- Julio Jones and Mike Evans are both elite receivers. The former has been one of the league's premier threats for years, while the latter is on the rise. Who should fantasy owners target first, though? Two of SI's experts debate that question.
The Debate Series of the SI/4 For 4 Fantasy Football Draft Kit will pit two top minds in the fantasy industry against one another. They will take opposing sides of a decision many fantasy owners will face during their drafts, and make the case for their guy. In this installment, 4 For 4’s Chris Raybon and SI’s Michael Beller debate Julio Jones vs. Mike Evans.
Julio Jones, WR, Falcons (ADP: 5.25)
Chris Raybon makes the case for Jones over Evans…
When you’re picking one of the top receivers on the board, you’re looking for consistency and upside, which are commonly referred to by their structural metaphors, floor and ceiling. For both, higher is better, and Mike Evans needs an elevator to reach Julio Jones.
Let's start by comparing each player’s floor. Jones has averaged more than 100 receiving yards per game every year since 2013. Only Antonio Brown has done so more than once over that span. Evans, meanwhile, topped out at 82.6 yards per game last season, and needed a league-leading 10.7 targets per game to do it.
Evans's efficiency has decreased each year as has his targets have gone up. In 2014, Evans's rookie year, he averaged 8.61 yards per target on 122 targets; in 2015, 8.15 on 148; and in 2016, 7.64 on 173. As for Jones? His worst season in yards per target (9.22 in 2015) was over a half-yard better than Evans's career-best mark.
While Jones’s numbers have been the model of consistency, Evans' have followed a yo-yo pattern. As stellar as Evans’s 2016 season was, it was ultimately a tale of two halves. During the first eight games, Evans averaged 12.6 targets, 6.9 receptions, 93.1 yards and one touchdown per game. Over the final eight, those numbers dipped to 8.8, 5.1, 72.0 and 0.5, respectively. That equated to a second-half loss of 33% of his points per game in standard formats (15.3 to 10.2) and 28% in PPR (22.2 to 15.3).
Jones’s touchdown numbers haven't been as spectacular as Evans's, but he has tallied between six and 10 scores in every season in which he has played at least 13 games. Evans, by contrast, has seen his touchdown totals go 12-3-12 in his three years in the league.
Speaking of touchdowns, let's talk about ceiling. Jones has been in the top-six in standard fantasy points per game in each of the past four seasons despite never topping eight scores. He’s such a good receiver, he doesn't need a gaudy touchdown total to be dominant in fantasy. That’s where his upside enters the equation. When speaking about Jones in the red zone, new Falcons offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian told ESPN.com he wants to "maximize his opportunities" and "make sure he's one of the primary receivers." Last season, Evans needed 42 more targets than Jones (171 to 129) and double the touchdowns (12 to six) to outscore him by 0.2 fantasy points per game in both standard (12.8 to 12.6) and PPR (18.8 to 18.6) leagues. Simple regression to the mean would suggest a bet on that happening again is destined for doom, and that's before factoring in that Evans's targets may go down with the arrival of DeSean Jackson and O.J. Howard. Jones’s, meanwhile, may go up, not just because of increased snaps, but also because the Falcons are unlikely to be so good that they only have to pass 537 times again, which was the seventh-lowest total in the league last season.
Nothing illustrates Jones’s upside better than what he didn't do in 2016. Due to various nagging injuries, Jones didn't play on 23% of the Falcons' offensive snaps while active. Yet despite sitting out nearly a quarter of his team's snaps, he led the league in receiving yards per game (100.6). Let that sink in. Jones spotted every receiver in the league a 23% edge, then went on to dust them all.
Draft Evans over Jones and you're paying for Evans's ceiling. Draft Jones instead and, despite Evans's one-inch height advantage, you're getting a much taller order at the receiver position.
Mike Evans, WR, Buccaneers (ADP: 6.75)
Michael Beller makes the case for Evans over Jones…
It’s impossible to not love Julio Jones. The guy is a machine. Over the last three seasons, he has averaged 7.2 catches for 108.3 yards and 0.4 touchdowns per game. Barring something totally unforeseen, he’s going to approach or surpass those averages this season, once again delivering first-round value to his owners. Jones is a star.
For my money, though, this debate isn’t about Jones. It’s about Evans. The fourth-year receiver is already one of the best players at his position in the league, racking up 238 catches for 3,578 yards and 27 touchdowns in his career. He already has two top-10 seasons to his name, including a WR2 finish in standard leagues, and WR3 ranking in PPR formats, last season. And yet, even with all that success, there’s reason to believe this will be the best year of his career. If that comes to fruition, the WR1 season is within his reach.
Elite receivers come in different sizes with varying skill sets. Antonio Brown is 5’10” and weighs 181 pounds. Odell Beckham checks in at 5’11”, 198. Jones, meanwhile, is 6’3”, 220 pounds, while Jordy Nelson is the same height and three pounds lighter. There are two traits that all the elite receivers, share, though. First, all are dangerous on the deep ball. Second, all are lethal in the red zone. The 6’5”, 231-pound Evans is no exception.
Last year, Evans led the NFL with 39 targets on deep balls, defined as passes that traveled at least 20 yards in the air. He caught 13 of those for 372 yards and six touchdowns. Drop the threshold to 15 yards in the air, and Evans had 31 such receptions. He was fourth in the NFL with 2.28 yards per route run last season (to be fair, Jones was first at 3.12). When Evans went deep, the Buccaneers succeeded.
Of course, this was nothing new. Evans instantly became one of the best deep-ball receivers the moment he stepped into the league. The Texas A&M product racked up 1,051 yards on 68 catches as a rookie. A whopping 55% of those yards came on deep passes. That year, Evans had 20 receptions that went for at least 20 yards, good for 29.4% of his catches.
At the risk of belaboring the point, deep passes are one of the two most lucrative types of targets for receivers, and there has never been a point of Evans’s career where he wasn’t one of the best deep-ball receivers in the league. At 24 years old, with three full seasons under his belt and an ever-developing rapport with Jameis Winston, he’s getting even better when he stretches the field. That’s a scary thought for any defense that has to face the Buccaneers this season.
The other highly lucrative type of target comes in the red zone. There, too, Evans has excelled. He had nine targets inside the 10-yard line last season, and converted six of those into touchdowns. In 2014, he had five such targets, and four ended with him in the end zone. Simply put, it’s hard for any cornerback to deal with a player of Evans’s size at any spot on the field. When a catch equals a touchdown, as it almost always does inside the 10-yard line, Evans’s size does half the work for him. He’s more than capable of taking care of the rest.
One slight knock on Evans this season is that his target share is likely to decrease after the Buccaneers added DeSean Jackson and O.J. Howard in the offseason. While that’s true, there’s plenty of room between the 168 targets he had last year and whatever mark he will hit this season where he can remain among the league leaders. What’s more, what Evans loses in volume, the Buccaneers will likely make up in efficiency, thanks to the additions of Jackson and Howard, as well as Winston’s continued maturation.
The one blemish on Evans’s record is a 2015 season in which he caught just three touchdowns. We know, however, that receiving touchdowns are among the most volatile statistics in football, and a lot of Evans’s slip that season can be attributed to Winston’s uneven rookie campaign. He still hauled in 74 passes for 1,206 yards, both of which were improvements on his 2014 numbers. Evans’s explosion last season eliminated any lingering fears about his 2015 performance.
Again, this is not about Jones. If there’s a league where I miss out on Evans and have to settle for Jones, I’m not going to be crying myself to sleep. This is about the fact that Evans has immense touchdown upside, thanks to his ability on deep passes and in the red zone, in an improving offense. In fact, Evans is my bet to lead the league in receiving touchdowns, and that’s the one area where Jones hasn’t quite lived up to the elite billing in his career. We may be splitting hairs with players this good, but give me Evans over Jones this season.