Pro Bowl invitations are a common measurement of a player's career in the NFL. Get your first one and you're a rising star. Get three or four and you're established as one of the best in the game at your position. Get seven or eight and there's a good chance you'll end up in the Hall of Fame.
There are more exclusive honors than the Pro Bowl, however, most notably the Associated Press All-Pro First Team. Last year, 2,020 people played at least one game during the NFL season. Of those, 22, or almost exactly 1 percent, were named AP First-Team All-Pros.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have had various players named First-Team All-Pros throughout their first 43 seasons, most recently Doug Martin in 2015. In all, 11 players have combined to earn that prestigious honor a total of 24 times. Derrick Brooks leads the way with five first-team selections.
Seven of those 11 players were either defensive linemen or linebackers, so there are obviously some positions at which the Buccaneers have never had an AP First-Team All-Pro. Other than Martin, fullback Mike Alstott (three times) is the only other offensive player on the list. That means that, among a few other positions, the Bucs have never had an AP First-Team All-Pro wide receiver. That could change in 2019.
All this week, we're taking a look at milestones the Buccaneers as a team or individual Buccaneer players could accomplish for the first time in franchise history in 2019. On Monday, we noted the possibility of the team's first-ever regular-season win outside of the United States. Today, we're looking at one particular player's chance achieving a franchise first.
POTENTIAL BUCCANEER FIRST: A FIRST-TEAM ASSOCIATED PRESS ALL-PRO WIDE RECEIVER
To be clear, the Associated Press is not the only organization that hands out All-Pro awards at the end of each NFL season. Others that do so or have done so in the past include the Pro Football Writers of America, Football Digest, The Sporting News, and so on. If we were to include those, the Bucs' historical list of All Pros would be longer, and there would even be a receiver on that list. Keyshawn Johnson got a first-team nod from Sports Illustrated in 2001.
That said, the AP award is the most prominent of the bunch. It is the one people are referring to when they simply say, "All-Pro." The AP also names a second team every year, and again, including that would lengthen this list. But, again, we are focusing here on only the most exclusive honor available: the AP All-Pro First Team.
Of course, the Buccaneers could conceivably get such an honor for a quarterback, tight end or offensive lineman for the first time, too. The reason we're discussing the possibility of an all-pro wide receiver, specifically, is that is where the team has its most obvious candidate: Mike Evans.
After all, Evans has already been as close as you can get to that honor without quite taking it home. In 2016, Evans was named to the AP's second team, along with Odell Beckham, then of the New York Giants. The two receivers named to the first team that year were Pittsburgh's Antonio Brown and Atlanta's Julio Jones.
Brown and Jones were the top vote-getters by a pretty wide margin, so it's not as if Evans was just one or two ballots away from the first team. That said, at least statistically Evans seemed to have as good of an argument as any of the other three, plus Green Bay's Jordy Nelson, who was fifth in the voting. Here are the receptions, yardage and touchdown totals for each of those five wideouts in 2016, presented alphabetically:
· Odell Beckham: 101-1,367-10
· Antonio Brown: 106-1,284-12
· Mike Evans: 96-1,321-12
· Julio Jones: 83-1,409-6
· Jordy Nelson: 97-1,257-14
Evans and Beckham were only in their third NFL seasons in 2016, and it's fair to expect more established stars like Brown and Jones to attract the voters' attention. Since then, however, Evans has put together two more strong seasons, including his second Pro Bowl campaign last year. He set a career high and established a new single-season record with 1,524 yards last season, in the process joining Randy Moss and A.J. Green as the only players in NFL history to begin their careers with five straight 1,000-yard receiving campaigns.
Evans ranked third in the NFL in receiving yards in 2019, behind Jones and Houston's DeAndre Hopkins and was first in yards per catch (17.7) among all players with at least 50 grabs. In fact, he and Kansas City's Tyreek Evans became just the 15th and 16th players in league history to average more than 17 yards per catch in a season with at least 80 receptions.
Evans didn't get any closer to first-team recognition last year, though perhaps he should have. After just five players received votes in 2016, the ballots were more spread out this past season, with nine different receivers getting at least one mention. Evans was in that group, with a single vote.
The good news for the Buccaneers, and for Evans' hopes of finally getting that exclusive AP honor, is that he is in the absolute prime of his career. Evans won't even turn 26 until well into this year's training camp, and he's coming off perhaps his best season. He has rightfully gained in confidence every year, and he's got a quarterback, Jameis Winston, with whom he's developed an incredible rapport. The Buccaneers will have a new offense in 2019 after leading the league in passing yards last season, but Bruce Arians' approach is at least as aggressive as Dirk Koetter and his staff. Larry Fitzgerald consistently put up big numbers in a late-career renaissance in Arians' offense; Evans should be in position to thrive even more.
The difference for Evans may come in the painted grass. The closest he came to first-team honors was that 2016 season in which he matched a career high with 12 touchdowns. Since then, he's had 13 in the next two seasons combined. The Buccaneers have no shortage of red zone threats; Evans is one of the main ones, but so are tight ends Cameron Brate and O.J. Howard and wide receiver Chris Godwin. Targets in the red zone will likely still be spread around; Evans' chances of upping his touchdown total may rely on scoring from long distance more often. And, again, Arians likes to take the deep shot, and also believes his coaching staff can help Winston be more accurate on such passes.
Of course, the biggest obstacles for Evans are the same ones that have been in the way for his entire career – established stars like Brown, Jones, Hopkins and Beckham. Perhaps new homes for Brown and Beckham – Oakland and Cleveland, respectively – will lead to differences in their usual numbers in 2019, creating more of an opportunity for the younger players. And, Evans is likely to get more votes with essentially the same production if his efforts are part of a winning campaign. There's hope for that, too, with Arians in town.
The Buccaneers drafted Evans with the seventh overall pick in 2014 and he has since accomplished everything the team could have hoped for, and more. In just five years, he's already emerged as the franchise's all-time leader in receiving yards (6,103), touchdown catches (40) and 100-yard games (21). He has more receptions (395) than any other wideout in team annals and should take the career mark away from former running back James Wilder at some point this season. As noted above, he broke the single-season yardage record last year, and he owns the only two seasons in team history with 12 or more touchdown catches. He's been to the Pro Bowl twice and he's earned his share of all-pro votes. Perhaps 2019 will be the year that he also becomes the first Associated Press First-Team All-Pro in Buccaneers history.