TAMPA — Before Tom Brady went job hunting last March, he put pen to paper and made a checklist of around 20 priorities for choosing a new NFL team.
Coaching, climate and family considerations all made the cut, though likely not in that order.
“I put a lot of careful thought into everything that I really valued,” Brady said. “I had a weighted scale.”
What tipped it in the Bucs’ favor? Nos. 13 and 14: receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin.
It’s fair to say the six-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback probably isn’t signing a two-year, $50 million contract with the Bucs without them. Not only are Evans and Godwin stars in their own right — with each making the Pro Bowl last season — they have become arguably the best pass-catching tandem in the NFL.
Evans, 27, has six consecutive 1,000-yard receiving seasons. Godwin, 24, led the Bucs with 86 receptions for 1,333 yards and nine touchdowns in 2019. Even better days may be ahead for both.
Brady’s decision to leave New England after 20 seasons can partly be attributed to his frustration over the Patriots’ failure to surround him with elite receiving targets.
The best he ever played with was Randy Moss, who joined the Patriots as a free agent in 2007 and produced 1,493 receiving yards while setting an NFL record with 23 touchdowns. Wes Welker pitched in with 1,175 yards and eight touchdowns as the Patriots went 18-0 before losing to the Giants in Super Bowl 42.
Evans considers Moss his idol and there are similarities to be found in his game and the Hall of Famer’s. At 6-foot-5, 225 pounds, Evans has long arms and an ability to leap over defenders. Despite his size advantage, he can still stretch the field and get deep against single coverage.
The 6-foot-1, 209-pound Godwin has very good speed, sure hands to make combat catches and a physical presence as a run blocker when he moves to slot receiver.
“Mike is elite elite,” Bucs coach Bruce Arians said. “He’s one of the top five receivers, in my opinion, because of his stature for what he can do as a big man, dropping his hips and running. It’s not like we’re just throwing back shoulder fades over there all day. He can beat you deep one-on-one.
“Chris is a guy who you can play outside, inside. Mike can play inside and he’s doing a really good job with it. But Chris is a grimy guy. He blocks as good as any damn receiver that I’ve ever had and I’ve had some really, really good ones. Reggie Wayne, Larry Fitzgerald, Hines Ward. He’s in Hines’ category as a blocker, which allows us to do a lot of dirty work inside. But he has such great hands. It’s amazing. He’s not the most flexible guy, but he’s quick to the touch. If he catches it, he’s gone.”
If the 43-year-old Brady fails to get back to the Super Bowl, it won’t be because of a shortage of targets. In addition to Evans and Godwin, the Bucs also have surrounded Brady with tight ends Rob Gronkowski, O.J. Howard and Cam Brate. Even little-used receivers Scotty Miller and Justin Watson look explosive with Brady under center.
But make no mistake, the passing game runs through Evans and Godwin. Last season, despite Evans missing three games and Godwin the final two with hamstring injuries, they combined for 153 receptions, 2,490 yards and 17 touchdowns. That’s more yards and touchdowns than the Falcons’ tandem of Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley (2,260 yards, 13 TDs) and the Rams’ Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp (2,295 yards, 12 TDs). That’s more touchdowns than the Saints’ new tandem of Michael Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders (14).
Brady will make Evans and Godwin better. For starters, his precision passing will lead to more yards after the catch. A lot of Evans’ biggest plays through the years have been 50-50 balls on plays extended by former quarterback Jameis Winston.
But Evans can always improve his route running, and he has worked hard to be in the right places on the field for Brady.
“Mike has a lot of respect for Tom, so I think Tom’s going to help him push through things and compete at the highest level,” receivers coach Kevin Garver said. “I think that’s the No. 1 thing that will help Mike. Then, just the little things. That’s really the thing I’ve been stressing with Mike all offseason. Getting in at the right depths, being in the right catch-reception area, using the right technique. ... Obviously, he’s got to do those things on his own, but playing with a guy like Tom I think does help just from a motivational standpoint.”
Godwin said he has been surprised by the placement of Brady’s passes. As defensive coordinator Todd Bowles noted, Brady throws great “incompletions,” likening him to a pitcher who paints the corners.
“He’s very humble, he’s very hungry,” Godwin said of Brady. “You can tell that he’s really working to not only try to find his place on the team, but also to be the best leader he can be to put us on (our) game and really give us as much knowledge as he can. On the field, you see why he’s so highly regarded as he is.
“There (are) some passes that he throws that I’m just like, ‘Man, that’s unbelievable.’ The amount of touch that he has on his passes, he can still drive the ball when needed and he has a really good idea of where to go with the ball at all times. It’s been really good so far.”
The first thing Evans observed playing with Brady is how much quicker the football is on you. Winston passed with great anticipation, but nothing like Brady, whose experience facing every possible defense is a huge advantage.
“There’s not really a big adjustment,” Evans said. “Jameis did a really good job on his intermediate stuff. When he got the ball out, it was pretty accurate. Tom might process it a little bit quicker, so the ball comes out fast. We’ve got to get our head around and the guys know when they put their foot in the ground, the ball’s probably going to be there.”
Despite being one of the NFL’s top receivers, Evans still is relatively under the radar. The Bucs have had only one winning season since he arrived in 2014 as a first-round pick from Texas A&M. The addition of Brady, which led to five prime-time games this season, could change that.
Evans has been unselfish off the field. He has restructured his contract, which averages $16.5 million this season, several times to provide the Bucs with salary cap relief to sign other player, such as Jaguars running back Leonard Fournette.
“I love my time with Mike,” Brady said. “I can’t say enough good things about him in a short period of time. Love working with Chris. He was one of the first guys that I met when I came out here. We’re all developing a nice rapport. Us being around one another, learning different things about one another, just only develops trust, dependability, consistency.
“Then, these guys (are who) you go to battle with and you compete hard with. You gain a different level of love for them as people because you see the way they compete, the way they treat people and the competitors they are on the field, what they do off the field with their families and the community. It’s just been really great to see.”
When you think of great receiving tandems, they often finish the season with championships or in the Super Bowl. The Steelers’ Lynn Swann and John Stallworth. The 49ers’ Jerry Rice and John Taylor. The Vikings’ Moss and Cris Carter. The Dolphins’ Mark Duper and Mark Clayton. The Rams’ Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt.
The potential is there for Brady and the Bucs thanks to Evans and Godwin.