Ten things to watch when the Jaguars play the Dolphins Friday . . .
1) Blaine Gabbert. Not that you need to be told this, and not that everyone won’t be watching this anyway. Gabbert will start, and play with the first team. He has earned it, improving and looking sharper in the second week of training camp. When watching Gabbert, don’t watch him through the lens of the past. Watch for poise, control of the game, confidence. That’s what coaches want to see.
2) Chad Henne. Yes, people will be watching Henne, too. That’s the nature of the quarterback competition. He will get repetitions with the first-team offensive line, though not as many as Gabbert. The sense is that Gabbert is leading the quarterback competition, but that in no way means the competition is over. Far from it.
3) The offensive line . . . This is a group that feels much better about itself entering this preseason than it did last season. The unit improved in the second week of training camp, and had a couple of its best days. Eugene Monroe, Will Rackley, Brad Meester, Uche Nwaneri, Luke Joeckel. On paper, the front-line players on this unit are good. The defensive line is one of the Dolphins’ strongest units, so this is a good early test for a Jaguars offensive line that must be better than it was last season.
4) . . . and specifically, Luke Joeckel. The No. 2 overall selection in the 2013 NFL Draft, he continues to make the transition from college left tackle to NFL right tackle. Teammates say he has looked every bit the part of a Top 10 selection. Watch him, and when you do, you’re watching the future.
5) Ace Sanders . . . You won’t be able to miss him. He’s quick, and the rookie wide receiver has been making plays all over the field all through camp. He has shown ability to get open on short and intermediate routes, and once open, his hands have been reliable. With Justin Blackmon and Cecil Shorts III out with injuries, Sanders will get the start opposite . . .
6) . . . Mike Brown. He has earned the start Friday, standing out early in camp. He had a few drops in practice this week, and still needs to show his practice performances will translate to games. Brown seems to have the edge on players such as Mohamed Massaquoi, but preseason games can change early advantages.
7) The young linebackers. Paul Posluszny, Russell Allen and Geno Hayes seem likely to start the season at linebacker, but rookie middle linebacker LaRoy Reynolds and second-year outside linebacker Brandon Marshall have stood out in camp. They’re the sorts of young players who could thrive and eventually be building blocks in Gus Bradley’s defense. But their practices must translate to games.
8) The second half. The second half of preseason games can be a tough watch. There are many, many players with not a lot of recognizable names. But for the Jaguars this season, the competition for roster spots and spots in the rotation will be fierce. Lonnie Pryor versus Will Ta’ufo’ou at fullback. Cameron Bradfield, Mike Brewster, Jason Spitz, Austin Pasztor for depth on the offensive line. Jordan Shipley, Tobais Palmer and Tony Clemons for the final receiving spots on the roster. Jordan Todman, De’Leon Eskridge and Jonathan Grimes at running back. A lot of those names will make the team, but how they play in preseason could determine their roster fate.
9) The pass rush. The coaching staff is watching every area. That’s the nature of a building team during the preseason. But if there’s an area more under scrutiny than the others it may be pass rush. The Jaguars need to find a pass rusher other than veteran Jason Babin. Maybe that’s Andre Branch. Maybe that’s Ryan Davis. Maybe it’s someone else. Or maybe the rush will come from blitzes and other pressures. Wherever, the preseason tape will point them in the regular season direction.
10) Schemes, baby, schemes. It’s not every year a team changes schemes on both sides of the ball. But with the Jaguars overhauling much of the organization, part of the overall has been in philosophy. Offensively, Jedd Fisch is about using multiple looks and personnel packages – and some exotic plays – utilize a lot of young talent and speed. That should be fun to watch. Defensively, it’s about playing press coverage and delaying routes to figure out a way to help the pass rush get home. We have a clearer idea after two weeks of training camp practices about the offense than the defense, so watching the defense come together – and seeing how much Gus Bradley, Bob Babich and Co. might utilize different packages and blitzes – could well be a preseason storyline.