Still ascending

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Mike Thomas hasn't been around the NFL forever, but he has been around long enough to know what matters.

The pontificating? The projecting? The criticism?

Thomas, the Jaguars' four-year veteran wide receiver, said he has heard those things throughout the off-season. To a degree, they are motivation, but he said what's more important than what others think is what he believes.

He believes he's good, and more than that, he believes he's going to get better.

"You have to play this game with confidence," Thomas said this week as the Jaguars began their 2012 off-season conditioning program.

"For me, it's not really about what people say. For me, I know I can play."

Thomas proved as much in 2010. As a second-year veteran he caught a career-high 66 passes for 820 yards and four touchdowns. He entered last season with an increased role and high aspirations, but with the passing offense struggling, Thomas caught 44 passes for 415 yards and a touchdown.

As the off-season program begins, Thomas said he is optimistic he cannot only return to his 2010 form, but surpass it.

"I know it's right in my midst," Thomas said. "For me, it's being absorbent to the new system and trying to do everything I can to prove to those guys I want to work. After that, the chips have to fall where they may. I'm looking forward to it.

"I definitely believe I'm still ascending. I want to be good. That's what I'm working toward."

Thomas said there are several reasons for his optimism. One, the Jaguars will have an off-season program, something they didn't have last year because of the NFL lockout. Then, there's quarterback Blaine Gabbert entering the season as a second-year veteran rather than a rookie. There's also the addition of free-agent Laurent Robinson and likely improvement from tight end Marcedes Lewis, wide receiver Cecil Shorts and other receivers on the roster.

Perhaps most notably, there's the addition of wide receivers coach Jerry Sullivan.

Sullivan, widely considered one of the NFL's best receivers coaches, joined Jaguars Head Coach Mike Mularkey's staff in January. Thomas early this week discussed Sullivan's reputation as one of the league's more demanding position coaches, saying while he heard Sullivan can be "anal" at times that he is "challenging but in a good way, so it will be fun as long as I'm receptive to it."

Thomas later in the week said without question he will be receptive.

"The more you do something, the better you get at it – he's been doing it for years on top of years," Thomas said. "There's definitely a lot of knowledge. He definitely knows what he's going. You definitely have to take all of those things in, sit back and let him coach you."

Thomas, a fourth-round selection in the 2009 NFL Draft, said while he signed a long-term extension early last season he is in a very real sense in a situation similar to what he faced early in his career. With a new coaching staff and new offensive system come new terminology and a new perspective. Thomas said it also brings an urgency to prove himself again.

"It's safe to say this is a competition – it's wide open for I guess whoever wants to adapt the most," Thomas said. "It's all open. It's a fresh start for everybody."

Just where Thomas will play once the competing is over isn't certain. He played mostly third receiver while having his best year in 2010, and moved into a starting role last season. While some have speculated he would be more productive as a third, "slot" receiver, Thomas said his concern doesn't focus on position as much as opportunity.

He called the slot "his baby," and said he would love to keep the same role he had last year – playing the outside in two receiver sets and the slot in three-receiver formations.

"I just want to be on that field," Thomas said. "If we could stay in three wides the whole game I'd stay in the slot the whole game. Nine times out of 10, that's usually not the case. I pride myself on being on the field. If we go two receiver sets, obviously I'd like to be there.

"I know what I am, but at the same time I know I'm still capable and I know that some of the match-ups on the outside I can destroy. I just want to give myself a chance to be the best I can."

And while he said he will do whatever it takes to get that chance, he said what he won't do is worry about what people are saying. Not the projections, and certainly not the criticism.

"Of course, you take motivation from everything, but this is what we signed up for," he said. "You're going to get talked about either way. Sometimes it's good. Sometimes it's bad."

If what Thomas believes is correct, from here on out it may be a lot more of the former.

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