Before David Boston was making headlines for substance abuse, he was a fine wide receiver. I’m not talking about the rocked-up Chargers’ incarnation. When Boston was an Arizona Cardinal and Ohio State Buckeye he had the makings of a perennial Pro Bowl performer.
Even before he became a weight room fanatic, Boston was big, strong, fluid, and sure-handed. He had a combined 169 catches, 2754 yards, and 15 touchdowns during his second and third seasons in Arizona, averaging 16.3 yards per catch with the likes of Jake Plummer at the helm before he self-destructed.
Texas A&M’s red-shirt sophomore Mike Evans has skills that could help him develop into a player along the same stylistic continuum as Boston, Brandon Marshall, and Vincent Jackson. I don’t think he has the same explosive athleticism as Boston or Jackson, but he can thrive in this role in similar NFL offenses and he has earned his position as a top prospect at the position.
Here are six plays that illustrate why Evans is one of the top wide receiver prospects. Whether it’s this year, next, or the year after that Evans enters the NFL Draft, he has the talent to earn a top-50 pick.
Working With Johnny Manziel Has Helped Him
It’s fascinating that Evans reminds me of Boston, because his quarterback flashes both the good and bad of Boston’s teammate in Arizona, Jake Plummer. I’ll be writing about Johnny Football in Saturday’s Futures column at Football Outsiders. Manziel’s decision-making has maddening elements for his coaches and opponents alike, but one benefit of working with the Aggies’ quarterback is that it instills the mindset in receivers that a play is never dead.
Evans runs a deep post, sees that Manziel is flushed right, and makes a fluid adjustment to the outside flat, working back to the football. There are several positives and negatives about this play when it comes to evaluating Evans. First, I like that Evans’ displays no hesitation turning the route outside and working back to Manziel. Evans is absorbing the lessons of finding open zones and providing a good target for a quarterback in trouble. NFL passers will appreciate this aspect of Evans’ game if he demonstrates the same acumen as a professional. I have no reason to believe he won’t.
I’m also impressed with his open-field skills. He sees the open space and anticipates what he has to do to exploit it. This play is a great example because his back is turned to the open area he’s going to run to, but he’s aware of the position of the defenders in the area and has a good feel for their pursuit angles. Once it’s established that a receiver has NFL-caliber speed, knowing how to run where the defense is just as valuable a skill. Evans has this awareness.
What Evans lacks is also apparent on this highlight: sudden acceleration. He’s not an Antonio Brown type. He wasn’t open on the initial post and when he bends the route from the inside to the sideline, it’s a looping arc rather than a stop-start cut. There’s nothing wrong with that in particular – in fact it’s a great adjustment – but Evans thrives when he can get early position and use his big frame to stay on top of his opponent as the ball arrives. If Manziel didn’t have to leave the pocket, Evans’ post would not have been a viable target because the defender had inside position all the way.
This long-striding style is evident as a ball carrier. If Marqise Lee or Sammy Watkins catch this ball, their acceleration and stop-start agility would have either allowed them to cut across the field and beat the angles of defenders or outrun the backside pursuit in the open field. Evans has more natural power.
Evans will break tackles and maintain a good pace as a runner, but it takes him time to reach top speed. I think it means his best fit will be with a team whose idea of exploiting him in the short game is slants and crossing routes rather than bubble screens and smash screens.
Because he’s a long strider, his effort with breaks on short and intermediate routes need more work. He’ll have to improve on developing a more sudden route tree to become more than a one-dimensional option.
Evans Is Sideline Friendly
As I alluded to earlier, Evans is at his best when he gets his back to the defender and he can use his 6’5″, 225-lb. frame to maintain position on an island. This sideline fade is a fine example.
Evans is at the bottom of the screen on this play. he does a fine job of using his inside arm to get behind the defender, but what I like most about this play is what I’ve shown with some of the better wide receiver prospects year after year: the skill of earning/maintaining horizontal separation during the final segment of a target. While Evans can do a better job of establishing more space between himself and the sideline early in the route to make the throw easier for his quarterback, he has enough space to slide outside during the final steps before the ball arrives.
This fade thrown from the opposite hash is a good example of Evans demonstrating consistent space from the sideline.
Stop the video at the 8-second mark and Evans has excellent depth from the sideline and this gives him room to turn towards the ball, high-point the target, and continue to turn his body towards the sideline to shield the defender from the football. This is fluid work and he gets both feet in bounds. If he does this in the NFL, he’ll make a great living earning quality targets on the perimeter.
Evans thrives when he can release from the line of scrimmage and get his hands on a defender. Here is an example of a fluid punch to swipe through the defender with his inside arm and take an outside release.
Also note the space Evan has from the sideline. This is also a reflection of his confidence to win physical battles early without the need to take a wide berth around the defender.
Evans attacks the defender on this 95-yard score. Watch him extend the outside arm into the defender before releasing inside.
This is fluid work. Moreover, I like how effortless Evans is at bending the round outside as he breaks to the football. This is a fluid adjustment to the football with his back to the quarterback. For good measure, he delivers an accurate punch to the face of the cornerback to maintain separation once he has the ball.
When the Aggie is first to attack, he keeps his opponents on their heels in coverage as well as pursuit. This is something Evans needs to continue doing when he transitions to the NFL. If he does, he’s going to earn a lot of open space in the short game against NFL corners who won’t press him for fear of getting ripped aside and beaten deep.
Where Evans has to improve is when a defender takes the fight to him. This corner fade is a great example.
The Alabama defensive back is the first to punch and this disrupts Evans’ entire approach to the play. The wide receiver drifts too far to the outside and splays his legs too wide while leaping for the football. The entire process lacks control and he’s unable to earn possession in bounds.
Where Evans’ fails on this play is his assumption he could rip the defender aside with brute force. His hands need to be quicker and he has to have a game plan to counter an initial punch. This hesitation over how to play it is the root cause for him not making a smooth adjustment to the ball.
When he learns to handle defenders who are more aggressive, he’ll be difficult for any NFL defender to stop in the red zone.
At this point, Evans is a college star because of his physical skills and quality hands. He’s an NFL prospect because he flashes specific techniques at the position and acumen for the game that are well-integrated with his physical skills. Still, it’s clear that he’s still growing into his athleticism the way a young animal grows into his paws. There’s a grace and power, but he still has to learn all the ins and outs of how to utilize his tools.
Will he reach the potential of David Boston, Vincent Jackson or Brandon Marshall? I have more to study before I can make a final assessment of his talent, but I do believe he belongs on the spectrum of these players on the basis of style. Even if he falls short in a comparison of these three on the basis of talent, he still looks like a player who can help a team as a future starter and that’s an exciting prospect.
For analysis of skill players in this year’s draft class, download the 2013 Rookie Scouting Portfolio.The 2014 RSP will available April 1 and if you pre-order before February 10, you get a 10 percent discount. Better yet, if you’re a fantasy owner the 56-page Post-Draft Add-on comes with the 2012 – 2014 RSPs at no additional charge and available for download within a week after the NFL Draft. Best, yet, 10 percent of every sale is donated to Darkness to Light to combat sexual abuse. You can purchase past editions of the Rookie Scouting Portfolio for just $9.95 apiece.