Rookie receivers making their mark in NFL
TAMPA, Fla. (AP) Tampa Bay's Mike Evans resists labels that describe him as a football player, especially those that shortchange what he's accomplished as part of an outstanding class of rookie receivers lighting up the NFL.
The seventh overall pick in last spring's draft has been much more than a bright spot in an otherwise dismal season for the Buccaneers (2-12), who have the NFC's worst record and could wind up with the No. 1 draft pick in 2015.
Odell Beckham, Jr.'s acrobatic, one-handed reception during a breakout performance for the New York Giants in prime time is being trumpeted as the greatest catch of the season. Sammy Watkins has helped the Buffalo Bills move to the brink of their first winning season in a decade. Kelvin Benjamin has compiled an impressive resume with the Carolina Panthers.
But arguably no offensive rookie has meant more to his team than Evans, who's already tied Tampa Bay's single-season record for touchdown receptions with 11. That's tied for fourth in the NFL - most by a rookie - and an astounding 44 percent of the Bucs' offensive TDs.
''That's kind of crazy,'' the 6-foot-5, 231-pound Evans said.
''I expected to do well. ... I'm humble, but I'm confident in my game,'' the 21-year-old receiver said. ''If I wasn't confident, I would have stayed in college. I came out. I thought I had the physicality to be successful. I've made the transition the way I thought I would.''
If there was a knock on Evans entering the NFL after spending the last two seasons as Johnny Manziel's favorite target at Texas A&M, it was he lacked the speed to be a consistent deep threat. That hasn't been the case despite playing much of the season with struggling quarterback Josh McCown, the NFC's lowest-rated passer.
Evans has 13 receptions of 25-plus yards - five more than both Beckham and Watkins, and six more than Benjamin and Jacksonville's Allen Hurns. He has four catches over 40 yards, matching Beckham, Hurns and Pittsburgh's Martavis Bryant, including a 56-yarder for a TD during a seven-catch, 209-yard performance against Washington.
Beckham torched the Redskins with 12 receptions for 143 yards and three TDs last week, taking the lead among rookies with 972 yards receiving. Evans is third with 948, four behind Benjamin.
With Watkins standing at 850 with two games remaining in the regular season, four rookies are within striking distance of 1,000 for the year. If at least three get there, it would be a league first. The only year more than one rookie receiver finished with 1,000-plus yards was 1986: Bill Brooks had 1,131 for the Colts and Ernest Givins finished with 1,062 for the Oilers.
Beckham and LSU college teammate Jarvis Landry, drafted in the second round by the Dolphins, lead all rookies with 71 receptions. They're followed by Benjamin (67), Evans (59), Watkins (59) and Philadelphia's Jordan Matthews (56). With nine touchdowns, Beckham and Benjamin trail Evans, who has nine in his past seven games following a relatively quiet start.
Green Bay's Jordy Nelson, who's having a career season, said it's difficult to not notice Evans' emergence.
''I haven't been able to watch him too much, but I've seen some of his highlights on TV. He's obviously a big guy that can make plays. He's got a huge catch radius, and what he can do after the catch as well,'' the Packers receiver said, noting you have to be impressed with any rookie with a shot at topping 1,000 yards.
''I think every rookie receiver, especially drafted early, they'll have their splash games and you'll see the talent and the ability that's there,'' Nelson said. ''But to grasp an offense and get that chemistry down with a quarterback and sustain it in a season ... it's impressive. You can tell that he's put a lot into it and he's got a bright future.''
Watkins was the first of five receivers drafted in the first round, No. 4 overall, three spots before Evans. Beckham was taken 12th and has blossomed after missing the first four games because of injury. New Orleans' Brandin Cook (No. 20) had 53 catches before being lost for the year with a thumb injury, and Benjamin (No. 28) has given Carolina a boost during an otherwise tough season for the Panthers offensively.
''It's been huge with all the roster turnover in the offseason at that position to have Kelvin cone in as our top pick and hit the ground running from the first game and keep that consistency,'' Carolina tight end Greg Olsen said.
''He brings a ton to the table physically, but his mental approach for a young kid has been tremendous. He studies, he wants to do well, he wants to do everything right. There's a reason he's had success on the field. He works that way, he continues to want to improve. ... The sky is the limit. He's just going to continue to get better.''
McCown said Evans undoubtedly has benefitted from playing opposite receiver Vincent Jackson, who's closing in on his third straight 1,000-yard season with the Bucs, sixth overall.
Jackson leads the Bucs with 66 receptions, but has only two TDs - none in the past 10 games.
''He's a big part of my success. He's one of the best receivers in the league. I looked up to him and watched him a lot when I was in high school and college. It's surreal to be playing with him,'' Evans said. ''Whatever he has to say, I listen.''
As good as Evans has been catching the football, the most memorable play of his rookie year may wind up being - of all things - a block. Much like video of Beckham's much-talked-about circus catch, Evans blocking and eventually knocking Cincinnati's Terrence Newman to the ground against the Bengals is must-see viewing.
''It was kind of weird. ... I guess he was upset. I had pushed him right before that and I guess he wanted to (retaliate) and he launched at me,'' Evans said. ''It was awkward. He kind of ended up in the air, and I just slammed him. ... It didn't seem like much at the time. Much better on tape.''
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