By virtually any measure, Buccaneer star Mike Evans has been a hugely successful NFL receiver through his first four seasons. Since he entered the league as the seventh-overall pick in the 2014 Draft, Evans has recorded the sixth-most receiving yards and the 10th-most receptions, and he's tied for the seventh-most touchdown receptions. The names all around him on those lists are easily recognizable as the best in the game – Antonio Brown, Odell Beckham, Julio Jones, et cetera.
By one measure, however, Evans has not been good enough to satisfy his own expectations. It is the same thing that he pinpointed a year ago as he was coming off his best season yet (96 receptions for 1,321 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2016): YAC.
"The next level," said Evans after the Buccaneers' first OTA practice on Tuesday, "is yards after catch."
Yes, the elusive YAC. It's about the only thing Evans hasn't caught in his four years. And after making a specific effort to address that one area he felt was lacking in his game, he actually posted a career-low average of 1.6 yards after the catch in 2017.
"YAC, my yards after catch wasn't as good," said Evans. "I don't know what it was. I guess my awareness wasn't where it should've been. I've just got to work on it more in practice and get more reps at it."
Part of the reason for Evans' annually low YAC totals is in the way that he is used. Evans catches footballs farther down the field, on average, than anybody in the NFL. Of all the players who have had at least 100 catches over the last four years combined, none can top Evans' career mark of 12.5 yards at the point of the catch. He often makes contested catches, catches in traffic and catches with defenders right on his hip. And a good number of his touchdowns come on balls thrown across the goal line – fades and jump balls and the like – and by definition each one of those will have zero YAC.
Evans has ranked in the top seven in the league in average yards at catch (Y@C), and he's the only one consistently near the top. There has been only one receiver in the league who has ranked higher than Evans in that category more than once: Detroit's Marvin Jones the last two years. So there is always going to be a Y@C-YAC tug in Evans' very, very good statistics.
Still, as he points out, the YAC part of his game has declined through his four years. He started out with a YAC average of 2.7 as a rookie, climbed to 3.3 in 2015 and then fell to 1.8 and 1.6 the last two years. Even just improving last year's YAC average to what he did in 2015 would have added 121 yards to his season total, and that would have lifted him from 15th in the NFL in receiving yards to ninth. He wants that part of his game to improve so he can continue to rise towards the top of the league's wideout ranks.
"I think last year was my worst year in YAC, so I've got another hurdle to jump over and I think I'll be much better this year," he said. "I was healthy for the most part last year. I've got to do better in that category, and I think if I do that I'll be the most complete receiver."
So how can Evans make a significant improvement in his yards after the catch if he is still being used in the same way in the offense? One avenue is mostly out of his control; if players like DeSean Jackson and Chris Godwin can take more of the defense's attention away from Evans, he might occasionally get the ball in his hands in more open space. Jameis Winston had trouble making a downfield connection with the speedy Jackson in their first year together, and Godwin only became heavily involved in the offense late in his rookie season. Winston and Jackson expect to be more productive together in 2018 and everyone at One Buccaneer Place is expecting big things from Godwin.
But Evans thinks he can help his own cause, too, even if he's still catching a lot of passes with defenders all around him.
"I've been getting a lot of attention for the past few years. There's kind of nowhere for me to go after I get it but one or two extra yards. So I need to get in that habit of breaking more tackles and things like that, because I'm a big, strong, athletic guy and I can do it. It's just a lot of attention my way, so I've got to get better at that."
Statistically, Evans' top accomplishment as a receiver so far is the one oft-noted here (and elsewhere) but still worth repeating: He is just the third player in NFL history to open his career with four straight seasons of 1,000 or more receiving yards, joining Randy Moss and A.J. Green. Evans is most definitely an elite NFL receiver already and the Buccaneers can be nothing but thrilled with what he has done in his first four yards. But Evans isn't satisfied yet and he specifically wants to up his yards after the catch. If he does that to any notable degree, he would take his game to an even higher level.