Six Pro Bowl stars share the meaning of that initial invitation

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As Chicago Bears defensive end Montez Sweat entered the conference room at Halas Hall, he seemed to know something was up.

Sweat was smirking as he sat next to general manager Ryan Poles at the conference table, which was surrounded by defensive coaches. Head coach Matt Eberflus stood at the front of the room in front of a video screen and told Sweat the staff wanted to help him find ways to rush the passer more effectively.

But it was Jan. 3, and only the season finale remained. A game video played for a few seconds before a picture of Sweat flashed on the screen with the words "Pro Bowl." Sweat leaned back in his chair with a big smile before standing and shaking hands with Poles and hugging Eberflus while the other coaches clapped.

"I was really at a loss for words," Sweat said. "I'm blessed to get my first one.

"It means a lot. Something that every player aspires to get. I've been working a long time to get to this point."

For some players, making the Pro Bowl is nothing new. Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald, for example, who was named to his 10th Pro Bowl (Thursday, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN; Sunday 3 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN).

But then there are guys like Sweat and Baltimore Ravens linebacker Patrick Queen, former first-round picks who are making their first Pro Bowls in their fifth and fourth seasons, respectively. Or New Orleans Saints returner Rashid Shaheed and Jacksonville Jaguars long-snapper Ross Matiscik, who weren't drafted but made it in their second and fourth seasons, respectively. And Miami running back Raheem Mostert, who finally made it in his ninth.

Being a first-time Pro Bowler is something special for each of them. Here are their thoughts on finally getting on the board.

Jaylon Johnson (CB) and Montez Sweat (DE), Chicago Bears

Experience: Johnson 4 seasons, Sweat 5

Key stat for Johnson: According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Johnson held opposing receivers to 5.0 yards per target as the nearest defender in 2023. That was the third-best mark among DBs with at least 50 targets, trailing only the Baltimore Ravens' Kyle Hamilton (4.2) and the Cleveland Browns' Denzel Ward (4.6).

Johnson is a pending free agent, so making the Pro Bowl and All-Pro second team may be good springboards heading into contract talks.

"It is special that God has blessed me with the opportunity and favor to be selected to my first Pro Bowl," Johnson said. "I'm thankful for all of those who have played a role in my success, because when I win, we all win."

The Bears pulled the same reveal prank with Johnson, who was just as suspicious as Sweat.

"I knew something was fishy," Johnson said. "They tried to call me in for an exit interview early and Flus was talking about watching games and going over game film and going over the game plan.

"I'm like, it's too late in the year for us to try and do different things. I knew something was up."

Key stat for Sweat: He is the only player since 1982, when sacks became official stats, to lead two teams in sacks in the same season. He had 6.5 with the Washington Commanders before being traded on Oct. 31, and he had 6.0 with the Bears.

Ross Matiscik, Jacksonville Jaguars, long-snapper

Experience: 4 seasons

Key stat: He led all long-snappers with eight special teams tackles (all solos) and also was the only long-snapper to force and recover a fumble in 2023. He has more tackles than any other long-snapper (16) since he entered the league as an undrafted free agent in 2020.

Matiscik, who has never had a bad snap in his career, is the sixth special teams player in franchise history to make the Pro Bowl and the first long-snapper. For a change, he doesn't mind the attention.

"If they're saying your name, it's probably not a good thing," he said. "So it's kind of weird getting the attention. Whenever I switched to long-snapper [from linebacker in college] I kind of knew that I would be giving up the opportunity to hear my name on TV. It's definitely cool to have it be heard in this way.

"I kind of dreamed of being here one day and working towards it, but it's a real feeling that, 'I'm going to go to the Pro Bowl,' like setting up the plans for travel arrangements and my parents' hotel room, and all that kind of stuff's kind of surreal. I think it'll really sink in [and] hit me whenever I get around the players and kind of realize other names that are there with me."

Raheem Mostert, Miami Dolphins, RB

Experience: 9 seasons

Key stat: 1,012 rushing yards and a league-leading 18 rushing touchdowns; 21 overall, tied with the San Francisco 49ers' Christian McCaffrey for most in NFL

Mostert missed 24 games in 2020 and 2021 because of knee and ankle injuries, but when he was sitting at a friend's house on Thanksgiving 2022, he made a prediction that he wasn't completely sure he believed.

Even though he wasn't under contract with an NFL team beyond the 2022 season and was going to turn 31 in the spring, Mostert said he was going to make the Pro Bowl for the first time in his career in 2023.

"I had just come back from a knee surgery and I really wasn't confident all that much in myself," he said on his "Relentlessly Motivated" podcast. "I mean, I was confident in my abilities, but I wasn't confident in the fact that I was still dealing with the knee injury, the knee surgery, the procedure -- everything that goes with it.

"And, so, I took upon myself that I'm just going to go ahead and set these goals that are achievable, being a Pro Bowler and doing everything that I possibly can to help the team win and put numbers up on the board and score touchdowns. That was my goal last year, and I was coming into this year with that attitude."

Check, check and check.

Mostert had 1,187 yards from scrimmage to help the Dolphins reach the playoffs for the second consecutive season.

Mostert hitting his stride at 31, when most running backs are in the final stage of their career, is something he doesn't take lightly.

"I'm always going to be the underdog," he said. "That's OK. If you're an underdog out there, embrace it. Don't listen to what everybody else says. You set your own standard.

"That's one thing that I truly believe in. I was able to set my own standard this year."

Patrick Queen, Baltimore Ravens, LB

Experience: 4 seasons

Key stat: Queen's 133 tackles in 2023 were a career high, and he produced 18 pressures. Since entering the NFL in 2020, Queen is one of three players with at least 400 tackles and 50 pressures in that time, alongside the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Devin White and the Saints' Demario Davis.

Queen said it took a couple of days for him to come down from the high of learning he had made his first Pro Bowl, because he was so honored that his peers believe he's one of the best players in the league.

Queen, whom the Ravens drafted 28th overall in 2020, posted a career-high 133 tackles and had six pass breakups, an interception, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery for a Ravens defense that held opponents to a league-low 16.5 points per game.

"It was just like, mind-blowing, honestly," Queen said on the Ravens "The Lounge" podcast. "It's not like accolades, like a trophy or something. It's more that people around me notice. People from other teams, coaches from other teams, fans notice what I'm doing.

"That's the biggest part of it."

Rashid Shaheed, New Orleans Saints, WR/returner

Experience: 2 seasons

Key stat: Shaheed was one of four players -- and the only one in the NFC -- with 300-plus punt return yards (339) and 300-plus kick return yards (384).

As an undrafted free agent from Weber State, Shaheed's main focus in 2022 was finding a way to make the roster. He never even thought about the Pro Bowl.

Hearing his name called as a Pro Bowl return specialist in just his second year was almost overwhelming, especially when he thought about how far he's come so quickly.

"I appreciate everybody who voted, everybody who reached out, just tons of love from family to friends to teammates," he said. "I couldn't ask for anything more."

As a rookie, Shaheed was the Saints' primary punt and kick returner and caught 28 passes for 488 yards and two touchdowns. This season, he was third in the NFL in punt return average (13.6) and had a 76-yard return for a touchdown and averaged 21.3 yards per kickoff return.

He also caught 46 passes for 719 yards and five touchdowns.

"It's been a crazy journey and a journey that I wouldn't change at all," Shaheed said. "From coming in injured and all the trials and tribulations that I went through, I'm just thankful to be at this point that I'm at right now. I never really dreamed that I'd be here."