JACKSONVILLE – Eleven days remain.
Indeed, the thought that we're a little more than a week and a half from the 2018 regular season may be on the minds of many Jaguars fans as Thursday's preseason finale approaches.
But that's not the main story. At least not for a lot of Jaguars players.
For a lot of Jaguars players, the story when they play the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 4 of the '18 preseason at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa is something more immediate, and more urgent.
That's because a lot of Jaguars players are competing for jobs, and some are playing their final game with the Jaguars. Some are playing their final game of the season. Some are playing their final football game, period. That's the reality of the NFL preseason finale.
And that's the reality for many Jaguars players on Thursday.
Here are 10 things to watch during that game:
1.Baseball caps and smiles. That's what most starters and front-line players will wear once the game begins. Most teams rest their starters these days in the preseason finale. With a few exceptions, look for the Jaguars to do the same Thursday.
2.Dante Fowler Jr. We'll touch on the front-line Jaguars players who are playing early in this 10 Things, and no Jaguars playing Thursday will be higher-profile than the No. 3 overall selection in the 2015 NFL Draft. The defensive end missed the first two preseason games – the first because of a shoulder injury, the second because of a team suspension – and he will miss the regular-season opener against the New York Giants because of a one-game NFL suspension. That will make Thursday his last work until the Jaguars' regular-season home opener against New England September 16.
3.Cody Kessler. The third-year veteran has secured the backup quarterback job after being acquired in an offseason trade with the Cleveland Browns. Head Coach Doug Marrone said Kessler will play Thursday. The priority is to keep him healthy behind a reserve offensive line that has allowed him to be sacked eight times this preseason. You don't want Blake Bortles' top backup exposed to a bunch of motivated Buccaneers defenders trying to make a roster.
4.Dawuane Smoot … A third-round selection in the 2017 NFL Draft, Smoot played 16 games last season but missed the first three preseason games with an ankle injury. How secure is his roster spot on a deep, talented defensive line?
5…. And Eli Ankou. Ankou's profile is lower than Smoot's, but his story is similar. He was on the roster last season and was active nine games as a reserve nose tackle. The Jaguars clearly like both him and Smoot, but neither has played in the preseason. These will be players to watch come cutdown day on Saturday.
6.Who's not playing? Keep an eye on players ruled out before the game. Most of them will be players who obviously have made the roster, and there won't be many surprises. But there may be a few players held out who raise eyebrows. The guys who are ruled out have made it. Their smiles may be a little wider than those playing.
7.Tre Herndon/Quenton Meeks. These two undrafted cornerbacks have stood out through preseason and training camp, and one figures to make the roster. The Jaguars like Herndon enough that it would be a surprise if he doesn't make the team. Both players are NFL caliber corners.
8.Wide receiver numbers. This has been a focus throughout training camp, and remains one entering Preseason Week 4. DJ Chark Jr., Dede Westbrook, Keelan Cole and Donte Moncrief figure to be on the team. Will the team keep two more receivers? Jaydon Mickens, Rashad Greene Sr., and Shane Wynn all figure to be competing for one or two slots with punt returner still a factor. And that competition could continue Thursday.
9.Special teams. If a team is going to get made in Preseason Week 4 – and that absolutely can happen – this is often where it happens.
10.Stay healthy. Even in the preseason finale, health is paramount. Very few front-line players will play, but you don't want players who could be on the roster getting hurt in the final game of the preseason.