JACKSONVILLE – Ten Things to watch when the Jaguars play the Atlanta Falcons in the 2014 preseason finale at EverBank Field Thursday …
1. Blake Bortles. We begin here because everyone’s watching the rookie quarterback anyway. But it’s worth watching Bortles Thursday because this could be his last playing time for a while. The Jaguars’ plan is to start Chad Henne at quarterback in the regular season and there’s no sign of that plan changing.
2. Henne. Henne is expected to start the regular-season opener, and the Jaguars have given no indication of coming off that plan. He and the starters won’t likely play far into the second quarter Thursday – if, that is, they play past the end of the first. Or if they play at all, for that matter. The starting offense has just one touchdown drive in three games – that coming against the Bears in Week 2. Ideally, whatever version of the first-team offense plays would get a long drive or two capped by at least one touchdown before leaving the game.
3. Bortles, specifically. With the starters likely playing no more than a series or two, Bortles and the second unit will probably enter the game late in the first quarter and play at least one or two series. When Bortles is in the game, watch his knack for moving in the pocket and for keeping his eyes downfield. He looks to throw downfield first, and that’s a good sign for a young quarterback.
4. Bortles, even more specifically. Bortles hasn’t shown many flaws to the naked eye in three preseason games, but with a rookie No. 3 overall selection in the draft playing as well as he has, even the details are a topic. Bortles has worked since arriving with the Jaguars in early May to improve footwork, and he has made significant progress. One area he said this week still needs to improve is timing on slant routes, an area where he struggled last week. Also, watch to see what sort of defensive fronts and coverage schemes Bortles faces. In the preseason finale, they’re not likely to be overly complex, something that will change whenever he plays in the regular season.
5. Competition at center. What began camp as an uncertainty is ending camp as a full-on competition. Mike Brewster started the first two games at the position, with Jacques McClendon starting Week 3. As of Tuesday, Jaguars Head Coach Gus Bradley hadn’t said who will start Thursday, but McClendon, rookie Luke Bowanko and Brewster all could get time. Don’t count Bowanko out as the answer at the position. He could be in the lineup sooner rather than later.
6. Tyson Alualu. There were observers who wondered before training camp if Alualu would have a spot on the roster. That question was raised after the offseason signing of Red Bryant. While Alualu indeed is expected to start the season as a backup to Bryant at the five-technique defensive end, he in fact is playing as well as any Jaguars defensive lineman. His streak of 64 starts in 64 possible games played likely will end in the regular-season opener, but Alualu is critical to the Jaguars’ defensive line and may be playing at the highest level of his five-year career.
7. First-team offensive line. There is no guarantee any first-teamers will play extensively Thursday, but parts of the first-team offensive line will get at least a look – partly because of the ongoing search for a center. However much the front-line offensive line plays, the Jaguars would like to see more continuity and more push up front. The regular season starts in a week and a half, and the running game still needs more consistency.
8. The wide receivers. This is a talented area, but one that sorely lacks experience. Cecil Shorts III missed much of training camp, but he has looked very good in practice the last week and a half and appears close to being ready. The two players to watch here are Ace Sanders and Tandon Doss. Neither played the first three preseason games, and Sanders will miss the first four weeks of the season suspended under the NFL’s substance-abuse program. If they play, their reps likely will be limited, but both players should get time on offense and returning punts.
9. Roster battles. Realistically, 48 or 49 of the 53 roster spots are decided – and perhaps more than that. But in the second half, there will be a few position battles ongoing. Wide receivers Mike Brown and Kerry Taylor. Rashaad Reynolds, Josh Evans and Jeremy Harris in the secondary. Anyone not starting at running back. The Jaguars will have some roster machinations to make over the weekend, and it’s probably more than a few of those players will be in the machination conversation. Another player to watch: linebacker J.T. Thomas, who may be playing his way into a backup middle linebacker role.
10. Ricky Stanzi and Stephen Morris. Will either of these quarterbacks be on the final roster? That remains to be seen, but injuries on the offensive line and wide receiver make it tougher. Any spot being held for an injured player is one less spot for a third-team quarterback. Still, Stanzi and Morris figure to get plenty of time. Henne, if he starts, will play sparingly and Bortles probably won’t play too much after that, giving Stanzi and Morris what likely will be their most extensive opportunities of the preseason.