Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his weekly notebook. The topics of this edition include:
» A kicker for MVP???
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ASK THE LEAGUE: Is Mike Evans a top-five wideout in today's NFL?
Since entering the NFL as the seventh overall pick in 2014, Tampa Bay Buccaneers WR Mike Evans has flummoxed opposing teams with a rugged game that overwhelms defenders on the perimeter. After watching the third-year pro torment the "Legion of Boom" in a spectacular performance (eight catches for 104 yards and two touchdowns in Tampa's 14-5 win over Seattle) that forced the rest of the league to take notice, I thought I would reach out to a few industry folks to get their take on the young superstar's game. Here's my question and their responses:
NFC secondary coach: "He definitely has the potential to be a top-five receiver. He has the mental makeup to be a great one. Plus, he is a big, physical playmaker who plays strong in traffic. ... He's a matchup problem in the red zone and he's developing chemistry with (Jameis) Winston. I think those guys can be a special combination for a long time."
AFC pro personnel director: "I haven't always been impressed with him, but he has taken it up a notch this year. He's killed cornerbacks with size, strength and ability to win at the ball. Those traits separate him from others at the position. ... I still don't like his route-running skills, but his size and playmaking ability is rare."
AFC pro personnel assistant: "He definitely should be considered as part of that elite group. I'm not quite ready to name him a top-five receiver, but I like his ability. You have to appreciate a big man that plays big and makes plays. ... He's not the cleanest route runner, but you can't deny his playmaking ability."
It's amazing how quickly Evans has developed into one of the top receivers in the game. The 23-year-old recently joined an exclusive club of playmakers when he became just the fourth player in NFL history to start his career with three straight 1,000-yard seasons (joining John Jefferson, Randy Moss and A.J. Green). Considering the legions of pass catchers who have come and gone in this league without accomplishing such a feat, Evans should be in the conversation as a top-five wideout on the strength of his numbers alone.
Not only has the 6-foot-5, 231-pound pass catcher totaled 215 receptions, 3,277 yards and 25 touchdowns in just 41 games, but he has snagged 53 receptions of 20-plus yards while averaging 15.2 yards per catch. That's outstanding production for a big-bodied receiver forced to defeat an assortment of double-coverage tactics from opponents each week. Studying the All-22 Coaches Film, I repeatedly spotted defenses rolling coverage in his direction (Cover 2 or quarter-quarter-half) or leaning the safety to his side to protect a corner walked up to press Evans at the line. When opponents attempted to play the third-year pro straight up, I frequently spotted a linebacker or safety buzzing underneath him as a curl/flat defender. Thus, Evans rarely faces a lot of one-on-one coverage on the perimeter, which makes his production even more remarkable.
From a scouting perspective, Evans is a big, physical playmaker with exceptional hands and tracking skills. He is a natural pass catcher with extraordinary upper-body strength, which allows him to routinely wrestle the ball away from defenders on 50-50 balls. As a route runner, Evans lacks a little polish and precision, but he makes up for it with sheer strength and power, particularly when he faces press coverage. He has mastered the art of snatching defenders at the line to create separation early in routes. Evans complements his pull-through maneuver by "stacking" defenders (receivers works to get directly in front of defenders on a vertical release) within the first 10 yards to prevent defenders from closing the gap before the ball arrives.
With Evans displaying the strength, power and acrobatic catching skills to consistently win one-on-ones with defenders draped all over him, Winston has started to throw more jump balls to the talented WR1 in key situations. Although the tactic is clearly not a textbook strategy, the Buccaneers have torched opponents with an "alley-oop" game built around a basketball-like athlete with exceptional ball skills.
If Evans continues to torch opponents despite facing double coverage designed to slow him down, it's only a matter of time before he is recognized as a consensus top-five receiver by his peers and coaches around the league.