New wide receivers coach Todd Monken is challenging his players to take their games to a higher level, and the increased competition at the position is making it easy for Monken to make his point.
"I don't see a guy who's an automatic lineup guy," Monken told jaguars.com on Wednesday. Asked to describe the state of the team's wide receiver positions, Monken said, "Up in the air. You have a number of guys battling for the spots we have on the roster. We're forcing everyone to play every position. No one is an 'X,'" he said, "X" referring to the "number one wide receiver" distinction.
Free agent addition Dennis Northcutt is providing a strong example of the work ethic and attention to detail Monken is seeking in the team's younger receivers. Behind Northcutt are former first-round picks Reggie Williams and Matt Jones, veteran Ernest Wilford, hold-over Charles Sharon and rookie draft picks Mike Walker and John Broussard.
"Reggie has to prove he'll catch the ball away from his body; that he'll catch the ball down the field. He knows that," Monken said. "Matt's got to be able to stay healthy. He's learning how to work hard.
"Ernest is a guy who maximizes his ability. He's aggressive in his approach to wanting to be coached. He knows we're not going to keep everybody," Monken added.
That's the driving force in motivating this group to a higher level: "We're not going to keep everybody."
"I think they know they have the ability to be the best receivers on the team," Monken said of Williams and Jones. "(But) talent alone gets you inconsistency."
Enter third-round draft choice Mike Walker, a 6-2, 208-pound receiver with 4.3 speed and hands soft enough to have caught 90 passes at Central Florida last season, before he had even reached the one-year anniversary of his ACL surgery. Walker has the kind of ability and grit to challenge Williams and Jones.
"He's a big, strong, physical kid who builds to his speed. He's not a quick-twitch guy but he has good top-end speed. He can go up for the ball, is a real competitive kid and I think has a real bright future," Monken said of Walker.
ACL surgery has long been considered a two-year injury. Walker won't hit the two-year mark until late in his rookie season, but he over-achieved for his senior year at UCF and he's committed to a full recovery by the start of this summer's training camp.
"Now I have a little more time to rehab my knee and get it to where it should be. I'm going to do that before training camp. That's going to be my main focus; leg curls, mostly strengthening," Walker said.
Walker was a big hit in the team's recent mini-camp, but he developed some soreness in subsequent practices and it's become apparent that Walker's knee needs more time and fewer reps.
"He told me he's going to be safe with it in training camp," Walker said of what he was told by head coach Jack Del Rio.
Everything else about Walker's start with the Jaguars was positive.
"It's a great situation. I think I'm going to fit right in. That first day of mini-camp; I just felt like I belonged here," Walker said.
The big question is: Can Walker be expected to make a significant contribution as a rookie?
"He has a chance," Monken said. "He has a ways to go but I'd hate to limit him. Anybody who catches the ball as he does always has a chance."
At this time last year, Walker wasn't even far enough along to work out for pro scouts in "junior days." He made up a lot of ground in the summer, but he was still favoring the knee when the season began.
"I think it says a lot about him and what he's about. To be able to come back and even function says something about his toughness and character; the want to," Monken said of Walker. "You could tell he favored it; didn't have the same burst."
By season's end, Walker was raking down passes and his knee was recovered enough for him to run an eye-opening 4.35 at the scouting combine. It shot him up from the ranks of the medical rejects all the way into the third round.
"That's what I keep hearing; that it's wide open," he said of the wide receiver positions. "If I just go out there and be Mike Walker and act like nothing happened to my knee, I'll be OK."