All-Pros-All-Pros PreviewNFC tight end Austin Hooper, of the Atlanta Falcons, laughs as he runs a route during a practice for the NFL Pro Bowl football game Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2020, in Kissimmee, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) -- Pittsburgh’s Cameron Heyward jogged through the end zone, stretched out his right arm and made a one-handed catch to start Pro Bowl practice Wednesday.
Not bad for a defensive lineman.
And no one should be surprised to see Heyward do it again in the NFL’s all-star game Sunday.
The annual event looked a lot like a backyard pickup game last year, with trick plays and position swaps being more prevalent than deep balls and defensive indifference.
“It’s definitely more than just a game,” Tennessee defensive tackle Jurrell Casey said. “We work hard all year long, beating each other down, so to come out and switch positions for one or two plays, I don’t think it hurts nobody.
“A lot of guys, they played a different position back in the day, so let them come out and mess around with that a little bit.”
Casey already put in his request, asking Baltimore coach John Harbaugh if he can get a goal-line carry.
“I used to play a little running back,” said the 6-foot-1, 305-pound Casey. “He said he’s going to try, but he doesn’t’ want to mess up the system too much. I’m going to keep on trying to feed him all week. They’ve got to let me touch the ball at least once.”
It wouldn’t be a shock considering what happened last year in Orlando.
Jacksonville cornerback Jalen Ramsey caught a touchdown pass in the closing seconds of the AFC’s 26-7 victory. Tampa Bay receiver Mike Evans had a pass breakup and an interception on consecutive defensive snaps.
Minnesota receiver Adam Thielen threw an interception on a trick play. A trio of running backs - New York’s Saquon Barkley, Dallas’ Ezekiel Elliott and New Orleans’ Alvin Kamara - rushed the passer on third-down plays.
Elliott also lined up as an up-back in punt formation on a fourth-and-13 play and gained 22, his longest run of the game.
“It was just spur of the moment,” Elliott said. “It makes it more fun. Fun for the players, fun for the fans. It’s nice to be a little different.”
It might just be the evolution - some might call it devolution - of the exhibition game that’s become less and less intense over the years. There’s little, if any, tackling and barely any contact along the lines of scrimmage. It often looks more like a walk-through than a workout - two-hand touch at the most.
“It’s supposed to be about fun,” Atlanta tight end Austin Hooper said. “That’s the whole reason the NFL says do this – for it to be fun. So why not switch up positions a little bit, give the fans something to be excited about and shake things up?
“At the end of the day, this is all a celebration. If you’re Mike (Evans), who played DB in high school, and you want to play a little bit in the NFL all-star game, go for it. If you’re Jalen Ramsey and you played receiver in high school and you want to play a little in the all-star game, have at it.
“There are a lot of cool, fun wrinkles in this game and that’s what makes it special.”
Not everyone is down to clown around, especially since players on the winning team get double the payout - $70,000 instead of $35,000.
“Everybody has dreams of playing another position," Jacksonville defensive end Calais Campbell said. “When you have those dreams, you have to really pull on the coach’s shoulder. But when the game’s on the line, though, we want to win. No playing around if you can’t deliver.”
Denver linebacker Von Miller, though, enjoyed the frolicking last year and hopes for a bigger role Sunday.
“This might be my year," Miller said. "You never know. I’m right here, I’m ready to go whenever they need me. Fans come out here to see their favorite players play football, and seeing them in a different light, that’s great.”
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