While Patriots receiver Wes Welker was catching 122 passes for 1,569 yards a year ago, every single receiver employed by the Jacksonville Jaguars was catching a combined 118 passes for 1,320 yards.
"Everybody knew we needed a receiver," said new Jaguars coach Mike Mularkey, whose revamped receiving corps gets its first regular-season test against the Vikings on Sunday at Mall of America Field.
When Mularkey was hired Jan. 11, one of his priority staff hires was receivers coach Jerry Sullivan, a veteran coach of 40 seasons, including 19 in the NFL. Sullivan was out of the league last year but spent time in the Twin Cities working with Cardinals All-Pro receiver and Minneapolis native Larry Fitzgerald Jr. and Packers tight end Jermichael Finley.
Two months later, as NFL free agency opened, Mularkey and General Manager Gene Smith made their first move to upgrade a league-worst passing attack that averaged just 136.2 yards per game. It took $32 million over five years, but they landed their No. 1 priority in 27-year-old receiver Laurent Robinson, whose breakout 2011 season included 11 touchdowns for the Cowboys.
"He's the blazer," Vikings defensive coordinator Alan Williams said. "They put him out at the 'X' and he's a deep-route-runner."
Robinson averaged 15.9 yards per catch on 54 receptions a year ago. Meanwhile, the Jaguars' leading receiver, Mike Thomas, averaged just 9.4 yards on 10 fewer receptions.
A month after Robinson was signed, Mularkey and Smith nabbed the focal point of their new receiving corps for, they hope, years to come. All it took was a draft-day trade and faith that the Vikings weren't really interested in selecting Oklahoma State's Justin Blackmon to upgrade their own considerable shortcomings at receiver.
Mularkey paused and laughed when asked if he believed Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman's campaign to convince everyone that the Vikings were torn between Blackmon, LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne and USC left tackle Matt Kalil, whom the team ultimately selected fourth overall after trading down a spot with Cleveland.
"It's such a chess match on draft day," Mularkey said. "You really can't go by everything that anybody says. It was a wait and see. We had a Plan B and a Plan C if it didn't work out."
But it did. The Jaguars traded the seventh overall pick and a fourth-rounder to move up two spots to select Blackmon on the heels of Kalil. The Jaguars had addressed their long-term left tackle situation in 2009 when they selected Eugene Monroe eighth overall.
"With our left tackle position being what it was coming out of the season, we had targeted that area," Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said. "We wanted to solidify that position, knowing how important it is for our team, for every team, but in particular when you have a young quarterback like we have."
Blackmon had a rough offseason off the field. He pled guilty to an aggravated drunken driving charge that included no jail time after a June arrest in which his blood alcohol level (.24) was three times the legal limit in Oklahoma. It came two years after a drunken driving charge was reduced to underage alcohol possession.
On the field, however, Blackmon has continued to look like the 6-1, 210-pound superstar that scored 40 touchdowns and won the Biletnikoff Award as the nation's top receiver in the final two years of his three-year stay at Oklahoma State. He caught 10 passes for 136 yards in three preseason games.
His speed, route running, ball skills in tight coverage and ability to run after the catch have been widely praised. Mularkey took it a step further, comparing Blackmon to future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez when it comes to catching the ball.
"He's a difference-maker ballplayer," Williams said.
The Jaguars filled out their six-man receiving corps by keeping undrafted rookie Kevin Elliott, a 6-3 215-pounder from Florida A&M; and 2011 holdovers Thomas, Cecil Shorts and Brian Robiskie. Elliott had two preseason touchdowns, including a 77-yarder. Thomas has led the team in receptions the past two years. Shorts caught two passes as a rookie after making last year's team out of Division III Mount Union. Robiskie was placed on injured reserve late last season, shortly after being claimed off waivers from Cleveland.
This is the crew the Jaguars hope will give them some offensive balance this year. Or at least generate better balance than last year, when running back Maurice Jones-Drew accounted for a league-high 47.7 percent of the total offensive yards. That's an amazing percentage considering the next highest was 38.2 by Ravens running back Ray Rice.