Mike Tice built one of the strongest tight end groups in the league, and now injuries are threatening to tear it apart.
Marcedes Lewis, George Wrighster and Greg Estandia were an impressive trio of tight ends heading into week 12 of last season. It had arguably become the Jaguars' position of greatest depth. Then, in one game, the Jaguars lost Estandia and Wrighster for the season to injuries, and both players are facing major rehabs to get back to where they were.
"I really felt that with the development of Estandia and how well Wrighster and Lewis were blocking, we were on our way to being one of the best tight end groups in the league," Tice said. "We were spreading the ball around to all three guys."
In the Jaguars' win over Buffalo on Nov. 25, however, Estandia sustained a torn labrum and Wrighster a torn anterior cruciate ligament. All of a sudden, the Jaguars tight end coach was left to scramble for replacements.
"All the balls we were spreading around went to (Lewis)," Tice said.
The Jaguars found Richard Angulo on Cleveland's practice squad. Angulo had made the Jaguars' final roster after impressing the team in training camp with his blocking ability. From the Jags' own practice squad, they activated Isaac Smolko, a do-everything, try-hard guy who showed enough the rest of the season to warrant a harder look this year.
"Smolko is very, very bright. He works hard. Where he has to develop himself is as an F-tight end," Tice said, referring to what is commonly known as an H-back, a tight end/fullback hybrid. "If Smolko can do some of the things Greg Jones can do, he's going to make it very interesting. The other guys are really 'Y' (conventional in-line) tight ends."
While Estandia and Wrighster remain inactive during spring OTA's, Smolko and late-season practice-squad acquisition Charles Davis will be auditioned. Tight end is also considered to be one of the strongest positions in this year's draft, which Tice confirmed, and it's possible the Jaguars will dip into that talent pool.
"With those other needs, I'm sure it's not a high priority," Tice said of tight end, "(but) you can never have enough big guys; enough tight ends. We have two question marks with injuries."
Whatever sense of security the Jaguars have at tight end is the result of Lewis' development last season. The team's 2006 first-round pick, whose rookie year was largely washed away by injury, became an effective blocker and pass-catcher last season, catching 37 passes for 391 yards and two touchdowns.
"Marcedes showed the ability to run after the catch. He really took off as a blocker. I think it surprised a lot of people. When he came into the league people thought he was going to be a pass-catcher. If he can build on last year, I look for him to be mentioned with the elite," Tice said of Lewis.
"We set a goal for ourselves in the beginning. We talked about a couple of things. I was going to lay out a plan for them to be all-around tight ends. I asked them to buy in. I was selling that we wanted to be physical and intense and be students of the game. Play awareness football. We didn't want to be paint-by-numbers tight ends where we were robots and stiff and not athletic. We had a goal in the room of being known as the best tight end group in the league," Tice said.
At one point, they were close.