This week's player to watch is a little bit of a sore subject for me. In a fantasy football story as old as time, I tagged Mike Evans on to a trade just to clear a roster spot after Week 7 this season. The result? He became the most productive receiver in the league over the next three games with five touchdowns, 21 receptions and 458 yards. Awesome.
Even though the rest of Evans' season has not been as productive as that three-game stretch, he is enjoying a very successful rookie campaign. The seventh overall pick from the 2014 NFL Draft has 53 catches for 890 yards and eight touchdowns on the year. This is an impressive line considering Evans took a few weeks to get acclimated in the NFL and did not top 80 yards or record more than five catches in a game until his Week 8 coming-out party.
In other words, Evans is picking up where he left off at Texas A&M, where he was a consensus first-team All-American his junior year. After being redshirted his freshman year, Evans started all 26 games his sophomore and junior seasons, leading the Aggies in receptions, yards and touchdown receptions both years.
Evans is very much the prototype of receivers that are currently in vogue in the NFL. He has a big frame -- 6-foot-5 and 231 pounds -- to go with the athleticism that comes with being a Division I basketball and football recruit. At the NFL Combine, Evans ran a 4.53 40-yard dash and had a vertical jump of 37 inches. Evans is extremely physical and not afraid of contact, especially when it is against defensive backs who lack his size or bulk. One of the things coaches love to see from young wide receivers is their willingness to help spring teammates with outside blocks. Evans showed this willingness and ability at Texas A&M and is showing it again in the NFL. Check out his block on Terence Newman last week.
The guy doesn't mess around, even when he isn't running a route.
Because of these natural abilities, Evans is a touchdown machine and a master at bringing down the difficult-to-catch back-shoulder fades. He did not find the end zone this season until Week 4, but is currently eighth in the NFL among wide receivers with eight touchdown receptions. When paired with fellow giant Vincent Jackson (coincidentally, also 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds), the duo is capable of putting defenses through the ringer.
So why is the Tampa Bay Buccaneers offense so bad? They rank near the bottom of the league in both yards per game and points per game. The answer should be pretty evident, especially to fantasy football players. The rest of the Bucs offense is a mess. Their once highly touted running back, Doug Martin, is in the final stages of cementing himself as a bust. His replacements, Bobby Rainey and Charles Sims, have shown some flashes at times, but are not exactly lighting the world on fire. In other words, Tampa Bay has one of the few rushing attacks in the league that is on par with the Detroit Lions' anemic run game. In addition, they have suffered under the extremely erratic quarterback play of Mike Glennon and Josh McCown. Neither quarterback has played horribly, but both turn the ball over quite a bit and fail to produce with any consistency.
In other words, Evans -- and, to a lesser extent, Jackson -- is the only real bright spot on the Bucs' offense. As such, he gets a lot of attention in Tampa's offensive scheme. Despite his inexperience, Buccaneers quarterbacks have targeted Evans 91 times, the 23rd-most targets of any receiver in the NFL. Remarkably, he has turned those 91 targets into 53 receptions. For a point of reference, his teammate Jackson has received 107 targets but caught only 50 balls. The Buccaneers put the ball in the air a lot, with a huge majority of their targets going toward their big receivers, Evans and Jackson.
This week, Evans will face a tough test against a Lions passing defense that continues to defy expectations by remaining one of the top units in the league. While the Lions' defensive passing statistics have taken a dip in the last few weeks -- partially because teams are reluctant to run against the Lions, so they put the ball in the air a lot, as evidenced by the Thanksgiving Day game against the Chicago Bears -- they still rank in the top half of the league in terms of passing yards allowed per game and have had considerable success against top-tier receivers like Evans this season.
Despite facing a murderers' row of receivers this season -- such as Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, Sammy Watkins, Roddy White, Julio Jones, Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall -- the Lions have held their own. Looking at only the top receiver for each team the Lions have faced this season, they are allowing an average of only five receptions for 60 yards and .23 touchdowns per game. Kudos to the Lions' top cornerback, Darius Slay, for stepping up against these receivers, as well as defensive coordinator Teryl Austin for crafting schemes that negate these playmakers and safeties Glover Quin and James Ihedigbo for providing help over the top.
Bottom line: Evans will get his targets this week. The Buccaneers simply do not have many options given their pathetic running game, the Lions' stiff rushing defense and the lack of other receiving options besides Evans and Jackson. Still, the Lions have shown that they can limit the production from even top-flight receivers, and Evans still has yet to prove he can produce at an elite level with any consistency.