TAMPA — More than halfway through what could be his final season in Tampa Bay, the rhetorical question is growing louder: Where will we find Mike Evans playing next year?
Answer: In the end zone.
The Bucs receiver is tied for second in the NFL with nine touchdown catches, one behind the Dolphins’ Tyreek Hill, who has 34 more receptions than Evans.
Evans has 90 TDs for his career, which ranks 15th in NFL history. At this pace, he would reach 100 sometime early next year to add to a Canton-worthy resume.
“I’ve just been playing for a long time, and my skill set and my size, it definitely helps me in the red area, a lot,” the 6-foot-5 Evans said Wednesday. “I wish I would have had more touchdowns in my career, but it didn’t go that way, so hopefully I can keep getting opportunities. ... You have to keep working, no matter what.”
Evans has 850 yards receiving this season, leaving him only 150 shy of reaching 1,000 for a 10th straight season to start his career, which would add to his NFL record.
He is 30 and will become a free agent after failing to reach a contract extension with the Bucs by his self-imposed Sept. 9 deadline, the eve of the season opener at Minnesota.
And the Bucs have younger players they would like to lock up long-term, including safety Antoine Winfield Jr., who is set to become a free agent. Tackle Tristan Wirfs will be entering the fifth-year club option.
But has Evans already shown the Bucs enough to warrant a new deal?
Certainly, his age may be a cause for pause. But he rarely has missed games during his career, and a renewed focus on nutrition has leaned out his body over the past few years.
Most players lose a step or two the longer they play. Evans shows no signs of slowing down. He was clocked by the GPS technology deployed by the Bucs at 21 mph during a recent game.
Perhaps no player is as good in the red zone as Evans has been this season.
Take one example from last Sunday’s 27-20 loss at Indianapolis. The first of his two touchdowns came when he lined up in the slot and ran a little corner route to the back pylon. But because tight end Payne Durham was split wide to his left and ran a little in cut, the Colts thought it might be a pick play and tried to hand the coverage off, leaving Evans all alone.
“We’ve seen guys try and double-team him, but he still finds a way to win,” quarterback Baker Mayfield said. “No matter what the coverage is, he always has a plan based on what route he has of how he is going to try to win based on leverage or coverage.
“ ... It’s a God-given ability that he has, and he’s also had a ton of reps doing it at a high level for a long time. We’re lucky to have him, and we’ve got to keep finding ways to get him the ball.”
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Bucs offensive coordinator Dave Canales said Evans’ competitiveness is his driving force.
“I think one of the things I learned about Mike in the offseason, getting a chance to spend some time with him in different scenarios outside of the building, he’s such a gamer,” Canales said. “He loves to play. Whatever it is, he’s a competitor. Whether it’s cards, darts, pool, shooting around basketball, he’s good.
“He just kind of finds a way, and he’s good at everything and that carries over to the way he plays. He sees leverage, he sees coverage. He’s seen it all, and he has an adjustment for whatever they do. It’s great just to have a guy like that who makes pretty normal play calls look fantastic.”
While Evans’ age is a concern, remember that some of the players entering the draft these days are already 24-26 years old. His work ethic and improved nutrition have kept him near the top of the receiving charts. By the time he finishes the 2023 season, Evans already will be the highest-paid player in franchise history with in excess of $100 million.
Both Mayfield and Canales believe Evans is the best receiver they’ve ever played or coached with.
“I think this guy is a first ballot Hall of Famer,” Canales said. “I think his career speaks for itself. The way he’s able to find access and get open in any scenario, I would have to give it to Mike. I don’t want to take anything away from Tyler (Lockett), Doug Baldwin, DK (Metcalf), who are fantastic players.
“And this is a guy who puts it all together. He’s 6-foot-5 with that length. We’ve seen games, too, where he can just flat outrun by guys still, at this point. So, he really does have it all.”
For the first time since his rookie year, Evans has more than half of his team’s 17 touchdown receptions.
But right now, he is focused on winning. His first six NFL seasons, the Bucs didn’t sniff the playoffs. Since then, they’ve won Super Bowl 55, back-to-back division titles and have been to the postseason three years in a row.
But at 4-7 with losses in six of their past seven contests, the Bucs almost have a must-win game Sunday against the Panthers.
“It’s extremely hard, losing like this,” Evans said. “Fortunately for us, our goals are still there. They still can be accomplished, and that’s what’s kind of keeping me balanced right now.”
Has Evans done enough to convince the Bucs he should be allowed to finish his career in Tampa Bay, even if a new contract would exceed $20 million? The Bucs could decide to go another direction, but Evans seemingly has done his part.
“I’ve been blessed,” he said. “God has blessed me tremendously with durability and great people around me to help me maintain my health. That’s been good for me.”
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