JACKSONVILLE – It's not real, exactly, but it's so much realer than the past few weeks. So, yeah …
The Jaguars' 2016 preseason opener Thursday against the New York Jets is exciting stuff – a chance for fans to see this team play another opponent for the first time and a chance for the team to get a better gauge about where things stand a month from the start of the regular season.
Will the Jaguars start fast? How will Blake Bortles look?
Will Dante Fowler look as good against someone else as he has in practice?
All are legitimate questions as the Jaguars prepare to the Jets at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, Thursday. Here are 10 things the Jaguars need to get done in that game:
1.Start fast.This has become a broken record in recent weeks, but the offense's emphasis on starting fast is a real thing. And important. The team trailed too early too often last season; that must change this season. A fast start in the preseason opener won't mean the issue is solved, but it wouldn't hurt the unit's confidence, either.
2.Make good decisions.This is about quarterback Blake Bortles, and it ties in with the most important issues facing the third-year quarterback entering the season. He has shown a knack for the big play, but has said more than once his decision-making – pre-snap and post-snap – must improve this season. Faltering in the preseason opener won't be disastrous for Bortles, but the Jaguars would like to see a clean, efficient game from the quarterback to establish a tone for the preseason.
3.Impact the passer.This is about defensive end Dante Fowler Jr. – and the whole defensive front. Fowler and the front have been impressive in preseason, but generating pass rush against an opposing offensive line would make what has gone on thus far feel a lot more real.
4.Establish the run.The Jaguars feel good about the running game in training camp, but real running doesn't start until you play an opponent. Even preseason games don't give a true gauge of a team's running attack, but the Jaguars would like to get T.J. Yeldon and Chris Ivory a few effective carries a piece to confirm what the team believes.
Take a look at some of the best images from Tuesday's practice.
5.Get Myles Jack reps, reps and more reps.The rookie linebacker has worked with the second team in practice at middle linebacker with the exception of a couple of practices when he took first-team reps in place of a resting Paul Posluszny. Look for Jack to play extensively from sometime around the end of the first quarter until sometime in the second half – and look for him to get faster and better as he gains more experience.
6.Get Luke Joeckel reps, reps and more reps.The expectation here is the Joeckel will start at left tackle and play there until Bortles leaves the game. After that, look for Joeckel to get left-guard reps. With Kelvin Beachum still not working at left tackle it's uncertain whether Beachum or Joeckel will play the position when the regular season opens, but it remains possible Joeckel will start at guard. Considering this year is his first experience there, the more reps the better.
7.Get a turnover or two – and get them early.So much of the preseason opener is about establishing a tone – particularly for a young team with new faces everywhere. The Jaguars have talked about an improved defense and getting more takeaways all offseason. An interception? A recovered fumble? Little would build the confidence of this young defense more than that.
8.Protect the quarterback.Beachum won't play and center Brandon Linder won't, either. That's not ideal for a team that needs to learn if it can protect the quarterback. Ideal or not, it must be done. The sacks must be reduced in the long term and you don't need to get the quarterback beat up in the short term.
9.Stay healthy.The Jaguars have remained relatively injury-free during training camp thus far: a few minor injuries, but nothing extreme to front-line players. They need to keep it that way. The team is deeper so it can withstand a few injuries, but not many.
10.Play well.Well, duh, right? Of course the Jaguars want to play well. But that's more important than the final score. This is a team with potential. It's a team that believes it is much-improved. So at game's end the Jaguars must be able to point to parts of the game see solid areas upon which they can rely come the regular season. If the Jaguars can do that as the clock hits 0:00 Thursday, the night will be a success.