Posted by Chase Stuart on August 12, 2011
I'm an unabashed Lee Evans fan. In Febrruary 2009, I ran a series of posts discussing the greatest wide receivers in pro football history. I argued that it was necessary to adjust wide receiver stats based on team attempts, as otherwise wide receivers in pass-happy offenses would hold an unfair advantage over receivers playing in more run-oriented schemes. But I was shocked to find that in 2006, Evans ranked as the number one receiver in football. His numbers were good but not overwhelming -- Evans had 82 catches for 1,292 yards and 8 touchdowns; he ranked 6th in the NFL in receiving yards. To be fair, a lot of receivers had down years in '06, but still, I couldn't figure out why Evans came out on top. The reason, of course, was that Buffalo ranked just 31st in pass attempts that year. As a result, his 6th place ranking ended up being the most impressive season by any receiver that year.
But Evans has put together a string of disappointing seasons since then. The question is, how much of that is Evans' fault and how much blame can go on the collection of talent the Bills have put together? Buffalo has struggled to get even average production out of its offensive lineman and quarterbacks over the past five years. In fact, take a look at the passers for the Bills since Evans entered the league:
All of the quarterbacks have been below average in yards per attempt and net yards per attempt, not good for a wide receiver who makes his living on the deep pass. And whether the blame should fall on the passer or the offensive line, the Bills quarterbacks have posted miserable sack rates as well. A deep threat receiver playing on a team with a bad offensive line and a bad quarterback is going to string together a bunch of disappointing years. Trent Edwards and Ryan Fitzpatrick played well in spots, but both players had weak arms. It's not too surprising that Evans didn't post big numbers with them at quarterback. In fact, Evans has really only played with two strong-armed quarterbacks.
As a rookie, Evans played with Drew Bledsoe. By '04, Bledsoe was close to being washed up; he wasn't the player he was in his prime, or even the quarterback he was in his first season in Buffalo. But Bledsoe still had his big arm, and he and Evans connected 48 times for 843 yards and 9 touchdowns. Evans' numbers fell off in '05, as Buffalo started Kelly Holcomb for 8 games and gave J.P. Losman the first 8 starts of his career. In '06, Losman's first -- and only -- year as the Bills full-time starter, Evans ranked as the top receiver in my grading system.
Then, in '07, Losman lost the job to Trent Edwards, a smart quarterback with an accurate but weak arm. In late October, the Jets and Bills were stuck in a dull and miserable 6-3 game before Trent Edwards went down with an injury. With just under four minutes to go, Losman threw a bomb down the right sideline in Evans' direction. He out-muscled a rookie Darrelle Revis for the ball, and ran in for an 85-yard score. The next week, Losman started against the Bengals. Evans caught 9 passes for 165 yards and a touchdown. Evans was up and down the rest of the season playing with both Losman and Edwards, although he did post a two-touchdown game late in the season against 1-15 Miami.
In 2008, Edwards was the starter, but went down early in a game against the Cardinals. Losman came in, and a few minutes later, the two had connected on an 87-yard touchdown. Despite playing most of the year with Captain Checkdown, Evans got enough looks from Edwards to crack the 1,000 yard mark. But the past two seasons, playing with Edwards and Fitzpatrick, Evans' numbers have continued to look mediocre.
Pro Football Focus has Evans ranked as an average (or worse) receiver the past two years. So does Football Outsiders. So do fantasy football players: Evans was selected, on average, as the 27th and 41st receivers off the board in standard fantasy football leagues the past two seasons. He ended those years ranked as the 35th and 56th best receiver, respectively.
I am a Lee Evans fan, but I won't argue that he's been good the past two years. I won't say that he's a complete receiver. I won't disagree if you say that better receivers would have posted better numbers in the Buffalo offense. I'll just note that Evans was a miserable fit in Buffalo, but a match made in heaven for the Ravens. Joe Flacco has a rocket for an arm, but was was forced to drive below the speed limit with Anquan Boldin, Derrick Mason, Todd Heap and T.J. Houshmandzadeh as his top receivers. With Anquan Boldin, Ray Rice and Flacco, this will be the most talented offense Evans has ever been a part of. Without being the primary focus of opposing defenses, I think Evans has the bounce-back season we've all been waiting for. This is a fantastic landing spot for him and a great pickup for the Ravens. Baltimore desperately needed a complementary receiver to Boldin and Evans was yearning for a strong-armed quarterback. While he won't be asked to lead the team in receptions, don't be surprised if he has more than a few big plays and again cracks the 1,000 yard mark. Even if you don't think Evans is a complete receiver, he can hardly ask for a better situation than a quarterback with one of the strongest arms, one of the game's best running backs, and perhaps the premier possession receiver in football. He's got the potential for a rebound year in Baltimore.
And don't blame the Ravens for seeing that potential: Evans caught 6 passes for 105 yards and 3 touchdowns, nearly leading the Bills to an upset in Baltimore just last year.