Is Mike Evans' Resurgence Sustainable?

Wide receiver Mike Evans struggled to start the 2015 season, but had 164 yards and a score in Week 7. Is he back?

It was looking bleak for the little guy for a while. No one could figure out what was wrong with him, but he was whining, not eating, and lashed out at anyone who came near. We were so worried that none of us were practically eating either. I love my girlfriend’s cat, but that tiny creature was miserable to be around.

It turns out that he ate one of his toys. Cats -- I don’t understand them.

Mike Evans is another creature – though not so tiny – that’s been miserable to be around for the first few months of fall. He’s been essentially unstartable in fantasy football this year, after an incredible rookie campaign led him to 1,051 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2014. In Week 7, however, he went off for an incredible 164 yards and a touchdown against Washington, looking exactly like he did at the end of last season.

I’m betting that devouring a rubber ball wasn’t what caused Evans to flop so hard at the beginning of 2015, but we still don’t really understand his production (or lack thereof) so far this season. Is his resurgence sustainable, or will he remain a boom/bust player?

Coughing Up Hairballs

Let’s first take a look at Evans from a strictly box score and fantasy standpoint. In his rookie year (2014), he was a monster in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ offense, becoming one of just four rookie wide receivers since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger to have over 1,000 yards receiving and 10 or more touchdowns. He achieved this despite being thrown the ball by Mike Glennon and Josh McCown. Mike Evans’ 2014 was a season for all time.

His 2015 began much less productively, to say the least. Now playing with 2015 first-round pick quarterback Jameis Winston, Evans has seen his numbers drop off significantly. What’s causing this diminishing effect?

The table below shows Evans’ 2015 weekly production in receptions, targets, receiving yards, touchdowns, and standard scoring fantasy points.

Week Rec Tgt Rec Yds TD FPTS
1 0 0 0 0 0
2 0 3 0 0 0
3 7 17 101 0 10
4 3 8 32 0 3
5 3 5 41 0 4
6 0 0 0 0 0
7 8 12 164 1 24

When we look at this in this way, it appears that Evans is nowhere near on pace to recoup his rookie year production. With such a historic season (there have been just 43 wide receiver seasons with 1,050 yards and 12 touchdowns since 2000) in hand, there was little chance he was going to repeat, but this seems extreme.

We must consider that he was hampered in training camp and preseason with a hamstring injury, which kept him out of Week 1 play. In addition, he had a bye week in Week 6, so his rate stats are much less ugly than they seem at first blush. The table below shows this, in a per-game average for Evans so far, compared to his 2014 pace.

Year Rec Tgt Rec Yds TD FPTS
2014 4.5 8.1 70.1 0.8 11.2
2015* 4.2 9 67.6 0.2 8.2

When we look at Evans’ per game production between the two seasons, there’s not a huge difference. Last year, he caught slightly more passes per game for slightly more average yards, but in 2015 he’s actually getting targeted more on average. We see that he scored exactly three points more per game in standard fantasy scoring last year, but almost all of that is his diminished touchdown count so far (just one on the season).

In Evans himself, there may be reason to believe he was still working off the rust from Weeks 2 to 6, and now is back in prime form, as his numbers are actually fairly identical to 2014. So, what’s the problem with his statistical profile this year?

Like Herding Cats

This is where we get to the fun stuff. Through the advanced analytics we generate here at numberFire, we can do a lot more than look at a player’s averages or totals; we can dig into their actual play on the field and see how or why they’ve struggled or succeeded. Our football metric – Net Expected Points (NEP) – will help us to do that with Evans. NEP helps us take the numbers we get from the box score and assign them contextual value so they relate even closer to the game on the field. By adding down-and-distance value, we can see just how much each play and each team as a whole influence the outcome of games. For more info on NEP, check out our glossary.

The table below shows Evans’ 2014 Reception NEP and Target NEP compared to his 2015 numbers. Also included is his Reception Success Rate – the percentage of receptions on which he successfully generates positive NEP. Let’s see how he really stacks up.

Year Rec NEP Per-Play Tar NEP Catch Rate Success Rate
2014 100.30 0.82 49.78 55.28% 79.41%
2015* 78.39 0.58 -2.94 46.70% 95.20%

This is a mess of a profile. Evans is on pace to achieve just over three-quarters of his Reception NEP production from last year, but his Target NEP value has been atrocious. In fact, just three receivers with at least 30 targets or more have worse Target NEP values than Evans this year, indicating that either the target receiving the passes, or the passing attempts themselves, are of poor quality.

But he’s making his receptions count: his Reception Success Rate this year is incredible compared to his 2014 numbers, and only four wide receivers with at least 30 targets have a better percentage of positive NEP plays.

Evans has still been very good in a limited sample, and the some of the underlying numbers bear that out. However, it’s clear there are some chinks in his statistical armor in 2015. Where are they coming from?

Fancy Feast

We know that Evans is an excellent target, as he ranked 18th in Target NEP in 2014 and, in his last year at Texas A&M, he had a 72.3% catch rate with the scattershot Johnny Manziel as his quarterback. So, what’s the issue?

When Winston was drafted, he was known to have a penchant for taking risks. In his last year at FSU, he had a whopping 18 interceptions on 467 passing attempts, for a colossal 3.85% interception rate in college. To put this in perspective, the average interception rate for the professional NFL in 2014 – with its much higher caliber of difficulty and better athletes – was 2.52%. It seems that Winston may be more to blame for Evans’ troubles than Evans himself.

The table below shows Winston’s Passing NEP production compared to Tampa Bay’s quarterbacks from last year, Glennon and McCown. Has this offense progressed or regressed since 2014?

Player Drop Backs Pass NEP Per-Play Success Rate
Glennon/McCown 582 -30.47 -0.05 42.27%
Winston* 515 29.87 0.06 47.15%

Weirdly, Winston’s metrics are starkly better than Glennon’s and McCown’s ever were, and even his Success Rate is five percent better than theirs was. I did compare Winston’s catchable targets thrown to wide receivers (57.9%) to the 2014 quarterbacks (61.5%), and that was the one area where he performed more poorly than his predecessors. That said, Evans’ drop rate in 2015 is a whopping 12.50%, compared to just 5.56% from last year. Winston makes a lot of poor throws, but Evans may have been out of sync with him due to lack of practice time.

Having ruled out extraordinarily poor quarterbacking, the only logical explanation is different route usage of Evans or the injury lingering, but neither are certain causes for his statistical diminishment. Whatever was happening before, it’s finally starting to click. With teammate Vincent Jackson injured now, Evans should continue to get immense volume going forward, so all we can do is cross our fingers and hope for the best.