that I'm in better shape. I feel like I'm learning a lot more. Each year, I try to focus on improvement, and I feel like I'm improving."
Given the Bucs' wide array of elite pass-catchers, Evans may have trouble approaching his career-best and team-record 1,524 yards from 2018 or his personal high of 96 receptions in 2016. Both of those campaigns ended in Pro Bowl nods, as did his 1,167 yards in a 2019 season that was cut short by a few games due to a hamstring injury at the end. Last year in this loaded offense, Evans played in every game but just barely snuck over that 1,000-yard bar, with a team-best 1,006 on 70 catches.
However, he also set a new high and broke the franchise single-season record with 13 touchdown grabs in 2020. That spoke to how quickly he found a connection with the team's new quarterback, Tom Brady, particularly when drives neared the end zone. Unsurprisingly, Brady finished off one 11-on-11 drive against the Bucs' front-line defense in Saturday's practice with a precise touchdown throw to Evans. That's far from the first TD strike between those two in the two weeks of camp, and there have already been several examples of the perfect back-corner fade over a defender, a specialty for both the quarterback and the receiver.
There is no scoreboard keeping track of those touchdowns right now, of course, but if Brady and Evans are so in tune now they could be lethal by the time the regular season arrives. Last season, it took some time for the two to forget that connection.
"We're trying to keep working at it, that connection," said Evans. "It comes with a lot of practice and a lot of reps. We're just trying to hit it in practice so we can hit it in the game."
The snap that ended in Evans' catch in the end zone came in the red zone, an area of strength for the Buccaneers in 2020. They scored a touchdown on 68.9% of their possessions that reached that part of the field, the seventh-best average in the league. Of course, that ranking suggests there's room for even more improvement. Six teams topped 70% in touchdown rate and the Packers got their average all the way up to 80%.
"I mean obviously we want to get touchdowns instead of field goals because if you get touchdowns it puts you in position to win the game," said Evans. "That's what we want to do, we want to win. It comes with practice and everybody being on the same page.
"Last year we were pretty good in the red zone, especially toward the end of the year. But this year I expect us to be better. Everybody being healthy and a whole year in the system – I feel like we can be better this year."
View some of the photos from Buccaneers Training Camp practice at the AdventHealth Training Center.
* As much as a star turn by a receiver is a staple of most training camps, so is that first round of fisticuffs on the practice field, usually after a couple weeks of grueling and repetitive practices. Sure enough, Saturday's workout at the AdventHealth Training Center got a little, as they say, chippy.
Fortunately, it was also a pretty strong practice overall, which saved the players from any ire from their head coach. Bruce Arians expected the intensity level to go up on Saturday since the practice included the first "live" short-yard and goal-line work.
"Parts of it were a little bit out of hand but again I'd rather say 'Whoa' then 'Sic 'em,'" said Arians. "Love the short-yardage goal-line period; it's always one of my favorites in camp because it gets everybody riled up. Good physical fronts on both sides and a lot of good ebb and flow to that practice."
A nice play by running back Giovani Bernard to convert a short-yardage situation gave the offense a little added juice.
"I just think it was real intense having our first live period – short yardage and goal line are two pretty intense periods," said second-year tackle Tristan Wirfs. "I thought it was awesome – the energy kind of ramped up. Gio got that first down and that kind of sparked everything – so that was a lot of fun."
Indeed, it appears as if the players enjoyed the hightened competition more than they got annoyed by the players on the other side.
"We had a live period," said Evans. "It's always going to be competitive – really great defense, really great offense. Guys are hungry, trying to make the team. It was a competitive, fun practice today."
* The end of practice on Saturday left the Buccaneers just a week away from their preseason home opener against Cincinnati. That might be another reason for the minor scuffles in practice.
"It's that time – tired of hitting each other," said Arians. "But we've got three more days of it. You've just got to push through it, like today. [They] have tomorrow off and we'll cut this day short a little bit for them and come back and have a really spirited Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday."
Arians said the Buccaneers will not alter their practice format to make it more like a game week, since very little game-planning goes into a preseason contests, particularly the first one. What little specific Bengals prep Arians is planning makes it clear that, as expected, the vast majority of the action will go players down the depth chart.
"[We'll] look at Cincinnati a little bit for the young guys to just give them a chance to know what they're going to see," he said. "We'll look at Cincinnati's formations on Thursday and try to show them the base stuff defensively and offensively. And mostly for the young guys so that they know what they're going up against."
The Buccaneers' 2021 roster, with almost every significant player back from their 2020 Super Bowl squad, is deep at nearly every position. The real battles at most positions are four or five spots down the line, and even eventual practice squad spots won't be easy to win. At least this year, unlike the COVID-stalled 2020 summer, will include the preseason games that are so important to young players trying to win jobs.
"All those guys I want to see in a game," said Arians. "They've kind of seen the same offense over and over so they should be able to diagnose it a little bit better than they're diagnosing it. For those guys – the fourth, fifth corner; fourth, fifth safeties; fourth, fifth linebackers, inside [and] outside; the same thing offensively – there's a bunch of competition that I want to see in games. I've seen enough practice, I just want to see it in games now."