JACKSONVILLE – Cecil Shorts III smiles at the mention.
It's a knowing smile, because he's thought about the topic before – more than a few times since last season, actually. It's a comfortable smile, too, and it's clear when talking with the Jaguars' third-year wide receiver that he likes a lot about where he is and where he's going in his NFL career.
But that smile? It's not completely pleasant, because although he's thought about this topic often this offseason, it still gnaws at him. It's still sitting out there.
"It bothers me," Shorts said with a laugh during the Jaguars' voluntary offseason program, which continues next week with the final week of 2013 organized team activities at the Florida Blue Health and Wellness Practice Fields. "It doesn't sit well."
Twenty-one yards...that's how close Shorts was to 1,000 yards receiving last season. It's a significant number for any wide receiver, particularly one playing for the Jaguars. But really, what he's thinking about this offseason isn't that.
Mostly, Shorts said he's thinking about the future.
That's because whatever Shorts accomplished last season – and make no mistake: he accomplished a lot – in his mind, it doesn't matter. At least not in comparison to what's next.
"I still feel like I have something to prove," he said. "That's just how I've always been. I always play with a chip on my shoulder. I want to prove last season wasn't a fluke, but really, last season doesn't mean anything anymore. I want to continue to get better.
"I am a lot more confident coming into this year than last year. I'm in a different situation now, if that makes sense."
How different? Consider:
This time last year, Shorts wasn't thinking about narrowly missing out on goals. Rather, he was thinking about making a roster.
Shorts, a fourth-round selection in the 2011 NFL Draft from Division III Mount Union, had struggled as a rookie, catching just two passes for 30 yards. He was written off by many observers, and when last offseason began, he was deep on the depth chart.
The Jaguars had recently signed Laurent Robinson as a free agent. They had added Lee Evans as a free agent, too. Mike Thomas was still on the roster and had started the previous season, and the Jaguars had selected Justin Blackmon No. 5 overall in the 2012 NFL Draft.
"It was like, 'Where would I fit in?" Shorts said.
Shorts not only fit in, he thrived. Working with veteran receivers coach Jerry Sullivan, he was perhaps the team's best route runner during 2012 training camp. While beginning the season as a reserve, and while staying in that role until midseason, he emerged as the team's most consistent, reliable receiver. He caught go-ahead touchdowns in the final two minutes in two of the Jaguars' first three games, and by regular season's end, had started nine games, catching 55 passes for 979 yards and seven touchdowns and missing by 21 yards – 21 yards -- from becoming the Jaguars' first 1,000-yard receiver since Jimmy Smith in 2005.
So it is that Shorts enters this offseason in a better place than last, and when Shorts hears first-year Head Coach Gus Bradley talk about creating an atmosphere of pressure, but not stress, he said he knows exactly what Bradley means.
"I felt pressure and stress the last two years – that's not fun," Shorts said. "This year coming in, I feel like the stress is off. I'm not satisfied. I want to prove myself more than last year – this year, even now, it's fun for me. I'm more focused. I know I can do it. My goal is to be elite, so when I'm working and running routes, it's a lot more fun to look forward to.
"The first two years, I was more stressed out trying to prove myself than having fun with the game I love. Last year, it was more worry. Now, I can just play, and when you're playing ball, that's when you make plays and things happen."
Shorts, seated inside EverBank Field recently shortly after an offseason workout, smiled when he spoke. His demeanor reflected his words, and he very much looked like a young player confident of his ability and aware of the need to continue working to maximize potential. He also very much gave the impression of a self-aware player, one with his mind in the right place.
Could he an elite receiver?, he was asked.
"Absolutely," he said. "I'm not there yet, but with hard work, I feel I can be there."
A No. 1 receiver? He smiled, and chose his words carefully.
"In my mind, ones and twos – it is what it is," he said. "That's on the coaches. I just want to make the most of my opportunities..."
Shorts interrupted the following question.
"...but in my mind, I'm a one," he said, smiling. "If you're an elite receiver, you're a No. 1 receiver. I'm not going to argue for it, but in my mind? Absolutely."
Getting there, Shorts said, is the next step. He said he likes his chances, and likes where the Jaguars are headed under Bradley and first-year General Manager David Caldwell – "There's a good vibe around here right now – a real good vibe," he said. Personally, he said while he likes his chances of improving, he just as much knows he's not there yet.
"My biggest thing, talking to Coach Sullivan, is to prove I'm one of the better receivers in this league," he said. "I want to be an elite receiver. I have a long way to go to get there, but over the course of the season, that's what I want to do. I have a lot to prove in my mind. That's what motivates me."
And if Shorts needs motivation, he said it's easy to find. He said while he doesn't think about the 21 yards all the time, they do cross his mind. A play here. A catch there. Specifically, he said, he thinks often of a play in the Jaguars' next-to-last game of the season, a home loss against New England. Running open, Shorts dropped a pass. He sustained a concussion later in the game and missed the regular-season finale.
"That could have been it," he said. "It's just more motivation for this year, but more than anything what motivates me is I want to see how I turn out. That' the driving force that makes me work even harder. I was talking to some guys in the offseason and they were like, 'I can't wait to get on break.'
"That's not me. I look forward to working. I'm excited to see how things turn out. I want to see what happens."