SR’s Fab 5 is a collection of inside scoop, analysis and insight from yours truly, PewterReport.com publisher and Bucs beat writer Scott Reynolds. Here are a few things that caught my attention this week at One Buc Place and around the NFL.
FAB 1. EVANS READY TO LEAD, READY FOR CONTRACT EXTENSION
Despite being in Mobile, Ala. covering the Reese’s Senior Bowl I’ve been thinking of Bucs wide receiver Mike Evans, who is exactly 500 miles away in Orlando, Fla. at his first NFL Pro Bowl.
PewterReport.com’s Mark Cook is covering Evans’ first Pro Bowl and Bucs defensive tackle Gerald McCoy’s fifth this week while Trevor Sikkema and Andrew Scavelli and I are scouting Bucs draft prospects while trying to catch up with general manager Jason Licht and head coach Dirk Koetter for some quick interviews.
Even though Evans never played in the Senior Bowl – he left Texas A&M after his redshirt sophomore season – Evans is on the minds of Koetter and Licht, who may begin contract extension talks with Evans’ representatives later this year, and on the lips of some of the game’s talented wide receivers.
“That would be a dream come true to be on the other side of Mike and catch passes from Jameis Winston,” Western Kentucky wide receiver Taywan Taylor said. “Jameis is a born leader. You can see that about him. He brings energy and I would feed off that. And Mike is just amazing. To learn from a guy like that would be amazing.”
Taylor has interviewed with the Bucs, as has Eastern Washington wide receiver Cooper Kupp, who had a great week in Mobile.
“They have some great players down in Tampa,” Kupp said. “Mike Evans, what he’s been able to do in the last few years, is incredible. He just continued each year to get better and better. I’m not sure how he’s like in the offseason, but based on what I’ve seen he’s got to be putting in that time to make sure he’s the best that he can be because he continues to get better. I’ve seen the growth in Jameis and how he’s been able to run that team down there. It’s a very impressive organization. I’d love to be a part of it.”
Licht, Koetter and the team’s scouts are looking for another playmaking receiver – or two – to pair with Evans because as good of a season as he had catching a career-high 96 passes for 1,321 yards and 12 touchdowns, he faced so many double teams over the last five games of the season that it limited his production. Evans had four 100-yard receiving games in 2016 and three near misses (99 yards at Atlanta, 96 yards at San Francisco and 97 yards at New Orleans), but he was limited to 65 yards or less in four of Tampa Bay’s last five games because of the increased attention he received down the stretch.
Evans was held to four catches or less in four of Tampa Bay’s last eight games. Tight end Cameron Brate and wide receiver Adam Humphries stepped up with career years after Vincent Jackson was placed on injured reserve after the Bucs’ 17-14 victory in Carolina on Monday Night Football, a game in which Evans caught a game-tying touchdown in the fourth quarter, but the Bucs need another dynamic playmaker opposite Evans. That could come in free agency in the form of a veteran like DeSean Jackson or a draft pick like Washington’s John Ross, Kupp, Taylor or another rookie.
Whoever the Bucs add, the team’s most accomplished receiver and the leader of Tampa Bay’s wide receiver room will be a 23-year old kid, who’s three 1,000-yard seasons to start his career have put the league on notice that he’s one of the best pass catchers in the NFL. Jackson, who turned 34 in mid-January, won’t be re-signed and the leadership role will fall on Evans’ shoulders.
Evans is ready to lead, and he’ll likely wear a “C” on his chest next year, replacing Jackson as a Bucs’ team captain.
“Time has flown,” Evans said. “It’s flying by, but it’s been a good thing that I’ve had a good successor, V-Jax, you know he passed the torch to me, taught me a lot about the game and being a professional. I owe him a lot. And you know, I hope I’m the same for the next guy.
“I know V-Jax was a lot older. If we draft a guy, we might be the same age or I might be a year older. I just want to help any way I can with their experience.”
Koetter thinks Evans will take his leadership to the next level in 2017.
“Oh yeah, Mike is definitely ready to lead,” Koetter said. “Leadership comes in a lot of different shapes and sizes.”
Evans’ Pro Bowl experience this week is something else he can share and pass on to younger receivers on the roster and the ones Tampa Bay has yet to draft, but don’t expect Evans to turn into a vocal leader like Winston. Instead, he’ll take a cue from Jackson, his mentor for the past three years, and lead by example with some words of wisdom sprinkled in from time to time.
“Me and V-Jax, we’re both silent leaders,” Evans said. “He gets vocal sometimes, I’ll get vocal sometimes, but it’s rare. We have other guys. I’m vocal enough. I’m a leader, but not on the lines of Jameis and Gerald.”
In just three years in Tampa Bay, Evans has caught 238 passes for 3,578 yards and 27 touchdowns. He set the franchise record for touchdown catches in a single season as a rookie in 2014 and then matched it this year.
With 175 passes thrown his way, Evans was the most targeted receiver in the league and he finished fourth in receiving yards this year. In 2016, Evans caught 81 passes for first downs in the 2016 season, which was 15 more than any other NFL receiver.
A tremendous season, right?
“I don’t feel that way,” Evans told me. “I think my season has been just okay. I know I made the Pro Bowl, and that’s a cool accomplishment, but other than that, I mean, I feel I played all right, but I feel I could’ve played better. This offseason I got a lot of work to do – a lot of work.”
While Koetter and Licht are looking to help Evans in 2017 by finding a replacement for Jackson to help shoulder some of the receiving load, Evans is looking inward to help the Bucs with an even better year in 2018.
“I want to put our receivers and our guys in the best position to win, and I want them to benefit in whatever way that may be,” Evans said. “Whether it’s teaching our younger guys how to run routes or hanging with them, getting that continuity. Whatever I’ve got to do to give this team the best chance they have to win is what I’m, going to do.”
When the time comes to talk contract extension, which will come at some point this year, Evans will be making over $15 million per year. That’s Julio Jones-type money.
Jones, who is considered the best receiver in the league right now, signed a five-year, $71.25 million contract in 2015 that averages $14.25 million per season. The Bucs would be wise to get something done this year before he hits free agency and competes with the likes of Odell Beckham, Jr. for a new deal, which will only drive the market up if both are in contract seasons after a possible fifth-year option in 2018.
“I’m not worried about that stuff,” Evans said of a possible contract extension in 2017. “It’ll come, but I’m mainly focused on getting better and helping this team win.”
Evans would trade his Pro Bowl accolades and gaudy stats for more wins and a trip to the playoffs. He’s as team-oriented a guy, as you’ll find in the Bucs’ locker room. Of course he’s got a little bit of selfishness in him because Evans is a receiver, but he’s no diva. The only reason the 6-foot-5, 230-pound man-child wants the rock is because he knows he’s going to dominate and win the game for his teammates.
Evans made some tremendous strides from a year ago when he only caught three touchdowns and was among the league leaders in drops.
“I mean, I’ve got good hands,” Evans said. “I just had a down year last year, but I know I have real good hands. I’m proud of the way I’ve taken coaching. Coach [Todd] Monken is a great coach. One of the best receiving coaches, maybe the best receiving coach I’ve ever had. He’s so smart, even thought he never played receiver he just understands it so much. It’s helped me a lot. I’ve had a lot of good receiver coaches, he might be the best one.”
Despite his early success, Monken believes Evans is just scratching the surface and that there is an entirely new level he can take his game to with more work and refinement.
“I think he’s bending a little bit better in his routes,” Monken said. “He’s learning certain things, route running, it’s going to come in small pieces. He’s got to continue to attack it every day. He’s more consistent with his hand placement and his eyes when he’s catching the football, you can see that. So, those are the things you continually work on with him and he’s eager to learn and eager to stay out there and work at it.
“That’s probably the most important thing, you have an unbelievable skill-set, he’s smart, now what are you willing to put in to be – you’re already one of the best in the world, now that shrinks down, do you want to be considered one of the elite to ever play this game? And he has that kind of skill-set.”
After missing one game in each of his first two seasons, Evans played in all 16 games last year. He attributes losing 10 pounds to staying healthier, but he wants to continue to refine his body this offseason.
“Durability, man,” Evans said. “I know I’ll have injuries here and there, but I want my body to be super strong to prevent injuries like that. You know, ankle injuries, little knee things here and there. Stuff like that that’s affected me these few years. I want to be as durable as I can. I’ve come out of some plays in games this past year because I’ve twisted my ankle and things like that. It’s happened like three times this year. I just want to be as durable as I can so I can help my team.”
Evans ended a memorable season in dramatic fashion, catching the game-winning, 10-yard touchdown pass from Winston with 3:13 left in Tampa Bay’s 17-16 win over Carolina.
“Just how a lot of my touchdowns were, Jameis scrambling and making something out of nothing and me doing a good scramble drill route. He made a great play escaping the pocket. I was impressed; everybody was calm. We figured we wanted to win. Nobody was complaining or anything like that. We just kept playing, and we got a hard-fought win.
“We wanted to start the 2017 year off with a win, and hopefully this will roll over to next season. We wanted to win it bad, we talked about it all week. We wanted to go out a winner. This is the first day of 2017, and we wanted to get a win and we did that.”
Winston lauded Evans for his touchdown catch and his sensational season.
“A lot needs to be made over Mike Evans because he’s arguably one of the best receivers in the league and he doesn’t get credit the way he should,” Winston said. “I don’t really know why.”
With a Pro Bowl berth and a contract extension that should likely come in the summer prior to the start of the regular season, Evans is getting his just due. And he’s only getting started.