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Let the games begin


At last, it's here.

And if it isn't exactly real-live, count-'em-in the standings football, after an off-season crippled by a lockout – and after the first week of a whirlwind training camp that's still sort of getting started for a lot of players – it's the next best thing:

It's the preseason opener, and for the Jaguars, it's a preseason with a lot of questions.

How will the new free agents adapt?

Can Blaine Gabbert push for a starting job?

Can the receivers make the passing offense more effective?

Will the defense improve – and be faster?

Will key players such as running back Maurice Jones-Drew and defensive end Aaron Kampman be healthy entering the regular season?

Will the pass rush take another step?

One preseason game won't answer all the questions, and the preseason opener against the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Mass., at 7:30 p.m. will be only a start.

But while there are prominent storylines throughout the roster, and while preparing the starters for the regular season is key in the coming month, Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio said the priority Thursday will be on player evaluation.

That means the Jaguars' starters won't get a heavy dose Thursday. That's more likely next week against Atlanta at EverBank Field and in the third preseason game at Buffalo.

"We've got to continue to work with these guys and when you're trying to really evaluate the number of players that we are it's going to require a little patience," Del Rio said. "And so in a game like this where we know that's how we're approaching it, we know that and if other people that are viewing don't  - good  or bad - understand that, I'd like to try and help them, but that's the reality.

"We're really more concerned with that now where we are a week and a half into camp than we will be shortly. And soon we'll turn our attention to other things, but right now we're going to really focus on the evaluation part."

We'll be keeping up an old tradition on this season by previewing the 10 things the Jaguars must do to win the game. Because winning takes a back seat to evaluation and development in the preseason, we'll cover 10 areas to watch during the four preseason games, and pick it back up with the 10 keys to victory once the regular season begins.

Here are the 10 areas to watch for the Jaguars against the Patriots:

1.The debut of the kid.It's Blaine Gabbert's first NFL start, a chance of the future.  Don't fret a mistake or two. Look for poise and a few throws that are better than you'd expect from a rookie. That's what he's shown in camp.

2.Shaking things out.The starters won't play long. Evaluating 90 players is a process, and the lockout condensed the process this year, making the preseason opener important for a lot of relative unknowns. First impressions this year could be big.

3.The debut of the other kid.Will Rackley hasn't gotten the attention Gabbert has; he's a guard, not a quarterback. But the third-rounder is expected to start Thursday. Don't worry if he doesn't dominate. He's from Lehigh and there is going to be an adjustment. Still, you'd like to see him not be overwhelmed. The guess here is he won't be.

4.Smith's return.This will be the first NFL game of any kind for Jaguars second-year defensive tackle D'Anthony Smith. His return from an Achilles injury has been remarkable. Now, the Jaguars need him to work toward being a force.

5.Separation wanted.The receivers didn't look great in Saturday's scrimmage; too many drops. A rough game Thursday and the outside criticism of this area will grow.

6.Speed, speed, speed.The defense wants to play faster. Preseason doesn't always translate to regular season, but you should be able to see speed and swarming.

7.Eye on the end.Bookend tackles Eugene Monroe and Eben Britton need to play like third-year vets this season. Monroe has had an encouraging camp, and you'd like to see him comfortable and in control Thursday. Britton missed 11 games last season with a shoulder injury and now he's out with a back for this game.

8.Early acclimation.The new defensive additions – Clint Session, Paul Posluszny, Dawan Landry and Drew Coleman – won't play a lot Thursday. This game is about them taking another small step forward to meshing with teammates in the time they do play.

9.Feeling the rush.The pass rush must continue to develop. That means getting pressure from beyond the obvious names.

10.Is the game too big?As with any year, there are young players with a chance to make the roster. Players such as rookie wide receiver Jamar Newsome and rookie running back DuJuan Harris had big-time college careers, and have shown flashes in camp. But the NFL is a major step up in speed and talent level. Will their collegiate production translate? Can they handle the moment?

That question and the others may not be answered Thursday, but the process will begin.

At last.

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