Last season, Jameis Winston and Mike Evans became the first quarterback-receiver combo in NFL history to hook up for at least 50 completions before either player turned 23 years old. And yet, neither young star ever felt like they were quite on the same page with each other.
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Winston was the 21-year-old rookie passer who became just the third rookie ever to surpass 4,000 passing yards. Evans was the 22-year-old pass-catcher who followed up his 1,051-yard rookie campaign with another 1,206 in 2015, thereby joining Randy Moss as the only players ever to post two 1,000-yard seasons by that age. As the shared production of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' last two first-round picks and a pair of bona fide stars-in-the-making, those numbers should be seen as the beginning of something very special in Tampa.
And that's exactly what they are. In fact, it should probably be doubly encouraging that the two young players did all of that while, in Evans' own words, lacking a bit of "chemistry." That's an issue that the two have been working on this offseason, even before they were allowed to hit the field together at One Buccaneer Place. Though Evans increased his yardage total in the second year of his career, his touchdowns dropped from 11 to three and he had fewer big plays downfield, which was a bit surprising given Winston's strong arm.
"We've been hanging out more," said Evans. "You know, even though we're both busy guys, we find time to hang out and throw when we can. I agree with [Head Coach] Dirk [Koetter], our chemistry was a little off last year. Mostly on my end though, but I feel that it won't be a problem this year.
"I've just got to get open more. I didn't create enough separation for him. It's hard to throw a deep ball when a guy doesn't have as much separation, so I have to do a better job on my end."
Evans wondered aloud about the perception of his 2015 season being a "sophomore slump," noting the uptick in his yardage, but he readily agreed that he wasn't as consistent as he expected to be. He said he would be focusing on the fundamentals this offseason in order to reduce his number of dropped passes, and he also sought advice from Moss on that subject. But Winston doesn't think the missed opportunities between him and Evans were a one-sided issue.
"I've just got to give the guys chances to make plays on the ball, and that's something that I have…me and Mike [Evans] really specifically worked on that," said Winston. "We spent like two days just doing deep balls. Of course he's tired, but he kept doing it. We actually had some of the Tampa Bay Storm guys come and help him out because they saw him out there working his tail off and they were like, 'We aren't going to let you burn him out right now.' So Mike was very appreciative of that because I just kept on going."
Evans spoke confidently about the Bucs' offense as a whole in 2016, noting the return of lead back Doug Martin, expected improvement from Winston and the presence of a healthy Vincent Jackson. He suggested that, this year, the Buccaneers will have enough firepower to truly compete with the Carolina Panthers, the NFC South's three-time defending champs. There's little doubt, however, that in the long run the ceiling on a Winston-led offense will be determined by how well the two young stars work together, on and off the field.
"Jameis and Mike are the right kind of guys," said Koetter. "They're not blind to the amount of talent that those two guys have. The better that those two guys play and the better those two guys execute, the better off our football team is going to be. They're not blind to that. So even though, statistically speaking, both of those guys had pretty decent seasons last year, the bottom line is still wins in the NFL. And for us to win, Jameis and Mike have to become a more lethal combination and I'm quite confident that they will."