To our readers: Mike Evans' 2016 NFL Catch of the Year and the big Bucs' offseason catches — DeSean Jackson, O.J. Howard and Chris Godwin — inspired us to mark the start of the 2017 season with a series of stories celebrating "The Catch." We hope you enjoy them.
TAMPA — Mike Evans could become the highest-paid receiver in the NFL one day.
The question is, when?
Barring injury, Evans has put himself in position to earn the type of contract recently signed by receivers such as the Steelers' Antonio Brown (four years, $68 million), the Bengals' A.J. Green (four years, $60 million), the Falcons' Julio Jones (five years, $71.25 million) and the Cowboys' Dez Bryant (five years, $70 million).
But Evans, 24, still is playing under his four-year, $14.63 million rookie contract.
The Bucs picked up a fifth-year option that would increase his salary to $13.26 million in 2018. But that contract is only guaranteed against injury.
Of course, in the NFL the only thing that matters is what a team will guarantee in salary. Green had $26.75 million guaranteed, which means the Bengals would look at it as two seasons at $13.375 million.
So far, there have been no real discussions on an extension for Evans. The good news is that he isn't beating down the door of general manager Jason Licht asking for one.
The earliest the Bucs would want to get something down with Evans would be sometime next year, but only if it made sense. The club still has a franchise player tag they could apply to Evans in 2019.
Evans would be the first of the new core of players acquired by Licht to come up for renegotiation. Running back Charles Sims and guard/tackle Kevin Pamphile were also part of that draft class, but since they weren't first-rounders, they will become unrestricted free agents at the end of the season.
Licht and the Bucs will have to make tough choices over the next several years as their young stars become eligible for free agency. Quarterback Jameis Winston is signed through 2018, with the club option in 2019. His draft class also included center Ali Marpet, left tackle Donovan Smith and linebacker Kwon Alexander.
Signing Evans to an extension now may create a stampede to Licht's door.
It's a big puzzle that Licht and the Bucs have to put together. No player from Evans' 2014 draft class has signed an extension, so the Bucs aren't the outlier. Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald, the 13th overall pick in 2014, is holding out, but he is the exception.
The other factor, and there's no way around this, is injury. Receivers play a high-risk position. It's in the Bucs' interest to wait, but their plan is for Evans to play his entire career in Tampa Bay.