There are two questions that come to mind after watching Mike Evans sit out a second straight practice on Thursday: Will he be able to play in the season opener, and what does it mean if he can't?
To the former question, one can first apply the "general rule," as Tampa Bay Buccaneers Head Coach Lovie Smith called it on Thursday. That is, if a player doesn't practice during the week, he's usually a pretty serious question mark to suit up on Sunday. Evans will have one more chance to get into the mix on Friday, but even if he does he will have missed the majority of the team's on-field game-planning for the Tennessee Titans.
There are, however, exceptions to the rule, and it's worth noting that Smith also said Evans, the second-year wideout who set a team record with 12 touchdown catches last year, is getting "a whole lot better" (emphasis added). If he was significantly better on Thursday than he was on Tuesday – and that's just one interpretation of Smith's statement – than there's a chance that rapid improvement could continue on Friday. Lovie Smith is on record as being particularly cautious with hamstring injuries, which is what has kept Evans on the sideline, but at some point the big receiver is going to be cleared to play.
READ: BUCS' INJURY REPORT
And it appears as if Smith is leaving the door open for at least the possibility that Evans will be ready by Sunday. If he is, the amount of practice he got in during the week won't be the deciding factor.
"If we have a good football player that doesn't practice all week and he gets up Sunday morning and says, 'Hey Lovie, I'm feeling good' - we have a history with him, he's going to play," said Smith. "As we go forward, that's what we will go with each week."
Of course, it would take more than a player's own request on Sunday morning to settle the matter. Player, coach and training staff would all have to be in agreement, and when it comes to long-term health, the team will err on the side of caution.
"First off, I would never jeopardize our players, period," said Smith. "If there is a question on if we think a player isn't ready or he hasn't been cleared by training staff, it's not even part of the conversation. A guy doesn't go out there until he feels like he is ready to go. Sometimes you can be released from the training room and from our medical people and you just don't feel like you are good to go, [then] we won't have him go."
READ: TITANS SCOUTING REPORT
Evans is likely eager to build on his fabulous rookie season, in which he caught he caught 68 passes for 1,051 yards and led the team in touchdowns. The Buccaneers would certainly like it if rookie quarterback Jameis Winston had his full arsenal of weapons available in his first regular-season start. You can debate whether Evans or veteran Vincent Jackson is Option #1 in the Bucs' passing attack – perhaps its best to call them 1A and 1B – but the second-year receiver will certainly be a featured part of the offense if he can go.
Last season, a hamstring injury suffered in the first half of the Bucs' win at Pittsburgh in Week Four cost Evans the rest of that game and the following week's contest in New Orleans. In the roughly six quarters he was out, Louis Murphy caught nine passes for 134 yards and a touchdown. And when Evans returned the next week against Baltimore with four catches for 55 yards and a score, Murphy still pitched in with another seven games for 72 yards and a second touchdown. All of this began with a Pittsburgh game played just a few days after Murphy was re-signed to the roster.
Murphy is now clearly the team's number-three receiver, and if Evans is sidelined he would likely start opposite Jackson. Murphy isn't quite as big as Evans and Jackson, but he still brings good size to the outside and the Bucs may be able to utilize Russell Shepard or rookie Adam Humphries in the slot. Humphries, in particular, fits the profile of a smaller, shiftier receiver with good hands and quick moves who could excel in the slot.
If Murphy is forced to take over for Evans, the Bucs will miss their 2014 first-round pick but they won't dwell on it, or change their approach significantly.
"We can't completely change our game plan like that," said Smith. "Our game plan is based a lot on Mike and if Mike is able to go, of course, we'll play to his strengths. But we can't run an entirely different offense if Mike can't go. Louis Murphy is capable – he is. As far as whether it's Russell Shepard, Adam Humphries, whoever – different flavor. Mike, Vincent [Jackson] and Louis, big guys. Now, we can have good size on the outside and have a little more quickness on the inside. We'll just lean to it a different way if that's the case."
Shepard has four career NFL catches over two seasons in which he has primarily been a standout on special teams. Humphries is an undrafted rookie who will also be playing in his first regular-season game on Sunday. Both players had strong showings in the preseason, however, and could be ready to step up if Evans is ruled out and the domino effect takes place on the depth chart.
Evans was one of only two players listed on the Bucs' injury report again on Thursday. Defensive end T.J. Fatinikun missed a second straight practice with a shoulder ailment. Game-status designations such as "questionable" and "probable" won't be added to the report until Friday, and Evans' chances to play might actually still be a question mark right up to Sunday afternoon.