Fact or Fiction: Assessing Mike Evans and Calvin Johnson’s slow starts
This week’s Fact or Fiction takes a look at a pair of big-play receivers who currently double as two of the best buy-low candidates across the fantasy landscape. Mike Evans and Calvin Johnson have both been significant disappointments through the season’s first five weeks, but there’s plenty of reason to believe both will turn it around. One wideout, however, has earned his slow start, while the other has been a victim of circumstance. Below, we reveal which is which, but mostly take a look at why you should be talking to the owners of each player this week about possible trade proposals.
Fact: Mike Evans has not been the same in 2015.
Odell Beckham Jr. eventually overshadowed Evans last year, but for a time it looked like the Buccaneers’ top pick was going to be the best rookie receiver in a loaded class. Evans caught 68 passes for 1,051 yards and 12 touchdowns last season, and he did it by being a deep threat while also dominating in the red zone. Evans led the league in deep targets and turned six of his 15 red-zone targets into touchdowns. Simply put, he hasn’t been anywhere near as effective on deep balls or in the red zone this year.
Let’s take a look at a pair of deep balls from the Buccaneers’ last two games that illustrate where Evans hasn’t been delivering this year. The first is from the team’s Week 4 loss to the Panthers. The Buccaneers are just outside the red zone, holding the ball on the Panthers’ 25-yard line. This is where Evans was so deadly last season. To be fair, he’s matched up with Josh Norman, who is gradually turning into one of the best cornerbacks in the league, at the bottom of the screen. Evans tries to sell an intermediate inside route before breaking deep. Norman doesn’t bite at all, then breaks up a pass that is slightly underthrown by Jameis Winston.
There’s actually some room to the deep corner of the end zone, but the point remains that Evans didn’t get any separation from Norman on the route. Part of the reason Winston doesn’t put the ball to the deep corner is because the play is designed for Evans to force Norman to bite on the shallow feint before he gets loose after coming out of his break. The play was doomed when that didn’t happen.
Now let’s fast forward a week and check out a play from the team’s Week 5 win over the Jaguars. The Buccaneers have a second-and-10 from essentially the same spot on the field. Winston takes the snap at the Jacksonville 29-yard line, and Evans is his first read at the top of the formation. Winston puts it up for him, and while it’s not a perfect throw, Evans does get his hands on it. If he comes down with the pass, it results in his first touchdown of the season. The coverage from Davon House is pretty good, but he doesn’t actually get a hand on the pass. Evans just lets it slip away.
The following replay gives you a better shot of Evans dropping the would-be touchdown.
Evans hasn’t come through in many of the same spots he did as a rookie, but the silver lining for his owners is that he’s getting many of the same opportunities he did a year ago. He has just 5.27 yards per target on the year, but given the sheer volume of targets he receives, as well as the likelihood that the Buccaneers will be trailing a lot this season, Evans should be able to turn things around sooner rather than later.
Fiction: It’s time to sell Calvin Johnson.
You have to go all the way back to 2010 to find a season in which Johnson didn’t have a 100-yard performance in his first five games, but that year he had four touchdowns in those first five weeks, so his owners probably weren’t too disappointed. This season, Johnson has 322 yards and one touchdown in the Lions’ first five games, which translates to an average of 7.76 fantasy points per game in standard-scoring leagues. Obviously, that’s not what his owners were hoping for, even though he did enter the season with his lowest positional ranking in years. However, if there’s one player in the league who rates as a strong buy-low candidate rate now, Johnson is it.
Not all schedules are created equally, and the schedule-makers didn’t do the Lions any favors in the first third of the season, especially with respect to the passing game. Three of their first five games came against the Broncos, Chargers and Seahawks, which have been the three stingiest fantasy defenses against receivers this year. The Broncos feature the league’s best corner duo in Aqib Talib and Chris Harris, as well as a breakout star in safety T.J. Ward. The Seahawks’ defense remains anchored in the back by the Legion of Boom. After limiting Johnson to two catches for 39 yards in Week 1, the Chargers held A.J. Green to three receptions for 45 yards, though Green did manage to find the end zone. Travis Benjamin’s 79-yard game against them in Week 4 stands as the most yards they’ve allowed to a receiver this season.
The Lions’ other two games, against the Vikings and Cardinals, haven’t been cakewalks, either. Both of those teams are in the top half of the league in terms of limiting fantasy production by receivers. Arizona’s secondary of Patrick Peterson, Jerraud Powers, Deone Bucannon and Tyrann Mathieu is likely one of the three best in the league, alongside the Broncos and Seahawks. Minnesota’s secondary isn’t nearly as good as a whole, but Harrison Smith is an elite safety, especially in pass coverage, and Xavier Rhodes is a strong corner. Forget about a plus matchup. Johnson hasn’t even had a neutral matchup this season.
All of that is about to change. The Lions’ schedule softens up considerably, starting this week when the Bears visit Detroit. They also have games coming up with the Chiefs, Raiders and Eagles, all of which have been quite friendly to receivers this season. The Chiefs, Raiders and Bears have allowed the most, third-most and 11th-most points to receivers, respectively. Detroit also has two games against the Packers looming, and while they’ve actually done a good job against the pass this season, they typically force teams to pass a lot to try to keep up with Aaron Rodgers and company. The schedule is as favorable over the next two months for Johnson as it has been unfavorable in the first five weeks of the year. The buy-low window, which is wide open now, won’t be for long.