TAMPA — During the bye week, receiver Mike Evans attended the Texas A&M-Alabama game Saturday in College Station, but some at Kyle Field might not have noticed him. That's because Evans was dressed in a Cleveland Browns jersey. Specifically, it was an NFL replica of the No. 2 worn on Sundays by former Aggies quarterback and Evans teammate Johnny Manziel.
Locating Evans on the field at Bucs' games this season has been nearly as difficult.
The second-year receiver missed the first regular-season game with a hamstring injury, was a decoy in the second game at New Orleans and dropped several key passes in a loss at Houston despite racking up seven catches for 101 yards on an astounding 17 targets.
In fact, you have to go back to Nov. 16, when Evans announced his arrival as a rookie of the year candidate by catching seven passes for 209 yards and two touchdowns in a 27-7 win over the Redskins.
"It was a great game for me. It showed my ability to be able to take over games and things like that, and it showed my ability at the receiver position," Evans said.
The Bucs return to the scene of Evans' prime on Sunday at FedEx Field. Evans enters with only 13 receptions and still looking for his first TD. With the exception of the Houston game, Evans also has become the third or fourth option for quarterback Jameis Winston behind running backs Doug Martin and Charles Sims and receiver Vincent Jackson.
"We just need to get Mike started," offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter said. "He's fine. We just need to get him started. He missed that first game. We threw him a bunch of balls in the Houston game, and we were inconsistent throwing and catching that game. He missed some practice time. We've just got to get him started. But when you have multiple guys who need touches, it doesn't always work out perfect."
While Evans' opportunities have been limited — outside of the Texans game, he has been targeted 16 times — he blames himself for not producing more.
"There's a couple times I'm not making the plays that I'm usually capable of, but there are 11 games left in the season," Evans said.
In 2014, the Bucs drafted Evans seventh overall after watching him catch 151 passes for 2,499 yards and 17 touchdowns — most of them from Manziel, who went 22nd to the Browns.
Evans started slowly as a rookie, but his breakout against Washington served notice he had the stuff to be a No. 1 receiver. Evans has exceptionally strong hands and Randy Moss-like body control, and can make plays downfield, over the middle or wherever the route takes him.
Naturally, after catching 68 passes for 1,051 yards and tying a team record with 12 touchdowns as a rookie, Evans has gotten the share of rotating coverage you would expect.
"There's only so much you can do, really," coach Lovie Smith said. "You can sugarcoat it all you'd like. You can roll up and double cover a guy. But you can't do that very often or you're hurting yourself somewhere else. Most of the time, a receiver is going to be in a one-on-one situation on the outside. That's where we have to be able to win."
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If there is a silver lining, it's that the Bucs have a chance to go 3-3 with a win at Washington, and Evans hasn't begun to really play his normal brand of football.
"Just talking about Mike, we need Mike to come," Smith said. "But for our football team, we like what we're seeing as far as the direction offensively. But we'd like to be able to add Mike Evans' best ball to that. Yeah, that's exciting, too.
"Sometimes it takes you a while, for whatever reason. Injuries can stop that progress a little bit. Mike is healthy now. Getting away from ball and getting a chance to start anew with everyone, he's a great player and we need him to play that way."