Sizing up the Jaguars Wide Receivers

Henne to Shorts TC

by Cole Pepper
August 1, 2013

Chad Owens. Cortez Hankton. Matt Jones. Tiquan Underwood. Jarrett Dillard.

They are among a long and illustrious group of receivers that have stood out in Jaguars training camps past. For a variety of reasons, none of them ever lived up to the hype. Judging receivers in early August is a tricky thing. Once the pads go on, some receivers aren’t a brave going over the middle. Some look good against second and third team defenses, but can’t get separation against NFL starters. Some just can’t be consistent.

With that disclaimer as a cautionary tale serving as a backdrop, it’s time to assess the Jaguars receivers.The assumption is that the Jaguars will keep either five or six receivers, plus Justin Blackmon, who won’t be able to play until week five under league suspension. Who leads the race for roster spots so far?

Lock to make the team: Cecil Shorts, Justin Blackmon

Shorts Close up catch TC
Cecil Shorts has not only been the best receiver in camp, he’s been the best player for the Jaguars so far. (photo by Bobby King)

Shorts finally looked human on Thursday, losing a fumble after a catch when he fumbled leading to a Chris Prosinski recovery and return. He also had a pass from Chad Henne go through his hands, leading to an interception by Ball. After practice, Shorts was fuming at the mistakes he made.

Gus Bradley wasn’t too worried about the performance saying that he believes that “everybody has their [bad] day in training camp. That’s going to happen. Cecil plays with great pride and that’s a great lesson.”

Still, Shorts has clearly improved physically since his breakout season last year and the coaches continue to applaud his competitiveness. Blackmon has yet to practice as he recovers from groin surgery and he will sit out the first four games of the regular season under league suspension. He has been active and involved in practice and Thursday, he worked on the side catching a few passes, although he wasn’t in pads.

Nearly a lock: Ace Sanders

When the rookie was drafted in the 4th round this year, most thought his biggest contribution would be as a punt returner. However, Sander has looked very good as a receiver, especially in the slot. Sanders attributes the doubts in his game to his size (5’7″ 178 pounds). Sanders has been productive in practice, which is one of wide receivers coach Jerry Sullivan’s main points of emphasis for the receivers. “Not just him, everybody,” Sanders said. “If you come out and make plays everyday, they’re going to notice it.”

Rookie Ace Sanders has shown surprising hands and has been one of the best performers in Jaguars camp. (photo by Bobby King)
Rookie Ace Sanders has shown surprising hands and has been one of the best performers in Jaguars camp. (photo by Bobby King)

I had not seen Sanders drop a pass this year, so I asked him about it.

“I think I might have dropped one in individual [drills], being a little sluggish,” admitted Sanders. “Pretty much, I’m just trying to catch everything they throw at me.”

As it stands now, Sanders looks like the #1 option in the slot, but remember, they have only practiced in pads for two days and NFL defensive backs are bigger and stronger than those Sanders saw in the SEC.

Looking good so far, but more to prove: Mike Brown, Jordan Shipley

Mike Brown is close to being in the “Nearly a lock” category. Gus Bradley mentioned Shorts, Sanders and Brown when I asked him about the receiver Thursday. Brown was raw when he arrived in Jacksonville last year. He spent most of the year on the practice squad before being activated for the final two games. He played quarterback at Liberty, so he’s still making the transition to receiver.

“I think Mike has grown up a lot and established himself as a guy who can help our team,” Sullivan said. “He was raw. When you make a position switch its tougher. There’s a lot of learning. He’s an intelligent guy and an intelligent football player. It’s something that’s important to him.”

Shipley finished the year as the slot receiver for the Jaguars and although he hasn’t flashes as much as Shorts, Sanders or Brown, he has been steady. One factor playing against Shipley is that new offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch is looking for explosive play makers who can be used in a variety of ways. Shipley isn’t that. He’s a possession receiver in the slot.

Needs to show something: Mohamed Massaquoi, Toney Clemons, Tobais Palmer

Massaquoi began came as the starter in place of Justin Blackmon, but he hasn’t been productive enough to keep that spot. Because he’s a veteran, it makes sense to wait to see how he performs in the scrimmage Saturday night and the pre-season games, but so far, he has slipped behind Brown and Sanders in the pecking order.

Clemons caught three balls in four games last year for the Jaguars and he has the ability to get deep and go up for the ball. At 6’2″ he and Massaquoi are the tallest Jaguars receivers.

“It’s an opportunity to put some stuff on tape that I can be proud of,” Clemons said of the competition. “Every time you’re called upon to make a play, I hold myself to a standard to make that play. It’s all about production and consistency.”

Tobais Palmer open some eyes in mini-camp and OTAs. The rookie from North Carolina State has been working mostly with the 2s and 3s, so he’ll have to make the most of his snaps when the lights are on.

A long way to go: Jeremy Ebert, Jamal Miles, Cole McKenzie, Taylor Price (injured)

Ebert is a candidate to play the slot, although he missed some time early in camp after hitting his head on the ground making a catch. He’s a low-to-the ground type who spent time on New England’s practice squad and looks like the army of shorter wide receivers that the Patriots seem to amass every year.

Miles has a chance to make the roster if he can excel on kick returns. He holds the Arizona State record for kick return yards. Denard Robinson figures to be the first choice returning kicks, but Miles could make his mark on special teams, always a great way to earn a spot at the bottom of the roster.

McKenzie was a workout player this off-season and the Jaguars decided to bring him back for camp. He has a big step to take from NAIA Southern Oregon. Taylor price has been recovering from foot surgery. He got out of his walking boot this week.

The State of the Jaguars Offense

Gabbert Mojo Kafka Forsett

by Cole Pepper

With the Jaguars getting a day off tomorrow from training camp, I thought this would be a good time to give a state of the union review, of sorts, of the Jaguars offense.

Let’s start at quarterback. It certainly appears that Gus Bradley is giving Chad Henne the opportunity to compete. Blaine Gabbert is getting the first reps with the first team, but he and Henne have basically split the snaps with the one’s during camp. Henne has been steadier, but Gabbert, when on, has been better. However, when he has been off, Gabbert has been much worse than Henne. The challenge for offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch is to increase the frequency of Gabbert’s peaks and eliminate (or at least reduce) the valleys. Gabbert left Monday’s practice after getting tangled up on a pass play in 11-on-11 and was taken from the practice fields on a cart. He says he’s good to go, however, and he’ll have a day off Tuesday with the rest of the team to heal up.

Undrafted rookie free agent Cole McKenzie (85) makes an acrobatic lunging catch at training camp on Monday.
Undrafted rookie free agent Cole McKenzie (85) makes an acrobatic lunging catch at training camp on Monday.

It’s clear that Cecil Shorts is the star of camp. When he’s not on the field, the passing game just isn’t as good. However, a few receivers have flashed here and there. Mike Brown was singled out by Gus Bradley on Monday for his performance in this camp. Rookie Ace Sanders has shown that he has the ability to be a contributor at wide receiver. So far, Mohamed Massaquoi hasn’t been as much of a factor and Jordan Shipley has been just okay. One intriguing guy to watch is undrafted rookie Cole McKenzie, who put up huge numbers at Southern Oregon, an NAIA school, and who has made a couple of dazzling catches in camp.

The running back position has plenty of storylines. Maurice Jones-Drew is being eased back in. Justin Forsett has received most of the first team snaps, but figures to be the top backup when all is said and done. Of course, Denard Robinson is the most intriguing. Robinson has struggled with ball security, but was used in the wildcat formation on Monday, both running and throwing the ball. Anyone who has dreams of Robinson as the Jaguars quarterback can forget them, but it’s clear that Fisch is tweaking the package to see how Robinson can best be utilized. Bradley called it an ongoing process Monday.

RELATED: Jaguars Training Camp Photo Gallery

Joeckel blocking drill
First round pick Luke Joeckel works on his technique at Jaguars training camp. Joeckel has been quiet and steady at right tackle thus far.

The offensive line is difficult to judge so far, since the Jaguars haven’t been in full pads yet. Eugene Monroe looks very good and rookie first round pick Luke Joeckel hasn’t disappointed. Then again, neither tackle has worked much against the Jaguars best pass rusher Jason Babin, who has been limited so far in camp. So far, Will Rackley, Brad Meester and Uche Nwaneri have taken the bulk of snaps on the interior line. When Meester was given a rest, Mike Brewster spend some time with the first team at center.

Taken as a whole, the Jaguars offense has not been as impressive as the defense so far. There is a long way to go but it appears that the keys to the Jaguars offense this year will again be the pass protection and the quarterback play.

Jaguars Focus: The Best Guy Out There

Training camp legs

by Cole Pepper

The Jaguars quarterbacks, Denard Robinson and Maurice Jones-Drew may be getting the most attention at training camp, but through three days, one player has emerged as the most dominant on the field: third year wide receiver Cecil Shorts.

Shorts enjoyed a breakout season last year, when he caught 55 passes for 979 yards. He would certainly reach 1,000 yards if it were not for two games missed due to concussions. This year, Shorts is bigger and better than ever.

“I hop on the scale and it just says solid. No weight, just solid,” jokes Shorts who says he’s put on seven or eight pounds of muscle and says he feels faster than ever.

In camp so far, he has been tough to handle for any defensive back, but Shorts isn’t too impressed yet.

“I got a long way to go,” Shorts said. “When the ball comes my way, I have to keep making plays.”

This is a different kind of pre-season for Shorts. As a rookie from Mt. Union, little was expected of Shorts. Despite a strong training camp, he caught just two passes as a rookie. Some prematurely labeled him as a bust. Last year, he wasn’t expected to start, but his performance coupled with nagging injuries for Laurent Robinson and a delayed start to camp for Justin Blackmon gave shorts the opportunity to shine. He took full advantage.

Now, even though he’s just in his third season and is only 25 years old, some rookies have begun looking to him for advice.

“I get a lot of questions. Ace (Sander) is hungry. He wants to be good. He’s playing very well right now. Tobais (Palmer). They all ask a lot of questions,” said Shorts. “I try to lead by example. I’m not a hoorah-guy or a Ray Lewis-type of vocal guy. I just come out and work my hardest.”

Several times this week, Gus Bradley has marveled at Shorts’ approach, noting his competitiveness. That’s a trait that Bradley, a former defensive coordinator, values, but is not always easy to see in wide receivers.

Where does Shorts go from here? He continues to work with wide receiver Jerry Sullivan on refining his craft.

“Coach is big on ‘how you do small things is how you do all things.’ Little stuff like coming off the line, being careful where I push off, that sort of thing.”

Top 10 Questions for Jaguars

Gus Bradley smiling
Will this man still be smiling at the end of the 2013 season?

by Cole Pepper

With training camp right around the corner the main theme with the Jaguars is new.  As in, new coach, new GM, new schemes on offense and defense, new uniforms, helmets and logos.

While much is new, one thing that is not is that the Jaguars must find a way to return to playoff contention. They haven’t played a post-season game since 2007 and haven’t hosted a playoff game in 14 years.

With camp about to open, here are the top 10 questions facing the Jaguars:

  1. The Quarterback-It’s a question that has been asked by the Jaguars since Mark Brunell’s last year. Some years, they knew who the quarterback would be, but not if he was THE guy. Heading into 2013, Blaine Gabbert has the inside position, but is certainly no lock for the starting job. This season will either be the first of Gabbert’s reign as THE guy, or the last before the Jaguars draft THE guy (or at least, the guy they hope will be THE guy).
  2. Pass Rush-The Jaguars have lacked a consistent pass rusher since Tony Brackens’ retirement. Can Jason Babin be a double digit sack man for the Jaguars? Can they develop a pass rush from other sides of the line. Gus Bradley wasn’t a big proponent of the blitz in Seattle. It comes down to the Jaguars getting pressure with the front four.
  3. Gus Bradley’s impact on approach-Bradley’s energy and enthusiasm are obvious. Will that translate into results? Also, how will Bradley’s positive vibe hold up if the Jaguars struggle early (a possibility with four of the first six games on the road)? My guess is that it will still be there, because Bradley isn’t faking the positive attitude, but he’s never lost a game as a head coach, and things can change when you are in the big chair.
  4. Will Justin Blackmon’s suspension hurt the offense? This is almost a given that it will, in some way. Cecil Shorts will see more double teams as Blackmon misses the first four games of the season for violating the league’s policy on controlled substances. Part two of this question is whether the suspension will affect Blackmon’s game when he comes back. Year two is usually an important one for highly regarded young receivers.
  5. Is Luke Joeckel for real? All indications are that he is, but we haven’t seen him against NFL defenses in pads. There will be a spotlight on Joeckel for each of his preseason games. But when the regular season begins, we’ll be able to judge where he is as a rookie.
  6. Can Denard Robinson and/or Ace Sanders make a difference? If I was pinned down, I would bet that Robinson would have more “WOW” plays, but that Sanders would make more plays. Still, Robinson has the kind of speed and obvious athletic ability to make jaw dropping plays, if he stays healthy. He’ll also be learning a new position and new responsibilities like pass protection and catching the football.
  7. Will Maurice Jones-Drew return to form after foot surgery? Eventually, I think the answer will be yes, but since Jones-Drew didn’t participate in team drills during the off-season, it’s tough to predict that he won’t have any rust as the preseason begins.
  8. Can Marcedes Lewis be a factor in the passing game again? Part of this equation is Luke Joeckel. Lewis was the de facto second right tackle last year. If Joeckel lives up to expectations, Lewis should absolutely be a bigger factor. If the pass protection is better, and if the Jaguars quarterback (whoever that is) plays better, Lewis can still be a valuable weapon, especially down the seam and in the red zone.
  9. Is Cecil Shorts for real? I think the answer to this is yes, but we’ll certainly have a good litmus test in the first four games when Justin Blackmon is serving his suspension. Shorts has the kind of attitude that will fit perfectly with Gus Bradley’s “get better every day” credo. As a former quarterback, Shorts has made learning the wide receiver position a central tenant of his approach to the game. Perhaps the better question here is not whether Shorts is for real, but how good will he be?
  10. What will it take for this season to be a success? Ask 100 people, you might get 100 answers to this question. Is it a matter of the win/loss record? What about just showing improvement? Or figuring out whether Gabbert is the quarterback to take your team to the post-season in the future.  I asked someone this question the other day and they said 6-10 would be a success. My follow up was “so winning three more games than the previous year isn’t a success?” He scratched his head and then admitted that it would be. What about 4 wins? 3 wins? Tough to call those a success, unless that allows you to draft your quarterback of the future in the first round.

These questions won’t be fully answered when training camp begins, but we will get the first hints of the answers very soon.

Jaguars Off-Season Analysis: Wide Receivers

Cecil Shorts

by Cole Pepper

Of all of the Jaguars position groups, perhaps none has a higher ceiling and lower floor of potential than the wide receivers.

At their best, the Jaguars young wide receiving tandem of Cecil Shorts (above) and Justin Blackmon evoke memories of Jimmy Smith and Keenan McCardell. Shorts, who scored five touchdowns of 40 yards or longer and averaged 17.8 yards per catch, second best in the NFL.

Blackmon, meanwhile, came on late in the year. He caught at least five passes in six of the last nine games of the year, including a massive 7 catch, 236 yard game at Houston. Shorts is entering his third season in the NFL, Blackmon his second. You can see the potential.

Then again, Shorts sustained two concussions, including one that ended his season on Christmas Eve, keeping him from a shot at a 1,000 yard season. Blackmon will miss the first four games of the year after violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy and he’s yet to prove that he can make mature decisions off of the field.

It’s a classic NFL story of not really knowing what you have.

Best case scenario? Shorts continues to make big plays down the field and isn’t slowed by defenses focusing on him and Blackmon returns in week five, motivated and determined to keep his nose clean.

The worst case? Shorts goes the way of Laurent Robinson, becoming concussion-prone and Blackmon keeps making bad decisions off the field and gets suspended for a year. Then what?

Shorts and Blackmon aren’t the only receivers who could make a difference for the Jaguars, but they may be the only ones capable of being every down pass catchers.. After being picked up in November, Jordan Shipley looked like a guy who can play the slot. He caught 23 passes in six games for the Jaguars last season. If the Jaguars are going to have a dynamic offense, Shipley will likely have to play a supporting role.

Other wide receivers to keep an eye on include free agent acquisition Mohamed Massaquoi. The former Georgia Bulldog has never lived up to his draft status (he was a second round pick by the Browns in 2009) but a new team and different expectations may be just what he needs to resurrect his career. Toney Clemons, who showed some flashes at the end of last season. He’s a big receiver at 6’2″ and 210 pounds. It will be interesting to see how much rookie Ace Sanders is used at wide receiver. He will clearly be given the chance to return punts and my feeling is that the Jaguars coaches hope that they don’t have to rush him into service at wide out, at least not early in the season.

Defining Success: For starters, staying healthy. Second, for Blackmon to avoid more off the field problems. Third, for someone, Shipley, Massaquoi, Taylor Price, Ace Sanders…someone, to emerge as a true third option. Denard Robinson may also be looped into this conversation if he is used out of the backfield as an X-factor. Perhaps the best barometer for success for this group is to play well enough that, when evaluating the Jaguars quarterback, coaches and personnel guys won’t be tempted to use wide receiver play as an excuse for QB play.

Projected Wide Receiver Depth Chart:WR Depth Chart

*-will sit out first four games of the 2013 regulars season under league suspension