Maurice Jones-Drew is back. The question: how much will he play?
Jones-Drew, a three-time Pro Bowl running back, reported to the Jaguars Sunday after a 38-day holdout. He practiced Monday, took 10-to-15 reps, and said he believes he is in game shape.
Jaguars Head Coach Mike Mularkey said Jones-Drew almost certainly will play, but that Rashad Jennings – who started all four preseason games and performed well – will start. Jones-Drew is expected to play as a backup, which means playing on third downs and relieving Jennings for a few series.
How much will Jones-Drew actually play? That may decide itself. So long as Jennings is effective – and so far he has been very effective – the Jaguars have no reason to abandon the plan. It seems likely Jennings will play well, because the offensive line has run-blocked well throughout the preseason.
If Jones-Drew runs well and is more effective, then it's possible he could earn more carries.
There are a few storylines, with the biggest the health of Adrian Peterson. The All-Pro running back tore an ACL and an MCL last season and although he practiced during the preseason, he hasn't played. The Vikings have yet to announce his status for Sunday, though Peterson has remained confident he will play. As for the Jaguars, Mularkey has been around Peterson, considers him an elite athlete and said if anyone can return from a serious injury, it is Peterson. The Jaguars, Mularkey said, will prepare as if Peterson is playing. Another key for the Vikings is quarterback Christian Ponder, a second-year veteran from Florida Sate entering his first season as the full-time starter. The team's offensive line struggled at times in the preseason, and how Ponder and that group develop could define the Vikings' season.
The game at the Metrodome in Minneapolis will be broadcast regionally on CBS and locally on WTEV CBS47 (Channel 6). Kevin Harlan is on play-by-play, with Solomon Wilcots on analysis.
Early matchup to watch
Jaguars left tackle Eugene Monroe vs. Vikings defensive end Jared Allen. This is the early matchup, but it will be one to watch all week. Monroe's goal this season is to be dominant. He believes he's capable of being a premiere left tackle, and that this is his season to prove that. On Sunday, he'll get his first chance to show it. Allen, a four-time All-Pro, had 22 sacks last season. Jaguars quarterback Blaine Gabbert has shown improvement, but he still needs time. Monroe needs to handle Allen to get him that time.
Player to watch
Much focus around the Jaguars in the preseason was on Gabbert, wide receiver Justin Blackmon and Jones-Drew's holdout, but if there was a preseason Player of the Month for the Jaguars, it may have been wide receiver Mike Thomas. There was speculation about his status during the offseason and early in training camp. But Thomas led the Jaguars in receiving in the preseason, and his improvement was more than statistics. He developed a rapport with Gabbert, and is a legitimate weapon at third receiver.
- The focus Wednesday will be on Jaguars guard Uche Nwaneri. He missed practice Monday with an ankle injury sustained in the preseason finale against the Falcons. He hasn't practiced since, but Mularkey said he was held out Monday to give him an extra day of rest and that he expects him to practice Wednesday and play Sunday. If Nwaneri plays, that gives the Jaguars their starting offensive line of Eugene Monroe at left tackle, Eben Britton at left guard, Brad Meester at center, Nwaneri at right guard and Cameron Bradfield at right tackle. If Nwaneri can't play, free agent rookie Mike Brewster likely will start in his place.
- Jaguars cornerback Derek Cox, out since early in the preseason opener with a hamstring injury, worked on a limited basis Monday, but Mularkey said he's iffy for Sunday and it's unlikely he'll play. If Cox doesn't play, Will Middleton likely will get the start in his place, with veteran Rashean Mathis – still rehabilitating from ACL surgery – likely playing the nickel.
- Fullback Montell Owens, a Pro Bowl special teams player the last two seasons, missed practice Monday with soreness in the knee, but Mularkey said he likely will return to practice Wednesday.
- Defensive ends Austen Lane (foot) and George Selvie (knee) aren't likely to play, and while many speculated the team could sign a veteran defensive end, it appears likely the Jaguars will go with what they have. Starters Jeremy Mincey and rookie Andre Branch are healthy, and third-year veteran Aaron Morgan was very good in the preseason. Look for defensive tackles Tyson Alualu and D'Anthony Smith to possibly get some work at end.