No matter what year or time period you’re talking about, the “best wide receiver” debate is one that rages on pretty strong. If you’re discussing the best ever, it’s usually between someone like Terrell Owens or Randy Moss and the man who holds all the records, Jerry Rice. If you’re fighting over right now, it could be anyone from Julio Jones, Odell Beckham Jr., Antonio Brown, or DeAndre Hopkins, with some people suggesting even New Orleans’ Michael Thomas should be in the mix. But one guy that never gets the credit he deserves, strangely enough, is Tampa Bay’s Mike Evans.
Mike Evans: The Best Receiver Nobody’s Talking About
Believe it or not, Mike Evans was third in receiving yards last season, behind only Julio Jones and DeAndre Hopkins. Despite catching fewer passes (the 17th most in the NFL with 86), Evans had more yards (1,524) than JuJu Smith-Schuster (111 for 1,426), Antonio Brown (104 for 1,297), Michael Thomas (125 for 1,405), Adam Thielen (113 for 1,373), Davante Adams (111 for 1,386), and Tyreek Hill (87 for 1,479) in 2018.
Brown and Smith-Schuster had Ben Roethlisberger, Thomas had Drew Brees, Thielen had Kirk Cousins, Adams had Aaron Rodgers, and Hill had the league’s MVP, Patrick Mahomes. Who did Mike Evans have? Seven games of journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick, who was starting for his seventh team, and the troubled and inconsistent Jameis Winston, fresh off suspension.
Tampa’s Turbulent Throwers
And it wasn’t like Fitzpatrick played during the suspension and then Winston took over after that. The Buccaneers benched Fitzpatrick for a returning Winston, only for Winston to struggle and get benched for Fitzpatrick, who was eventually replaced by Winston to end the season.
Basically, each quarterback would be the starter until they threw too many interceptions and were benched. Both quarterbacks had multiple games with four touchdowns, but they also had multiple games with multiple interceptions. But through all that change, Evans remained consistent.
All season long, he averaged five catches for 95 yards and a touchdown grab per game. In the games where he played exclusively with Fitzpatrick, he averaged nine catches for 87 yards and a score, but in the games where he only played with Winston, he averaged five catches for 92 yards.
And make no mistake, both quarterbacks were targeting Evans. His 138 targets were 30 more than the next guy on the team, and he ended the seasons with more touchdowns and almost twice as many yards as any other Tampa Bay Buccaneer, regardless of who was under center.
Not Just 2018
2018 wasn’t a breakout year for Evans either. He did register a career high in yards, but it was business as usual for Tampa Bay’s number one. Every single year he’s been in the NFL, he’s had at least 70 catches for over 1,000 yards. Mike Evans has twice as many 1,000 yard seasons by himself since 2014 than the entire Oakland Raider franchise has had since 2005.
On some really bad Buccaneer teams with really questionable quarterback play, Evans has always played really well. Evans has caught 26% of Winston’s touchdowns since Winston was drafted in 2015, 16% more than the next closest wide receiver. On a team that hasn’t been great, but has put up decent passing numbers on occasion, Mike Evans has been the main beneficiary.
Is He Underrated Though?
Now you might be thinking that Mike Evans isn’t actually underrated. It’s pretty commonly accepted that the guy is pretty good. Well according to his peers, Evans is only the 53rd best player in the NFL, and the 11th best receiver behind JuJu Smith-Schuster, Keenan Allen, Davante Adams, Adam Thielen, Odell Beckham Jr., Tyreek Hill, Michael Thomas, DeAndre Hopkins, Julio Jones, and Antonio Brown. Reminder, he had better numbers than most of those guys.
He’s also only the eleventh highest rated receiver (91 overall), behind guys like T.Y. Hilton, Stefon Diggs, and some of the other receivers noted above who, again, didn’t have numbers as good as his. People seem willing to admit he’s a pretty good receiver, but stop short of listing him among the elite.
But… But… Garbage Time!
So, by now, the problem with Mike Evans’ statistical achievements should be pretty clear to everyone. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are not a very good team, and haven’t been for a very, very long time. The last time the Bucs made the playoffs, it was when Jon Gruden was their head coach, back in 2007. Since then, every other team in the division has gone on to not only win the division, but the entire conference. During Evan’s career, Tampa Bay is a combined 27-53, only breaking .500 in 2016 when they won nine games.
The Blake Bortles Effect
The year before, in 2015, another wide receiver from a Florida team also had great numbers on a bad team. The 2015 Jacksonville Jaguars went 5-11, but Allen Robinson caught 80 passes for 1,400 yards and 14 touchdowns. His teammate, Allen Hurns, caught 64 passes for 1,031 yards and 10 touchdowns.
This was because the team spent most of the year in a magical place called “garbage time,” where the other team’s lead is so insurmountable that they don’t play as hard on defense or bench their starters altogether while the losing team desperately throws the ball, trying to climb back into the game. Neither man has sniffed similar production since, nor has their quarterback, Blake Bortles, who threw for 4,428 yards and 35 touchdowns that season.
The Reality of the Situation
Here’s the thing though, Evans is just as productive during wins as he is during losses. During his time with Tampa Bay, only about half 23/41 of his scores have come when the team was trailing, and only about four of them were actually in games where the lead was out of reach.
In 2018 alone, he averaged seven catches for 100 yards a win, and over his career, he averages five catches for 82 yards and a score. It’s pretty clear that Evans isn’t just dominating when the team is down, he’s often the reason the team is winning. And of course, in garbage time, he thrives because everyone on the defensive side of the ball knows where Winston/Fitzpatrick is looking for their desperation throws.
If we’re going to discredit Evans’ success because of the failures of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, then Julio Jones’ 2018 campaign where he led the league in receiving yards shouldn’t count either. It’s not like they were tearing the NFC apart this season.
So Why No Love?
So why doesn’t Mike Evans get any love? It’s really pretty simple. Nobody cares about the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Only the Cleveland Browns have a longer playoff drought (haven’t been to the playoffs since 2002), and with Baker Mayfield, Odell Beckham Jr., and Myles Garrett on board, it’s only a matter of time before they change that.
Just think about it, the last time Tampa Bay made the playoffs, Jon Gruden was leaning on Joey Galloway and Earnest Graham to carry an impotent Jeff Garcia to a NFC South championship. Gruden would be fired following the 2008 season and spend ten years as a TV personality before returning to the sidelines as the head coach of the Oakland Raiders and they still never sniffed the post-season. Tampa Bay is in a division where the only other quarterback that hasn’t been a league MVP is the NFL’s all-time leader in passing yards, and every other team has been to the Super Bowl.
Every other great receiver on the NFL has been on a good team. Even now that Antonio Brown is in Oakland, there’s so much drama that the rest of the NFL is taking notice. Mike Evans is a guy that shows up, puts up good numbers in a losing effort on a team that has made the least amount of noise in a state with two other NFL teams. Evans is on a bad team with an inconsistent quarterback, and all he can do is put up big numbers while the team fails to capitalize.
He’s only missed three games in five years and averages 82 catches, 1,268 yards, and eight touchdowns a season. This season, Tampa Bay brought in quarterback guru Bruce Arians, who revived the career of Carson Palmer while getting incredible production out of not only hall of famer Larry Fitzgerald, but one-dimensional speedster, John Brown and journeyman Michael Floyd. If history repeats itself, it only means good things for Michael Evans, the most underrated receiver in professional football.