JACKSONVILLE – It's still not real, but it's kinda close.
At the very least, the Jaguars' Preseason Week 3 game against the Atlanta Falcons at TIAA Bank Field on Saturday is the closest thing to the NFL regular season until, well … the regular season.
It's dress rehearsal week, which likely means a longer look at the Jaguars' starters than in the first two preseason games. The starters played about a series in a preseason-opening loss to the New Orleans Saints at the 'Bank and about a half in last week's victory over Minnesota, so look for the first team to play about a series into the third quarter Saturday.
After that, don't expect to see the starters until the September 9 regular-season opener against the New York Giants at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey.
That's because next Thursday's preseason finale against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa is mostly about determining the bottom part of the roster. It's also about resting starters, although a few front-line guys could get a few reps that week.
But Week 3 is the starters' longest appearance – and the closest thing we get to the regular season until, well … the regular season. Here are 10 things to watch for the Jaguars in that appearance:
1.The dress rehearsal.No preseason score truly counts, but how a team plays in the first half in Preseason Week 3 matters more than preseason things matter. This is a good Jaguars team. It's a good Falcons team. That should mean a good first two quarters Saturday night.
2.The debut of the first-rounder.Defensive lineman Taven Bryan, the Jaguars' first-round selection in the 2018 NFL Draft, is expected to play Saturday after missing the first two preseason games with an abdominal injury. Bryan has impressed with his athleticism and quickness, and signs point to him making an impact as a reserve this season. But games matter, and Saturday will be Bryan's first at the professional level.
3.The debut of Andrew Norwell.It's tricky to call an interior offensive lineman's debut "much-anticipated," but there is more anticipation on this one than most. Norwell, an Associated Press first-team All-Pro selection for Carolina last season, signed with the Jaguars as an unrestricted free agent in March. The idea is that he will help solidify the offensive line's left side and help the Jaguars run when they need to run. Norwell can't do that by himself, but his presence should make a difference.
4.The debut – almost – of the offensive line.Center Brandon Linder doesn't appear likely to play because of a knee injury sustained against Minnesota last Saturday. But in addition to Norwell, right tackle Jermey Parnell will make his preseason debut. That means this will be the closest thing the line has to a dress rehearsal for the regular season.
5.The return of 2.0 …Jaguars cornerback Jalen Ramsey will play after missing Preseason Week 2 against Minnesota Saturday while serving a one-week suspension. Ramsey won't get to face Falcons All-Pro wide receiver Julio Jones, but hey … whenever and whoever Ramsey plays, it's worth watching.
6. … and the return of Dante Fowler Jr.Call this the week of the debuts. Not only are Bryan, Norwell and Parnell expected to play for the first time this preseason, but so is Fowler. Like Ramsey, he served a suspension during the Minnesota game – doing so a week after missing the preseason opener with a shoulder issue. The Jaguars need the depth, athleticism and playmaking Fowler provides when healthy. He won't play in the regular season until Week 2 because of an NFL suspension, so getting work Saturday – and perhaps Thursday in the preseason finale – is important.
7.Tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins.ASJ has shown plenty of signs in practice of being in sync with quarterback Blake Bortles – and of being the receiving threat at tight end that was missing from the offense last season. It hasn't happened in the preseason … yet.
8.The punt return battle.This looks like a three-way competition between wide receivers Dede Westbrook, Jaydon Mickens and Rashad Greene Sr. – and it looks even through two games.
9.Cam Robinson.The second-year left tackle struggled in Preseason Week 2. With the starters expected to play the entire first half, he will have ample opportunity for a better performance to move into the regular season with confidence.
10.Health.This is always Priority One in the preseason. The Jaguars through two preseason games have avoided catastrophic injury. Most starters won't play against Tampa Bay. That makes getting through Saturday injury-free critical.