Lee Evans: Star cloaked in Buffalo's fog

Bills wide receiver Lee Evans might be known as an elite target by now -- if he played for another team. Luc Leclerc/US Presswire

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- When Lee Evans left the Wisconsin Badgers six years ago, he expected to be well on his way to establishing himself as one of the NFL's elite receivers by now.

He was supposed to have made a few Pro Bowls, earned a couple All-Pro selections, burned defenders so frequently the Buffalo Bills couldn't help but field a playoff-caliber offense.

The Bills obviously agreed with that projection when they drafted him 13th overall in 2004 and four years later, awarded him a contract extension that made Evans one of the league's richest receivers.

Little has come to fruition. Evans has zero Pro Bowls, two 1,000-yard seasons and one season with more than 63 catches.

Evans is entering his seventh season. While he's respected around the league for his speed, hands and character, he still hasn't emerged as a star.

"Absolutely, I have something to prove," Evans told me after Wednesday's early practice to open Buffalo's mandatory minicamp. "The reality of it is, I haven't done anything yet."

Neither have the Bills. That's the primary reason Evans hasn't broken out.

Since he joined the Bills, they've failed to reach the playoffs. They've had one winning season, when he was a rookie. Their cumulative record with Evans on the roster is 41-55. They're on their fourth head coach and umpteenth offensive coordinator.

In Evans' six seasons, Buffalo's offense has ranked 25th, 28th, 30th, 30th, 25th and 30th.

Evans has had four starting quarterbacks -- Trent Edwards, J.P. Losman, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Brian Brohm -- over the past two seasons and doesn't know who'll be throwing to him in 2010.

"Like Steve Smith with the Carolina Panthers and St. Louis Rams running back Steven Jackson, Evans is right at the top of my list of guys who I would love to see on another team," Scouts Inc. analyst Matt Williamson said. "I think he could be a monster and perennial Pro Bowler in a much better situation."

Evans won't say it, but regardless of how you choose to measure success -- winning games or personal statistics -- he essentially has squandered the first six years of his career. He turned 29 in March.

"Not being able to win or make it to the playoffs, you don't really get the recognition a lot of players get and that they deserve," Evans said. "That's the goal here. If we can win and make it to the postseason, recognition will come."

Evans posted one stat line commensurate with his talents. In 2006, with Losman taking downfield chances, Evans caught 82 passes for 1,292 yards and eight touchdowns.

The past three seasons, however, Evans' numbers have been limited. It's not the best situation for a deep threat when his quarterback is known as Captain Checkdown, the nickname bestowed on Edwards last year.

"He has to rely on downfield plays to really make a huge impact," Williamson said. "Buffalo's opponents know they can't protect and that their signal caller was, well, bashful about letting it fly deep. That eliminates the most threatening aspect of Evans' game, which is criminal."

Evans is a respected player in the locker room and among Bills fans. But he's just sort of there -- a vague protagonist. On a team with so many problems, there's no reason to worry about Evans.

Since the Bills hired head coach Chan Gailey in January, he has been asked almost every imaginable question. Yet in a search of Gailey's many transcripts, Evans' name doesn't appear once, peculiar for a team's most talented offensive player.

Evans was supposed to have his breakout campaign last year, but is coming off what he called the most frustrating season of his life.

"How do you explain last year?" he chuckled, repeating the question asked. "I can probably write a book about last year."

The Bills brought in future Hall of Fame receiver Terrell Owens. Part of the reasoning was Owens' presence would stop defenses from doubling up on Evans for the first time since Eric Moulds left the Bills. That was Evans' sophomore season.

Evans and Owens each had one of their worst seasons. Evans caught a career-low 44 passes for a career-low 612 yards and seven touchdowns.

Evans blames a series of problems outside the players' control. The organization mishandled two-time Pro Bowl left tackle Jason Peters, trading him to the Philadelphia Eagles. Ten days before the season opener, the Bills fired offensive coordinator Turk Schonert and replaced him with novice Alex Van Pelt. Then they released their most experienced offensive lineman, Langston Walker, who had been moved from right tackle to left tackle.

Evans said it "started with the Peters thing," but called Walker's release the biggest stunner of them all. As Evans relived everything that went wrong even before the team was decimated by injuries and finally axed head coach Dick Jauron in November, an incredulous look came over his face.

"There was a lot of turmoil amongst coaches, amongst coaches and players, amongst scheme," Evans said. "We were fighting an uphill battle against ourselves, really. That's what really made it tough, especially early on.

"The bottom line is, I don't think everybody had bought in to what we were trying to do. That makes it tough. When you have that coupled with a ton of injuries, that's what you get."

Evans didn't elaborate, but he said Schonert's firing "wasn't as big of a shock" as Walker's release.

"But it still takes its toll," Evans said. "This is the guy who had been calling the plays here all last year, all through camp, all through the preseason. Now you've got another guy coming in who has coached a while but has never been a coordinator on this level. Now you have to figure out what he wants to accomplish.

"Now it's 'Who are we?' It was tough."

Nobody would blame Evans for running out of patience with the Bills. He has given some prime years to a dysfunctional organization. The Bills have paid him well, but so would another team that has a better chance of winning.

As the Bills are experiencing with two-time Pro Bowl defensive end Aaron Schobel, perpetual losing is tough to endure. Schobel is leaning toward retiring at 32 and with serious money on the table rather than return to the Bills.

Evans still has three years left on his contract, but another year without any signs of progress might cause him and the Bills to part ways.

"Chan has us excited," Evans said. "If you lose optimism and trust, you probably won't play well on Sundays. There's always a belief that we're going to win. That's what can carry you through tough times.

"This year, just looking at it on paper, I don't expect it to be anything like last year. It has to be better. It has to be."