We know how the Pro Bowl is played – with flash and dash and a smile in the spirit of fun competition. The game itself, played on the Sunday in front of us, is an exhibition game for the best players in the NFL and should be taken as such. The value of being there for a player like defensive end Josh Sweat and for defensive tackle Javon Hargrave, is an intangible that can have a meaningful, lasting impact.
For players like Sweat and Hargrave and placekicker Jake Elliott, all first-timers to the Pro Bowl, the experience of being around the best of the best for a week in Las Vegas is both a social benefit and a confidence lift. Sweat, finishing the fourth season of his career, gains affirmation that he belongs among the elite, and so when he leaves Vegas for the remainder of his offseason, Sweat has a better understanding of the standard of excellence in the league. Elliott is the steely nerved one and he has supreme confidence and there is no question he's enjoyed his time with the NFL's all-stars. Hargrave, the same.
"It feels great to be around some of the best in the world," Hargrave said. "This is my dream. My dream was to go to the NFL and play and make it to the Pro Bowl, so it's been a great feeling. I'm here to enjoy it. It's a rare experience so I'm out here having fun at practice, fun with the players, and just enjoying this moment because this is a rare moment.
"Every moment for me has been great. I wake up and smile just walking around. I'm happy and grateful for it."
And the goal will be, now that they've had a taste of it, now that they've had a chance to hang with the league's top players, to understand what it takes to reach this level regularly.
"That's what it feels like to me," defensive end Brandon Graham said last year after being named to the first Pro Bowl in his career. He appreciated the moment, even though the experience was muted because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the game was canceled. "To be named to the team, it was validation, and it was something important to me individually, but more than that it made me want it even more in the future."
The Eagles had five players named to the Pro Bowl – including center Jason Kelce, who did not make the trip to Las Vegas – and that's an indication of the high level of talent on this roster. The Pro Bowl voting isn't an exact science and it is entirely worth wondering why offensive tackles Lane Johnson and Jordan Mailata didn't make it. The Pro Bowl isn't about the game. It's about the experience. It's about the fans who swarm the practices. It's about the interaction among the players.
There is validation for those who made it every step of the way.
"I know that I've got a lot more in me," Sweat said during a season in which he had a career-high in quarterback sacks (7.5). "I'm making progress, but I'm not there yet. It's gonna happen, so I'm going to keep working hard and good things are going to come from that hard work."
Good things have come for Sweat. He has been in Las Vegas for the week preparing, picking the brains of other defensive linemen in the league and feeling like he belongs. His offseason will take on a different tone because of the experience.
Look, the Eagles would rather be celebrating the fourth anniversary of their Super Bowl LII victory by preparing for next Sunday's Super Bowl, but that's not the case. The personnel staff and some coaches spent most of the week in Mobile, Alabama, at the Senior Bowl. The rest of the players are scattered around the country recovering from a long and physical season. Soon, they'll all be together again at the NovaCare Complex, but before that time, there is business to conduct with free agency and the NFL Draft. The Pro Bowl experience is, as Hargrave said, a dream for many players. It is a signature moment in time, especially for the first-timers like Hargrave, Sweat, and Elliott. And it gives them something to shoot for – something they know they can attain because they've done it before – in the future.
"Shoot, I want to make the Pro Bowl every year. It means a lot to me," said cornerback Darius Slay during the season before being named to his fourth Pro Bowl and first as an Eagle in 2021. "Being recognized as one of the best cornerbacks in the game, yeah, it's special. I don't know who wouldn't want that kind of recognition."