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Shining a light on an under-appreciated quality of Mike Evans’ game

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Bucs fans all say Mike Evans is great, but where is he greatest?

NFL: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at New Orleans Saints Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

What if I told you the ‘best receiver in the game’ needed 150% the opportunities as Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Mike Evans needs to achieve the same levels of production?

So no kidding, there I was just minding my business, sitting in my empty house - we’re preparing to move in a couple weeks - when a tweet came across my screen.

Perhaps Carmen is right, I thought. We talk a lot about how good Mike Evans has been for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He’s matched production markers set by the great Randy Moss after all. So, of course he’s one of the best wide receivers in the game right now, right?

Well, according to some, he may not be the best receiver on the Bucs’ roster, let alone in the division or the NFL. But are there aspects of Evans’ game not getting enough love? Is it possible someone who has produced at top-shelf levels his entire career with quarterbacks named Josh McCown, Mike Glennon, Jameis Winston and Ryan Fitzpatrick is somehow underrated?

Evans had a career low in receptions in 2019 falling one catch shy of his 2014 rookie number of 68. Of course, he only played in thirteen games because of a hamstring injury. With is 67 receptions, he turned in 1,157-yards receiving (17.3 ypc) and had eight touchdowns.

Extrapolate that pace out to sixteen games, and Evans was on track to produce a stat line like this: 84 catches, 1,424-yards, and 10 touchdowns. For perspective, Evans was on pace to finish with three hundred yards less, but one more score, than Madden 21 99-overall rated receiver, Michael Thomas of the New Orleans Saints. Three-hundred yards is a size-able gap, but when you consider Thomas had 65 more receptions than Evans projected to get, the gap is a little smaller.

If Evans were able to bring in as many passes as Thomas did, something made less likely by this significant talent gap between each receiver’s second-receiver talent, he’d have been on pace to record 2,525-yards through the air. Thomas on the other hand, with his 11.6 yards per reception, required approximately 100 receptions to reach the production totals Evans recorded in 13 games. Take Evan’s production out to 16, and Thomas’ average requires him to bring in 123 receptions to match production.

Because of how the Saints use Thomas, he reached amazing numbers in yards and receptions. However, he also had to bring in 150% the amount of catches Evans did, just to break even. Simply put, the Saints emphasized quantity, while the Bucs emphasized quality.

And this brings us back to Vitali’s point, and the thought Evan’s yards per catch average may deserve more conversation than it’s gotten thus far.

In 2019, Evans and Thomas received similar amounts of space from defenders on average. According to NFL Next-Gen Stats, Thomas received around 5.2 yards of cushion from defenders, while Evans received 5.3. In average air yards per target however, Evans was pushing those defenders a full ten yards or more downfield before receiving his targets, while Thomas was forcing defenders back just three.

So, why the comparisons to Thomas here? Well, simply put, Thomas is being touted as perhaps the best receiver in the NFL. He’s earned this reputation - and a 99 overall rating in Madden 21 - because of his production. Because of the impact he has on the Saints offense.

However, what these numbers show for me is similar to the phenomenon surrounding high scoring output in the NBA. Which is a more impressive performance: 60 points on 40 shots, or 40 points on 18 shots? The 60 point night is going to get more airtime on ESPN, but the 40 point shooter, lends better chances for his team to be successful.

Bottom line is, while both receivers are exceptionally talented, I can’t imagine many coaches relishing the need to take 100 snaps to achieve what another guy can do in 80. In a game where everyone is racing against the clock and opportunities are not in weekly abundance, the best teams will always value quality in play over quantity of plays.