Heading into the start of the 2020 college football season, Chris Evans was the most experienced running back at the University of Michigan, but he hardly received any playing time.
He finished the season with 16 carries, nine receptions and 160 yards on a Michigan team that went 2-4. The Wolverines didn’t find a role for Evans, who nearly fell through the cracks as an NFL Draft prospect.
“All the stuff I went through at Michigan, I just feel like that was part of my story,” Evans said. “I knew as soon as I got the opportunity to do what I do, be valued like this, it’s just surreal.”
Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh never featured Evans as a receiving threat out of the backfield, but Bengals head coach Zac Taylor gave Evans that opportunity right away during his rookie season. In the Bengals' three preseason games, Evans had 132 yards. He played so well in the first two games that Taylor used the preseason finale to evaluate the other running backs on the roster.
In just two months, Evans went from a sixth round pick who hadn’t played a big role on a football team since 2017 into a player who will likely get Week 1 snaps for the Bengals against the Minnesota Vikings.
“Adversity introduces you to yourself to see if this is what you really want to do,” Evans said. “It taught me a lot with academics and the running back situation. Every single part of it (is) being positive. Just continue to work on your craft and be ready when your time comes.”
In one of the few snaps that Evans played in the Bengals third preseason game, the coaching staff wanted to get one more look at Evans in the role he’ll play in 2021. On a slot fade in the first quarter, Evans ran up the sideline and made a running touchdown catch in tight coverage.
The Bengals had worked on that play all preseason, and Evans said he was quarterback Brandon Allen’s primary target.
In college, Evans rarely had that opportunity. The three running backs drafted after Evans averaged more than 900 yards last season, and they had 12 times more yards last season than Evans did.
As a result, he didn’t know what to expect at the start of his pre-draft process in January. He worked out in Dallas at the end of the season, and he was about to buy a plane ticket home for a short break.
Then Evans got an invitation to the 2021 Senior Bowl.
“I understood once I got to the Senior Bowl, it was a wrap,” Evans said. “All I needed was a chance.”
While Taylor evaluated offensive linemen at the Senior Bowl, he kept noticing one running back catching passes on routes out of the backfield. That led to the Bengals drafting Evans, who has run many of the same routes in the Bengals offense.
After the Bengals drafted him to be a potential third down back, Evans watched every snap that his predecessor Giovani Bernard, who now plays for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, took last season. Evans has been learning by watching tape of Bernard blocking pass rushers.
“At this level, I would say the blitzes are so crazy, so crazy,” Evans said. “(Running backs coach Justin Hill) made some cutup (videos) that I have to (watch) them five times to even see what they're doing and how I would even process all that within the quick second. It's third down, the crowd's loud and you might not hear the call. It's just crazy.”
When the front office decided to keep just three running backs on the initial 53-man roster, the Bengals showed that they see Evans ready to take that step before the start of the season. The Bengals also currently don’t have a backup slot receiver on the roster, and Evans could also get snaps when wide receiver Tyler Boyd isn’t on the field.
After Evans’ first preseason game, Hill told him he’d need to protect the quarterback to stay on the field. As Evans gets more confident in pass protection, he’s getting closer to his first explosive play that counts in an NFL uniform.
“I feel like the first couple games I might have to take the extra look, take the extra peek just in case,” Evans said. “(It’s about) just knowing and being confident and taking what (Bernard) does and putting it into my game.”
ROSTER SHAKEUP: On Thursday, the Bengals moved defensive end Khalid Kareem to the injured reserve with an undisclosed injury. Kareem left the Bengals game against the Dolphins after the first series, and he will miss at least the first three games of the season.
With an open spot, the Bengals brought back wide receiver Mike Thomas. The Bengals released Thomas after making two separate waiver claims on Wednesday, but the team re-signed their fifth receiver one day later.
UPCOMING SCHEDULE: In previous years, the Bengals would be playing their final preseason game on the 10th-to-last day before the first Sunday of the regular season.
Since the NFL changed the preseason schedule to just three games, the Bengals practiced on Thursday. After that, the players receive three days off before the start of game-week preparation on Monday.