Many Bucs fans still recall Michael Clayton's remarkable rookie season. While Clayton may be the last player you would want Mike Evans compared to, they share a common bond. As of the beginning of the 2015 season, they are the only two players in Buccaneers history to surpass 1,000 receiving yards as a rookie. But not all wide receivers experience the dreaded "sophomore slump" like Clayton, in fact, many players have breakout years statistically in their second season. Jerry Rice, for example, had a monstrous sophomore campaign in 1986, netting 1,570 yards and a Pro Bowl nomination.
With the Pro Bowl accepting just the top eight wide receivers, Evans will face some tough competition to make the roster. He showed last year that he is one of the premier deep threats in the league with 15.5 yards per reception (12th amongst qualifying receivers) and 12 touchdowns, putting him behind only Dez Bryant, Antonio Brown, and Jordy Nelson. He was the 13th receiver in Pro Football Focus grading in 2014 and is currently 20th in Madden 16 ratings and 12th in ESPN fantasy football projections. Evans will need to improve upon his remarkable freshmen season to reach his goal; however, he is not too far away.
1,000-Yard Rookie Receivers
In 2014, Evans was joined by Odell Beckham Jr. and Kelvin Benjamin as the first trio of rookies to amass 1,000 receiving yards in the same season. From 1970 to 2013, only twelve rookies achieved that feat, and out of those players, only four repeated the accomplishment the next season. Five others were on close pace to reach the 1,000-yard mark but missed a combined 21 games due to injuries (or in Cris Collinsworth's case, the 1982 NFL strike). Out of that original twelve, nine had at least one additional 1,000-yard season after their rookie year (and Keenan Allen can make it 10 this season).
History suggests that 1,000-yard rookie receivers are rarely a flash in the pan. Eight out of those 12 receivers were selected to a Pro Bowl after their rookie seasons. Despite not making a Pro Bowl roster, Michael Clayton, Joey Galloway, Marques Colston, and Keenan Allen all have had tremendous seasons, and the latter two still have a chance to earn a nomination.
Pro Bowl Caliber Receiver
Evans showed that he has the skill set to be in the top tier at his position. He excels at two of the most important things receivers do: getting open deep and catching the ball. Last season, Evans only had four drops (16th in the NFL) and caught an amazing 77% of contested balls, per NFL.com's Matt Harmon. He also led the league in both number of receptions of at least 20 yards and yards gained running the go route (a common straight line deep route). Astoundingly, one out of every three of Mike's catches came from deep and he hauled them in at the ninth highest rate per Pro Football Focus.
So why didn't Evans make the Pro Bowl last year and what will it take to get there this year? Let's take a look at the statistical makeup of a Pro Bowl receiver. While the roster is somewhat a popularity contest, fans still (debatably) select the top players each year. Using last year's participants, we can get an idea of what the "average Pro Bowl receiver" looks like.
In 2014, 201 wide receivers caught a pass in the regular season. The "average Pro Bowl receiver" would rank in the top 96th percentile of catches, 97th percentile of yards, and 93rd percentile of touchdowns. Evans would need an additional 327 yards to reach those numbers and using his 2014 average yards per reception, we can estimate that would require just an additional 22 catches.
Perhaps a change at quarterback will push Evans to a higher level of output. Quarterbacks that start at least half their rookie season typically boost their team's passing efficiency. While we may not know how many games Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston will play in this season, we can look at instances where a rookie quarterback has taken on significant playing time in his first year. We will need to look at advanced stats to best estimate how much more (or less) efficient a team's passing offense may be. For this exercise we will use a team's adjusted net yards per attempt (ANY/A) as well as passer rating which both attempt to show a quarterback's success on a per attempt basis with an emphasis on both touchdowns and interceptions.
The numbers shows that injecting a new quarterback typically has a positive effect on an offense. On average, ANY/A improves 0.5 yards (a 3.5% increase) and team passer rating goes up 2.3 percentage points (a 12% increase). Even a small increase can benefit Evans since he is already near the top of the league.
Evans is already putting in the work to become a more "complete" receiver, admitting that last year he had a limited route tree coming out of college. When asked where he can improve during this offseason in an interview with ESPN, Evans responded, "Route running and understanding coverages more. I had a good feel for it last year and I came on late. But I think I can improve on that and be a much better receiver.'' Hopefully, with Evans' hard work and a rejuvenated offense in 2015 under offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter and rookie quarterback Jameis Winston, Evans can build upon his accomplishments from last season and garner national attention on the Pro Bowl ballot.