Mike Evans burst onto the NFL scene in 2014 with 68 receptions for 1,051 yards and 12 touchdown grabs, the latter a single-season record for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Even in a draft class that also included Odell Beckham, Sammy Watkins Kelvin Benjamin, Brandin Cooks, Jordan Matthews, Davante Adams, Allen Robinson and Jarvis Landry, Evans stood out as a burgeoning NFL star.
Thirteen games into his second season (actually 12, as he missed the 2015 season opener with a hamstring injury), Evans is on pace to reach 70 catches for 1,094 yards and four touchdowns. If one extrapolates his numbers based on the 12 games he's actually played in instead of the Bucs' 13 games overall, those targets improve to 76 catches and 1,185 yards.
And yet there is some sense that Evans is having a disappointing follow-up to his magnificent rookie season. His touchdown figure is indeed down, but that can be a more capricious statistic than yards or catches. For instance, Detroit's Calvin Johnson has four seasons with 12 or more touchdowns but another three with five or fewer.
Rather, if Evans has drawn criticism from outside the team, it has been due to an uncharacteristic string of dropped passes in a couple games and the occasional offensive pass interference call. That latter issue can be frustrating for a big receiver like Evans because defenders tend to play him physically and there is often significant contact both ways on downfield throws. That was the case on one occasion last week against New Orleans.
"There's nothing I can do about it now," said Evans. "I've got to worry about the Rams. We've got another physical secondary and I've got to match it with my physicality. I can't worry about the refs. I've said that before, but it's tough. I'll get through it."
Perhaps a better word than 'disappointing' would be 'unsatisfying,' because even Evans thinks he has left some production on the field.
"It hasn't been as good," said Evans matter-of-factly of his second year. "It's easier for me to get open and things like that, it's just my fundamentals. I haven't been as tight on my fundamentals as last year. But I'm looking to finish strong these last three games. Hopefully – anything can happen – we get these three wins, a couple people lose and we get in the playoffs."
A Mike Evans that is motivated to finish the season on a high note is a good thing for the Buccaneers, because the 22-year-old receiver has shown he can go on streaks of dominance. He had 554 yards and six touchdowns in the month of November last year, for instance, and he had a run of three 100-yard games in four weeks at midseason this fall. There's a decent chance that Evans will shot past those "on-pace" numbers listed above, especially since a potential Vincent Jackson absence due to a knee injury would likely increase his targets.
If Evans' does see an uptick in production, it will be because he's the best option on any given play, not because Offensive Coordinator is forcing the ball in his direction more often. In response to a question about Doug Martin's usage in the Saints game, Koetter expounded on Tuesday about the effect that "time and score" can have on play-calling as a game develops. That's true for a receiver, too, and in addition coverage choices by the defense can affect where the ball goes even after the play is called and the snap is made.
"When you're in the game you're trying to work your game plan and move the football," said Koetter. "Again, I'm not sitting out there checking it off – 'Mike has so many targets, Doug has so many targets.' In the passing game, targets are determined by the defense, not by the offense."
Photos from the Bucs' practice on Wednesday, December 15th, at One Buccaneer Place in Tampa.
Koetter also understands that opposing teams are putting more focus on stopping Evans in 2015 after his great rookie campaign. That and a few other notable factors have served to reduce his opportunities, which only makes his on-pace numbers even more impressive…and certainly not disappointing.
"I think people game-plan for Mike a lot more than maybe they did last year," said Koetter. "Mike is drawing more double-teams than perhaps he did last year. Mike still has high 800s in yards. He's still probably going to go over 1,000 yards, unless something bad happens. I would just say, more than anything, defenses are probably more aware of him, and [there are] growing pains with a rookie quarterback, and we're running the ball more. We're running the ball more, last year they threw it a little more. We're running the ball more and probably more successfully than they did last year."
That double-teaming of Evans is likely not going to go away this Thursday, either. He's preparing for that likelihood and looking forward to succeeding in spite of it.
"This week, these guys, they doubled Calvin [Johnson]," said Evans. "I don't know if they'll double me but it will be a short turnaround for them so they might keep the same game plan with [Vincent Jackson] being out. But I'm going to embrace the challenge and our receivers are going to embrace it."