JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) — It wasn’t too long ago that veteran receiver Donte Moncrief was buried on Jacksonville’s depth chart.
Moncrief had fallen behind Marqise Lee, Keelan Cole, Dede Westbrook and even rookie DJ Chark after missing a week of practice because of a sore knee.
Now, four weeks later and following a devastating injury to Lee, Moncrief might be the team’s go-to guy heading into the season opener at the New York Giants.
He certainly is the unwitting leader of that position group and will be counted on to fill a void created when Lee hurt his left knee in the preseason and was placed on injured reserve.
“The young guys, they look at me as an older guy,” Moncrief said. “I just told them, ‘Anybody can be great.’ It just takes the time and passion to go out there and want to be great. Go out there and make plays every day, not just in a game, also in practice, so you can build the trust when it comes down to game time.”
The Jaguars trusted Moncrief enough to give him a one-year, $9.6 million contract in free agency. The deal was fully guaranteed, a move general manager Dave Caldwell felt he had to do with so much uncertainty at receiver.
Jacksonville figured Allen Robinson was gone, was unsure Lee would re-sign, and planned to part with Allen Hurns. The team also had no idea it would get Chark in the second round of the draft.
So the Jags targeted Moncrief, hoping his big-play ability would help spread out defenses designed to slow down Jacksonville’s run-first approach .
The 6-foot-2 Moncrief caught 152 passes for 1,875 yards and 18 touchdowns in four years with Indianapolis. He missed 11 games the last two seasons because of shoulder and toe injuries. He also endured quarterback chaos, with Andrew Luck, Jacoby Brissett, Matt Hasselbeck, Scott Tolzien and Josh Freeman throwing him passes.
“Just having a chip on my shoulder to go out and show what I actually can do and have a healthy year and come out here and compete and show the league what I’ve got,” Moncrief said. “I know what I’m capable of and I’m going to hold myself to it.”
Jacksonville is counting on it now, especially without Lee.
Still, the team believes Cole, Westbrook and Chark have star potential.
Cole was an undrafted rookie from tiny Kentucky Wesleyan in 2017, a guy admittedly awe-struck by playing in packed NFL stadiums. He was barely noticeable on the field early, catching eight passes for 111 yards in the first seven games. He finished with 42 receptions for 748 yards and three touchdowns, plus a few huge plays in the postseason .
Westbrook, a fourth-round draft pick from Oklahoma in 2017, missed the first nine games of his rookie year because of a sports hernia, caught 27 passes for 339 yards and a TD in seven games.
Cole and Westbrook were in the starting lineup late last season, and it wasn’t an ideal situation.
“There were times last year where you kind of got that look in the huddle where it is like, ‘Hey, I have no idea what you were talking about,’” quarterback Blake Bortles said. “Looking at them this year, they are running out of the huddle before I can finish saying the play because they know what they have.”
The Jags expected those guys to make strides in their second seasons, but they didn’t want to have to rely on it.
Moncrief, meanwhile, welcomes the pressure of having to perform, especially on a one-year contract that essentially has him prepping for free agency again.
“Everybody in that room can play,” Moncrief said. “It’s just about stepping up when you’re ready to go. … I just tell them you’ve been doing this since you were little. It’s just football. Make plays, catch the ball, go block, and let everything else fall in place.
“We’ve got to be special in that room.”