Tampa Bay receiver Mike Evans is making the most of a bad situation.
The Buccaneers’ 2-11 record is below even what many pessimists expected for 2014, but fans can at least take solace in the fact that their first-round selection seems to be a star in the making.
Evans’ 10 touchdowns put him one shy of tying Mike Williams’ single-season team record for receiving scores set in 2010 and have him tied for fourth on the all-time list since the NFL merger in 1970. Randy Moss set that mark in 1998 with 17 touchdowns as a Minnesota Viking.
Evans also finds himself on pace to break the Bucs’ team record for receiving yards by a rookie. His current total of 935 yards ranks him third behind Williams (964 in 2010) and Michael Clayton (1,193 in 2004).
The yardage and touchdown totals lead all current NFL rookies. Carolina’s Kelvin Benjamin, who the Bucs will be facing this Sunday, is second in both categories with 848 and nine, respectively.
Even though Evans is enjoying a year record-breaking potential and fully living up to his No. 7 overall selection last May, the rookie isn’t spending much time admiring what he’s accomplished. He’s proud of the touchdowns he scores, the stats he puts up and the records he may set, but they aren’t what ultimately fuel his fire each week.
“I look to win,” Evans said about what motivates him during a season full of struggles. “I’m trying to win no matter what and I know my teammates are too. If I’m playing pickup basketball I want to win. If I’m playing pool in the players’ lounge I want to win. I’m just trying to win and go out here and finish the season strong.
“I don’t set my goals off stats, but this [touchdown record] would be cool if I get it. It would be cool and a great accomplishment for me and my family. Hopefully I get it.”
Praise for Evans from outside of Tampa Bay has been steadily increasing since his 124-yard, two-touchdown performance Week 9 in Cleveland. That was his first of three triple-digit yardage games this season, as well as the first of three two-touchdown days.
Included among those admiring Evans from afar is Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera. He got an up-close-and-personal view during Carolina’s 20-14 Week 1 win at Raymond James Stadium, and, during a conference call with the Tampa Bay media Wednesday, Rivera compared Evans to his own talented rookie pass catcher as well as another current Buccaneer.
“I see a guy very similar to our [rookie wide receiver, Kelvin Benjamin],” Rivera said. “He’s a dynamic football player. He reminds me of a young Vincent Jackson. Like I said, I was fortunate enough to be with Vincent in San Diego and watch him play and see the kind of player that he is, and I see Mike Evans doing a lot of things that Vincent Jackson was doing when he was younger.
“He’s a dynamic football player, he’s a playmaker [and] he’s physical. That’s one thing he does: he plays physical, too. He matches the physicality of the people he’s playing against. He’s got a great opportunity I think to be a good player in this league for a long time.”
Three months ago Evans was just getting acclimated to the league and regular-season life in the NFL. He’s hoping to show Rivera and the Panthers how much he’s improved since grabbing five receptions for 37 yards on nine targets during that first meeting. But he’s also not content with where he’s at, even when certain numbers belie such self-criticism. Two of Evans’ four catches went for touchdowns last Sunday in Detroit, but he was targeted 11 times and is still disappointed with his production.
“I think it was probably my worst game all year besides the touchdowns,” he said from the locker room Wednesday. “Usually my make-the-play percentage is better. I felt I was getting held but that’s no [excuse]. I didn’t get the flag so I should’ve made the play. And my blocking wasn’t as good as it’s been.
“I should’ve made more plays. I had a couple more opportunities to make plays to help my team get in a better position to win the game and I didn’t make the plays. That goes for blocking bad in the run game, too.”