The SI 64, No. 8: WR Mike Evans
With the 2014 NFL draft fast approaching, it’s time for all 32 NFL teams to start getting their draft boards in order and ranking players based on their own preferences. At SI, it’s time for us to do that as well. And to that end, Doug Farrar and Chris Burke have assembled their own definitive Big Board, consisting of the players they feel deserve to be selected in the first two rounds.
The SI 64 -- which can be found in its entirety here -- uses tape study to define the best prospects in this class and why they’re slotted as such. And as we continue through the top 10 names on our board, it's time to reveal the player we think could be the most dominant receiver in this class.
Bio: Though there are many kinds of receivers who find success in the NFL, the war daddies at the position are the ones who have the size, strength and physical ability to win battles against cornerbacks at any level of the field -- especially in the red zone and end zone. Texas A&M's Mike Evans has proven, beyond a doubt, to be such a player. Though Johnny Manziel has been the face of the Aggies' offense over the last two seasons, it could be argued that Evans became the heart.
A basketball player in high school, Evans accepted a scholarship offer from then-Texas A&M head coach Mike Sherman in 2011 and got to work building his body and his stat lines. After a redshirt year, Evans exploded onto the scene in 2012 with 82 catches for 1,105 yards and five touchdowns. In 2013, he gained 1,394 yards and scored 12 touchdowns on just 69 catches, increasing his yards-per-catch average from 13.5 to 20.2. More than ever in 2013, Evans became Manziel's primary target when the pocket broke down, the quarterback had to run around to extend the play and defenses started to split. Evans proved to be very gifted at exploiting variances in coverage, and a great team became even better as a result.
As has been true for tight ends for years, Evans uses his basketball background to win the day in closely-contested matchups -- basically, everywhere on the field is the paint for him.
"It's helped a lot," he said at the scouting combine of his hardwood background. "I think a lot of other basketball players should play football. We have the qualities. If there's a jump ball in the air, treat it like a rebound. It helps me get off the press, use my quickness like when I used to dribble. Everything just incorporates into football."
Evans doesn't always look like a Calvin Johnson, Andre Johnson or Brandon Marshall -- but you can see the raw ingredients, and NFL teams have, too. Of that, there is no doubt. In a league that looks for physical dominance as a primary trait, Evans is on the right track.
Strengths: Perhaps Evans' greatest strength is his ability to get free in short spaces on a number of routes -- he doesn't just win vertical battles; he's also very good at quick cuts for his size (6-foot-5, 231). And with his length, he's able to expand his catch radius to bring in balls most receivers simply can't. Catches with his hands -- Evans doesn't wait for the ball to hit him in the chest, which allows him to reach for catches when falling away. He's also surprisingly fast on straight vertical routes -- Evans gets a head of steam going quickly and has a clear extra gear in the open field. He's not a big, lumbering player; he has outstanding stride length and he knows how to use it. Evans will be a great help to any mobile quarterback, because he's learned from playing with Manziel that you always have to keep focused on the extended play. When Manziel was running around, Evans was moving with him and getting opening with his physicality.
Excellent blocker who gets his long arms extended and seems to enjoy mixing it up. In that same vein, he's very comfortable breaking tackles and throwing stiff-arms. Tremendous threat on in-breaking routes (in-cuts, slants, posts) because it's so hard to keep up with his speed and still deal with his height. Could be a dominant situational slot receiver; more NFL teams are taking their No. 1 targets and looking to create mismatches in this way.
Weaknesses: Focus is an issue at times -- Evans drops balls he should catch, and he had to be talked back into the Chick-fil-A Bowl by Manziel after a couple of personal fouls. And like most bigger college receivers, Evans will need to expand his route tree in the NFL. His game, like Manziel's, was based a great deal on improvisation, and his pro team might not like that prototype. Played against a lot of off-coverage designed to react to his quarterback; Evans will need to develop his foot fakes and hand moves against more aggressive press corners in the NFL.
Conclusion: Of all the receivers in this draft class, Evans has the most obvious potential to be the kind of touchdown machine and consistent gamebreaker that can define an offense. Sammy Watkins may be more explosive, and speed merchants like Odell Beckham Jr. and Brandin Cooks can burn it up the slot, but players like Evans are more rare and valuable to NFL teams because of one simple truth: Size and speed beats everything else when the football skills are there. And Evans is well on his way to adding his name to the list of players who embody this theory.