JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Ace Sanders received a resounding ovation during Jacksonville’s team meeting Sunday. The receiver got a reality check when he stepped on the football field for the first time in more than a month.
Sanders returned from a 31-day leave of absence Sunday and attended practice for the first time since organized team activities in June. Sander spent much of the two-hour session running and riding a stationary bike, trying to get acclimated to the sweltering heat and humidity.
"I’ve got a lot of work to do to get back, but I feel pretty good for the most part," Sanders said. "I’ve got to get back used to the weather."
Sanders announced July 22 he was taking a leave of absence, seeking treatment and facing a four-game suspension. The next day, the NFL suspended Sanders without pay for the first four games of the season for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy.
Sanders said "personal issues" caused his misstep and was dealing with "a lot of stuff, just with life and family and a lot of issues going on."
"I feel much better," he said Sunday. "Got a lot of stuff worked out I needed to get worked out. Shoot, I just got to keep moving on from this point. … I actually learned a lot just about myself and just life in general. I got a lot of stuff that I can keep in my pocket now."
Coach Gus Bradley said Sanders might play in Thursday night’s preseason finale against Atlanta.
Bradley welcomed Sanders with a huge hug Sunday morning "like I was his son or something," Sanders said. "It always feels good to know that people love you."
"He’s in really good spirits," Bradley said. "He knows he’s not where he needs to be, but he’s better than where he was, so it’s good."
A fourth-round draft pick in 2013, Sanders caught 51 passes for 484 yards and a touchdown as a rookie. The former South Carolina standout had been slated to start opposite Cecil Shorts III, but since Jacksonville drafted receivers Marqise Lee and Allen Robinson in the second round in May and with undrafted rookie Allen Hurns putting together an impressive camp, it’s unclear what role Sanders will have this season.
But Bradley made it clear that Sanders’ roster spot is secure.
"He went (to get help) when he could have practiced," Bradley said. "I mean, to me, what’s that say about him? That it was so important. … We talk about, `Let’s get your world in order,’ and I think for us it was a chance to demonstrate and say, `That’s right, it’s so important to get your life in order. Go do it now.’"
Sanders will miss games against Philadelphia, Washington, Indianapolis and San Diego to open the season. During his suspension, he will be allowed to attend meetings and team functions, but won’t be permitted to practice.
"I’m still able to do everything," Sanders said. "I’ll still be in my team routine coming to meetings, weightlifting with the guys, still learning everything. I just can’t be on the field with them."
Sanders said he was able to work out three or four times a week during his leave of absence, but without any quarterbacks around him, he wasn’t able to catch passes.
That could happen Monday.
"He’s done a good job of trying to stay in shape the best he could," fellow receiver Mike Brown said. "I don’t know what his schedule was like when he was there, but he’s a hardworking guy. If he’s not ready by this Thursday, I’ll be surprised."