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View from the O-Zone: A new mindset


JACKSONVILLE – He doesn't know what the offseason will bring – training camp, either. Ace Sanders says he can live with that.

Not that Sanders is naïve. He knows nothing is guaranteed.

The Jaguars' third-year wide receiver even knows that recent praise from Head Coach Gus Bradley guarantees nothing. At the same time, he's not stressing for a simple reason. Whatever happens, he's in a good place, a better place. And however the competition of offseason and training camp plays out, that's a good feeling.

"The wheels are starting to turn again," Sanders said recently. "I just have to see where it takes me. I'm just taking everything one day – one minute – at a time. I can't go into any situation pressuring myself. All I can do is be the best Ace I can be. …"

We'll get to why it's good for Sanders to be focused on that soon, but for now, here's a hard-to-grasp fact:

Sanders is the longest-serving wide receiver on the Jaguars' roster.

That's right, when the team allowed fourth-year veteran Cecil Shorts III to sign with the Houston Texans as an unrestricted free agent in the offseason, it left Sanders – a fourth-round selection in the 2013 NFL Draft – as the receiver who has been with the organization the longest.

At the same time, he enters the next week's organized team activities with none of the stature often afforded a team's most veteran receiver. He actually enters competing for a roster spot.

That's not pleasant, but that's his reality. But he said he knows it's a reality he had a lot to do with creating.

To review:

Sanders had a productive rookie season in 2013, catching 51 passes for 484 yards and a touchdown. He contributed not only as a receiver and a punt returner, he lined up in the backfield in spots, too. Then, as he put it, things turned "rocky."

And once it started getting rocky, it stayed that way for a while.

First, Sanders was suspended four games under the NFL's substance-abuse policy. That led to Sanders missing much of training camp and three preseason games.

Overall, it led to a huge swath carved from his second season. After starting four games as a rookie, he started none last season and finished with six receptions for 55 yards. He also returned 32 punts for 7.1-yard average.

"I had a rocky start," he said, shaking his head. "No other way to put it. It's a hard start to try to jump in, coming back Week 5 and being gone to another facility …. not training, then coming back in and trying to make it work ...

"I put myself in a bad position, so really right now I'm just trying to get back to whatever it is I came in with."

But he did say he is in a far healthier place mentally and physically now than he was at this time last offseason. He said, too, he's better now at dealing with off-field issues, and better at balancing life with football. He said he feels that's allowing him to have a better offseason. He's certain it will be seen on the field.

"I was not in the best of shape last year," he said. "That's what I'm doing right now, just trying to make up everything."

Is that possible? A lost season is tough for any player, particularly a receiver in a deepening, improving receiving corps. The Jaguars pursued Randall Cobb in free agency, drafted Rashad Greene in the fifth-round of the 2015 NFL Draft, signed punt returner/receive Tandon Doss last offseason and signed kick returner/slot receiver Bryan Walters as a free agent this offseason.

That's a lot of competition, and the tendency among many observers has been to dismiss Sanders' chances.

Still …

There was Bradley during the recent 2015 rookie minicamp discussing Sanders not once but on two different occasions. He talked about Sanders' consistency of effort and repetition in Phase II of the offseason program, and talked about this being the best he has seen Sanders. And as Bradley talked you remembered Sanders making plays as a rookie and you wondered if the quick, dynamic player could work his way into a role next season.

Sanders said he hasn't worked harder this offseason to hear Bradley talk about it publicly, but he said he agrees absolutely that this is his best offseason. And he said that has much less to do with his physical state than his state of mind. The past is the past and the future is the future and he sounded recently like a player with a solid grasp of both.

"I just look at it that stuff happens for a reason," he said. "Nobody's perfect in this world. All I can do is say, 'It happened, move forward.' I can't get that time back. I'm not asking for that time back. All I know is there's more stuff that lies ahead. That's what I've been trying to keep my focus on.

"I'll talk about the past, but I don't much. It's the past. I can't do anything about it. It happened. So what? Let's move on."

Sanders indeed will move into the future. As he does, he doesn't know what will happen with himself and the Jaguars. What he does know is he's in the best place possible as he goes there, and that's a good feeling whatever happens.

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