TAMPA, Fla. (AP) The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are embracing heightened expectations created by the team's first winning record in six years.
Veterans reported for the start of training camp on Thursday confident the Bucs not only have what it takes to end a decade of non-playoff seasons but also challenge for supremacy in the NFC South. The division has seen its last two champions wind up in the Super Bowl.
''Hopefully, it's our turn, but it's not that simple,'' receiver Mike Evans said, reflecting on the recent success of the Atlanta Falcons and Carolina Panthers.
''I see why there's a lot of excitement. We have a really good team, a really good roster,'' the fourth-year pro added, looking ahead to the first practice on Friday. ''Hopefully we all stay healthy, put in the work and reach our goal of getting in the playoffs. Then in the tournament, anything can happen.''
The Bucs haven't made the playoffs since 2007, but are coming off a 9-7 finish that bolsters the belief the franchise is finally headed in the right direction with Jameis Winston at quarterback and Dirk Koetter entering his second year as coach.
Evans has established himself as one of the NFL's top young receivers with 238 catches for 3,578 yards and 27 touchdowns over his first three seasons in the NFL. The seventh pick of the 2014 draft was well aware the Bucs have not appeared in the playoffs for quite some time, but had no idea until Thursday it's been 10 years.
''Hopefully we can break that,'' said Evans, who mistakenly thought Tampa Bay earned a berth in 2010 with a 10-6 record.
''We've got a lot to prove,'' the receiver added. ''We're good on paper, but we've got to do it.''
Evans was a first-time Pro Bowl selection last season, when he had 96 receptions for 1,321 yards and 12 TDs.
He expects the Winston-led offense to be even better after Koetter and general manager Jason Licht signed speedy receiver DeSean Jackson in free agency and drafted tight end O.J. Howard and another potential deep threat, Chris Godwin.
''This is the best talent we've had since I've been here, by far,'' Evans said. ''I'm excited. We're all excited.''
The continued development of third-year linebacker Kwon Alexander is one of the reasons the Bucs are also excited about the prospect for improvement on defense. Alexander was the leading tackler on a unit that rebounded from a slow start to help Tampa Bay remain in playoff contention until the final week of last season.
''We just all have to come together,'' Alexander said. ''We aren't worrying about what everybody else thinks right now. If we come together, as a team and as a family, we can do a lot of big things. That's all we are worrying about right now.''
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