JACKSONVILLE – Ron Middleton's confidence is real – with a caveat that's also real.
The Jaguars' veteran tight ends coach likes much about the position entering the 2020 season, and he also knows what many know about the group: Health is a key.
Health, in fact, may be the key.
"We need them on the grass," Middleton said.
Middleton, entering his eighth season with the Jaguars, spoke to jaguars.com recently and touched on multiple topics regarding the team's tight ends. He discussed newcomer Tyler Eifert and second-year veteran Josh Oliver, along with a group he believes has the talent to be very productive.
He believes Eifert and Oliver can make a big impact in 2020. He believes the same of veteran James O'Shaughnessy and he likes the potential of young players such as first-year Charles Jones and rookies Tyler Davis and Ben Ellefson.
"They've got a lot to prove – from the oldest to the youngest," Middleton said recently. "If we can stay healthy, I think we're going to be productive."
The tight ends, like all Jaguars position groups, currently are working remotely preparing for the '20 season. With the COVID-19 pandemic preventing offseason programs from being held at team facilities, Middleton and other Jaguars coaches are installing the offense and defense via the cloud and videoconference.
"I've got some good, professional guys," Middleton said. "They've always worked hard, and I know they're working hard right now."
Middleton discussed the group player-by-player, particularly three veterans expected to be key this season:
*Eifert. An eight-year veteran and the group's highest-profile player, Eifert signed in March as an unrestricted free agent from the Cincinnati Bengals. While Eifert made the 2015 Pro Bowl and is a threat in the passing game, health has been an issue throughout his career. He played 16 games for the first time last season. "He wants to get back to that potential that he has," Middleton said, describing Eifert as a tight end who can "run all the routes. He's got the niftiness to detach him out to the sidelines. He can work a safety. You can bring him inside and attach him [to the line], and he'll give you a willing effort in the run game. He's not going to dominate, but he shows toughness. We have to put him in position to make plays and keep him on the field. Injuries are a part of football, but let's be smart about it."
*Oliver. A third-round selection in the 2019 NFL Draft, Oliver missed all but four games with injuries as a rookie. "The expectation was so high, and still is," Middleton said. "But you can't even say last year was a redshirt for him, because he didn't even practice." Middleton said the expectations are legitimate. "He's got excellent size and length," Middleton said. "He's got speed. And he's got toughness. He has the ability to do it all. He has good hands. He showed savvy in route-running as far as finding those zone windows, and understanding if a defender has leverage. He can break routes and come back friendly to the quarterback. It's just a damned shame we didn't get to cultivate that and work on that during the season." Middleton also discounted the idea that Oliver wasn't a capable blocker. "I didn't agree with that assessment of him," Middleton said. "The tape I saw, I saw him compete. He has good strength. To me, it was more of a technique issue. He and I talked when we drafted him. I had heard the comments saying, 'He ain't going to give you much in the run game.' That really pissed him off. He was coming around and working on that technique. He has a high prospect to do it all. He just has to stay healthy.
*O'Shaughnessy. A sixth-year veteran, O'Shaughnessy was having the best season of his career in 2019 before a Week 5 torn anterior cruciate ligament ended his season. "He's got something to prove," Middleton said. "He got injured right when he was about to turn the corner and be a contribute in a huge way."
Of Jones, who made the team as an undrafted rookie free agent last season, Middleton said: "He understands the bullseye is on his back. We're asking a lot of him and we'll see if he's up to the challenge."
The Jaguars added Davis and Ellefson to the tight-end group last month, drafting Davis in Round 6 from Georgia Tech and signing Ellefson as a free agent from South Dakota State. Middleton said Davis' football IQ stood out from other drafted tight ends, adding that Ellefson came from a winning program at South Dakota State, "so he's got a lot of pride and wants to show he belongs."
Middleton said the group overall is talented, will play hard and will work to be prepared.
"To me, those are the ingredients of being productive and having some success," Middleton said. "The good thing about my room is everybody wants to pull their weight. We don't want anything lacking to be coming from our room. We want to be the gold standard of our offensive group."