A shortened version of this article was published by the Detroit Free Press.
The Detroit Lions have faced a boatload of talented rookie wide receivers so far this season. They’ve faced off against Kelvin Benjamin, Sammy Watkins, Brandin Cooks, Jarvis Landry and John Brown. But none of those guys were as hot as Tampa Bay’s Mike Evans will be coming into tomorrow’s game at Ford Field (1 p.m., Fox).
In a draft class lauded for its talent and depth at wide receiver, Evans has played as well as any of his fellow rookie wideouts.
Selected seventh overall by the Buccaneers, he was the second receiver taken in the historically talented draft class of receivers. He has not disappointed.
The Lions struggled against the size and skill of Alshon Jeffrey on Thanksgiving (nine catches, 71 yards and two touchdowns) and Evans is even bigger.
The rookie is having a monster season. He’s 15th in the NFL with 890 yards on 53 catches (16.8 average) and is fourth with 18 receptions of 20 yards or more. Evans leads all rookies in yards and is tied with Benjamin with eight touchdowns. He scored six touchdowns in a four-game span in November, before finally being corralled last week against Cincinnati.
At 6-foot-5, 231 pounds with freakishly long arms and decent speed (he ran a 4.53 in the 40-yard dash), Evans is a nightmare to deal with. He’s powerful, uses his hands to create separation, makes contested catches, and has become a better route runner as the season has progressed.
Let’s take a look at why Evans has been a terror in recent weeks.
In week nine, Evans began his hot streak by torching Cleveland for 124 yards and two scores. Here he lines up in the slot against undrafted rookie corner K’Waun Williams. Evans runs a simple vertical route down the seam but uses his hands to get on top of Williams. The pass is underthrown, but Evans does a nice job of locating the ball and securing the catch.
Earlier in the game, Evans (top left) is well covered on a fade route, but adjusts his body and makes the reception on a back-shoulder throw.
Trailing 22-17 late in the fourth quarter, the Bucs were in need of a big play. Yet quarterback Mike Glennon doesn’t look at three-time pro-bowler Vincent Jackson. Instead he looks for the rookie. Evans is lined up at the top on the outside. He tosses fellow rookie Justin Gilbert (taken one pick after Evans) aside and hauls in the pass for 31 yards despite taking a shot from safety Donte Whitner.
In or near the red zone, Evans is extremely dangerous. The Bucs like to send the mammoth rookie on fades but instead of calling it on the goal line, they prefer to give him plenty of room to work with.
Against the Falcons, Evans again wins with his hands and makes a contested catch for six points.
How about another fade, this one is an identical play to the one above. This time rookie first-rounder Kyle Fuller is the victim as Evans blows past him with a vicious swim move.
On both of those fades, Evans does a nice job of chopping his feet at the line of scrimmage to get the corners leaning, before attacking them with his hands. Throw in his long strides and it’s a lethal combination.
But Evans isn’t limited to fades. Against the Falcons, Evans (top left) runs a nice dig route, initially angling his vertical stem outside in order to create space to the inside for a 17-yard gain.
In Washington three weeks ago, Evans repeatedly burned the defense with seven catches for a career-high 209 yards and two touchdowns. On this 34-yard reception against rookie Bashaud Breeland, Evans showcased his route running, physicality and strong hands.
He takes an outside release to create more room on the inside, which is where he wants to go. He then cuts hard inside and stabs with his inside arm to gain leverage. This puts Breeland on his hip and allows him to create separation for the completion. Evans adjusts to the slightly underthrown ball and makes another contested catch with Breeland draped on his arm.
Three plays later, Evans accelerated past linebacker Perry Riley for a 56-yard bomb. Inexplicably, the lone deep safety rushes forward to try to jump a short underneath route, leaving Evans all alone against Riley. Once again, Evans gets a hand on the defender and cruises past him.
Certainly, a linebacker running with Evans is a mismatch of gigantic proportions and the Bucs took advantage.
Evans will likely see a lot of second-year corner Darius Slay, who is having a nice bounce-back season after a rough rookie campaign. According to Pro Football Focus, the 6-foot-1 Slay is allowing a completion on just 55 percent of the passes thrown his way. PFF grades him as the league’s 10th-best corner thus far. Though he has just one interception, Slay is 17th in the NFL with 13 pass breakouts.
The Bucs like to move Evans around so it won’t just be Slay who matches up against Evans. Rashean Mathis, Cassius Vaughn and Glover Quin will likely face him and they must be ready to match the rookies’ physicality. If they don’t, the Lions will be added to Evans’ growing list of teams he has had his way with during his explosive rookie season.
Credit to NFL Game Rewind for the game film. All Illustrations and GIFs were created by Marlowe Alter for the purpose of reporting, commenting and critiquing.