Jaguars on bubble get one last chance to showcase skills

Tight end is one of the positions of question as the Jaguars enter their preseason finale Thursday.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Cecil Shorts III knows it wasn't long ago when he faced a situation with the Jacksonville Jaguars similar to the one which players such as Brett Brackett and Allen Reisner find themselves in now.

Fifty-five catches for 979 yards later, the memory of Shorts having to battle for a roster spot after being a fourth-round draft pick in 2011 seems to have faded. But he can vouch for how heavily the air of uncertainty hangs over anyone perceived as being on the bubble.

"It's nerve-wracking," Shorts said. "But you've got to control what you can control, and that's your play. The biggest thing for me was I busted my butt every down, every play in practice last year because I was fighting for my life. And as long as the guys continue to prove themselves that way, they're going to be fine."

That includes Brackett and Reisner, two tight ends who have benefitted from the unavailability of Marcedes Lewis in the Jaguars' two most recent preseason games because of a calf injury. Brackett, who was claimed off waivers from the Philadelphia Eagles last Sept. 1 but suffered a season-ending knee injury in practice two days later, caught four passes against his former team last Saturday night. Reisner, who spent the majority of the past two seasons on the active roster or practice squad of the Minnesota Vikings, is the only Jaguar with more than one touchdown this preseason.

Don't try telling either one of them, or anyone else on the current 75-man roster mindful of the NFL-imposed cutdown deadline of 53 this Saturday, that Thursday night's game at Atlanta is largely meaningless.

"I wouldn't consider it make-or-break for anybody. But it's definitely not a game that doesn't mean anything," Brackett said. "Every time you get the opportunity to put the pads on and compete against somebody is a great opportunity. For some guys that don't really have a solidified roster spot yet, this might be (a better) opportunity than for some other guys."

"It's just another opportunity to showcase my talents," said Reisner, who caught an 8-yard scoring pass from Chad Henne against the Eagles a week after gathering in a 5-yard toss from Blaine Gabbert against the New York Jets. "Hopefully it'll make the decision easier for them to keep me here."

When training camp began July 26, fourth-year pro Isaiah Stanback was regarded as the tight end most likely to get repetitions in place of or alongside Lewis. Later on, rookie free agent Ryan Otten had a few standout moments in practice. But it was Reisner whom coach Gus Bradley called upon after Lewis got hurt in pregame warm-ups before the second preseason game and whose touchdown catch capped an impressive-looking and much-needed 80-yard opening drive.

"It just so happened to be that way, and I just rolled with the punches and kept going," Reisner said. "I got a lot of plays, a lot of snaps these past few weeks, and it's been good."

Among the items that offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch has introduced since coming to the Jaguars is a personnel grouping consisting of two tight ends, two receivers and one running back. Even if it's determined that they have at least one reliable backup behind Lewis, carrying five tight ends into the regular season would appear to be far beyond the realm of possibility.

"I think if you look back," Brackett said, "we've had a good balance of having formations where we have three wide receivers, formations where we have one tight end and two backs, and formations where we've had two tight ends. So I don't really think we've been too heavy in one department."

Both Reisner and Brackett have also been used on occasion with various special teams units. Although there are few starting jobs on offense or defense up for grabs, Bradley remains concerned with finding players who can provide added value, particularly in the area of kick coverage.

The Jaguars gave up a 61-yard kickoff return and a 39-yard punt return to Damaris Johnson of the Eagles a week ago and are ranked 28th among 32 teams in averaging starting position by their opponents.

"That's the strongest competition that we have amongst our team right now – who's going to get those five spots or four spots," Bradley said.

While second-year pro Mike Brewster will start at left guard against the Falcons in place of the injured Will Rackley, the lack of depth along the offensive line has been noticeable as the Jaguars have been outscored 34-0 in the fourth quarters of their three games. Rackley is favoring his left ankle after being helped off the field in the first quarter against the Eagles, but Bradley said the former third-round pick who missed all of last season with an ankle injury has a chance to be back for the opener Sept. 8 against the Kansas City Chiefs.

Shorts and rookies Luke Joeckel and Johnathan Cyprien could see more action against the Falcons than most of the expected starters because of time they missed earlier this month due to injuries. Shorts' starting spot is secure, but the Jaguars are facing four games without suspended wide receiver Justin Blackmon. Rookie Ace Sanders and veteran holdovers Mike Brown and Jordan Shipley appear certain to stick, making Thursday night crucial for Toney Clemons, Jeremy Ebert, Tobais Palmer and Charly Martin.

"Whoever fills that role, or if it's a committee that fills that role, they'll be ready to go," Shorts said. "I'm confident in all those guys."

You can follow Ken Hornack on Twitter @HornackFSFla or email him at khornack32176@gmail.com.