Bucs' 'casual guy' Mike Evans embracing bigger leadership role

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Low-key and unassuming despite his 6-foot-5, 231-pound frame, Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Mike Evans still can slide under the radar, even though he's gained more and more national visibility thanks to five consecutive 1,000-yard seasons and two trips to the Pro Bowl.

Throngs of fans have clamored for his autograph and selfies at Pro Bowl practices this week at Disney. But unless he's in Tampa or back home in Texas (Galveston, Houston or College Station), most don't recognize him. Even if he's on their fantasy teams. Even now that he's one of the highest-paid wide receivers in league history.

"People don’t know me with my helmet off most of the time. I'm a casual guy, though," said Evans, who last offseason signed a five-year contract extension worth $82.5 million, with $55 million guaranteed. "I don't care about being the face of [the team on a national stage]. I just want to win. You know that."

Inside the walls of One Buc Place in Tampa, though, Evans' star shines brightly, and it's unmistakable. He has become the player teammates and coaches can count on, the one front-office members can point to and say, "We got this right."

Evans has emerged as a larger presence in the locker room, something that was needed in the midst of back-to-back 5-11 seasons in 2017 and 2018 -- and yet another head-coaching change.

"My teammates, I think they like me because I give it everything I got. I try to lead by example as much [as possible]. ... I've been a captain, so I've had to be more vocal," Evans said.

"I don't judge anybody. I don't bad-mouth anybody about their play or anything like that. I just try to get the best out of them and my teammates hold me accountable as well -- [they] try to get the best out of me. So we have a good relationship. I have a good relationship with all my teammates. I'm happy they view me as a leader, as a captain."

Though former coach Dirk Koetter didn't settle on a quarterback until late last season, Evans was productive with both Jameis Winston and Ryan Fitzpatrick -- shattering the Bucs' single-season receiving yardage record that stood for nearly 30 years with 1,524 yards and eight touchdowns.

"I think the 2017 season, I didn't feel like we were as good of a team as we were this past year," Evans said. "I was so surprised that we were 5-11 [in 2018]. It was kind of mind-blowing. It showed early when we started off the season. But we had a lot of injuries and a lot of controversy, things like that. But no excuses. We've gotta find ways to win. And we haven't been doing that."

As a captain, he has been reaching out to teammate DeSean Jackson this offseason. Jackson is under contract for one more year at $10 million, but several times this past season he expressed his frustrations about the lack of chemistry with Winston and his use in Koetter's offense. Could Evans help massage that relationship and lure him back?

"I hope so," Evans said of Jackson. "He's an extraordinary player with an extraordinary talent that you can't find just anywhere. We went fishing. I hope he comes back. If not, it's his decision and the team's decision."

As for Winston, Evans believes new coach Bruce Arians' decision to name him the starting quarterback going into the offseason can make a huge difference for the quarterback going into his fifth year.

"Obviously, Jameis, it affects him, not knowing if he's had one bad game is he gonna get sat," Evans said. "It's good for him. My job as a receiver is to get open no matter who's throwing the ball. Obviously, I love Jameis. I'm looking forward to seeing what he'll do this year. I think this year will be his best season, I think."

As for Evans, his personal goals are to continue improving his yards after the catch, which went up from a 1.73 average in 2017 to 3.33 in 2018. He can build on his production in the red zone in 2018, and he wants to keep his weight down while getting stronger, particularly in his hamstrings.

"Hopefully after Week 17, I can still be running," Evans said.

But much bigger than that -- he wants the Bucs to be a contender again, to be the ones fans are buzzing about. He believes that's truly on the players to orchestrate that, not Arians and his staff. That's the message he wants to convey to teammates.

"The coaches are going to coach, but it all comes down to the players," Evans said. "The players are out there playing and the players are the ones that are going to make the plays, so it's on the players. We've got to be more disciplined, clean up the penalties and keep making plays like we've been [doing]."