HomeFootball DirtMike Evans demonstrates once again that he is the NFL's top safety...

Mike Evans demonstrates once again that he is the NFL’s top safety net

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Baker Mayfield was 2022’s worst starting quarterback. When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers signed him to compete for a starting role with Kyle Trask last spring, it seemed like a covert mission to sink to the top of the 2024 NFL Draft where Caleb Williams and Drake Maye would be waiting.

That’s not what happened. The Bucs retained their NFC South title because Mayfield played like a top 10-adjacent quarterback in long stretches. Tampa Bay beat the defending NFC champions in the wild card round before falling victim to the Detroit Lions’ buzzsaw on the road a week later.

While it didn’t end with a Super Bowl, the first year of the post-Tom Brady era was a success. The Buccaneers’ offense slipped from 18th to 20th in overall DVOA — the run game remained a disaster — but moved from 14th to eighth when it came to expected points added (EPA) per dropback. This was thanks to Mayfield’s redemption, sure. But Mayfield’s redemption was based on the lesson Brady taught us back in 2020.

The Buccaneers’ wide receivers absolutely rule.

Chris Godwin remained the short and intermediate range wizard he’s always been. 2023 marked his third straight 1,000-yard season and fourth in the last five years. But Godwin’s steady, effective play was overshadowed once more by the guy who makes every quarterback better simply by showing up; Mike Evans.

Evans was the balm to soothe a burned passer. The steady, 6-foot-5 red zone standout who is also, incredibly, a deep threat at age 30. He’s eternally the player who’ll drop a handful of easy passes before hauling in throws he had no business chasing down. On Sunday he tipped a catchable ball directly into the hands of Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, the defensive back who’d spent a good chunk of his game prep trash talking Mayfield.

Evans still finished his day with 8.0 EPA across 13 targets — four times more than Detroit’s top wideout Amon-Ra St. Brown and more than the Baltimore Ravens’ entire receiving corps in their convincing win over the Houston Texans (6.0).

The future Hall of Famer’s efficiency peaked with Brady at the helm. His 124.3 passer rating when targeted between 2020 and 2021 was the highest among all wideouts with at least 100 targets those two seasons. But when a dropoff came in his age 29 season alongside a fading offense, it was fair to wonder whether Evans was sliding into the “possession receiver” phase of his career.

Nope. Mayfield arrived and thrived with Evans (and Godwin) in a way he couldn’t with D.J. Moore before being jettisoned by the Carolina Panthers last fall. Evans had four games with at least 140 receiving yards this season and Sunday’s showdown with the Lions was the first the Buccaneers lost. While he wasn’t necessarily endemic to the team’s success — Tampa lost games when he averaged more than 17 yards per target and won games when he had 1.3 — his presence was invaluable.

Godwin’s average catch depth rose by nearly three full yards, owing to an offensive line that allowed for more time in the pocket (and a quarterback who wasn’t 45 years old and could escape pressure and/or take hits). He was able to capitalize on the space Evans left behind. This trickle-down left room for Rachaad White to thrive as a receiver out of the backfield. His 7.8 yards per target were third-best among all NFL running backs.

There’s a lot to unpack here for a squad that went 9-8 and surged to the top of a weak division before upsetting a freefalling Eagles team. The Buccaneers’ refusal to bottom out and rebuild isn’t solely a Mike Evans production. But when Mayfield needed a big play, he knew exactly where to turn. Chucking the ball to Big Mike was a high percentage splash play that didn’t work every time, but managed to look much easier than it actually was each time it did.

So, you know what? Let’s just do the seven biggest catches of Evans’ 2023, broken down by EPA added to the Buccaneers’ offense. He had 13 different receptions worth at least a field goal of expected value, so there’s plenty from which to choose.

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