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How Bucs GM Jason Licht’s first ever draft pick Mike Evans has helped change a franchise

TAMPA, Fla. -- Jason Licht still remembers the first time he saw wide receiver Mike Evans.

It was 2014. He'd just become general manager of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and he knew his team needed a quarterback.

"See, I just got hired. ... I was kind of the lone ranger that year," said Licht, who hadn't gotten to know his scouts yet outside of meetings. "I would just lock myself in my office and just watch all the top players. I started doing the quarterbacks one by one."

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There was Blake Bortles (Central Florida), Teddy Bridgewater (Louisville), Derek Carr (Fresno State), Jimmy Garoppolo (Eastern Illinois), Johnny Manziel (Texas A&M), A.J. McCarron (Alabama) and Aaron Murray (Georgia). He was particularly intrigued by Manziel, but for reasons he didn't initially expect.

A 6-foot-5, 231-pound receiver with a colossal catch radius was on the receiving end of Manziel's magic, and Licht couldn't take his eyes off of him.

"It was like, 'Is Mike making him look good or is he making Mike look good?' Then it just kind of, after time, it was just obvious to me that Mike just made this guy look very good," Licht told ESPN. "And I'm not taking anything away from Johnny Manziel because he was a great college football player."

A decade later -- Evans is coming off of one of his best seasons. He was named to his fifth Pro Bowl and second team All-Pro for the second time in his career. He finished with 13 touchdowns -- tied for the most in the NFL with Tyreek Hill.

While the Bucs have come to a crossroads with Evans, whose last game with the team could be as soon as Sunday when the Bucs travel to face the Detroit Lions (3 p.m. ET, NBC) in the divisional round of the playoffs, Licht has plans to try to keep his guy in Tampa.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Mike Evans runs off the field at Raymond James Stadium for possibly the last time if he and the Bucs don't agree on a contract to bring him back. Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

In 10 seasons, Evans has amassed 12,242 yards and 98 touchdowns in the regular season and postseason combined. He holds virtually every receiving and scoring record in franchise history. He is the only player in NFL history to reach 1,000 receiving yards in each of his first 10 seasons, but his 10 1,000-yard seasons ties him with his idol Randy Moss for second most behind Jerry Rice's 14, and his 10 consecutive 1,000-yard seasons puts him just one behind Rice's 11.

Evans accomplished this feat under one organization with six different starting quarterbacks, five offensive coordinators and four head coaches.

"It would mean everything for the franchise, ownership, all of us," Licht said of Evans spending his whole career with the Bucs. "Mike and I -- our relationship is still the same and has never changed. And we've got a mutual understanding of when we're going to begin talking."

EVANS WAS AT the top of the Buccaneers' 2014 draft board despite other needs. Pittsburgh defensive tackle Aaron Donald, Notre Dame offensive lineman Zack Martin and LSU wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. were listed next. But Evans was No. 1.

He could dash into a full sprint and tear the roof off a defense despite his larger frame, weave his way through traffic with defenders diving at his ankles and showed impeccable body control and concentration on the most complicated catches. And all Manziel's improvising didn't seem to faze Evans.

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"I couldn't get anybody to convince me that there was another player that was better," Licht said.

Licht said an undisclosed team called and offered to trade up a "couple of spots" into the No. 7 position, where Evans was ultimately drafted. He certainly could have done that in a receiver class that also featured Brandin Cooks, Kelvin Benjamin, Marqise Lee, Paul Richardson, Davante Adams, Allen Robinson and Jarvis Landry.

"I could have got a really good return on it, and it was close," Licht said. "But then I just said, 'No I can't do it.' And then the person on the other line said, 'Fine, go take your guy, Mike.'"

And so he did. Evans was the one he sought when the Bucs defeated the Green Bay Packers in the 2020 NFC Championship Game to go to their first Super Bowl in almost 20 years.

"I think the favorite moment was beating the Packers and me running after him on the field going, 'My first pick! My first pick!" Licht said. "It brings a tear to my eye right now."

AHEAD OF THE 2023 season, Evans and his agent, Deryk Gilmore, gave the Bucs a Sept. 9 deadline for a new deal or no discussions would take place for the entire season. No deal was offered at the deadline, and they stuck to their word this season.

A third consecutive NFC South title may have softened any hard lines in the sand, and he and quarterback Baker Mayfield have formed a palpable chemistry in their first year together.

There were missed connections in the playoff opener -- a 32-9 win over the Philadelphia Eagles in the wild-card round Monday -- with six dropped passes, including one by Evans. But Mayfield, who called Evans a "special player" and a "safety blanket" said, "We're going to take our shots with him. The kind of guy he is when he's one-on-one -- we're looking for him."

At age 30, Evans has shown no signs of slowing down. Against the Carolina Panthers in Week 13, when the Bucs were 4-7 and had dropped five out of six games, Evans put up a masterful 162 yards receiving.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Mike Evans scores a touchdown against the Chicago Bears during his rookie year. AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh

"That 75-yard touchdown -- it showed that he hasn't lost the speed at all. In fact, in some ways, he looks faster," Licht said. "Just the effort, the determination. ... He runs harder with the ball, too."

Added wide receiver Chris Godwin on the play, "I think people will sleep on his speed because he don't really get to like open up too many times, not a lot of long catch-and-run opportunities."

Six seconds prior to that play, the Panthers had grabbed the lead on a 1-yard touchdown run by Chuba Hubbard with 5:04 to go in the fourth quarter. Coming from the slot on the left side, Evans ran vertically, turned his hips and raced past cornerback Troy Hill and then CJ Henderson before diving for the pylon.

"I've just been blessed. God has blessed me tremendously with durability," said Evans, who has missed nine games in 10 seasons. "I have great people around me that help me maintain my health. That's been good for me."

First-year offensive coordinator Dave Canales' favorite play was against the Indianapolis Colts, although he didn't score; Evans had two touchdowns in that game.

"The climb-the-ladder catch that goes down to the 1-yard line. ... That was incredible," said Canales, who also praised Evans' demeanor towards teammates, as did Godwin.

"There are not enough nice words to say about how impressive Mike is," Godwin said. "He has done something that nobody in NFL history has done and that is a testament to who he is as a person and who he is as a player. ... He is not some diva who is demanding the ball."

There were stunners against the Houston Texans in Week 9 where Evans fell backwards into the end zone after a 53-yard grab (officials initially ruled it a touchdown but then determined he was down at the 1-yard line), and against the Atlanta Falcons in Week 7, working against A.J. Terrell one-on-one along the left sideline as Mayfield heaved a 40-yard pass.

"Some of the go-ball shots where it's like, 'This guy shouldn't let him behind him'... Just his way to find a way to get past the defense," said Canales, who believes Evans is a first-ballot Hall of Famer. "Across the league, you see these guys running 21 miles per hour, 22 miles per hour, he's running his steady 20's-ish but he's running by the guy."

Coach Todd Bowles added, "30 is a good age for him. I think he's in his prime right now. I haven't seen any dropoff. ... It seems like he's ageless at this point with the stats he's putting up, the numbers he's putting up, the way he competes and the way he goes out there to play."

It's been a challenge for new wide receivers coach Brad Idzik to find fresh things for someone that has "run every route in the book."

"It's like, 'How can we put a little wrinkle on it to make it fresh for him and make him feel youthful and energized?' And he does it," Idzik said.

Evans has played a big role in Mayfield's success in reviving his career after three teams in the previous two seasons. Mayfield has called Evans the "best I've ever played with."

"His body language at the top of routes and how he communicates within how he runs his routes is truly unique and special," Mayfield said. "We've seen guys try and double team him, but he still finds a way to win. No matter what the coverage is, he always has a plan based on what route he has or how he is going to try to win based on leverage or coverage. It's something you really can't teach. It's a God-given ability that he has."

THE PASSAGE OF time has shown. It's reflected in the team's championship banners in an indoor practice facility that hadn't been built when Evans arrived. It took six seasons before Evans got to taste the postseason, and he hasn't missed one since with a Super Bowl ring to highlight it all.

Instead of breaks from his training after every season, he does a little each day to maintain his physical condition and credits that for helping prolong his career.

He and his wife have four children. And making good on his promise to help others if he ever reached the NFL, his Mike Evans Family Foundation has awarded $470,000 in college scholarships to students in Florida and his home state of Texas while supporting survivors of domestic violence.

Licht's oldest son, Charlie, was 5 at the time Evans was drafted, and now he's 15. He too has been asking about Evans' status for next season.

Courtesy Jason Licht

"My kids -- they ask about Mike all the time," Licht said.

When he was drafted, Evans autographed a No. 13 Buccaneers jersey that read, "To Charlie: Your dad made the right pick! #13 Mike Evans Go Bucs!"

"It's crazy," Licht said. "And he hasn't changed as a person either. He's like a family member in our household. I mean, he's got a relationship with each of my kids, my wife, my wife and his wife. ... He's the same person in the community off the field and with his fans. He's a dream."

Licht's dream is Evans finishing his career as a Buccaneer, pointing to Ring of Honor and Pro Football Hall of Famers Ronde Barber and Derrick Brooks, who spent their entire careers with the Bucs. It is possible with the team no longer carrying the burden of $75 million in dead cap money like in 2023.

But moves would need to be made to ensure the team can re-sign Evans, Mayfield, All-Pro safety Antoine Winfield Jr. and inside linebacker Lavonte David, the longest-tenured player on the team. A long-term extension also looms for left tackle Tristan Wirfs, but the team has the benefit of his fifth-year option kicking in for 2024.

If this is Evans' last hoorah, he knows the stamp he's left in Tampa is an impactful one. He continues to take things day-by-day and refuses to live beyond the moment, but for whatever fate has for him, he knows he'll look back and reflect on things one day.

"It seems surreal at times, but you know I'm in the moment," Evans said heading into the playoffs. "So maybe when I'm long gone from the game I'll look back and really think about what I've done."

    

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