To Gene Smith, public perception matters little when it comes to analyzing the Jaguars&39; wide receiving corps.
Smith, in his third season as the Jaguars&39; general manager, said recently whatever the perception of the team&39;s receivers, what he sees from the position is potential and progress.
Are the Jaguars&39; receivers well-known?
Are they big names?
Do they rank among the top groups when observers start making list of such things?
The answer to all three questions may be "no," but Smith said the bigger question – can the group produce and be an effective core? – has a very different answer.
There is talent in the group, Smith said, and whatever their reputation they have the potential and capability of being a productive part of an effective offense in 2011.
The group, Smith said, likely will be led by third-year veteran Mike Thomas.
And while Thomas has not yet established himself as an elite-level wide receiver in the eyes of most observers, Smith said at times last season he showed signs of doing so.
"He can emerge," Smith said. "I think this past year he showed that when called upon."
Thomas, a third-year veteran from Arizona, caught 48 passes for 453 yards and a touchdown as a rookie, then moved into the starting lineup last season, catching 66 passes for 820 yards and four touchdowns. Included in the touchdowns was a 50-yard Hail Mary reception that beat Houston in a dramatic mid-November game in Jacksonville.
But Smith said beyond the dramatic, Thomas showed an ability to do what front-line, No. 1 receivers must do – i.e., make difficult catches in difficult situations at critical times.
"Mike Thomas emerged last year as one of our go-to guys," Smith said. "Mike produced in clutch situations. He&39;s a guy who thrives in situations where he&39;s got to go up and make a contested catch. "He&39;s the all-time Pac 10 receiving leader.
"I tell people he&39;s Maurice Jones-Drew playing wide receiver from a receiving standpoint."
Thomas, a fourth-round selection by the Jaguars in the 2009 NFL Draft, caught 259 passes for 3,231 yards and 23 touchdowns at Arizona, and possesses the character and competitiveness to continue improving to No. 1-receiver status, Smith said.
"I think it starts with talent and I think you have to have good character to maximize your talent," Smith said. "I think the rigors of the NFL, where guys are bigger, faster and the season is twice and long, you have to be an extreme competitor. Talent, character, competitiveness – he fits the profile."
While the Jaguars did not re-sign Mike Sims-Walker before the lockout, Smith said there are young receivers on the roster who can make up a productive group.
Jason Hill, a fifth-year veteran from Washington State who signed with the Jaguars off waivers from San Francisco early last season, caught 11 passes for 248 yards and a touchdown after joining the Jaguars. He spent his first three seasons with the 49ers, and has caught 51 passes for 661 yards and five touchdowns in four seasons.
"Jason Hill hasn&39;t established himself in the NFL, but he had a tremendous college career at Washington State," Smith said. "He was the second-fastest guy coming out his draft year. He has an opportunity to continue to show what he did while he was here in games and practice."
Smith said Hill and Thomas give the Jaguars a rare combination of deep speed at the outside receiver positions, with Thomas having been clocked at 4.29 seconds in the 40-yard dash and Hill having been clocked at 4.31.
"Both players should be coming into their own," Smith said, adding of the receiver position, "In order to become an elite offense, you need players with the ability to win on the inside as well as players who can win on the outside. Winning on the outside means having receivers who can win one on one coverage match-ups when defenses stack the box inside to stop the run."
The Jaguars also addressed the area in last month&39;s 2011 NFL Draft, selecting wide receiver Cecil Shorts from Mount Union in the fourth round.
Shorts, who began playing receiver full-time as a sophomore, earned All-America honors his final three collegiate seasons, catching 259 passes for 4,705 yards and 63 touchdowns. His receiving yardage was the third-highest in Division III history, and he caught 77 passes for 1,484 yards and 23 touchdowns as a sophomore.
Shorts as a junior caught 100 passes for 1,736 yards and 19 touchdown and followed that with a 70-reception senior season in which he had 1,196 yards receiving and 18 touchdown receptions.
"He will be trying to get play time (at the third receiver spot) there," Smith said.
That&39;s also true of Jarett Dillard, a third-year veteran from Rice who played seven games as a rookie in 2009 before spending last season on injured reserve with a foot injury.
"He has the best vertical jump in the group," Smith said of Dillard. "He has tremendous hands and is fearless inside working for the ball. There are a lot of people catching balls inside who are a little shy. He never has been shy doing that, so we feel very good about him.
"Both of these guys (Shorts and Dillard) have good speed on the inside. They&39;re both strong and they both have excellent hands. Dillard has played some outside and Cecil has played outside, so they could play outside, but they both have the versatility to compete inside."
Smith also said Kassim Osgood, a nine-year veteran and three-time Pro Bowl selection with San Diego as a special teams player, will get a chance to contribute. Osgood, who signed with the Jaguars as a free agent before the 2010 season, said earlier this off-season his goal was to continue earning a larger role in the area after catching six passes for 60 yards and a touchdown last season.
"He was highly productive in college," Smith said. "He&39;s never been given a full opportunity, because he has been an elite special-teams guy and he hasn&39;t gotten a lot of play opportunities as a wide receiver. But he came on as the year went on in practice and looked better and better."