Pictures from the Buccaneers' practice on Wednesday.
Justin Evans played safety with abandon at Texas A&M, going full-speed all the time. As soon as he made it to the NFL, however, he had to put on the brakes.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers picked Evans in the second round of the 2017 draft. He joined his fellow rookies for a mini-camp at One Buccaneer Place the following weekend, then returned the next week for the start of the team's OTA practices. However, he was quickly sidelined by a knee injury and only got in a little bit of work in June before being shut down until training camp.
That was the aforementioned "brakes," or breaks if you will. Evans was put in a four-man competition for two starting safety spots, but he wasn't actually able to compete until the very end of July. That put him behind the incumbents, Chris Conte and Keith Tandy, and on par with free agency acquisition J.J. Wilcox, who had also dealt with offseason injuries. Eventually, Wilcox was traded to Pittsburgh after the Buccaneers acquired safety T.J. Ward, but Conte and Tandy went into the season as the starters.
"The thing that set Justin back is that he missed the entire OTAs [and] was just slow," said Koetter, who called the rookie a "freakish athlete." "[With] a lot of guys, when they first come to the league they're just not comfortable. They don't know the system. It's all new to them – new a lot of stuff. Many times, it happens that way when a guy is just kind of sitting back and then he is thrust into there, because of injury in this case, and then they take off. There is no denying his talent and it showed up big in the game."
The game to which Koetter refers was Evans' first start, which coincided with a visit to Raymond James Stadium by Hall of Fame-bound quarterback Tom Brady of the Patriots and the NFL's highest-scoring offense. Evans was in the lineup because both Tandy and Ward were out due to hip injuries. The rookie had made a solid half-game cameo four days earlier when Tandy was hurt against the New York Giants and had picked up a handful of defensive snaps in the previous two contests, but this was his first chance to play from whistle to whistle.
It went well, as Evans quickly got back up to speed. He picked off Brady on the game's first possession – ending a streak of 264 interception-free passes for the legendary passer – and racked up nine tackles. The Buccaneers' defense allowed only one touchdown and 19 total points to a New England attack that had been averaging around 32 per game.
Evans didn't focus on the identity of the opposing passer as he was preparing for his first start, but he conceded after words that making a big play against Brady was a confidence-booster. Just not one he particularly needed.
"I didn't go into it looking at it like, 'It's Tom Brady,'" said the rookie defender. "I know he's a great quarterback and that's a great team, but at the end of the day it's just football. That's what we're doing, just playing football, having fun. It probably ups [my confidence] a little bit, but I already had that confidence going in because that's just how my confidence meter is. Even if I didn't do good against Brady, my confidence would stay up because that's who I am."
Basically, Evans was the perfect example of a successful "next-man-up" transition, and it didn't surprise Defensive Coordinator Mike Smith at all.
"I said last week, I think he will perform like our rookie linebacker Kendell [Beckwith] has performed and I think he played very well for his first extended action," said Smith. "To have the pick early in the game, that was a huge play in the football game. He got his hand on two other balls. He is a very good football player. He just needs reps and he needs to see it. I think he is going to be a guy that is going to help us in the short term and the long term. He is a guy that can play both strong and free safety. He's getting comfortable back there and no disrespect to any of the other guys, he is probably the most athletic safety that we have."
The Buccaneers knew Evans was athletic after their draft scouting. They liked his range, his instincts and his toughness around the line of scrimmage, too. Like every scout who watched A&M tape of last year, the also knew that Evans missed too many tackles, but it was a problem they believed they could correct once he got under the tutelage of Defensive Backs Coach Brett Maxie and Secondary Coach Jon Hoke.
"I think Brett and Jon have done a great job in terms of working on the weakness that was perceived when he was coming out of college," said Smith. "I think he had one missed tackle in the game last week, but he had a couple really solid tackles in space. He is a long player. If he will continue to understand how you have to take the grass when you're in the open field and use that length, he will get guys to the ground more times than not."
Evans has taken to the coaching well. Smith said that has a lot to do with the NFL newcomer learning that he's not running around on the field on his own. He's working better in coordination with his teammates and not letting his speed work against him.
"In college, I missed a lot of tackles but it was really because I was just fast, no breakdown," said Evans. "That's a good thing and a bad thing, because you don't want your guys playing too slow but at the same time you don't want them playing too fast where they're whiffing on tackles. You've got to find the medium [ground] on that, and I'm still working on that. I'm still very aggressive, but I'm slowing down once I get to the point-of-attack, not trying to make a kill shot."
A look at the Cardinals' projected starters, according to the team's website.
The Buccaneers may need Evans to excel against another savvy veteran quarterback this weekend, as the Buccaneers head to Arizona to take on Carson Palmer and the Cardinals. Palmer is in his 14th season but he's throwing for over 300 gross passing yards per game and spreading the ball around to a host of talented pass-catchers. Head Coach Bruce Arians is adept at devising ways to get the ball deep against opposing defenses, particularly when he has the play-action game working. That may be more of a possibility for the Cardinals with the sudden arrival of running back Adrian Peterson.
Evans is studying up on Palmer and the Cardinals in case he is needed. Both Tandy and Ward returned to practice on Wednesday, but in a limited fashion. There's a good chance Evans will have a prominent role again this weekend.
"He's a great quarterback," said Evans of Palmer. "He reads the defenses real well. He likes to work the backside in three-by-ones when it's middle-of-the-field-closed. So we've got to be on that and try to hold our shell. We've just got to be detailed."
Even if Evans isn't in the starting lineup this weekend, it's almost certain that he'll be needed during the long 2017 season. Now that he's back at full-speed after his offseason delay, the rookie safety is ready to step in at any time. One of his teammates who happens to share an alma mater and a surname expects Evans to make more of an impact before the season is done.
"He played great [against the Patriots]," said former Texas A&M wide receiver Mike Evans. "As a rookie to come in and pick off Tom Brady for their first interception, that's a pretty good milestone right there. He's a good player for us. He'll be real good down the stretch."