OWINGS MILLS, Md. – The wait is over. Finally.
And if the urgency isn’t at regular-season level, there still isexcitement as the Jaguars prepare for their first game in more than seven months. That makes Thursday’s preseason opener against the defending AFC North Champions an anticipated moment.
How will this team look Thursday?
Like playoff contenders? Like a team ready to put a difficult 2018 season in the past?
The Jaguars will play the Baltimore Ravens in Preseason Week 1 at M&T Bank Stadium Thursday at 7:30 p.m., and perhaps the biggest question entering the game is who will play.
NFL teams increasingly play fewer of their starters for less time. Head Coach Doug Marrone will decide on playing time and starters Wednesday, with decisions not likely to be announced until shortly before the game.
With that in mind, here are 10 things to watch for the JaguarsThursday:
*1)Quarterback Nick Foles. *We’ll assume in this feature that all starters will play at least a series Thursday – and if Foles plays, he will be the Jaguars’ major story. Foles during 2019 Training Camp has shown the accuracy expected when he signed as an unrestricted free agent in March – and the offense showed flashes in joint practices against the Ravens Monday and Tuesday. If Foles and the starters play Thursday, a productive series or two would maintain that offensive momentum.
*2)Injuries. *The Jaguars’ two rookie third-round selections – linebacker Quincy Williams (knee) and tight end Josh Oliver (hamstring) – didn’t make the trip this week, and veteran linebacker James Onwualu is out for the season with a knee injury sustained Monday in practice. Injuries happen, and Onwualu is the only season-ending situation thus far. But you don’t want them increasing, either.
*3)Leonard Fournette. *It would be good to see the third-year running back get a few repetitions and show the power running and receiving ability he has shown in camp thus far. Then it would be good to get him out in a hurry. A few touches are all that’s necessary.
*4)DJ Chark Jr. and Chris Conley … *The two wide receivers have stood out in practice during the past week. Conley has continued to show chemistry with Foles, and Chark increasingly has shown a knack for dynamic plays. If Conley and Chark are as good as they’re starting to show, that’s a huge lift for this offense.
*5)… and Dede Westbrook and the rest of the receivers, too. *Westbrook remains perhaps the most consistent receiver in camp – and he routinely has turned routine receptions into big gains.The entire receiving corps is worth watching Thursday. Veterans Keelan Cole and Terrelle Pryor Sr. both likely will play extensively, and they could be battling for a roster spot. Also watch for rookie free agent Tyre Brady, a 6-feet-3, 211-pound receiver who continues to flash during camp.
*6)The Allen-Campbell-Dareus-Ngakoue front … *The third-down defensive front in recent practices has been ends Josh Allen and Yannick Ngakoue with Calais Campbell and Marcell Dareus inside. That’s a lot of first-round draft equity, talent, Pro Bowls and sacks in one group. It’s unlikely the entire group will be active Thursday, but whenever that group is on the field it figures to be dangerous. If Allen plays, he’s particularly worth watching. The No. 7 overall selection in the 2019 NFL Draft, his pass rush moves are relatively advanced for a rookie – and his size, strength and athleticism are impossible to miss.
*7)Jawaan Taylor. *A Round 2 selection in the ’19 draft, Taylor is increasingly working with the starters at right tackle. He may not start Thursday, partly because the coaching staff wants him to continue earning his way into the lineup, but watch Taylor when he plays. You’ll be watching the team’s future right tackle.
*8)Gardner Minshew. *A sixth-round selection in the ’19 draft, Minshew has worked with the second team throughout much of camp. The Jaguars clearly want him to earn the backup job behind Foles. He figures to get a long, long, long look Thursday.
*9)The tight ends. *This is an area to watch throughout the preseason, even with Oliver currently out. Geoff Swaim, who signed as an unrestricted free agent from Dallas in the offseason, appears capable as a receiver and blocker – and veteran James O’Shaughnessy is working with the starters. Player to watch: Charles Jones, a free-agent rookie from Tulane who is excelling as a blocker and whose size and athleticism is intriguing.
*10)The linebackers. *Injuries have made this an area to watch. While starting middle linebacker Myles Jack figures to play sparingly if at all Thursday, look for strong-side linebacker Leon Jacobs to get extended time and for veteran Najee Goode to start for Williams on the weak side.