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This one is important


Preseason games aren't always worthless. Sometimes, they actually include a degree of importance.

Such would seem to be the case with tomorrow's game in Tampa. Forget about bragging rights and all of that territorial stuff. There is absolutely no importance to be attached to the final score. In that sense, it is truly meaningless.

But the roster and position battles that will be played out Saturday night in Raymond James Stadium will reach far beyond normal expectations for a third preseason game. As many as eight starting jobs could be on the line, while battles for roster spots are too many to count.

Let's take a look.

• Left tackle--It is the symbol of this training camp. Hats off to Mike Pearson and Leander Jordan for conducting a daily-grind competition that set the tone early in this training camp and carried it through to the end. Jordan supplanted Pearson on the fourth day of practice, then Pearson re-established his hold after the first preseason game, then Jordan battled back from a disastrous performance in Minnesota to turn in a dominant effort against Miami. May the best man win.

• Left guard--Jamar Nesbit and rookie Vince Manuwai have conducted a lower-profile competition that may be turning hot as we head into the final two preseason games. Manuwai, the Jags' third-round pick, is a powerful blocker with a huge upside, but he's battling inconsistency. Nesbit has been solid, though unspectacular. He's the perfect player to hold forth until Manuwai hits his stride.

• Wide receiver--Matt Hatchette is winning the starting "X receiver" job Jimmy Smith vacated with his drug suspension. Hatchette's competition may be with the waiver wire. Will he play well enough in the next two games to dissuade the Jags from bringing in another guy?

• Quarterback--Jack Del Rio maintained in his comments to reporters Thursday that Mark Brunell is clearly the team's starter, but Del Rio left the door open to what the next two games could determine. "We'll play the best 11," he has said on several occasions. Brunell may need a solid performance in Tampa to silence speculation about his future and the future of the position. On the flip side, a slip by Brunell against the Bucs' vaunted defense and another save-the-day performance by Byron Leftwich could burst what quarterback controversy there is into a raging inferno.

• Defensive end--Marco Coleman and Paul Spicer have waged a great competition on the left side. Saturday night's game will probably decide who claims the job for the regular-season opener, and maybe more.

• Linebacker--Mike Peterson will be in the starting lineup on opening day, and it appears he will be in the middle, but at least one other linebacker spot -- maybe two -- is up for grabs. Akin Ayodele, Danny Clark, Keith Mitchell and T.J. Slaughter are locked in combat.

• Free safety--It appears rookie Rashean Mathis has taken the starting job from Marlon McCree, but no proclamations, yet.

• Placekicker--Popular opinion has rookie Seth Marler in the lead over James Tuthill and Danny Boyd, but back in 1995 Scott Sisson was thought to be a shoe-in over a no-name journeyman named Mike Hollis. Sisson missed an extra-point attempt in the Jags' final preseason game and Hollis became the surprise pick. Worked out OK, huh?

For a team with a depleted roster that doesn't figure to have many NFL scouts waiting for the Jags to cut, this team has critical roster decisions to make. They are critical because they involve the composition of the roster, the state of the salary cap and the overall direction of this franchise.

Important game? You bet.

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