We’re six games into the 2020 NFL season, and Bucs star wide receiver Mike Evans is on pace for 59 catches for 722 yards and 16 touchdowns. The other elite player in the Tampa Bay passing game, fourth-year receiver Chris Godwin, is on pace for (based on per game averages) 69 catches for 827 yards and four touchdowns.
Evans’ pace is the most bizarre to track, especially considering he’s already had two monster games with Tom Brady at quarterback. Evans shredded the Panthers defense for seven catches, 104 receiving yards and a touchdown, then lit up the Chargers secondary in a comeback win in Week 4, grabbing seven passes for 122 yards and another score.
So how can he be on pace for such a poor statistical season?
The answer is simple to articulate, but a little more nuanced to understand. Evans has three games with 10 yards or less receiving, something that happened only twice over the first six seasons of his career until this season. Combine those marks with just five catches for 41 yards and a score against Chicago, and you have career-low numbers for Evans through the first six games of the season.
Injuries have kept Godwin out of the lineup for half of a 2020 season that is about to enter Week 7, but even when he is on the field, he’s averaging about 20 yards less per game and has scored just one touchdown this season.
So what’s going on? Are Evans and Brady not on the same page? Is the veteran quarterback not looking Evans’ way enough? Is Godwin still a major part of the offense like he was a year ago?
In my opinion, three things have contributed to the slow statistical starts for Evans and Godwin:
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This is the obvious reason for Godwin’s decline in production, as he’s missed three games this season and didn’t finish the Bucs Week 3 match-up against the Broncos due to a hamstring injury. Godwin has actually been pretty productive considering he’s played less than three complete games, and only one fully healthy contest, but he has yet to hit 80 yards in a game this season. The Penn State product posted six 100-yard performances last season.
Evans has played in every game this season, but been healthy for none of them. Before a Week 1 match-up against New Orleans, Evans was nursing a significant hamstring injury, then rolled his ankle badly against the Chargers, yet remained in the game. Playing four days later against the Bears on Thursday Night Football, Evans was a shell of his normal self due to the injury. The lower body maladies have kept Evans from playing at his normal speed, arguably the biggest trump card in his game.
This one has impacted Evans the most, as the Bucs simply haven’t been in a lot of games where they’ve needed him to make a big impact. Against New Orleans Evans wasn’t 100 percent and made a small statistical impact, but drew two huge pass interference penalties to set up touchdowns. Against the Broncos and Packers the Bucs built huge halftime leads with the help of one defensive touchdown and several short fields, negating heavy usage for a receiver whose primary impact comes in the vertical passing game.
The one game where Evans really could have been useful but wasn’t, was against the Bears on Thursday Night Football. Evans looked painfully labored on tape when I re-watched the game, clearly physically unable to make much of an impact.
Against some of the upcoming opponents for the Bucs, such as the Raiders, Saints, Rams and Chiefs, it’s unlikely Tampa Bay will build those same early advantages, and they are almost certain to be more vertically aggressive through four quarters as a result.
More Mouths To Feed
Even at less than 100 percent, both Evans and Godwin would have better numbers if the Bucs had as few mouths to feed in the offense as they did a year ago. In 2019, the Bucs had no preferably receiving options out of the backfield, a struggling and then injured O.J. Howard to begin the season and no viable No. 3 receiver until Evans and Godwin went down with injuries late in the year, allowing Breshad Perriman the opportunity to step up.
That meant almost all of Winston’s targets were going in the direction of Godwin and Evans last year, as there was simply no one else the former top overall pick cared to get the ball to. Evans and Godwin had 118 and 121 targets, respectively, last season. The next closest player on the Bucs offense was Perriman with 70, but 32 of those targets came after Evans left the lineup with an injury in Week 14. If the Bucs Pro Bowl duo hadn’t gotten hurt late in the year, it’s unlikely anyone else on the roster would have surpassed 50-55 targets on the season. That’s how locked in on those two Winston constantly was.
As much as you may love numbers, Brady simply isn’t going to play the quarterback position like Winston did. Where Winston threw discretion to the wind at all times, throwing it up for his receivers, Brady picks and chooses those moments. He’s absolutely still taking vertical shots and giving Evans a chance to make plays, but not into double coverage, and not often enough to put the ball in harm’s way multiple times a game.
Instead Brady is finding the open guy regardless of how many accolades he has. The Bucs already have eight different receivers with double-digit targets, and 14 different pass-catchers have been targeted this season. He’s far more apt to pick up 5-6 yards to a back underneath than force a pass into tight coverage in a low percentage area of the field, which has helped keep the Bucs offense on schedule this season – when they aren’t committing penalties or dropping the football that is.
But the biggest reason that Evans and Godwin haven’t been leaned on as heavily this season is because the Bucs are simply far deeper and more talented across their skill positions. Adding Rob Gronkowski and the 2020 version of Scotty Miller to this offense has been a huge asset, as both players are significant upgrades over what the Bucs offered at the No. 3 pass-catching spot last season. Rookie Tyler Johnson has flashed big play ability already this year, which has also allowed some snaps to be taken off the shoulders of Evans and Godwin. And of course, all this isn’t even accounting for O.J. Howard’s pre-injury impact, as he was off to an excellent start through the first four weeks of the season before tearing his Achilles.
This Bucs offense will absolutely need their best two playmakers to step up and carry the offense again at some point this season, but with Evans and Godwin nursing injuries, the team’s improved skill position depth, Brady’s willingness to spread the ball around and plenty of advantageous offensive situations have kept the squad on track.
Don’t write this duo off just yet. The chemistry with Brady isn’t the issue, and what ails Evans and Godwin’s impact in the passing game, from injuries to game situations, will mostly alleviate in the coming weeks. Some weak secondaries are coming up on the schedule, and I think Brady and his All-Pro wide receiver tandem are ready to take off.