The Bucs are coming out of the bye week with a 7-5 record and the playoffs squarely in their sights heading into the final month of the season. The lofty goal of winning the NFC South may seem out of reach now with the 10-2 Saints running away with the division title for a fourth straight year, but if the team comes out with the focus it had in September or October, the Bucs can still make noise when it matters most.
But they can’t do it without Mike Evans being exactly what he’s on this team to be – a star. You can use injuries, a still-developing chemistry with Tom Brady and even somewhat of a role change in the Bucs 2020 offense (far more slot snaps than any other year in his career) as valid reasons for Evans’ drop-off in production (48 catches for 613 yards and 11 touchdowns), but there is still no denying that Tampa Bay’s all-time leading receiver hasn’t produced at a star level this season. And the Bucs need him to return to that level in December.
Now, being a “star” doesn’t mean Evans needs to get 10 targets every game or reach 1,000 yards this year for an NFL-record seventh-straight season. Neither of those things will likely happen, and that’s completely fine. For Evans, being a star has never been about volume. It’s always been about quality over quantity.
In his seven-year career, Evans has only one season above a 60 percent catch rate, back in 2018. Despite 118+ targets in every year of his career, Evans has typically caught around 55 percent of those passes, largely due to the fact that he has been predominantly used as an outside, vertical receiver, seeing the majority of his targets in areas of the field where many throws have a lower success rate. Evans has made many, many spectacular plays in that range, establishing himself as one of the unquestioned premier vertical threats in the NFL.
But when the Bucs offense has run through Evans as a volume playmaker, they typically haven’t been as successful as when he’s being targeted in a lesser capacity. Believe it or not based on national headlines, but the Bucs offense you’re currently watching might be the franchise’s best offense ever, and Evans is on pace for a career low number of targets, although he does still lead the team thanks to Chris Godwin’s injuries early in the season.
It’s not that Evans is a bad player at all, it’s simply that he does his best work in areas of the field that aren’t high percentage enough to be targeting excessively. This year Evans’ role has changed some, as the team has moved him inside for a third of his snaps to get him away from opposing no. 1 cornerbacks and to expand his route tree.
That’s all worked well and good with Evans, but the Bucs don’t really need him to be the guy their offense runs through, even when he’s healthy. They just need him to be a star when he is targeted. That means beating top cornerbacks, making contested catches, laying out for vertical balls, making high degree of difficulty grabs while off balance down the field, etc etc etc. These are the things Evans has been known for, and the 2020 Bucs need the splash and the sizzle without necessarily having to throw his way 10 times a game.
The Bucs offense is going to run through anyone and everyone depending on the game, the individual match-ups and the way each defense decides to play Tampa Bay’s impressive arsenal of weapons. But Chris Godwin has typically been the volume receiver, while Rob Gronkowski and Antonio Brown have also collected a healthy percentage of targets from Brady. The Bucs star quarterback is simply never going to lock on and force the ball to one receiver, so don’t expect that to happen to Evans down the stretch this season. It isn’t realistic.
What is realistic is to expect Evans to play at the star level we’ve come to expect over the years, even without a 120-plus target season. Evans’ numbers might not be dynamic, but his tape against New York’s James Bradberry and Los Angeles’ Jalen Ramsey, maybe the best two cornerbacks in the NFL this season, was outstanding. In between those two match-ups he also lit up Carolina’s defense, even if the final stats suggested just a modest showing. That’s why Evans’ performance against the Chiefs was so surprising, as I had that pegged as a big breakout game for him.
It sure could have been. Brady found Evans behind the Chiefs defense early with a terrific throw under pressure, but Evans mis-tracked it, and a potential huge first-drive play whistled past his hands. Later in the game, Evans let Bashaud Breeland work through his back and break up a throw from Brady that was admittedly a tad late.
In the second half, Evans mistimed his jump on a tough contested catch that was just average placement from Brady, then failed to come down with a big deep shot down the left sideline on a twisting, turning attempt that did end up going off both hands, but would have been a spectacular sideline grab. While he did manage to come up with both touchdowns in the fourth quarter, Evans could have had a monster game against Kansas City with a few more grabs.
That’s exactly what Evans is in Tampa Bay to do – have monster games and make the spectacular plays while not needing 10 chances to do it. He has every ideal trait for a vertical threat, from size and strength to and elite length, hand strength and leaping ability. This season however, even when Evans is targeted down the field, the results have been pretty modest. Not all Brady’s passes have been perfect, but Evans hasn’t made 50-50 balls into 80-20 balls.
With Jameis Winston and even Ryan Fitzpatrick, Evans was a huge quarterback booster, which is something you have to be if you’re gonna make your living in those lower percentage areas of the field. Evans has been good this season, but not great enough, not by the standard he’s set over the years as the face of the Bucs franchise.
That all changes this Sunday. Evans is facing weak secondary play over the final four months of the season, from the individual opposing cornerbacks to the level of 2020 play from the entire defensive backfield. Minnesota, Atlanta and Detroit all offer struggling rookie cornerbacks that will likely be charged with matching up against Evans, and all three defenses rank in the bottom five of the league in the number of 20+ yard pass plays they’ve allowed this season.
Evans doesn’t need low levels of competition to excel, but it sure helps. Consistency has been a struggle for every Bucs offensive skill player in 2020, and it’s the captain’s job to model that attribute.
Evans is everything you want in a leader – outspoken, fiery, hard-working, smart, accountable, bad-ass, and consistent, even if a roller-coaster of a season has made it hard for the three-time Pro Bowler to play at his normal level. But make no mistake, Evans is also everything the Bucs need in a star receiver, and he’s going to remind the NFL world of that fact in the month of December – getting hot exactly when this team needs him most.
If Evans does light up December, the Bucs offense has a tremendous chance of hitting the playoffs at full stride. If he doesn’t, they might have a difficult time getting to the postseason at all. A lot hinges on the play of their captain, and Evans must make the opportunities Brady gives him count, even if there aren’t quite as many as he’s been used to throughout his career.
Jon Ledyard is PewterReport.com's newest Bucs beat writer and has experience covering the Pittsburgh Steelers as a beat writer and analyzing the NFL Draft for several draft websites, including The Draft Network. Follow Ledyard on Twitter at @LedyardNFLDraft