JACKSONVILLE – Here’s this week’s Setting the Table: Storylines and stuff to watch as the Jacksonville Jaguars prepare to play the Kansas City Chiefs at EverBank Field Sunday at 1 p.m.
The storyline for this week would be the debut Sunday of all that is new around the Jaguars – new head coach (Gus Bradley), new general manager (David Caldwell) and a largely new roster that overturned nearly 20 percent of its players in the last week.
That’s new – *big-time new.*
But as it turns out, it’s not the primary storyline, because Jaguars quarterback Blaine Gabbert is uncertain for Sunday, and anytime a team’s starting quarterback is uncertain for any game – particularly the season opener in a critical year for him personally – that’s the key topic.
Gabbert, a third-year veteran, was named the starter two weeks ago – two days after an impressive effort in the second game of the preseason. He needs this season to show he can be a franchise quarterback, having struggled for two seasons since being the No. 10 overall selection in the 2011 NFL Draft. But Gabbert also sustained a sprained right thumb in that game against the New York Jets, and while he threw in practice Monday, he took no snaps and didn’t take any team repetitions.
Gabbert will test the thumb in practice Wednesday, a practice Bradley said will be important to determine Gabbert’s progress. Gabbert said early this week he doesn’t anticipate taking snaps will be a problem, but that likely will be a point of emphasis to determine his readiness.
If Gabbert can’t start Sunday, Chad Henne – the starter the last six games of last season – will start.
The Chiefs, like the Jaguars, struggled to the worst season in franchise history last season. The teams both finished with 2-14 records, with the Chiefs receiving the No. 1 overall selection in the 2013 NFL Draft. Kansas City used that on left tackle Eric Fisher, but this isn’t a typical 2-14 team. Kansas City featured six Pro Bowl players last season – running back Jamaal Charles, punter Dustin Colquitt, safety Eric Berry and linebackers Derrick Johnson, Justin Houston and Tamba Hali. And with the addition of quarterback Alex Smith as a free agent and new head coach Andy Reid – formerly the Eagles’ head coach – many prognosticators are predicting not just improvement, but a playoff appearance. Reid has strong belief in Smith, and if he has the impact Reid believes he can, the Chiefs have enough talent on offense with and wide receiver Dwayne Bowe – to be dangerous. The Chiefs’ defense finished 29th in the NFL in sacks last season, but a linebacker corps led by Hali, Houston and Johnson gives the Chiefs a better-than-the-statistics-indicate pass rush, and the defense could be strong.
The game at EverBank Field in Jacksonville Sunday at 1 p.m. will be broadcast regionally on CBS and locally on WTEV CBS-47 with Spero Dedes on play-by-play and Steve Tasker and Steve Beuerlein on analysis.
Early matchup to watch
Jaguars left tackle Eugene Monroe and right tackle Luke Joeckel versus Chiefs outside linebackers Tamba Hali and Justin Houston. The drafting of Joeckel No. 2 overall understandably received much of the offseason attention, but the Jaguars left Monroe on the left side for a reason: he has performed consistently at a high level the past two seasons. While the Chiefs as a team struggled to create pass rush last season, Hali individually was the 10th-rated 3-4 outside linebacker in the NFL last season according to ProFootballFocus.com, and had nine sacks. Joeckel’s task is just as difficult. Houston had a team-high 10 sacks last season, and was PFF’s seventh-rated 3-4 outside linebacker. The Jaguars drafted Joeckel with the idea of giving the quarterback – Gabbert or Henne – more time. The first test of the season won’t be an easy one.
Player to watch
Cecil Shorts III. Shorts was critical to the Jaguars’ offense anyway, but the suspension of Justin Blackmon makes that even truer. Shorts moved into the starting lineup in the seventh game of last season, emerging as a legitimate big-play threat before a second concussion ended his season a week before the regular-season finale. A tireless worker with the proper approach off the field, Shorts worked out privately in Atlanta before the offseason program, and when it began, he was clearly the team’s best offensive player. Shorts started training camp looking the same way, impressing consistently in practice before a calf injury kept him out the first two preseason games. With Blackmon/Shorts, the Jaguars have a chance to be a balanced, dangerous passing offense. With just Shorts, it will be tougher, but he showed in the offseason that even working without Blackmon he has the potential to be a game-changing wide receiver.
What to watch
*Aside from Gabbert, the Jaguars are relatively healthy, with the expected return of guard Will Rackley (ankle) and defensive end Jeremy Mincey (skin condition) to practice Wednesday making only Gabbert an uncertain health situation for the Jaguars
*Will it be Justin Forsett or Jordan Todman? This question may not get answered until Sunday, because while Todman performed at a high level at running back in the preseason, the team likes the speed and playmaking ability Forsett gives them. Forsett missed the preseason with a toe injury, but returned Monday, and if he’s healthy, the Jaguars could work him into the game plan despite the preseason inactivity.
*The Jaguars not only have a slew of new faces, claiming seven veterans off waivers Sunday, and a lot of that slew should play against the Chiefs. Tight ends Clay Harbor and D.J. Williams, linebacker J.T. Thomas, defensive end Chris McCoy and safety Winston Guy all have the special teams ability that could get them into the opening-day lineup and wide receiver Stephen Burton is a guy the Jaguars like who won’t be off the field long.