JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- His head coach told him in the spring he needed to be tougher and stronger and play like the big, physical receiver he’s supposed to be.
Two years ago, he was a Pro Bowler and seemed headed for a big contract extension as the Jacksonville Jaguars’ No. 1 receiver. Instead, he is now entering the final year of his rookie contract and doesn’t know if he fits into the team’s future plans.
Yet DJ Chark Jr. doesn’t see 2021 as a make-or-break season for him.
“I feel like I’m a talented player still getting better every year,” Chark said. “I just go out there, when I’m on the field, try to be the best that I can. That’s kind of the mindset I’ve had for a few years now, just keep proving to myself that I can get better at these routes. When I’m off the field, I have a family that takes my mind off of it.
“I’m in a pretty good head space. I just like playing football, and I have some cool teammates, so it’s all cool.”
Things certainly seemed headed in a different direction for Chark after the 2019 season. He caught 73 passes for 1,008 yards and eight touchdowns despite the quarterback roller coaster with Nick Foles and sixth-round rookie Gardner Minshew II. He made the Pro Bowl as an alternate and caught two passes for 67 yards, including a 60-yard touchdown in that game.
If he followed that up with another 1,000-yard season in 2020, he’d be headed for a contract extension, especially since that would make him just the third player in franchise history to have multiple 1,000-yard receiving seasons (Jimmy Smith and Keenan McCardell are the others).
Last year, however, was a huge disappointment. Chark missed three games because of injury, and he dealt with a sore shoulder and back the first part of the season. He caught 53 passes for 706 yards and five touchdowns, and at times was visibly frustrated with the inconsistent quarterback play from Minshew, Jake Luton and Mike Glennon.
He admitted that frustration bled into the way he carried himself and his body language on the field, and he didn’t exactly hide it -- not something you'd want a brand new coaching staff to see when they began watching film during the offseason while evaluating the roster.
Meyer saw it, but he also saw something else: The 6-foot-4, 210-pound Chark played smaller than his size. He was pretty blunt with Chark about it, too, telling him to get into the weight room and get bigger and stronger. Meyer said Chark responded, and the two even spent time before practices working on Chark getting off the line of scrimmage and using his body and size to his advantage.
“One of the things that they saw that they wanted me to get better at was releases and driving, playing fast really,” Chark said. “Those things help me play faster, and when I play faster, I feel unstoppable. ...
“The main thing is playing with speed, vertical speed, getting down the field, which I’m pretty good at.”
The Jaguars need a vertical threat in the offense, and Chark, who ran a 4.34 40-yard dash at the NFL combine, is the top option. The team claimed Tyron Johnson, who ran a 4.36 40 at his Oklahoma State pro day in 2019, off waivers from the Los Angeles Chargers last week, but he has played in just 12 games and has 20 catches for 398 yards and three touchdowns.
Chark is hoping for a quick start this season -- the Jaguars open Sunday against the Texans at NRG Stadium (1 p.m. ET, CBS) -- but he may be a little rusty. He had surgery for a broken finger on his right hand in early August, missed the entire preseason, and started catching passes only last week.
Quarterback Trevor Lawrence said Chark looked pretty good despite missing about a month of practice.
“Honestly, I don’t feel like we’ve really missed a step,” Lawrence said. “We’ve stayed a couple days after to get some timing routes and all those things, just to make sure we’re good. We’ve completed a ton of balls. Even last week, it was funny, like he couldn’t really use his hand that much still, and he’s catching everything with his chest, and I don’t think we had one incompletion when we were throwing in the team periods."
However, whether Chark is back in 2022 … well, that depends on what he does over the next five months. So, even though he doesn’t see it that way, this really is a make-or-break season for him -- in terms of his Jaguars future, anyway.
“[I'm going to] just go crazy, go out there, ball,” Chark said. “I have some great teammates, great offense. Trevor can really throw it, so he’s going to make my job even easier than before. I have Marvin [Jones Jr.] on one side, Laviska [Shenault Jr.] in the slot, make my job easier, make me want to compete, make me want to go harder than they are.
“Hopefully in return, me going hard makes them want to go harder. Just competition, good, friendly competition, I think that will [get] me where I need to be.”