In his eighth season in the NFL, Lee Evans says he has grown up.
Not in a literal sense. The 5-foot-10, 197-pound Evans is trim and in excellent shape at age 30.
No, when the Ravens wide receiver mentioned growing up Wednesday, he was referring to the left ankle injury that shelved him for seven consecutive games this season. The glacial pace at which the ankle responded to rest, treatment and ice tested Evans' patience, but also gave him an opportunity for some self-critique.
"You go through some evaluation," he said. "Is there something I was doing wrong? Everything's in question. So I think I certainly grew up a little bit. Certainly, if you've ever taken this game for granted and it gets taken away from you, that's when you appreciate it much more."
That appreciation has given Evans, who was acquired in an Aug. 13 trade with the Buffalo Bills, a renewed perspective on completing his first, significantly abbreviated season with the Ravens.
"Obviously, things haven't gone according to the way I thought they would have gone when I first came here," he said. "But I've just been trying to be as consistent and work as hard as possible. But more than that, with where we are as a team and where we can go, that's what I'm excited about right now."
Evans' production this season hasn't been quite as exciting. He has caught just four passes for 74 yards, including just two receptions for 29 yards since returning against the Cincinnati Bengals on Nov. 20.
Evans has the potential to add to those numbers, but how much playing time he gets behind starters Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith could affect his ability to contribute to the offense. With 103 targets, Boldin is quarterback Joe Flacco's go-to player this season, and Smith leads the team in yards per catch (18.7) and receiving touchdowns (six).
But a healthy Evans allows the offense to employ a three-receiver set, and that could be the opening Evans needs.
"Obviously, he's a threat out there," coach John Harbaugh said. "Certainly, we want to see all of our guys catch as many balls and carry as many balls as possible. So all those guys should get their opportunities going forward."
Another challenge for Evans is developing a level of trust with Flacco, who might feel more comfortable throwing to Boldin and Smith, considering their on-field time together. In that respect, Evans' ankle injury — which surfaced over time in training camp but was not the same ailment he suffered as a member of the Buffalo Bills that sent him to the injured reserve list last December — was more detrimental to his relationship with Flacco than his physical well-being.
"On the field, timingwise, all that, I'd be lying if I said it didn't affect that at all because it did," Evans acknowledged. "And I got a late start coming halfway through training camp. So I already knew I was behind the 8-ball a little bit, and me missing those games certainly didn't help. But the only thing I could try to do was still try to be around everybody and be able to talk to Joe in meetings and be there for him on the field as well. I wasn't able to play and catch balls, but I think I was able to build some type of rapport not only with Joe, but with the receivers as well, being able to help them even when I wasn't playing."
Flacco said the pair are working on their on-field chemistry.
"It's growing. It's getting there," Flacco said. "I think he came in here as a pretty explosive player from the beginning and then, obviously, not being healthy at the beginning of the year threw a little bit of that off. But he's out there and getting better each week."
The San Diego Chargers, the Ravens' opponent Sunday night, won't overlook Evans, who caught eight passes for 89 yards and one touchdown against them in 2008.
"The whole thing to me is, if you're going to play good defense, you can't give up big plays," San Diego coach Norv Turner said. "And so you have to know where the big-play guys are, and obviously, Smith is a big-play guy, Boldin's a big-play guy, and there's no question Evans has been."
Evans, who started in the first two games of the season, will likely take on a complementary role Sunday, but in some ways, being healthy and effective is the biggest compliment yet.
"Yeah, it's been tough," he said. "It has been tough with just not knowing. But right now, with where we're at and where we can go and the opportunity that we have, that's what's got me excited. I'm really gung-ho about that."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun