Last night, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Dallas Cowboys kicked off the 2021-22 NFL season. What was supposed to be a blowout in many fans’ eyes, turned into an absolute thriller that had two lead changes in the final two minutes, as well as a classic Tom Brady last-minute comeback drive to lead to a game-winning field goal. Oh, and one missed call.
Dak Prescott looked incredible in his first start since his devastating injury last season. CeeDee Lamb and Amari Cooper both saw the ball early and often to help their quarterback out. Even against one of the top defensive units in the NFL, and an absent Ezekiel Elliott (not his fault; he just wasn’t a part of Kellen Moore’s gameplan), the Cowboys looked like legitimate contenders.
On Tampa’s side, Tom Brady showed that he’s still got a lot of arm left in him. Leonard Fournette made arguably the most important catch of the night. Rob Gronkowski looked incredible en route to eight receptions, 90 yards, and two touchdowns. Antonio Brown looked like the AB of old (but still, screw Al Michaels), and Chris Godwin had himself a night… except for the fumble at the goal line. The only person that didn’t look good was Tampa Bay’s supposed No.1 receiver, Mike Evans.
Evans, 28, has had a historic NFL career. He’s the only receiver ever to start their career with seven straight 1,000-yard seasons. However, during last night’s game, Evans didn’t look like someone who’d set records. He looked like the No. 4 option on the Bucs’ offense. During last night’s game, Evans was targeted only six times — fewer than Gronkowski, Godwin, Brown, and even Fournette. Yikes! Tom Brady looked Evans’s way on 12 percent of his passes.
To put those numbers in perspective, prior to last night, throughout his career, Evans had only been targeted six or fewer times in a game 24 times (25 if you include Week 14 of 2019 where Evans got injured early), and seven of those games came last season. It was a year in which Evans received a target share of just 17.4 percent, and while he’s still led the Buccaneers in that category every season since 2015, he’s actually received less and less of a target share every season since 2017. While I’m not expecting Evans to fall off the table completely after watching just one game, it’s been clear for some time now that Evans isn’t the same player that he once was, and don’t give me that, “Oh, well Brady loves to spread the ball around. That’s why.” That’s true, but Evans’s target share had been declining for years prior and between 2019 and 2020, Evans only saw a reduction in target share by 1.3 percent.
It was obvious to anyone that watched last night that Gronkowski, Godwin, and Brown were all preferred targets for Brady over Evans. Sure, maybe the Cowboys made a focused effort to limit Evans’s impact on the game, but this is the Cowboys’ secondary we’re talking about. The Cowboys’ secondary is not good. Even if Trevon Diggs or Anthony Brown was told to shadow Evans all night, neither of them are shutdown corners that should silence someone as accomplished as Evans.
I still believe Evans is one of the most talented receivers in the league, and his size and ball skills make him an incredible threat in the red zone. However, he’s not the same guy he once was who had an argument for the best receiver in the league. While I don’t want to make too much of an assumption based on one game, the evidence shows that it’s time a new receiver takes over that No.1 slot. Will it be Godwin? Will it be Brown? I don’t know, but it’s definitely not Mike Evans. His historic streak ends in 2021.