Like most NFL Draft analysts, Mike Mayock catches a lot of flack at times. This just comes naturally with the territory, no big deal. Out of all the pundits and analysts, however, Mayock is probably the best and this quote below is the exact reason why.
“He’ll hit you, but he’ll also miss some tackles. He’s a very aggressive guy. It’s all-or-nothing when he comes to tackle and he also has good range on the back end. When you look at Tampa Bay, Justin Evans comes in, competes day one and ends up being their starting free safety.” - Mayock, via NFL.com
Mayock’s analysis was right on the money for the young free safety whom the Bucs took 50th overall in the 2017 NFL Draft.
Evans would go on to play in 14 games - starting 11 - in 2017 before his season was cut short in Atlanta during a Week 15 loss. He was atop the interception list for rookies after the Week 13 game against the Packers. If he wouldn’t have gotten injured, there is a good chance he would’ve finished the season number one in that category.
His presence helped the Bucs finished tied for the seventh-most turnovers in the league last season - which may be a surprise to many Bucs fans and non-fans. He tied with veteran cornerback Brett Grimes for the team lead in interceptions.
Overall, it was a very successful season for the young safety and he is expected to have a large role in the secondary in 2018, but what can we expect from Evans?
For context, here are Evans’ stats from 2017:
- 69.8 Overall PFF Grade - 11 GS, 68 tackles, 10 missed tackles, 3 INT, 0 sacks
Using ProFootballFocus’ database, I took a look at some of the top free safeties in the NFL and logged the jump - or lack thereof - from their rookie year to their second season.
Kevin Byard, Tennessee Titans
- 2016: 78.9 Overall PFF Grade - 7 GS, 45 tackles, 7 missed tackles, 0 INT, 1 sack
- 2017: 89.0 Overall PFF Grade - 16 GS, 100 tackles, 14 missed tackles, 8 INT, 0 sacks
Byard earned All-Pro honors after a great sophomore season. He made a tremendous leap and finished out the year as one of the league’s top free safeties. His production increased by double, but so did his playing time when compared to his first season - even though he doubled the amount of whiffs he took as well.
Glover Quin, Detroit Lions
- 2009: 67.6 Overall PFF Grade - 12 GS, 65 tackles, 7 missed tackles, 0 INT, 3 sacks
- 2010: 71.2 Overall PFF Grade - 16 GS, 82 tackles, 9 missed tackles, 3 INT, 0 sacks
While Quin saw improvement - albeit modest improvement - his play has continued to grow over the years, evidenced by a grade of 81.1 or higher in five of his last six years. Quin is a top-five free safety in the league right now.
Earl Thomas, Seattle Seahawks
- 2010: 77.9 Overall PFF Grade - 16 GS, 81 tackles, 13 missed tackles, 5 INT, 0 sacks
- 2011: 86.3 Overall PFF Grade - 16 GS, 88 tackles, 12 missed tackles, 2 INT, 0 sacks
Thomas developed into the best free safety in the NFL at one point. Evans’ athleticism has drawn comparisons to Thomas, which is obviously a great indicator of his potential. Even though Thomas still misses a lot of tackles, he was able to decrease the amount from his first to second year, which shows that Evans could possibly do the same.
Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Green Bay Packers
- 2014: 71.7 Overall PFF Grade - 10 GS, 91 tackles, 15 missed tackles, 1 INT, 1 sack
- 2015: 85.0 Overall PFF Grade - 16 GS, 110 tackles, 9 missed tackles, 2 INT, 3 sacks
Clinton-Dix made the biggest second-year jump of the players on this list. Despite starting six more games in 2015, he was able to cut down on missed tackles by 40% while upping his stats in every other category.
So what is a fair expectation for Evans this year? Right now he has excellent range, athleticism, and can deliver a big hit when needed. He is also very good in run support. His biggest issues are his missed tackles and he tends to take bad angles when making a play on the ball.
Evans held his own for the most part in 2017 even though he had absolutely no pass rush to help him nor his defensive mates out. It’s hard to gauge what he can really do in 2018 - a lot of it depends on how the new-look defense comes together.
But let’s say this is a perfect world and everything works out like it’s supposed to. Judging from the trends on this list, he is bound to improve in every statistical category based off of an increase in playing time alone, while still having a shot at improving his tackling and lowering the missed tackles.
It seems to me that a season with the following stat line is what most should expect from Justin Evans in 2018:
- 16 GS, 95 tackles, 12 missed tackles, 4 INT, 1 sack
If the Bucs can get that type of stat line from Evans, then the back end of the defense will one of the better players it has had in a decade.