JACKSONVILLE – Tyler Eifert remains optimistic.
Ron Middleton does, too.
Tight ends are expected to play an important, expanded role in a new Jaguars offense. That was the theory entering 2020 Training Camp, and Eifert – signed in the offseason to be the group's veteran leader – said the difficulties of the last few days don't change that.
"I really like our tight end room," Eifert said.
Eifert, a former Pro Bowl tight end who signed with the Jaguars as an unrestricted free agent from the Cincinnati Bengals this offseason, spoke to local media Tuesday via videoconference. Middleton, the team's tight ends coach since 2013, did, too – as did veteran tight end James O'Shaughnessy.
One topic all three addressed was Josh Oliver, a second-year veteran who sustained a broken bone in his foot Sunday. A third-round selection in the 2019 NFL Draft, Oliver was expected to play a key role as a receiving tight end in new coordinator Jay Gruden's tight-end friendly scheme.
"He had a lot of talent, and I feel so bad for him that he hasn't been able to showcase that talent," Middleton said of Oliver, who missed all but four games as a rookie last season with hamstring and back issues. "Man … the few practices we had before he got hurt this year, you really saw some things.
"Some of the things he was doing, I was so excited for the kid."
Oliver's injury was a blow for a position that has struggled in recent seasons. No Jaguars tight end has caught more than 30 passes in a season since Julius Thomas in 2015, and Jaguars tight ends combined for 53 receptions, 459 yards and three touchdowns last season.
But even with Oliver's injury, the group expects that to change this season.
"There's a lot of optimism from everyone that we're going to a have a role," O'Shaughnessy said.
Gruden, the head coach at Washington from 2014-2019 and the Cincinnati Bengals' offensive coordinator from 2011–2013, has a reputation for using tight ends extensively and effectively. O'Shaughnessy said that reputation has proved warranted early with the Jaguars.
"The offense is amazing," O'Shaughnessy said. "It has some new wrinkles I haven't seen before. I've been with some pretty good OCs and I've seen a lot. I saw concepts I'd never seen before, and that was cool to see – the different ways he complements each route off of one another. It's impressive."
With Oliver injured, the Jaguars' experienced tight ends are now Eifert, O'Shaughnessy and second-year veteran Charles Jones – who figures to play a key role as a blocker. The Jaguars selected Georgia Tech tight end Tyler Davis in the sixth round of the 2020 NFL Draft, and signed Ben Ellefson as a collegiate free agent. Eifert, who played for Gruden in Cincinnati as a rookie in 2013, said he sees the Jaguars' tight ends as a versatile young group that can fit well into Gruden's scheme.
"It's unfortunate what happened to Josh, but everybody can play," Eifert said.
As for what the group can expect this season. O'Shaughnessy – the group's longest tenured member of the Jaguars – said he "100 percent" expects the tight ends to have a larger role in the Jaguars' offense than previous seasons.
"No question with this style of offense we're going to get more opportunities in the pass game," O'Shaughnessy said. "We'll be more of a focal point maybe than in years past. The job of a tight end isn't just to catch passes, [but] it's going to be nice from the standpoint that we'll definitely get the opportunities more in the pass game.
"But at the end of day, our job is more than just that. We've got a heck of a room that can do a lot of different things."
*Middleton spoke highly of Davis, calling him one of the smartest players he ever has interviewed before the draft. Middleton said the rookie's work ethic has matched his intelligence. "He's a hard worker," Middleton said. "He's very talented and he's bigger than you think he is. You get up next to him … he's thick. And he can run. He's got athleticism." Middleton said Davis has proven a willing blocker in padded work this week in camp. "He hasn't backed down from contact yet," Middleton said. "We've still got to work on his technique. There's still a lot of stuff to learn, but so far I'm really pleased with his progress." …
*Middleton on Eifert: "This guy can run every route in the book. He's an accomplished route-runner. He hasn't disappointed. He has shown some physicality. We've got to be smart as coaches and put him in the position where he's going to best serve and give us the most that he's got to give. We didn't bring him here to put him in the backfield and lead up on linebackers. We expect him to be split out running those routes we know he can run. I've been very impressed with him.'' …