Mike Evans is averaging a career-high 102.7 receiving yards in 2019, a hike of about seven yards from a year ago when he set a new Tampa Bay Buccaneers single-season record with 1,524 yards. That new per-game high is even more impressive considering that in one of his nine games this year he had exactly zero catches for zero yards.
That game came in Week Five in New Orleans, against the same foe he and the Buccaneers will be facing Sunday at Raymond James Stadium. It marked only the second time in his six-year career that he's been held without a catch for an entire game; the other one was also at New Orleans in Week Two of the 2015 season.
None of which is to suggest that the Saints are a particular problem for Evans, though their defense does possess a top-notch cornerback in Marshon Lattimore. In two games against New Orleans last year, Evans totaled 11 catches for 233 yards and a touchdown. And the zeroes in his stat line in Week Five meant a lot less to him than the numbers on the scoreboard, which were 31-24 in the Saints' favor.
"I never get down about the numbers," said Evans. "Obviously, I wanted the ball a lot that game. I want the ball a lot every game, it just doesn't happen every time like you want it. I try to bounce back each week and play the best ball that I can."
Evans hasn't just bounced back since that game, he's been on an absolute tear. In the four games since the Bucs' trip to Louisiana, he has 36 catches for 556 yards and three touchdowns. The Saints clearly rolled a lot of coverage in Evans' direction in the first game, which helped free up Chris Godwin for 125 yards and two touchdowns; a very similar thing happened in Tampa Bay's Week Two win at Carolina, in which Godwin had 121 yards and a key score. Evans did snare the longest pass of that game, a 41-yarder that set up Godwin's touchdown. He knows that defenses will pay extra attention to him on occasion but he just wants to make sure he takes advantage of any opportunities that he gets.
"I'm big on consistency, week to week, year by year, just because you've got to be your best self as much as you can," he said. "That's what people remember."
In a larger sense, Evans has been one of the most consistent receivers the NFL has ever seen. The seventh-overall pick in the 2014 draft, he started his career with a 1,051-yard campaign and has subsequently surpassed 1,000 yards every season since. Only Randy Moss and A.J. Green had previously opened their careers with five straight 1,000-yard receiving seasons.
Evans is at 924 yards nine games into his sixth season, which makes a sixth straight 1,000-yard campaign a near lock. Given his per-game average, Evans is a good bet to get there this Sunday. If he does, he'll join Moss as the only two players ever to do that at the start of a career, and Moss is a player Evans has looked up to since his early days.
"It means a lot," said Evans of potentially joining Moss in such an exclusive group. "He's a guy I've looked up to. Everybody looked up to him – he has a catch named after him. How cool is that? It's just great. I know Randy. It would be cool to be just me and him, and then hopefully if I stay healthy next year I can do it and surpass him. That would be cool."
The only player in the NFL with more receiving yards than Evans in 2019 is Michael Thomas, who will be on the same field on Sunday for the Saints. Thomas is on pace for an NFL-record 153 catches, while Evans is on pace to break the Bucs' yardage record for the second year in a row. They get their production in different ways, with Evans among the league leaders with an average of 17.1 yards per catch and Thomas remarkably catching 83.5% of his targets, of which he averages a league-high 11.4 per game. It works out to roughly the same thing: 10.4 yards per target for Evans and 10.0 for Thomas.
Of course, Thomas had the bigger day in the first Bucs-Saints matchup of the season, catching 11 passes for 182 yards and two scores. Evans is almost certainly not going to be held catch-less again in Sunday's rematch, and it appears that Lattimore may not play after suffering a hamstring injury last weekend against Atlanta. Whether Lattimore plays or not is not on Evans's mind as he prepares for the game because he is confident in his ability to beat any cornerback in the league in man-to-man coverage.
And his past games against the Saints, whether it be a low-output one like in Week Five or his big games last year, aren't predictive of what he will do on Sunday. He'll see what the defense is doing and do his best to get open consistently.
"It doesn't matter much," said Evans. "As far as man-to-man, I don't have to really…I mean, I've played them so much I now their tendencies and things like that. It's just about the defense as a whole and how they switch up things. The Saints, sometimes they'll play man-to-man the whole game and sometimes they'll play Cover Two the whole game. You never know what you're going to get."
Evans has played five of his six games with Jameis Winston, and Winston has never been shy about trying to get the football into his best receiver's hands as often as possible. Evans may not care about his numbers, but Winston knows it's important to have him involved in the offense, no matter what the Saints try to do.
"I'm pretty lucky to have that guy, Mike Evans," said Winston. "I'm just excited for him – he's definitely going to be a Hall of Famer one day. But, we've got to keep on giving him the ball and we're going to find a way to give him the rock this game."
The Pro Football Hall of Fame? That's definitely not something Evans is focused on right now.
"I love Jameis, but that's very, very premature," he said. "I've got a lot of work to do, starting this Sunday."