Thursday, February 22, 2018
Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Fennelly: Bucs receiver Mike Evans wants to be great — and knows he wasn't last year

TAMPA — We don't know if Bucs receiver Mike Evans is a new man, but he's married, with a baby on the way. A lot has changed since last season.

Also, he has yet to drop a football. If it's in his hands, it's there to stay.

There. We've jinxed him.

Anyway, Evans was thrown five balls Friday night, and he caught each and every one. He was as on the money as, say, Roberto Aguayo. Evans found the end zone for the second time this preseason, hauling in a Jameis Winston pass for a 34-yard touchdown in the big 30-13 practice win over Cleveland.

"I didn't catch enough touchdowns or enough balls last year," Evans said. "I had the opportunities, but I just didn't. I'm trying to make the most of my opportunities this year."

That might sound odd coming from a guy who is among only six receivers since the NFL merger to have consecutive 1,000-yard receiving seasons to begin a career. Odell Beckham did it. A.J. Green did it. Randy Moss did it. Need any other names?

The No. 7 overall pick in 2014 caught 142 passes in his first two seasons, including 74 for 1,206 yards in 2015.

Made three touchdowns last year.

Three.

That's a huge dip from Evans' rookie year, when he had 12 TDs, when he was a difference-maker most Sundays, if there is such a thing on a 2-14 team. Probably isn't. Anyway, throw in 12 drops last season and you start to agree with Evans.

He needed to be targeted a whopping 147 times to get those 74 catches, not a very good batting average. In fact, only three players have had as many as 1,200 receiving yards and caught three touchdown passes or fewer in a season. Evans is one. Another is Hall of Famer Art Monk. Then there's former Buc Keyshawn Johnson, who had 106 receptions in 2001 — and one TD.

That was Evans last season: there, but not always when it counted.

It wasn't all his fault. Winston missed him a lot, especially deep. But if this Bucs offense is going to hum, it needs Evans in the end zone.

"Well, Mike wants to be great," coach Dirk Koetter said. "But Mike, he knows he left plenty on the table (last year). He knows how talented he is. He also knows we missed him a few times."

"When I'm able to get him the football, that's what happens," Winston said after Friday's game. "I missed a lot of opportunities with Mike last year on deep-ball throws, and the two passes I threw deep to him (Friday) gave him a chance. That's what he does. He's a deep-threat guy."

I still don't see Evans, 23, as an elite receiver, not yet, anyway. He's big. He comes to play. But the drops seem about a lack of concentration, and concentration is what you need for the next level as much as talent. Evans seeks that level. Finding it will become even more important if 33-year-old Vincent Jackson breaks down again this season. Adam Humphries has stepped up, but Evans is the one receiver who has to stand out.

As for his touchdown Friday …

"They busted coverage," Evans said. "Jameis saw it before I saw it. That's why I had to turn around and catch it."

They'll need more of that.

"We have to get Jameis and Mike on the same page," Koetter said. "How did Mike get used in college? Shoot, Johnny Manziel went back there, scrambled around for 10 minutes and Mike caught it. That was their offense (at Texas A&M), and they were great at it. We have to take advantage of that."

The Bucs ranked 10th in total offense last season. Evans said that number — and his numbers — weren't nearly as good as they looked.

"We were 10th in offense, but we led the league in penalties, or we were up there," Evans said. "And our third-down conversions were bad. And I played bad. But this year, if everything goes right, we'll be one of the best offenses."

You heard the man.

He played bad.

He wants to be great.

Hold that thought.

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