Mike Evans amassed 1,321 receiving yards last year, which ranked fourth in the NFL and made him one of 23 wide receivers to surpass the 1,000-yard mark. However, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' star pass-catcher cracked four digits in a way that was significantly different from the other 22 players on that list.
Specifically, Evans consistently worked farther downfield than most receivers, on average, frequently getting open in the intermediate-passing range. And when he was less than fully open, when passes were contested, often in the end zone, he helped out his quarterback by frequently winning those battles. He tied for second in the NFL in catches made on third down but, more significantly, turned all 28 of those receptions into first downs. Nobody else in the NFL even turned 90% of their third-down grabs into first downs.
All of that paints a picture of a receiver who is excellent at providing Y@C, or yards at catch. His 1,152 Y@C led the entire NFL. The flip side of this stat is YAC, or yards after the catch. In that regard, Evans' average of 1.8 yards after catch was easily the lowest of all 23 of those 1,000-yard receivers. That was somewhat a function of the Bucs' offensive approach, not to mention Evans' great work in the end zone. Most of his 12 touchdowns were on passes that went into the end zone. By definition, a catch made in the end zone will get you six points but it will never get you a single yard after the catch.
So it's hard to excel in both categories, YAC and Y@C. Evans's new teammate, DeSean Jackson, is a notable exception. He ranked third in the NFL in Y@C in 2017 while still posting an above-average 5.1 YAC mark. Since he entered the league in 2008, Jackson has ranked seventh in the NFL in Y@C and fifth in the NFL in YAC. That's a remarkable combination that indicates he's adept at both getting behind the defense and turning short passes into long gains.
Photos from Mike Evans' 2016 campaign.
Evans is not the same type of receiver as Jackson, so he's not likely to match that dual Y@C/YAC performance. However, he does think he can improve significantly on gaining yards after the catch, and that's a top priority for him in 2017. In April, as he prepared to build on three straight 1,000-yard seasons to open his career, Evans was asked the one thing he hopes to improve in his game this year. His answer was succinct:
"My explosiveness and yards after the catch," he said.
Opposing defenses should be concerned. In much the same way quarterback Jameis Winston obsesses over fixing any flaws in his game, Evans has proved he can identify and eliminate a shortcoming in his own body of work. A year ago at this time, he was working on being a more reliable target for Winston after dropping more passes than he would have liked in 2015. It worked. Evans also thought he could be a more consistent player for Winston by better controlling his emotions during games. That too was noticeably better in 2016. The result was Evans becoming the Buccaneers' most consistently player on offense…not to mention a Pro Bowler for the first time.
Now, with the urging of Offensive Coordinator/Wide Receivers Coach Todd Monken, Evans is setting his sights on jacking up his YAC.
"I think the biggest thing is his ability to – one is his route running and his run after catch," said Monken. "I think he has more in the tank with him because he does have a natural, competitive-grit side to him that he should be better with the ball in his hands. I think as he gets more and more comfortable – I think last year was a piece of, 'OK, let's get better at catching it. Let's eliminate some of the drops that you've had that have led to stopped drives.' OK, so we got that somewhat corrected. Now, how do we get to where we can utilize your competitive spirit, your ability to run after catch?"
Monken said that Evans has dropped a little weight and has looked sharp in the offseason. The 23-year-old receiver is taking his competitive nature on the field and applying it more to the work that takes place between January and September. Evans is working on improving in that split-second after the catch, when you turn quickly and push upfield. That involves working with chains and resistance bands and the ilk.
A look back at Mike Evans' 12 touchdowns during the 2016 season.
"My workouts have been a little different, I've been doing things with like, pulling things and working my yards after catch," said Evans. "Other than that, I've just been like changing up my workouts. I haven't really gotten any advice on how to be explosive."
If Evans is truly determined to improve his results once the football in his hands – and in the process potentially take his game to an All-Pro level – it would be unwise to bet against him. Evans may have learned how to channel his passion in 2016 and make it more constructive than destructive, but that fire still burns in him.
"I'm competitive at anything and that just like, drives me," said Evans. "That's why I get so, you know, on the field I have that emotion. This past year I think I did a good job of channeling that, having passion over emotion like Coach Dirk (Koetter) always says. But I just love competing at anything."