JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The Jacksonville Jaguars have spent the past decade trying to replace star receivers Jimmy Smith and Keenan McCardell.
They used first-round draft picks on R. Jay Soward (2000), Reggie Williams (2004) and Matt Jones (2005). They spent millions on free agents Dennis Northcutt (2007), Jerry Porter (2008) and Torry Holt (2009). None of them panned out. All of them moved on.
And the search continued.
Jacksonville may have solved half its long-standing problem last year, when Mike Sims-Walker emerged as David Garrard's go-to guy and a legitimate big-play threat. As for the other half? The Jaguars are hoping to figure that out in training camp.
It's one of the most intriguing position battles going on in Jacksonville, with everyone keeping a close eye on young receivers Jarett Dillard, Clarence Denmark, Nate Hughes, Mike Thomas and Tiquan Underwood. Throw in veterans Kassim Osgood and Troy Williamson, and the Jaguars have numerous options to play alongside Sims-Walker this fall.
"It's so wide open that training camp and these preseason games are probably going to determine who's the starter and who gets cut," Hughes said Saturday.
Dillard and Thomas are considered front-runners for the starting spot. They contributed as rookies last season and looked dynamic at times, but they also have been slowed by injuries.
A fifth-round pick from Rice in 2009, Dillard missed the final seven games after breaking his right ankle in November. He also sustained a stress fracture in his left foot in June and opened camp on the physically unable to perform list. He expects to return in a couple of weeks, but it could be a setback.
Thomas, a fourth-round pick from Arizona in 2009, missed most of offseason workouts because of a nagging hamstring injury. Nonetheless, he showed so much promise last season that Jacksonville didn't hesitate to part ways with Holt — a seven-time Pro Bowler brought in to mentor the young guys.
Thomas caught 48 passes for 453 yards and a touchdown in '09. He also carried 12 times for 86 yards, and returned kickoffs and punts.
"We just need somebody to say, 'I'm stepping up,'" Garrard said.
Denmark and Underwood stepped up during organized team activities. They stood out in those spring/summer workouts and got a big confidence boost.
"It's been a huge difference," said Underwood, a seventh-round pick from Rutgers in 2009. "I'm more confident this time around. I know what to expect. I can go about training camp like a veteran."
Osgood and Williamson are the veterans of the group.
Osgood spent the past seven seasons in San Diego and made three Pro Bowls as a special teams ace. He signed a three-year contract worth $6.675 million with Jacksonville in March. He received nearly $3 million guaranteed, but got no promises of more playing time.
After catching just five passes the past five years, Osgood wants a bigger role. But he has dropped several passes thrown his way.
"It's all about being consistent," Underwood said. "We all have the talent to do it. It's going to come down to who's the most consistent."
Williamson showed the most consistency last preseason. The former first-round bust in Minnesota caught 12 passes for 247 yards and a touchdown, and earned a starting spot opposite Holt. But he tore his right labrum in the second game of the season, spent the rest of the year on injured reserve and opened the door for Sims-Walker.
Sims-Walker finished with 63 receptions for 869 yards and seven touchdowns.
The Jaguars expect more from him this season, but they realize they need someone opposite him to make it work like it did with Smith and McCardell.
Hughes could be the guy. He's certainly the underdog. Hughes surprisingly earned a roster spot last season, only to get waived after dropping a fourth-quarter pass in the end zone against Arizona in Week 2. He was in tears after the game and couldn't sleep after getting cut. But he turned down several offers to sign elsewhere and rejoined Jacksonville's practice squad.
He got a little playing time late in the season, but he's still waiting for a chance to redeem himself.
"I'd give anything for another shot," he said.
He has it — along with everyone else at the position.
"It's going to boil down to being consistent," Hughes said. "Consistency and speed are the two things they've been searching for for years. If you can play consistently fast, I think you'll have a chance — and make sure you catch everything."