TAMPA — Mike Evans is catching everything. Catching fire. There isn't a hotter receiver than the Bucs' third-year pro, who produced the NFL's play of the year with his body contorting, one-handed snag of a pass from Jameis Winston 10 days ago, a grab made almost impossible by the force of the unsuspecting blow he took from Falcons safety Keanu Neal that knocked him into concussion protocol until he was cleared this week.
Evans leads all NFL receivers with eight touchdowns and is fifth with 55 catches for 745 yards.
But the one play, with the Bucs trailing 33-14 late in the third quarter, using maybe three fingers — Evans says it "stuck to my glove and I took a nice hit; that's pretty much it" — is the biggest reason for hope the Bucs have for the second half of the season.
The running game is in the trash bin and likely will stay there until Doug Martin or Jacquizz Rodgers returns to the lineup. However, Martin has been added to the active roster and will dress today, available for the first time since injuring his hamstring eight weeks ago.
While describing Evans' catch, which rivals only Giants receiver Odell Beckham's Internet-busting one-handed grab last season, NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth noted how Evans' effort and execution might be what elevates and inspires his teammates.
"One thing you love to see, and obviously this is a building process for Dirk Koetter, but when your best players are as competitive as Mike Evans, to go and make that play," Collinsworth said. "We know Jameis Winston is going to fight through everything. But this is a good sign. You do something like that and then take that hit and then hold on and the whole offense, the whole team gets perked up a bit."
Can it be enough? Can it inspire his teammates to play harder and smarter and salvage another floundering season?
"Absolutely," Winston said. "When your superstars are making plays for you, it gives everyone else around just an extra boost of confidence. Like, 'Mike's doing it, I can do it,' so it's good. But it's an overall team thing. The more we can get people to playing up to Mike's level, man, it's going to be scary."
It hasn't been a smooth ride to the top off the star-studded 2014 receiving class for Evans. Although his 1,206 receiving yards were a career high last season, his touchdowns went from 12 in 2014 to only three last season. He also led the NFL with about a dozen dropped passes.
But an intense offseason in which Evans trimmed down from 230 to about 220 pounds has improved his quickness and stamina.
Beckham, Evans and the Panthers' Kelvin Benjamin are the elite pass catchers in the class of 2014. But the Eagles' Jordan Matthews and the Dolphins' Jarvis Landry are big role players for their teams. There also have been flashes from the Saints' Brandin Cooks, the Cardinals' John Brown and the Jaguars' Allen Robinson.
Evans, 23, won't settle for second best. Not just in his draft class, but in the NFL.
"Of course, I see all the other great receivers out there," said Evans, the No. 7 overall draft pick in 2014 out of Texas A&M but the second receiver taken, three spots behind the Bills' Sammy Watkins. "I'm just trying to match them and be better than them. I have the tools to do it. God gave me these gifts, and I've just got to work hard and the rest will come."
It didn't get any easier for Evans after receivers Vincent Jackson and now Russell Shepard became injured. So Koetter has done a good job of moving Evans around in formations, trying to create favorable matchups and limit double teams.
"Well, you hope so. And when Mike gets frustrated with, maybe coverage and over the top — it's a compliment. I said, 'That's what you want, that's the ultimate compliment,' " Koetter said he told Evans. "If they're leaving you out there one on one, you're not the player you think you are. So, that is a compliment, and we have to be creative to find ways to get him the ball and move him around."
In fact, Evans believes he can get better: "I want to be better, in my route running, blocking — everything. Fatigue. I get tired too fast. I need to step that up."
The Bucs never tire of watching Evans make highlight reel plays. And if they all played with that level of focus and intensity, well, nothing is out of reach.
"When you see him make that one-handed grab, it makes you want to go out there and make a play, too," Winston said.