JACKSONVILLE – It's here. At last.
And if it's not quite real, it is the closest thing to real the Jaguars have had since the AFC Championship Game last January. That makes Thursday's preseason opener against the defending NFC South Champion New Orleans Saints a much-anticipated moment.
How will this team look Thursday?
Like real Super Bowl contenders? Like a team hungry to prove itself? Like an improved, focused team?
The Jaguars looked like those things during an impressive offseason, and they looked like those things in an equally impressive first couple of weeks of 2018 Training Camp.
That has been the biggest takeaway during the time that has passed since last season – bigger than the improvement of quarterback Blake Bortles, bigger than the additions on the offensive line, bigger than the tweaks at the offensive skill positions.
No, bigger than all those things has been an overriding feeling that this team believes it's very good – championship quality – and that it can't wait to prove that to the world.
Thursday won't prove that because you can't prove such things in the preseason. But even if it's not quite real, it will be close – and it will be an anticipated moment.
Here are 10 things to watch for the Jaguars in that moment:
1.Quarterback … Starter Blake Bortles looked the part of an improved, poised veteran throughout the offseason – and he has looked that way throughout 2018 Training Camp. He's making better decisions than in the past, is more accurate and has the feel of a player with confidence gained from experience. He talked recently about his lows not being as low anymore as early in his career. His preseason performance needs to reflect that.
2. … and more quarterback. Don't look for Bortles (or many starters) to play more than a few series Thursday. Most of this game will be evaluating backups, and that's good for the Jaguars because backup quarterback Cody Kessler needs reps in this offense. The guess here is he gets at least two full quarters, maybe more.
3.The rookie punter. A punter? As a preseason area to watch? Absolutely. Rookie Logan Cooke had a monster night at Florida Blue Family Night practice Friday. The Jaguars need him to flip the field and execute better in big moments than his predecessor, Brad Nortman.
4.Interior offensive line. Keep an eye on this while the starters are playing. The Jaguars signed All-Pro left guard Andrew Norwell from Carolina as an unrestricted free agent, and right guard A.J. Cann has had the best training camp of his four-year NFL career. Along with center Brandon Linder, this is a group that must give running back Leonard Fournette more room early in runs.
5.Strongside linebacker. Rookie strong-side backer Leon Jacobs has impressed coaches while working with the starters in camp. Because he's a rookie, he could get more reps than the rest of the starters. He's the clear favorite to start Week 1.
6.Caution. A hint as kickoff approaches: there almost certainly will be some big-name Jaguars players you won't see Thursday. If a player has the faintest sniff of a hint of a whiff of an injury he likely won't play Thursday. We're a month from the regular season. Take no chances.
7.An early swarm. The Jaguars' first-team defense won't likely play long – two series, maybe three. When it does play, look for speed and energy. That was the trademark of the unit last season, and it has looked like a more motivated group in camp.
8.Can they tackle? This is a major focus for the Jaguars Thursday – up there with "Can they block?" Throw in "can they make guys miss?" Head Coach Doug Marrone, defensive coordinator Todd Wash and offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett all talked about this week: because teams rarely hit live in practice, preseason games are the only time to see if players can block, tackle and evade tacklers in game speed. These areas will be watched closely by coaches when reviewing this game.
9.The wide receiver battle. This is interesting on two levels. Reps and roles for the Jaguars' first five receivers – Donte Moncrief, Marqise Lee, DJ Chark Jr., Keelan Cole and Dede Westbrook – could be decided in the first three preseason games. Roster positions for wide receivers such as Shane Wynn, Allen Lazard, Rashad Greene Sr. and Jaydon Mickens could sway on preseason performances, too. There's a lot that must play out at this position. It starts in a big way Thursday.
10.Cornerback. Like receiver, there's a lot to watch here. Nickel corner D.J. Hayden has looked good in practice this week, and starters A.J. Bouye and Jalen Ramsey are the league's best corner duo. The Jaguars also like veteran Tyler Patmon. The camp storylines are behind that foursome. Can rookies Tre Herndon and Quenton Meeks force their way into the roster. Keep a particularly eye on Herndon, an undrafted free agent from Vanderbilt.
11.Enjoy. But it's 10 things, you say. Yes, but we'll offer this No. 11 as a reminder: enjoy this preseason opener at the 'Bank, but don't overstress. It's preseason. Look for effectiveness and look for some young players to show up. Teams aren't game-planning in this game, nor as they scheming to exploit opponents' weaknesses. With those elements out of the game, the outcome has limited meaning – even if it is as close to the real thing as we have seen in some time.