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View from the O-Zone: Different feel, look for Westbrook

Jacksonville Jaguars wide receiver Dede Westbrook runs after a reception during the first half of an NFL preseason football game against the New Orleans Saints, Thursday, Aug. 9, 2018, in Jacksonville, Fla. (AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton)
Jacksonville Jaguars wide receiver Dede Westbrook runs after a reception during the first half of an NFL preseason football game against the New Orleans Saints, Thursday, Aug. 9, 2018, in Jacksonville, Fla. (AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton)

JACKSONVILLE – It's all good for Dede Westbrook these days.

"Most definitely – 100 percent," he said Saturday.

The Jaguars' second-year wide receiver was talking about he feels entering his second NFL season – and the idea that players often make big jumps in Year 2.

That's an NFL truism that gets said so much it sometimes sounds cliché, but make no mistake:

When it comes to Westbrook, that cliché seems real.

Westbrook, a fourth-round selection in the 2017 NFL Draft from the University of Oklahoma with NFL playmaking ability and talent, has shown both in a big way during Jaguars 2018 Training Camp. As importantly, the former Biletnikoff Award winner has done so consistently. Rarely a practice has passed without Westbrook making a notable "effort" catch – i.e., a sliding or diving reception. 

He did it Saturday in practice with a 20-yard reception off a deflected pass from quarterback Blake Bortles. Two days before, in a 24-20 preseason-opening loss to New Orleans, he made a sliding reception on one of the first-team offense's highlight plays of the game – a 16-yard pass from Bortles that converted third-and-10 from the Saints 22 and led to the Jaguars' first touchdown.

Bottom line through two-and-a-half weeks of camp:

Westbrook looks like a more consistent, more-veteran player than he did as a rookie, and that's a good thing for the Jaguars' offense.

"I feel free, I feel clear – and I can just go out and play my best ball," Westbrook said.

Westbrook said there are a couple reasons he looks different.

One is that he feelsdifferent – dramatically so from what he said Saturday was at times a difficult rookie season. He's healthy now. That wasn't the case this time last season, when he was dealing with a sports hernia issue. While he led the NFL in preseason receiving yards, he underwent late-preseason surgery and missed the season's first nine games.

"That means a lot," Westbrook said. "Coming in last year, I had to battle injury and work on getting better. Plus, trying to learn the plays and build chemistry with Blake … it was tough. Now, that's pretty much behind me. I've put the year behind me. That's experience."

Another reason he looks different:

"Route running," he said.

It's often the case that rookie receivers enter the NFL needing work in this area, and Westbrook said he was no exception. 

"I was pretty much running by people," he said of his college career.

Westbrook didn't say the quote in a cocky manner. To watch his YouTube highlights at Oklahoma is to see a player making things look easy. He caught 80 passes for 1,524 yards and 17 touchdowns in his final collegiate season, and was dominant enough that he was one of four players invited to that year's Heisman Trophy ceremony.

The NFL is rarely so easy and it wasn't for Westbrook.

"When you've got defensive backs like [Jaguars All-Pro cornerbacks] Jalen [Ramsey] and A.J. [Bouye], you have to fine-tune your routes," Westbrook said.

Westbrook said he spent the offseason working on route running, first with his personal trainer/coach – wide receivers guru David Robinson – and later with Jaguars wide receivers coach Keenan McCardell.

"We were both on the same page," he said of McCardell, a 17-year NFL receiver. "Him playing the position, he can see it as well. I listened to everything he dished out. He's been in my shoes before. He knows exactly how I feel and he was damned near a Hall of Famer, so why not listen?"

And yes, he said, from his rookie season to now is obvious.

"I still go back and watch the clips from last year, and then my approach to it this year – and it's two totally different players," he said.

The good news for the Jaguars: they're hardly desperate for Westbrook to be as dramatically improved as he appears. This has the look of a deep receiving corps, with not only Westbrook but Marqise Lee, D.J. Chark, Donte Moncrief and Keelan Cole standing out in camp. 

The national narrative that wide receiver was a questionable area for this team because of the offseason departure of Allen Robinson appears through two-and-a-half weeks of camp to be an incorrect one. Instead, this has the look of a young, playmaking group with four or five players capable of making game-changing plays.

Throughout training camp Westbrook has not only emerged as a key part of that group, he has had the look of a player headed for a more productive season than last season when he had 27 receptions for 339 yards and a touchdown in seven regular-season games.

Those numbers now have the feel of just the beginning.

Those now look like the numbers of a player poised for a big Year 2 jump, and that's a key development for an offense that looks deeper at wide receiver every day.

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