Mike Evans could be a major player in Tampa Bay's passing offense -- and soon. (David J. Phillip/AP)
In 2013, veteran quarterback Josh McCown had his best NFL season. Serving as Jay Cutler's backup in Chicago, and starting five games as Cutler dealt with various injuries, McCown completed 149 passes in 224 attempts for 1,829 yards, 13 touchdowns and just one interception. He finished in the NFL's top 10 in yards per attempt (8.2), yards per completion (12.3), completion percentage (66.5) and passing touchdown percentage (5.8). Not a bad season for a guy who's been in the league since 2002 and had started a grand total of two games in his previous four seasons.
Of course, the primary reason behind McCown's success was a receiver duo in Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery that is unlike anything the Bears have seen in their long and storied history. In 2013, Marshall and Jeffery combined for 189 catches for 2,716 yards and 19 touchdowns. They dominated opposing defenses because they were big, fast and totally integrated into head coach Marc Trestman's offensive concepts.
Still, McCown's season was going to get him calls from other teams. In March, the 34-year-old free agent signed a two-year, $10 million contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Wisely, the Bucs did their level best to replicate what McCown had in Chicago, adding Texas A&M receiver Mike Evans in the first round of the draft to go along with Pro Bowl receiver Vincent Jackson. From his first workout in his new environs, McCown was more than pleased with the structure and targets he'd been given as the presumed starter.
“I'd be lying if I didn't say there was a comfort zone in that,'' McCown said in May, after seeing Evans on one side of the formation and Jackson on the other. “It's very similar [to Chicago], at least on paper. There's still a lot of work to do. We have to get out there and [Evans] has to learn the offense and we have to start building together, but it was good.''
New Bucs head coach Lovie Smith, who held that same title with the Bears from 2004 through 2012 and thus was in charge when the Bears signed McCown in 2011, said the similarities were absolutely no accident.
“Josh has been in that situation and to say that he has been in our ear quite a bit is an understatement,'' Smith recalled. “And having seen that work, that was attractive to us.''
Moreover, the Bucs did this wisely -- they didn't just give McCown two big targets and tell him to go for it. Jackson and Marshall were used fairly similarly in 2013; they were the two bigger receivers in the NFL who placed in the top 10 in slot targets. Of his 156 total targets in 2013, Jackson had 64 slot targets, and caught 38 passes for 514 yards and two touchdowns. Of his 158 total targets , Marshall had 61 slot routes, and caught 39 passes for 566 yards and five touchdowns. Jackson and Marshall were the lead dogs for their teams' passing games; the do-it-all guys. For the Bears in 2013, Jeffery was slightly more adept with deep passes, catching 14 throws over 20 yards in the air for 570 yards and four touchdowns to Marshall's 13/397/5 line.
Mike Evans is a master of the contested catch, as Alabama safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix can attest. (CBS Sports)
And that's where Evans comes in, as the potential matchup to Jeffery in this kind of offense. When the 6-3, 216-pound Jeffery came out of South Carolina after the 2011 season, he was known as a matchup nightmare despite a final collegiate season in which his numbers were slightly disappointing (49 catches for 762 yards and eight touchdowns), predominantly because his 2010 season (88 receptions for 1,517 yards and nine touchdowns) was completely off the hook.
When the Bears selected him in the second round of the 2012 draft, Jeffery started off slowly in his rookie campaign with 24 catches for 367 yards and three touchdowns. He struggled with injuries, starting just six games, but workouts with Marshall in the offseason and a healthy 2013 allowed the rest of the league to see his potential -- Jeffrey finished sixth in the NFL with 1,421 receiving yards, and he was nearly impossible to cover on deep routes, as well as plays in which cornerbacks had to match up with him physically. Against the Vikings on Dec. 1, Jeffery had his biggest NFL game, with 12 catches on 15 targets for 249 yards and two touchdowns. And when comparing the ways in which Jeffery and Evans beat coverage, this was a very instructive game.
Trestman wanted to create two things for Jeffery in this game -- scenarios in which he would draw single coverage with defenders trailing Marshall as well, and instances in which Jeffery's pure physical dominance would show up in the slot. His touchdowns were 80- and 49-yard plays, and Jeffery was the inside receiver in both cases. The first touchdown came with 14:08 left in the third quarter, and it was a simple case of the Vikings being outmanned by personnel. As Marshall took a quick outside route, Chris Cook was on Jeffrey one-on-one, and that wasn't going to work at all. McCown heaved the ball downfield, and Cook couldn't even keep up.
On the second touchdown, the Bears tried to draw coverage away from Jeffery's outside route by dragging Marshall inside. The Vikings still hooded a two-man coverage over Jeffery, but this time, it was Jeffery's combination of vertical speed and power in contested catches that won the day. Cook stayed with him this time, but was boxed out by Jeffery's size and determination.
In 2013, one of Evans' two biggest games came against Alabama on Sept. 14, when he caught seven passes for 279 yards and a touchdown (He also caught 11 passes for 284 yards and four touchdowns against Auburn). There's one play against the Crimson Tide that looked like it could have come out of the Bears' playbook for Jeffery. It was the 95-yard touchdown with 8:04 left in the game. Here, you see the split for separation from the complementary receiver, though Evans is the outside guy in this case. You see the defender struggling to keep up, and you eventually see Evans just blow right by him. There aren't many receivers who run this way at 6-5 and 231 pounds.
As McCown said, Evans has to learn the playbook before he'll be truly effective. And he's been bothered by a hamstring injury, which has limited his time in OTAs. But watch him go up and effortlessly pluck the ball with a one-handed grab in OTAs and the comparisons to Jeffery become even more apparent.
"Oh yeah, he's missed a lot [of offseason work], there's no other way to sugarcoat it," Smith recently said. "We wanted Mike taking every rep -- as a rookie you need to take every rep. Around the league, it happens, especially with a lot of new guys that those last couple of weeks they're doing a lot of traveling, don't work out exactly how they should, but we saw enough and we know who Mike is. He's going to help us win a lot of games, [and] he's gotten better. We need him, we can't let him re-injure that hamstring, so we'll be cautious with him."
When Evans and Jackson finally do team up on the field for real, it might be déjà vu
for Josh McCown -- and a new level of danger for Tampa Bay's passing game.