JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Just when the Jaguars offense had started to get on a roll, it’s dealt another setback.
The indefinite suspension of receiver Justin Blackmon takes away the offense’s best weapon, which means quarterback Chad Henne and the passing game are going to have to rely on a group of young, inexperienced receivers to fill the void for the rest of the season.
It also means Cecil Shorts, who leads the Jaguars with 46 catches for 565 yards and one touchdown, will have to shoulder the load as the team’s No. 1 receiver and deal with the resulting attention from opposing defenses.
"Justin’s a very good football player," general manager Dave Caldwell said. "So when you lose a player of his magnitude somebody else is going to have to step up. This is a great opportunity for some of our guys to step up and fill that void.
"We’re just going to have to find a way to get on track here. It’s only a distraction if we allow it to be and Coach [Gus] Bradley is not going to allow it be a distraction."
Shorts was the Jaguars’ top target in the first four games while Blackmon was serving his first suspension for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy, catching 26 passes for 337 yards. He was pretty much a one-man show because the other receivers were rookie Ace Sanders, first-year players Mike Brown (a converted quarterback) and Jeremy Ebert, waiver-wire claim Stephen Burton and undrafted rookie free agent Tobais Palmer (who has since been cut).
Blackmon’s return had an immediate impact on the offense. In the first four games of the season the Jaguars averaged 224 yards of total offense and 7.8 points. In the first two games with Blackmon in the lineup the Jaguars averaged 362.5 yards of total offense and 19.5 points. He caught 29 passes for 415 yards and one touchdown in the four games in which he played after catching 64 passes for 865 yards and five touchdowns as a rookie in 2012.
Now the Jaguars will have to find a way to replace that production. Shorts has proven to be a solid receiver, catching 103 passes for 1,574 yards and nine touchdowns in 32 career games with the Jaguars. The rest of the receivers -- Brown, Sanders, Burton, Ebert (who’s on the practice squad), rookie Denard Robinson and waiver-wire claim Stephen Williams -- have combined for 54 receptions and two touchdowns in their careers.
That’s not exactly proven help.
There is some growing confidence in Brown, who spent most of last season on the practice squad as he made the transition from college quarterback. He made his first career catch in the 2013 season opener against Kansas City before injuring his back and sitting out the next four weeks. Since his return he has caught 12 passes for 212 yards (17.7 yards per catch) and one touchdown.
Sanders has at least played a significant number of snaps (304) and has 16 catches for 182 yards this season. The only other receivers who have caught passes this season are Ebert (two for 10 yards) and Burton (one for 7).
"We look at it as a great opportunity to overcome a situation that's been presented to us," Caldwell said. "And when we look back on situations like this in the future, we're going to remember how tough it was and how rewarding it's going to be when we get to where we want to be."