JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Rejoining a winless team that is shorthanded in a big way at wide receiver isn't anything close to qualifying as a best-case scenario for Ace Sanders.
But the Jacksonville Jaguars are excited to have him back, and their second-leading wideout as a rookie a year ago is relieved to have a four-game suspension for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy in his rear-view mirror.
Sanders practiced Wednesday for the first time since Aug. 26, two days before the Jaguars' final preseason game. Considering both Cecil Shorts III and rookie Marqise Lee are not expected to play Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers because of hamstring injuries, the return of Sanders can be classified as one step forward in the midst of two steps back.
"I don't know what to expect," Sanders said. "I'm just going in and whatever they ask me to do, I'll do it. If it turns out that way, then I'll be prepared for it."
Except for organized team activities more than a month before the start of training camp, Sanders hasn't worked much with first-round pick Blake Bortles, who replaced Chad Henne as the starting quarterback halfway through Jacksonville's third game. Not only is Bortles a rookie, but so are their two leading receivers in second-round selection Allen Robinson and undrafted Allen Hurns.
"Obviously having Ace back is a huge help," said Bortles, who had five completions to both Robinson and Hurns in the 33-14 loss to the San Diego Chargers. "We're excited for him, excited to have him back out there this week practicing. I look forward to seeing what he can do. For the rest of the guys, they're going to continue to step up and make plays like they've done all year when their number's been called."
"He's a gamer," Sanders said of Bortles. "I can just play with a competitor."
Already reeling from the league's suspension of Justin Blackmon, whose return to the team that drafted him in the first round in 2012 remains iffy at best, the Jaguars learned before the start of camp that Sanders would take a leave of absence for what he called personal issues. He wouldn't provide any particulars Wednesday but said "I'm just in a better place, that's all" and thanked the organization "from the equipment staff all the way up to the cafeteria people. They're all the same, just uplifting and positive."
"I know these last couple weeks were tough on him," coach Gus Bradley said. "But they went fast for him, and now he's got a chance. And I think he's just truly looking forward."
Jacksonville Jaguars news
-- Rookie WR Marqise Lee out vs. Steelers
-- WR Cecil Shorts III likely to miss Sunday's game
Added Shorts: "I think he's more mature. This kind of opened his eyes a little bit. He learned from his mistakes, and I'm excited to see him grow as a person off the field."
Sanders sat in on team meetings during his suspension and believes being able to watch the Jaguars as a spectator provided him a perspective from which he'll profit in upcoming weeks.
Although they need his receiving abilities, Sanders could be used against the Steelers first and foremost as a punt returner. He returned four punts in his one preseason game before those duties fell to Mike Brown, who has averaged 7.4 yards on only five returns through four games.
More than half of Bortles' 29 completions against the Chargers were to tight ends or running backs. Shorts had two catches for 25 yards before his latest hamstring setback, an injury which occurred during the third quarter when he made a move on the back side of a running play.
Following an injury timeout to someone else, Shorts remained on the field and thought he could play through what was ailing him. But he was unable to come back on a pass thrown by Bortles which was intercepted and helped set up a field goal by the Chargers.
"I left my team out to dry," Shorts said. "I feel that was selfish on my part, even though I was trying to help the team. I've got to be realistic with myself when I get hurt."
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