Quick, name an NFL wide receiver who played better and had more individual impact than Mike Evans. He led the NFL in targets, tied for second in touchdowns among receivers and finished fourth in total yards.
Evans was also better holding onto the ball, dropping only seven passes versus 11 last season with more targets. He was by far the most clutch receiver when it came to getting a first down – 84.4 percent of his catches moved the chains.
What makes this truly impressive was the lack of a true second receiver. Vincent Jackson spent most of the year on injured reserve. Adam Humphries was more effective as a slot receiver than a threat opposite Evans.
To truly unleash Mike Evans, the Bucs need to find another top end wideout. Vincent Jackson is 34 and his production has steadily declined over the past few years. If the Bucs bring Jackson back, he may be able to provide a veteran presence and nab a few balls next year but he’s simply not a starter anymore.
Adam Humphries proved this year he’s the real deal. He caught 55 passes, accounting for two-thirds of his targets. He’s quick and reliable, the two key attributes of a slot guy. Another quality receiver should only improve his opportunities with the ball if he can stick to the slot and garner less attention from defenses.
The rest of the Tampa receiver corps is solid but lack either the playmaking ability or consistency to be more than depth players. Russell Shepard had his moments as his role with offense expanded, but he never truly broke out despite numerous opportunities.
It’s also possible Shepard won’t be back next season. His value as a special teams player alone could make him a sought-after commodity this offseason. According to Roy Cummings, Bucs GM Jason Licht wants to bring Shepard back but only plan to bring back players “if the contracts make sense[.]”
Freddie Martino came up with some nice catches in more limited playtime and could become a bigger contributor. Cecil Shorts didn’t have near the impact anyone expected and probably won’t be on the roster next year.
It’s clear the Bucs have to look outside for improvement at the receiver position. Free agency is pretty well stocked with talent, though the fit is questionable.
Bears WR Alshon Jeffery is near the top of everyone’s free agent wish list. It’s important to remember that Jeffery has played exactly one full season in his five-year career. Still, playing across Mike Evans might help relieve some of the pressure of being his team’s only real receiving threat.
If the Bucs are looking for upside, Dolphins WR Kenny Stills is next on the list. While not a prolific pass-catcher, Stills had a knack for finding the endzone and picking up big chunks of yardage in Adam Gase’s offense last year. He could provide the speed element the Bucs’ pass game currently lacks.
There are some decent veteran options as well. Kenny Britt appears to have left his self-sabotaging ways behind and was the only respectable piece of the Rams’ offense this season, picking up 1002 yards and five touchdowns on 68 receptions. Of the veteran options, he would be closest thing to replacing Vincent Jackson.
Washington has its two starting receivers Desean Jackson and Pierre Garcon potentially hitting the street. Jackson is also oft-injured but can still take the top off a defense. Garcon gets less attention despite being more reliable and catching more balls.
Both are 30, which poses more of a problem for Jackson given his more delicate frame. Garcon is a fearless receiver over the middle, where Jameis Winston does some of his best work. While he lacks an elite skill set, Garcon would be a better option.
Of course the Bucs also have the draft to consider, with a few viable options for addressing the receiver position in the first round. Western Michigan WR Corey Davis is getting a lot of love from the likes of Pewter Report and rightfully so. He set the college football record in receiving yards and caught an absurd 332 passes at Western Michigan.
Another possible target is Washington WR John Ross. He’s on the smaller side at 5’11” and 190 pounds, but he has the speed and quickness to gain separation whether he’s underneath or going deep.
Ross blew up in 2016, catching 80 passes for 1150 yards and 17 touchdowns. There is some risk that Ross was a one hit wonder. His production in the two years prior (33 receptions, 579 yards, five scores) was less than half his 2016 numbers.
The Bucs will be hard-pressed to find a more pure playmaker than Ohio State’s Curtis Samuel. While he was more of a tweener in college, Samuel’s quickness and fluidity could make him a lethal mid-range target for Winston.
If the Bucs wait to address the receiver position, the second round has some great prospects as well. USC’s Juju Smith-Schuster has size and strength like Mike Evans; Isaiah Ford was consistently productive in three years at Virginia Tech (210 receptions, 2967 yards, 24 TDs); Cooper Kupp will no doubt garner copious stereotypes about his “work-ethic” and “scrappiness” but there’s no stereotyping his ridiculous stats at Eastern Washington (428 receptions, 6464 yards, 73 touchdowns).
There’s no way the Bucs ignore the wide receiver position this offseason. To do so would put the 2017 offense in peril.