The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have happily welcomed crowds back at training camp this summer after last year's COVID-19 lockdown, and the first player to draw a huge response from the fans was, unsurprisingly, wide receiver Mike Evans in Sunday's opening practice.
Evans caught a pass near the sideline early in that workout and his momentum forced him to leap over the plastic fence separating the bleachers from the field. After practice, when asked about fans cheering his every catch, Evans smiled and said, "I didn't make many."
Whether or not that was true on Sunday, it certainly was not the case in the two practices that followed. Evans made the two big catches on a successful Tom Brady-led two-minute drill on Monday and then was seemingly everywhere on Tuesday, snaring one catch after another. While some players on the Bucs' 90-man roster are struggling a bit with the heat and with some subsequent drops or mistakes in the latter stages of practice, Evans looks like he's in midseason form.
"That's Mike," said Head Coach Bruce Arians on Tuesday. "He should be, he's All-Pro. If he wasn't I'd be really concerned. Some of these guys didn't train in this humidity. Mike's one of these guys, he gets there and I'm really pleased with where he's at."
So okay, yes, the title to this particular story might be a bit too obvious. Mike Evans is always going to draw attention and before the pads go on in camp it's a good bet the receivers will be the stars of the show overall. But Evans is sharing the spotlight somewhat with another receiver that wasn't a sure bet to be showing up this early in his first NFL training camp.
That would be fourth-round rookie Jaelon Darden, a small (5-8, 173) but very shifty receiver who is already showing a knack for getting open, even against some of the Bucs' best defenders. Because he's looked interesting early and because the Bucs have a few receivers currently sitting out, Darden has not been relegated to playing exclusively with the reserves, even at quarterback. Some of his passes are already coming from Tom Brady.
"Yeah, he's going to keep flashing," said Arians. "Just let him grow. That's why he's out there with Tom and those guys. He's learning you don't just run – get the head around because that ball's already in the air. He knows how to get open and it's just letting him finish now."
View some of the photos from Buccaneers Training Camp practice at the AdventHealth Training Center.
Arians noted on Sunday that Darden had impressed with his route running but had too many drops, perhaps due to nerves this early in his professional career. Arians believes Darden has excellent hands that will help him "finish" more of those plays, as he did on a diving catch in the end zone during a red zone drill on Tuesday that was largely controlled by the defense.
A few plays later in that same drill, Brady lofted a perfect fade pass to Evans at the right edge of the end zone and the eighth-year receiver made a trademark leaping, toe-tapping catch over a defender. Given how many times we've seen such a play, the somewhat less spectacular Darden touchdown was probably the more noteworthy moment of that drill. Either way, the rookie has already impressed his veteran teammate, who is eager to help him succeed.
"We've got two rookie wide receivers," said Evans, also including undrafted free agent T.J. Simmons. "They're playing really good. Jaelon is so fast and he's going to be a really good player for us. Just telling them to keep working and to have fun with it. It's the same, it's just football. The guys are a little bit better, a little bit stronger, but it's just football at the end of the day. Just keep working and everything will play itself out."
Even if it's not particularly surprising, it's still encouraging to see Evans already flashing signs of dominance. Already the only player in NFL history to open his career with seven straight 1,000-yard seasons, Evans is still only 27 and still in a position to be the top performer in an absolutely loaded passing game. He could even improve on his numbers from his first year working with Brady, which saw him set a personal bets with 13 touchdowns but his second-lowest yardage total, at 1,006.
"I feel like each year I get better," said Evans. "I improve in my route running. My body has more juice. I'm healthier every year. I feel lighter."
And the Buccaneers believe their offense can be much better in year two of the Brady era. That group was humming over the last two months of the 2020 season but had its ups and downs over the first three. This year, it is primed to hit the ground running.
"I felt that in mini camp," said Evans. "In mini camp, it seems like we didn't leave. It felt like we took a couple of weeks off and we're back it. I feel like we're going to be much better, especially offensively this year. I'm just excited to see what we can do."