How Mike Evans elevated his game in 2016
[Pro Football Focus recently identified Buccaneers WR Mike Evans as the No. 12 player overall in the 2016 NFL season. To see the full list featuring the 101 best players of the season, click here.]
After already starting off his career with back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons, Tampa Bay wide receiver Mike Evans made a big leap in 2016. In his second season paired with Dirk Koetter and Jameis Winston, Evans separated himself from the pack, partly by necessity but largely due to his ability. Vincent Jackson’s impact was minimal before going down with a season-ending knee injury in Week 5. That helped open the door for Evans to become Winston’s go-to receiver and become the most targeted receiver in the league this year with 168 targets. It also meant more pressure on Evans to perform at the same time defenses were able to pay more attention to him in coverage.
Evans finished the regular season with a 93.3 overall grade, which was the highest for a wide receiver until Julio Jones’ playoff performance helped him vault Evans for the top spot. Even though Evans did not lead the league in catches, yards or touchdowns, he did rank among the top five in most traditional receiving statistics. Evans ranked sixth in PFF’s yards-per-route-run signature stat with 2.28. Evans also made fewer mistakes than he did in 2015. He cut his drops down from 15 to 7, and lowered his drop rate a full 10 percent to 6.8. He also had seven fewer penalties, including two fewer offensive pass interference calls against him.
Evans is a big, physical receiver who probably embodies the definition of a possession receiver as well as anyone. He doesn’t gain much of his yardage after the catch, as evidenced by owning the fourth-lowest average yards after the catch among wide receivers with at least 20 catches, but he’s proven to be effective anyway. Evans led the league with 1,133 yards before the catch, and was one of just three players to have at least 900 yards. When adjusting for volume, Evans averaged an eighth-best 11.8 yards before the catch (min. 40 receptions). His average depth of target was 15.4 yards downfield, almost a full four yards more than the NFL average for wide receivers. So, it is not surprising when Evans ranked fourth in deep-pass (20-plus yards downfield) catches (13) and third in touchdowns (6).
His good play was not just that he was racking up yards, but how and when he was gaining them. Evans converted a whopping 83.3 percent of his 96 receptions into either first downs or touchdowns, the highest rate among wide receivers (min. 40 receptions). His 80 combined first-down and touchdown receptions were most in the regular season. Evans was just as clutch on third and fourth downs, with a league-high 29 receptions that went for first downs or touchdowns, four more than the next wide receiver.
On top of all of that, Evans often made difficult catches that few others are capable of making. A highlight reel could be put together from a handful of Evans’ games that would amount to a season’s worth of clips for most receivers. He also performed well against some very good defensive backs. Richard Sherman, Patrick Peterson and Desmond Trufant were among those in primary coverage who Evans scored touchdowns against this year. Evans made big strides upon his first two seasons and his performance this season landed him at No. 12 in our Top 101 players of the 2016 season.