It could be 97 catches. It could be 1,525 yards. Maybe it will be 15 touchdowns.
Mike Evans, now entering his ninth season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, could set new personal bests with any of those numbers in 2022, and if he manages to combine a few of them it would easily be the best season by a wide receiver in franchise history. But Evans doesn't need to hit any of those milestones in order for him to feel like he's reached a new peak in his stellar career.
On Wednesday, after the second practice of the Buccaneers' three-day mini-camp, Evans was asked what the ongoing recovery of fellow star wideout Chris Godwin from a knee injury means for him and the rest of the receiving corps. Evans made it clear that the team wants Godwin back in action as soon as possible and that newcomer Russell Gage can help pick up some slack, but along the way he also set a goal that should concern opposing defensive backs in 2022.
"Russ was a nice pickup this offseason, obviously," said Evans. "I got to get some work in with him. I watched him play for a few years in Atlanta – he can play. He's going to help our team. Obviously, we want Chris back ASAP. He's one of the best players in the league and one of our leaders. We want him back. I'm just doing my thing. Every year I'm just trying to be the best that I can be. Hopefully this will be my best season."
Again, if we're speaking in terms of statistics, Evans has set the bar awfully high for himself. His 96 catches for 1,321 yards and 12 touchdowns led to his first Pro Bowl appearance in 2016. His 1,524 receiving yards in 2018, his second Pro Bowl season, established a single-season franchise record. And he simply keeps setting new Buccaneer standards for touchdown catches along the way, first with a dozen in both 2014 and 2016 and then with 13 in 2020 and 14 last year. But if Evans were to pick his best season yet he would probably point to 2020, when he actually finished with his second-lowest yardage total ever at 1,006. That season, of course, ended in a Super Bowl championship, in which he played a huge role.
So what would Evans' best season yet look like to him?
"Winning a lot on a lot of routes, blocking great, staying healthy and winning a lot of football games," he stated succinctly.
It is hard to look away from those statistics, though. Evans is famously the first player in NFL history to open his career with eight straight 1,000-yard seasons. Except when he has been limited by injuries – and he's played at least 13 games in each of those seasons – Evans has been the most consistently productive offensive player in franchise history. And that consistency has been earned. He says that he has consistently looked for ways through the years to keep his body fit and strong, a process that is still evolving today.
"Every year I just try to find ways to keep my body in tip-top shape," said Evans. "So that's what I do, because when I'm feeling good I feel like I'm the best. I've just got to get in that position where I'm feeling my best.
"Like I said, I've been blessed, but I've always believed in my abilities. Every year I'm going to come in super-confident. If I'm feeling good, like I said, I feel like I'm the best. I'm just trying to improve each year, and I'm just happy to be here."
Because he posted his first 1,000-yard season as a 21-year-old rookie, Evans is nine years in but still shy of his 29th birthday. He has plenty of time left in his career to build on his 606 catches for 9,301 yards and 75 touchdowns. It won't take too much more to make him a slam-dunk Hall of Fame candidate. And, as his teammates are fully aware, Evans remains highly motivated to continue his dominant level of play.
"He has the size, he has that sneaky speed, he's sneaky-quick, but what people don't understand is that Mike is a hell of a competitor," said cornerback Carlton Davis, who has had many one-on-one battles with Evans on the practice field. "I don't even think people understand – there are days where it's like Day Six of camp and he's going hard. My legs hurt and I'm barely getting out of my pedal and he's full-speed, full-go. He's on a different timing than everybody else. He wants it more. You can just tell that he wants it more. He has the physical abilities, he can do it all, but his mental [strength] and how he approaches the game is so much different and just underrated. I don't think a lot of people understand that. He's a monster to go up against every day because he doesn't like to lose, and when he loses he gets really mad. You don't want to see Mike mad."
It also helps that the Buccaneers as a team are now among the league's elite. Evans experienced just one winning season during his first six in the league, and he said that one (a 9-7 finish in 2016) doesn't count because it didn't lead to the playoffs. Now that he's had a glimpse at the other side, he never wants to go back.
"I always try to be positive but six years of just losing, never touching the playoffs, it hurts. And the position that I play and what I've gone through in this heat, it was tough. But Tom [Brady] came and helped us. We had a lot of key guys that stepped up and helped us out to turn this program around to a winning program."
"It's just extra motivation. I hope I can experience this the rest of my career. Sold out stadiums, go on the road sold out, everybody giving us their best – I want to experience that for the rest of my career."