JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — The sight of second-year wide receiver Ace Sanders on the practice field might never have been appreciated as much by the Jacksonville Jaguars as it was Thursday.
All the attention being paid to quarterbacks Chad Henne and rookie Blake Bortles at the team’s practice sessions during organized team activities was dialed down somewhat when it became noticeable how many of their receivers couldn’t take part because of injuries. Sanders, Cecil Shorts III and rookies Marqise Lee and Allen Robinson were among seven players at that position sidelined for three consecutive practices.
Both Sanders, who was slowed by a thigh injury, and Mike Brown returned to give Henne and Bortles a couple of familiar targets.
"It was good to get back and help those guys out," said Sanders, a fourth-round draft pick a year ago out of South Carolina. "We had a little bit more fire today."
"It was nice," Henne said. "And I’m sure the other guys were happy to get a little break out there."
The Jaguars were so thin at the position that they went out and signed rookie free agents Kevin Smith and Brandon Wimberly in the past week just to have more healthy bodies. Kerry Taylor, who was signed from the practice squad of the Arizona Cardinals last November, was the only healthy wide receiver with any NFL experience of the four the Jaguars had.
"That’s the most depressing thing in the world to look at," Sanders said with a laugh about the group of seven, which included offseason free-agent signing Tandon Doss. "Then you’ve got the other four who are out there gasping for air. They’re looking at you, and I’m like, âI want to help you, but …’"
When the Jaguars drafted both Lee and Robinson in the second round last month, it was a clear indication that they sought to upgrade an area which was shaky in 2013 because of injuries to Shorts and suspensions to 2012 first-round pick Justin Blackmon. There was even a report in the past week suggesting Sanders could be in danger of losing his roster spot before the start of next season.
If he feels threatened by the arrival of two receivers who are considerably larger than him, the 5-foot-7 Sanders isn’t letting it show.
"They’re definitely welcome here," he said. "I feel like it would be a challenge regardless if they came or not. I usually look at everything as a challenge. One thing is for sure: We definitely welcome them because we’re all part of the same team. We’ve all got one goal, and that’s just to get better every day. If they need anything, I told them to come to me. I’m not going to be distant from you."
Coach Gus Bradley and general manager Dave Caldwell selected Sanders as part of their first draft class with the intention of him contributing as a punt returner as much, if not more, than a slot receiver. But with Blackmon missing the first four games, Sanders found himself overmatched against experienced cornerbacks instead of slower safeties, linebackers or nickel defenders.
Not until Brown and Taylor got more playing time was he able to take advantage of certain coverages. Of Sanders’ 51 receptions, 35 were during the Jaguars’ final seven games, when they recorded three of their four victories. His only touchdown came in their win over the Houston Texans in a nationally-televised Thursday night game.
"They’re looking at me to stay in the slot," he said. "Last year I bounced around a lot due to injuries and some other circumstances. I played outside a lot, which really isn’t my natural position. Now I can lock in the slot and focus on the return game."
Bradley’s immediate focus is on having Sanders at full strength for next week’s mandatory three-day minicamp.
"We were real cautious and just gave him a couple of reps in each period," he said. "We’re trying to get him back and ready to go for next week."
While his injury has limited his on-field interaction with Bortles, Sanders likes what he has seen thus far from the UCF product and No. 3 overall overall pick.
"I usually just break the huddle and go out, and I’ll find out who threw me the ball when I watch film," he said. "But the time that we’re in individually, he looks really good. He definitely has an upside to him. He’s going to be exciting to watch."