With the NFL Draft and free agency having come and gone, we’ll break down all sorts of fantasy-relevant questions entering the 2018 season. Up next is a look at where to target the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ No. 1 wideout in drafts. 

Mike Evans has been a bit of a Jekyll-and-Hyde case through his first four seasons. He’s put up huge individual game stat lines at times but also logged several rather pedestrian performances.

Much like Evans’ on-field performance, his overall team situation is also a bit of a mixed bag. On the one hand, he signed a five-year contract extension this offseason, which demonstrates the Buccaneers’ commitment to him and seemingly validates his status as a top-end wide receiver in the NFL. And with Tampa Bay’s win total set at 6.5, it’s very possible they’ll often be in game scripts that favor the passing game. On the other hand, Winston, who will be suspended for the first three games of 2018, has been inconsistent (to put it mildly) in his first three NFL seasons. On top of that, head coach Dirk Koetter is likely on the hot seat after three injury-plagued seasons of mediocrity.

With his team mired in uncertainty, how do we evaluate Evans in 2018?

Inconsistent Production

First, let’s remind ourselves why Evans is still a top-end wide receiver: His 6-foot-5 frame and huge catch radius make him a home-run threat any time he’s on the field. In Koetter, he has a coach who loves to isolate him on 50/50 balls, often leading to big gains down the field. Evans’ size and athleticism also make him a fantastic red-zone target.

Unexpectedly, however, his end-of-season receiving touchdown total and fantasy finishes have varied dramatically from year to year:

The same qualities that make Evans a home-run threat also make him inconsistent from week to week and season to season. In 2017, Evans ranked fifth in total air yards (1,905, per airyards.com), indicating he’s targeted down the field for chunk plays. However, he also ranked 89th in the NFL in yards after catch (just 95 all season) and 84th in catch rate (52.2%). Worst of all, he ranked 100th in in target separation (1.01, per PlayerProfiler).

These stats look bad, but they make sense. Since Evans is targeted deep down the field more frequently, he’s being put into more jump-ball situations rather than being expected to create in open space. Because of this, his yards after catch is naturally going to be low. His catch rate is also going to be low due to decreased accuracy inherent to longer throws. And his poor ranking in target separation isn’t an indictment of his ability; rather, it implies that quarterbacks trust Evans’ catch radius despite tight coverage.

High Ceiling

The Action Network’s consensus wide receiver rankings have Evans as the WR9, and he’s also the WR9 in ADP as of this writing, which I believe is spot on. Not only is the No. 9 spot close to a median projection for Evans’ historical performances, but it’s also an appropriate placement compared to the other wide receivers in his tier like Keenan Allen, A.J. Green, Davante Adams, and Doug Baldwin.

But even beyond the top 10, there’s still plenty of receivers who could challenge for WR1 status; Tyreek Hill, Amari Cooper, T.Y. Hilton, and Brandin Cooks stand out as high-upside guys, and would anyone really be surprised if Larry Fitzgerald or Adam Thielen challenged for borderline WR1 status again?

Given the depth of competition surrounding Evans, I believe the biggest factor that separates him is his ceiling. Since 2014, Evans owns the single highest-scoring fantasy season of all the Tier 2 receivers mentioned above. And given his meager five touchdowns in 2017, he’s a great candidate for positive regression.

What ADP Tells Us

All time, the correlation between ADP and end-of-season fantasy performance for WR6-WR13 is a very strong -.81, meaning that based on historical averages for WR6, WR7, WR8, etc., ADP alone accounts for 81.82% of variance in fantasy performance. Translation: ADP has generally done a great job of determining who should be WR6 versus who should be WR13 (and all wide receivers in between).

However, over the past five years, this correlation has weakened incrementally. In fact, last year, WR6-WR13 yielded a .48 correlation when comparing ADP to end-of-season performance. This positive correlation is actually bad: It means that as ADP fell, wide receiver performance increased. Last year, WR10-WR13 outperformed WR6-WR9, continuing the trend of ADP’s weakened predictive viability in this range over the past five years.

If we are indeed losing our edge at differentiating between WR6 and WR13, then I would argue it is in our best interests to target the player with the highest overall ceiling. That would be Evans.

Evans’ Alternatives Have Issues, Too

It’s not like Evans is the only top wide receiver with uncertainty entering 2018:

  • Green is still great, but he’s not necessarily the elite, top-five caliber receiver he used to be. Furthermore, the Bengals offense was pretty mediocre in 2017, and Andy Dalton seems to have plateaued.
  • Cooks is worrisome because the Sammy Watkins experiment didn’t work out great from a fantasy perspective, and going from Drew Brees and Tom Brady to Jared Goff could also result in a drop in production.
  • Allen, when healthy, has looked like a top-five receiver in the league. Unfortunately, he hasn’t always stayed healthy, missing 23 of a possible 32 games before managing to appear in all 16 last season. Fair or not, Allen’s injury risk is the most significant among any receiver in Evans’ company.
  • Baldwin regressed slightly in 2016 and 2017 after his 2015 breakout campaign. On top of that, Seattle brought in Brian Schottenheimer this offseason as their new offensive coordinator, and he’s an old-school, run-between-the-tackles coordinator who’s likely to slow the overall pace of play in Seattle.

2018 Outlook

Given all the variables discussed above, WR9 feels rather appropriate for Evans. If you draft him in 2018, you’re drafting a guy who has proven his ability to single-handedly win you a week in a head-to-head or DFS matchup. However, you need to temper your expectations appropriately, understanding that anyone in his tier is likely to produce some sub-par weeks. Nonetheless, Evans’ ceiling alone warrants preferred consideration in this crowded tier.

Photo credit: Reinhold Matay – USA TODAY Sports
Pictured above: Mike Evans