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Tight ends finally a target in the Jaguars' offense again

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The numbers are hardly prolific, but the tight end is a significant part of the Jacksonville Jaguars’ offense again.

Quarterback Gardner Minshew II has targeted his tight ends a combined 19 times in three games, and while there are nine tight ends who have been targeted more than that on their own (including Las Vegas’ Darren Waller, who leads the NFL with 28 targets), the Jaguars' tight ends are starting to make an impact after three years of essentially being an afterthought.

Tyler Eifert, whom the Jaguars signed in free agency, and James O’Shaughnessy have gotten all of those targets and caught 14 for 124 yards and one touchdown. Last season, O'Shaughnessy led all Jaguars tight ends with 14 catches -- and he didn't play after Week 5 because of a torn ACL.

Offensive coordinator Jay Gruden said he’s been impressed with Eifert and O'Shaughnessy and hints that they could become even more involved as the season progresses.

“I think they’re both very smart, which is critical for tight end play in the National Football League,” Gruden said. “You’ve got to be smart because there’s so many things that we do in the running game, motions, formations, and then in the passing game you’ve got to know the run concepts, how to block the down blocks, I mean, where you’re going up to. And then, obviously the pass concepts, there are a lot of them.

“They have a lot to learn, so both of them are very intelligent; they know what we’re looking for in each individual route. Their versatility is key and they both can do a lot of things that can help us out.”

The Jaguars signed Eifert to a two-year, $9.5 million contract ($3.25 million guaranteed) to bring some life to a position group that really hasn’t made much of an impact since 2016. The Jaguars targeted tight ends 84 times that year -- led by Julius Thomas’ 30 targets -- but since then haven’t thrown more than 59 passes to tight ends since. That includes a league-low 43 times in 2017.

If the Jaguars maintain their current pace, Minshew will throw 75 passes to his tight ends in 2020.

Eifert had a career resurgence last season in Cincinnati, playing in 16 games for the first time in his career and catching 43 passes for 436 yards and four touchdowns after missing 34 games from 2016-18 because of various injuries. Eifert was targeted just once in the season opener, but has been targeted nine times and caught six passes for 55 yards and a touchdown in the last two.

O’Shaughnessy also was targeted just once in the opener but since then has been targeted eight times and caught all eight for 69 yards. Those might not be great numbers but consider that it is coming up on the one-year anniversary of the torn ACL he suffered against Carolina in Week 5 last season.

O’Shaughnessy was back on the field less than a week into training camp after rehabbing his injury during the pandemic. He wasn’t always able to do that according to the typical schedule, as things kept changing as the league tried to figure out a way to operate and what would be permitted for injured players.

That meant O’Shaughnessy had to work out at home, sometimes with the help of his fianceĆ©, and other times he used former teammate Ben Koyack’s home gym. He even had to measure the length of the pool at his home and send it to the medical staff so they could configure a workout for him.

“There’s a very strict schedule with the pandemic and that made things challenging at times, but like I said before, and I continue to reiterate, I can’t say enough about the Jaguars training staff,” O’Shaughnessy said. “Some things would be on the fly. It’d be day-of, we’re finding out the NFL made a decision and I can’t come in and we have to figure out my whole 3-4 hour workout, my whole day, whether it be me having to go somewhere else, whether it be me doing stuff at home.

“We had to find different way for me to supplement if I didn’t have the machines or the equipment ready.”

O’Shaughnessy has been the Jaguars’ best tight end the past two seasons. He also led Jaguars tight ends in targets and receptions in 2018.

This week’s matchup against Cincinnati appears to be a good one for O'Shaughnessy and Eifert. The Bengals have allowed the sixth-most yards (211) and catches (19) by tight ends through the first three weeks of the season.

“We’re not the room you’re going to have to worry about getting upset if we don’t get targets. Obviously, we would like targets. Who doesn’t?” Eifert said. “We just try to go in and be an asset to this team and not a liability to where we’re guys that can be dependable and relied [upon] to make sure we know what we’re doing and we’re getting our job done.”