When I worked as a scout for the Seattle Seahawks, I remember offensive coordinator Gil Haskell discussing the advantages of having big-bodied receivers in the West Coast offense. He emphasized that big receivers (pass catchers measuring over 6-foot-2) expand the quarterback's strike zone on short and intermediate throws. Additionally, he pointed out the challenges of tackling imposing physical specimens in the open field on slants and crossing routes between the hashes.
When I asked him about speed and quickness requirements for big-bodied wideouts, Haskell told me that a 40 time in the low-to-mid-4.5 range is fast enough to wreak havoc on opponents. Haskell largely based that opinion on his experience as an offensive coordinator with the Carolina Panthers in 1998-99. In that later season, Haskell directed the NFL's second-best passing offense, with a pair of big-bodied receivers (Muhsin Muhammad and Patrick Jeffers) posting 1,000-yard seasons.
Looking at the 2014 NFL Draft, there are a number of big, athletic receivers with the potential to dominate on the perimeter, but Mike Evans is the crown jewel of the bunch. Checking in at 6-5 and 231 pounds, with a 4.53 40 time to his name, Evans is a beastly presence with noteworthy quickness and acceleration. The Texas A&M product runs past defenders on vertical routes, exhibiting a sneaky second gear that allows him to separate from coverage when the ball is in the air.
As a route runner, Evans is most effective performing speed cuts at the top of his routes. He will bend and burst into routes, as opposed to making hard plants at the break point. By using this technique, Evans is able to maintain his speed and create separation from defenders in tight coverage. This is an area where big receivers traditionally struggle, but Evans shows exceptional balance, body control and explosion as a route runner, which is key to developing into a No. 1 target at the next level.
Evans displays outstanding hands and ball skills as a pass catcher. He has a knack for wrestling the ball away from defenders in 50-50 situations, particularly in the red zone on fades and skinny posts near the back of the end zone. Additionally, Evans possesses terrific sideline awareness, routinely executing toe taps on the boundary with defenders draped on his back.
As for flaws in Evans' game, I would cite his occasional struggles against press coverage. At times, he has difficulty working away from aggressive defenders at the line of scrimmage and appears frustrated by the physical tactics (see: Chick-fil-A Bowl vs. Duke). Although Evans has plenty of game tape where he wins against press, he must improve his consistency against bump-and-run to be a dominant playmaker in the NFL.
Overall, Evans is the prototypical No. 1 receiver teams covet in the passing game. He boasts the size and strength to dominate smaller defenders on the perimeter, as well as the speed and athleticism to maximize catch-and-run plays. Thus, he is capable of being an effective weapon in any scheme, making him a top prospect on draft boards around the league.
Below, I've come up with five of the best possible fits for Evans. I list each team's current first-round slot as a point of reference, but remember, draft-day trading does occur.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (No. 7 overall)
The Mike Williams trade creates a huge void opposite Vincent Jackson in Tampa Bay. Thus, the team desperately needs a No. 2 receiver capable of winning one-on-one matchups on the backside. Evans is ideally suited to play in new offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford's complex system, which places a premium on intermediate and vertical routes off play action. Additionally, Evans is a deadly red-zone weapon with the size, athleticism and ball skills to make contested catches. Jackson is a well-rounded, top-tier wide receiver, with the ability to impact the game on the perimeter and do the dirty work between the hashes. But he can't maximize production if the Buccaneers don't have another viable threat in the passing game. Evans could be that second perimeter difference maker Tampa Bay needs to become a legitimate contender in the NFC.
Detroit Lions (No. 10)
The Lions signed Golden Tate to alleviate some of the pressure on Calvin Johnson in the passing game. Although Tate certainly adds sizzle to the lineup with his playmaking skills, he lacks the size to consistently win matchups against the better defenders on the perimeter. Thus, the Lions would be wise to add another big, athletic pass catcher to serve as the No. 2 receiver opposite Megatron. Evans is just that, as well as an underrated runner after the catch, making him dangerous on routes designed to get the ball into the hands of a receiver on the move. Given the importance of getting Matthew Stafford back on track -- by increasing the amount of high-percentage throws in the game plan -- the addition of Evans makes perfect sense. Evans would provide even more firepower to a Lions offense that already strikes fear in the hearts of defensive coordinators across the league.
New York Giants (No. 12)
The loss of Hakeem Nicks leaves Victor Cruz without an established playmate in the passing game. Although the team has expressed confidence in Rueben Randle as a complementary receiver, adding a big-bodied playmaker like Evans would evoke memories of Plaxico Burress dominating in the Meadowlands. Evans displays similar traits to the former Giants star on the perimeter, and his ability to come down with 50-50 balls will encourage Eli Manning to target him in the red zone. Evans' arrival could add some sizzle to a lineup that needs to find a way to score more points in a division that will be governed by the top offenses. And hey, Evans is the draft prospect who sits atop Cruz's wish list.
St. Louis Rams (Nos. 2 and 13)
It's now-or-never time in St. Louis for Sam Bradford. The top pick in the 2010 draft has failed to play up to expectations with the Rams, but part of his underachievement can be attributed to the lack of perimeter weapons at his disposal. Jeff Fisher has attempted to upgrade the supporting cast over the past few offseasons by adding Brian Quick, Chris Givens, Jared Cook, Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey, but no one has stepped up to assume the role of No. 1 pass catcher. Thus, the Rams are still searching for a playmaker capable of anchoring the passing game. Evans has all of the tools to be the No. 1 guy in St. Louis, with his superior size/speed combination. The NFC West is full of big, physical corners; St. Louis needs an effective counter out wide.
Baltimore Ravens (No. 17)
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After trading Anquan Boldin to San Francisco last offseason, the 2013 Ravens lacked a dependable pass catcher in the clutch (third-down and red-zone situations). During his Baltimore tenure, Boldin always excelled at doing the dirty work between the hashes, utilizing his size, strength and toughness to make plays in traffic. Those traits were critical to the Ravens' success on their way to winning Super Bowl XLVII. After missing the playoffs last season -- while ranking 29th in total offense -- the team needs a big-bodied, physical receiver like Evans to get back on track. Yes, offseason acquisition Steve Smith can provide some of the Boldin qualities, but he's clearly past his prime. Evans thrived as Johnny Manziel's top target at Texas A&M, exhibiting the kind of confidence and playmaking ability needed to handle the responsibilities of a No. 1 receiver on Sundays. With new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak partial to building his passing game around big, athletic receivers, Evans should be a highly attractive prospect to Baltimore.