Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Route-Running Takes Mike Evans' Career to a New Level

Notes: WR Mike Evans is closing in on a historic NFL milestone, and he's likely having his best year yet because he has made one big improvement to his game…Plus more on Jordan Whitehead and Dare Ogunbowale

If Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Mike Evans picks up at least 47 receiving yards on Sunday against San Francisco – and his per-game average in 2018 is more than double that – he will join an exclusive club. Forty-seven yards would put Evans over 1,000 on the year, which would be his fifth 1,000-yard receiving efforts in as many NFL seasons. Before 2018, only two players in NFL history had started their careers with five consecutive 1,000-yard receiving seasons: Randy Moss and A.J. Green.

After averaging just under 1,200 yards per season in his first three years, Evans just barely kept his streak alive in 2017 with a 1,001-yard campaign. The 16-yard catch that finally put him over the top literally came with less than a minute left in the season. This year, Evans is about to crack quadruple digits…and there are six full games to play.

Whether or not Evans ends up surpassing his 2016 career high of 1,321 yards – he's on pace for 1,531, so there's a very good chance he does – it seems clear that his game has evolved to another level. Pro Bowl balloting just began across the league and Evans, who went to his first all-star game after that great 2016 campaign, seems like a very strong candidate to get his second such honor. Evans ranks sixth in the NFL and fifth in the NFC in receiving yards and his average of 17.1 yards per catch is better than every other player in the top 20 except his teammate, DeSean Jackson.

Head Coach Dirk Koetter, who has been calling plays for Evans since the receiver's second year in the league, points to one specific improvement that has made his game better across the board.

"The best thing that Mike is doing more than the whole time that I have been here is he runs every route to win, whether he's the primary or not," said Koetter. "He's really increased his stamina level and I always look at the play thing at the end of the game, the percentage, and Mike's playing over 85 percent of the plays, which, to run that many routes full speed – especially because we're not running very many short routes – that's impressive. Mike's got himself in great condition and then the mental toughness that he's developed to be able to run those routes full speed. When Mike runs those routes full speed, his size, speed, athleticism, makes him tough to cover."

Koetter is not fond of the "target" statistic for receivers, and for good reason. Sometimes players are the intended targets on passes they have no chance to pull in, and other times the actual intended target is misconstrued. In Evans' case, he's never going to be one of the league's leaders in percentage of targeted balls caught because he is so frequently asked to make lower-percentage plays downfield. All of that said, and for what it's worth, Evans currently has the highest percentage of targets caught in his career, by a good margin.

The prolific nature of the Bucs' passing attack – the sheer depth of dangerous weapons for the quarterbacks – likely has helped take some defensive attention away from Evans, but he clearly remains the team's number-one target. In all likelihood, he'll join Moss and Green in that exclusive club this weekend, as he's only had one game all year in which he failed to get at least 50 yards. He could break the team's single-season record of 1,422 receiving yards, set by Mark Carrier in 1989. And he very well might end up in another Pro Bowl.

As for that final honor, though, Evans understands there is a lot of competition in a league that is flooded with talented pass-catchers.

"The position, skill players are different now," he said. "There have always been great ones, but at every position there's guys that can do it all. The running backs can catch, tight ends are like receivers and all the receivers are really good, so it's tough to stop a team like that."

* On Wednesday, the Buccaneers put out their longest injury report of the season so far. The list ran 14 men deep and included five players who were not practicing at all.

There were some developments in both directions on that injury report on Thursday after the team wrapped up an early practice and sent the players home to enjoy Thanksgiving. For instance, wide receiver DeSean Jackson, who suffered a thumb injury in last Sunday's game against the New York Giants, went from limited participation on Wednesday to full participation on Thursday. In contrast, center Ryan Jensen has been dealing with a hamstring injury for several weeks and he took part in a limited fashion in the first workout but sat out the second one.

The other change was notable because it marked a specific step that rookie safety Jordan Whitehead needed to make in order to have a chance to play against San Francisco on Sunday. Whitehead is on the list due to a concussion he sustained against the Giants.

"It happened sometime in the fourth quarter and he is in the concussion protocol," said Koetter. "Anytime that happens, there are various steps you have to go through, and returning to practice today is one of those."

Whitehead didn't practice on Wednesday but he was a full participant on Thursday, though he donned the black jersey that tells other players to avoid all contact with him. That's standard practice for a player returning from a concussion. Whitehead had to get in a practice to clear another step in the protocol, and now the team's medical staff will evaluate how he reacts to that workout on Friday.

If Whitehead is not cleared in time for Sunday's game, the Buccaneers will be thin at the safety position because second-year starter Justin Evans has not practiced in two weeks due to a toe injury. The team's other options at the position are Andrew Adams, Godwin Igwebuike and Josh Shaw, all of whom have been added to the active roster after the season began. Igwebuike was just promoted from the practice squad last week and Shaw was signed this Tuesday.

* Like Igwebuike, running back Dare Ogunbowale got a promotion from the practice squad last week and made his NFL regular-season debut against the Giants. Ogunbowale was immediately installed as the new kickoff returner, with rookie Shaun Wilson going to injured reserve, and his timing was outstanding.

Through the first nine games of the season, the buccaneers had a total of 13 kickoff returns, as many teams chose to hit touchbacks as often as possible. In his first game alone, Ogunbowale logged seven kickoff returns for 137 yards, making him the team's season-long leader in that category, amazingly.

Ogunbowale's average doesn't look impressive, although at 19.4 per return he is also the team's leader in that category over Wilson and Jacquizz Rodgers. But the first-year running back succeeded in keeping an apparent strategy by the Giants from putting the Buccaneers' offense in a whole. Giants kicker Aldrick Rosas left all but one of its kickoffs short of the end zone to force the Buccaneers to return the ball. Ogunbowale did what he was asked to do, hitting the first hole he got hard and quickly, and he gave the team an average kickoff drive start of the 24-yard line, nearly identical to the results of taking all touchbacks.

"I thought he did a really good job," said Koetter. "We were liking Dare clear back in the preseason, as far as being a return guy as a possibility, when he first got here. He's done it before, but he hasn't been active. I thought he hit it hard. They did challenge us to bring them out. I thought Dare did his part on that. He also had a nice tackle on kickoff team."

Meanwhile, Tampa Bay's kickoff coverage team had to stop the Giants on six runbacks in Sunday's game, after having to defend only 11 through the first nine games. This was not a strategic shift by the Buccaneers but a change in personnel, as new kicker Cairo Santos isn't as automatic with the deep kickoffs as the man he replaced, Chandler Catanzaro. The Giants ended up with a 23.0-yard return average and an average drive start of the 30-yard line, but Koetter was relatively pleased with the coverage. It appears those special-teamers will getting more work the rest of the way.

"We did better this last week," said Koetter. "If you're not able to kick it out – there's no crime in that – now you've got to try to hang it up there a little bit higher and you've got to cove