JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Speed and quickness are what got Ace Sanders drafted.
It's his intelligence that's getting him on the field.
The Jaguars have had Sanders line up outside, in the slot, and in the backfield. That's a tough spot for any receiver, but for a rookie to handle the multiple roles and become a key part of the offense is remarkable.
"He really did better early than I thought he would do for the type of situation he was in," receivers coach Jerry Sullivan said. "Then there was a lull in there where nothing much was happening for him and then all of a sudden we began incorporating him a little bit more and he began to respond. The game slowed down a little bit for him now."
It's not easy for rookie receivers to make an impact in the NFL. But to do it at multiple spots is a testament to Sanders' football IQ. Rookies have to learn to read keys to identify coverages before the snap and adjust routes accordingly and learn the proper technique to run routes correctly and consistently. Now add shifts and motion, beating press coverage, and figuring out who to block if it's a running play or screen (which depends on the coverage).
That's just for, say, the slot receiver, which is Sanders' natural position and where he spent most of preseason. He also had to do that for playing outside, which he was forced to do because Justin Blackmon was suspended for the first four games of the season for violating the league's substance abuse policy.
That's a lot of work for someone who was only expected to return punts this season.
But Sanders handled it pretty well. He caught 14 passes for 162 yards in the first four weeks of the season, an average of 11.6 yards per catch.
When Blackmon returned, Sanders went back to the slot, but he has played inside and outside after Blackmon was suspended indefinitely for another violation of the substance abuse policy. Blackmon's return coincided with a mini-slump as Sanders adjusted to being back in the slot again. He caught just two passes for 20 yards in four games and missed a game with a concussion.
In his last four games, though, Sanders has 23 catches for 215 yards.
"I feel way more comfortable," Sanders said. "I'd be in my second season if this was still college, so definitely have had some time to get used to the game speed and I'm just finally starting to find my way."
That lull in which he wasn't doing much was actually beneficial, Sanders said. It helped him reflect and refocus after a hectic first half of the season.
"I actually hit my rookie wall a little earlier than most people just because with us being down players early in the season I had to do more stuff than expected," Sanders said. "I just had to realize that you're going to be a big part of this team. You're going to have to help. You've got to buckle down and really get in your playbook and just figure out a way to make it work."
He is a big part of the team. In addition to his 39 catches (second only to Cecil Shorts' 66) for 397 yards, Sanders has carried the ball twice after lining up in the backfield, and he threw a 21-yard touchdown pass to Jordan Todman on a trick play against Houston last week.
Next year he may be an even bigger part, Sullivan said.
"Going into next year he'll be much more experience in terms of the multiplicity [of playing different positions]," Sullivan said. "The only thing that's not fast in the NFL is the commercials. Everything else is fast. Fast timeouts, and the speed of the game in pro football is fast. That's a transition not a lot of young guys [can handle]."