TAMPA — The best receiver in the NFL today is Mike Evans. Tomorrow? He could be better.
"I just know what Mike is capable of, and he's just scratching the surface," Bucs receivers coach Todd Monken said.
Declaring Evans, 23, the best receiver in pro football is subjective. You can argue the point until the red-faced guy on the other end of the sports bar shouts you down, but nobody really knows.
Evans' numbers would merit that distinction for him. He is tied for the league lead with 10 touchdowns, second in receiving yards with 1,020 and third with 73 receptions.
To be the best, you have to beat the best, the way Evans did in Sunday's 14-5 win over Seattle. He caught eight passes for 104 yards and two touchdowns, beating Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman in man-to-man coverage for a score. He's only the second player to record a touchdown on Sherman this season.
Pro Football Focus, a statistics website, gives Evans a grade of 93.2, the highest in the league, ahead of the Falcons' Julio Jones and the Bengals' A.J. Green, who was recently injured.
Bucs coach Dirk Koetter called plays for Jones as the Falcons' offensive coordinator from 2012-14 and now has watched Evans — another big target (6 feet 5, 230 pounds), albeit perhaps with not as much speed — run down Jones (6 feet 3, 220), so to speak.
"They both have elite size," Koetter said. "Julio has track speed to back that up. Mike is a little bit more of a build-to-speed guy. But now I think the thing that strikes me the most is that they both want to be great. There's a lot of talented players in the league, and I think that's where Mike has made the biggest improvement this year. Mike has made a huge jump, in my opinion, in wanting to be the best."
Consistency is in the DNA of greatness in the NFL. Though Evans became only the fourth receiver in league history to record 1,000 yards receiving in each of his first three pro seasons — joining Green, John Jefferson and Randy Moss — it's not only numbers that tell the story.
A year ago, despite 1,206 yards and three touchdowns, Evans led the league with a dozen drops and was easy to provoke on the field. One of his temper tantrums led to an ejection from a game.
"I think his consistency as a football player in doing things correctly in catching the ball eliminates some of the frustration that I think you can have as the game goes on," Monken said. "You get frustrated at your own play, then something alienates you and you take it a little too far. But Mike has done a better job at his preparation, his play and catching the ball. It feels like his competitive spirit has turned into excitement and not frustration."
Evans has been targeted 133 times this season, 16 times more than any other receiver. You can't blame the Bucs for feeding him the rock. Vincent Jackson's production had waned, and then he went on injured reserve in mid October. Running back Doug Martin missed six games with a hamstring strain. That left Evans to make big plays.
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"We have a huge tendency … to throw it to a great player," Monken said. "I like that tendency. That's what you should do. If you have a really good running back, you give him the ball. If you have a really good receiver, you find a way to get him the ball. … He's embraced that role."
Evans also embraces the challenge of beating double teams and the best corners in the game, like Sherman.
"That's what you want," Evans said of facing Sherman. "Being one of the best in the world, you want to go against one of the best in the world — one-on-one, man-on-man."
Because of his size, Evans needs some runway to reach his top speed. He can run any route, but as Pro Football Focus notes, his favorite is the fly pattern, which has accounted for 21 percent of his targets this season. Going deep, he has 258 receiving yards and four touchdowns.
"Well, I think Mike would agree that at some point you'd like to be known for your route-running," Monken said. "And he's getting there, as opposed to just a guy with great size and range."
With five games remaining in the regular season, Evans could shatter club records, including Mark Carrier's 1,422 receiving yards in 1989. Now he's busy staking his claim to being the best receiver in the NFL.
"The sky's the limit," quarterback Jameis Winston said. "He's just so good at so many different things. He can go up and get a ball. He can make you miss when he catches a short pass. The sky is the limit. I just have to continue to get him the ball."