Mike Evans clearly belongs in the Pro Bowl after ranking among the league's best in receptions, yards and touchdowns in 2016. Still, unlike Tampa Bay Buccaneers teammate Gerald McCoy, a five-time Pro Bowler, Evans is one of the new guys at this year's all-star game. Like McCoy, Evans will probably be back more than once, but his first game among the league's stars is a special experience.
"It's off the chain, it's crazy," Evans enthused on Wednesday after the NFC's first practice at Disney's Wide World of Sports complex. "Guys I've looked up to, I'm playing with them in this Pro Bowl all-star game and it's amazing. Just to connect with the guys. There are a lot of legends here, former players like Ray Lewis, Charles Woodson. Get to know those guys and get to know all the other players around the league.
"During the season, I was a lot more serious because I was trying to get the job done. But now I can decompress a little bit and enjoy this, and it's been great. I'm a big fan of football and I love a lot of players' games. And then to meet them, they're even better guys than they are players."
The Pro Bowl has gone back to its traditional AFC vs. NFC format after a few years of experimentation, which means Evans will be running routes against some cornerbacks he already faced during the 2016 regular season: Aqib Talib and Chris Harris of the Broncos along with San Diego's Casey Hayward. The fourth AFC corner is the Chiefs' Marcus Peters, who was out due to injury when the Bucs won in Kansas City in Week 11. During the week leading up to the actual game, Evans is sharing a field with some other corners he did battle with this past fall, albeit at about three-quarters speed on the Pro Bowl practice field.
That includes Seattle's Richard Sherman, who was part of a defense that Evans touched for 102 yards and two touchdowns in Tampa Bay's Week 12 win in Tampa. Evans said he and Sherman already talked after that game in late November but he's enjoying rehashing all the games with his new teammate this week.
"I respect them all," said the Bucs' third-year wideout, who also threw out such specific names as Seattle tight end Jimmy Graham and Arizona cornerback Patrick Peterson. "Richard Sherman is my favorite defensive player; it's cool talking with him, hanging out with him. I'm seeing some of my good friends. I respect all the guys, and it's fun to see all these stars. At times it doesn't seem real, but it's cool."
Evans is not sharing the field with any Atlanta players, because the Falcons are currently focused on their upcoming matchup with New England in Super Bowl LI in Houston. Evans had 244 yards and three touchdowns against Atlanta as the Bucs and Falcons split in 2016, but it's clear that Tampa Bay's division foe has improved quite a bit since a Week One loss to the Bucs. Evans thinks the Falcons will represent the conference, and the Bucs' division, well in the Super Bowl.
"Well, they got much better after we played them in that first game, I'll tell you that," he said. "Explosive offense, real good defense. Hopefully we can make it three years in a row with the NFC South in the Super Bowl, Carolina last year and then Atlanta this year. I'm rooting for…I'm not rooting for anybody but they're in the NFC South so hopefully they can put on a good showing."
That game is scheduled for Sunday, February 5, but the NFL's next action is this weekend at Camping World Stadium in Orlando. That's where Evans will take the field for the first time as an all-star. Still just 23 years old, he has even great goals in mind, but he knows that Pro Bowl honors will affect how his career is ultimately remembered.
"It's a great accomplishment, don't get me wrong," he said. "I talk about wanting to be All-Pro because I think that's more [exclusive], but just being a Pro Bowler, people look back on those. I'm happy that I got the Pro Bowl nod and [a chance] to be around all the great players.