Jacksonville’s Cecil Shorts, one of the NFL’s best bargains, is still paying off his student loans

Ah, those mid-round rookie contracts. If a guy catches 55 passes for 979 yards and 7 touchdowns in an otherwise anemic offense, and he does so despite starting just nine games in a season, you'd think he'd be flush with cash. But for Jacksonville Jaguars receiver Cecil Shorts III, that's not been so. Despite a productive season in 2012 for a team that won just two games, Shorts is tied into the same CBA contract structure that prevents teams from re-negotiating with players in their first three NFL seasons. As a result, he's going to be one of the league's best values until the end of the 2013 campaign if he keeps on the same track.

That's why VIZIO picked Shorts to be one of the Top Value Performer finalists, along with Denver Broncos receiver Eric Decker ($490,000 base salary in 2012), New England Patriots running back Stevan Ridley ($509.250), Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson ($390,000), and Washington Redskins running back Alfred Morris ($390,000). Any of those salaries are pretty big-time in comparison with the average American salary, but in the context of the NFL? A relative pittance. Receivers have won the award in each of the last three seasons -- Steve Smith and Victor Cruz of the New York Giants in 2009 and 2011, respectively, and Buffalo's Stevie Johnson in 2010.

"VIZIO picked five guys that they felt outperformed their contracts," Shorts recently told Y! Sports. "I guess we don't get paid as much as some of the big stars do. They decided to pick five guys, and I was one of the lucky five to be picked based on my performance throughout the year. So it feels good to be noted for my success this year. Fans can go to http://www.vizio.com/tvp, and vote for me as many times as they'd like. I'm in second place right now behind a very good Russell Wilson, so we've got some voting to do."

Shorts may not beat Wilson, but he's certainly one of the NFL's best bargains. The Jags selected Justin Blackmon with the fifth overall pick in the 2012 draft, and gave him a four-year, $18.5 million contract that's fully guaranteed unless he gets suspended. In 2012, Blackmon caught 64 passes for 865 yards and five touchdowns. By any performance standard, Shorts, who signed a four-year, $2,672,146 contract after the Jags took him in the fourth round of the 2011 NFL Draft out of Mount Union, has more than earned his cash.

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Moreover, though his base salary seems like a relatively big deal if you're working a day job, Shorts has an additional financial complication. No Division III school offers athletic scholarships, so Shorts didn't get a full ride, and he's still paying off student loans that totaled about $70,000 when he left school.

"I think I have $30,000 to go, but I pretty much can pay that off throughout this year," he said. "It's a monthly thing, and I'm just taking my time with it. I didn't want to throw my money into it right away."

And with no scholarship, Shorts also had to take jobs while he was studying and playing football, working on his health and physical education major.

"I had a work-study job," he recalled. "I would sit in the weight room or, in the summertime, I had to work and workout. So some guys went out for football, and I would just work. Landscaping-type jobs, I would cut grass, mow the football field, plant plants around the campus and whatnot, but it was basically take care of the campus and the football area. Whatever they needed around campus."

Fortunately, Shorts doesn't have to help maintain the grounds in and around Jacksonville's EverBank Field. Now, it's about expanding a repertoire that allowed him to rise up from a rookie campaign in which he caught just two passes for 30 yards to a second season in which he became a serious target.

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"Well, I was named the starter halfway through the season, so I think that definitely helped with the targets because before then, I wasn't playing that much. I know in the Bears game, I think I between 12 and 14 snaps a game up until, like, Week 7. Wasn't getting that many opportunities, but in the game, I made plays. That's what opened their eyes. So when [receiver] Laurent [Robinson] went down [and] they put him on I.R., they were like, 'Hey, let's give Cecil a shot. He's making plays'. I just continued to make the most of my opportunities, and more targets start coming my way, quarterbacks start trusting me more and more as the season went along, and then they just gained confidence in me just to play."

Like most deep receivers -- he tied for second in the NFL for yards per catch in 2012 with San Diego's Danario Alexander at 17.8, behind only Tampa Bay's VIncent Jackson at 19.2 -- Shorts can still be boom-and-bust at times. For all the big hits, there are some misses as well. Those 55 catches came on 106 targets, and while a great deal of that inconsistency can be blamed on a quarterback situation that could be termed dicey at best, Shorts also knows that he needs to get better, and he's ready to do so this offseason.

"As a total wide receiver, I think I have some work to do. I always see myself as needing to improve. Last offseason, this offseason, just improving my total game. I don't want to focus on just one thing – my hands or – just trying to focus, as a total receiver, just getting better. I think my route-running can improve, especially on some certain routes. You can get cut if you can't get off the press. I think I did a good job of getting off the press, but you can never be too good at it. So getting off the press is definitely an important thing I think I need to work on.

"But I'm excited for this upcoming year. Third-year campaign and I think I can do some good things next year."

And then, the Jags can do some good things for him. Especially in the financial department.

Outside the Game from Yahoo! Sports

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