JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – For the first preseason game of the season, a number of Jaguars veterans were held out with injuries, many of whom likely would have played had the game been a regular season game. However, those coaching decisions allowed the Jaguars to take a longer look at a number of rookies.
Four Jaguars rookies enjoyed good moments on Thursday. Running back Leonard Fournette and wide receivers Dede Westbrook and Keelan Cole all scored touchdowns against the Patriots while Cam Robinson looked comfortable while starting at left tackle. So, what's next?
Fournette continued to look - and play - like a veteran. While his numbers weren't gaudy, nine carries for 31 yards and a touchdown, he showed tremendous balance, decisiveness and power. After the game, Fournette was asked the question that almost every rookie is asked after their first preseason experience, if the game was faster than they experienced in college.
Fournette wouldn't bite.
"It’s a lot slower than I thought," Fournette said. "A lot of people said it was going to be fast, but playing in the SEC, I think that really helped me out."
Perhaps that should not have been a surprise considering Fournette said that training camp got easier when the pads went on. He is the first rookie I have every heard say that in nearly 25 years of covering the NFL.
It was a revealing night for Doug Marrone as well, who called it "interesting" to see Fournette go full speed.
"I have never seen him live, I have never been on the sidelines, and we haven’t been in drills, where there is live tackling except for goal line," Marrone said. "I was happy and I thought, one of them he was little high when he was running and I think he learned from that and then it was low. I think you can see he is a powerful kid, powerful running back and I just wanted to make sure about ball security, things like you don’t see when you are at this level, you want to see, obviously it is a physical game, and you want to see how he reacts to it, and he had no issue with that at all.”
Fournette's next step is to show the two things that we didn't see against the Patriots: Fournette catching the ball out of the backfield and a chance for him to show off his speed in the open field. His next chance to showcase those skills against another team comes Thursday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Westbrook's big moment came in the second half, when he made an acrobatic catch of a pass from Brandon Allen for a 42-yard touchdown. Westbrook said he knew it was coming.
"It means a lot to me. Any game, whatever it is, it means a lot to get every opportunity to get better," Westbrook said.
For the fourth-round pick from Oklahoma, the next step is to continue to show the ability to get open deep, but also to show something in the return game. He is competing with Rashad Greene for a spot on the roster and the return game could be the difference in the roster decision at final cuts.
One other receiver who has enjoyed a good camp and showcased his big-play ability on Thursday is Keelan Cole. The undrafted rookie from Kentucky Wesleyan caught a 97-yard touchdown pass from Chad Henne. Cole was also an outstanding return man in college, although he doesn't have much experience playing in front of big crowds. Last year, Kentucky Wesleyan played 11 games in front of a combined total of 23,732 fans. The announced attendance in New England was more than twice that. We have seen receivers in the past who struggled playing on a bigger stage. Cole needs to continue to show that he isn't overawed by the NFL stage.
Cole also realizes that his performance on special teams will likely play a bigger role in the decision to keep him or not once the roster cut rolls around.
"I play football," Cole said. "If they say go out there and kick, I'll kick. If they say go out there and make a tackle, I'll make a tackle. Anything to do to help the team win, that's all I can do."
Finally, there is Cam Robinson. Robinson played more snaps than the other three rookies and looked very steady. He admitted that the competition he received in camp and against the Patriots in practice helped him prepare for the preseason opener. So did his college experience at Alabama.
"Coach Saban did a good job of preparing us for the next level," Robinson said.
If Robinson can show power blocking in the running game against the Buccaneers, it will be very difficult for Marrone to convince anyone that he hasn't earned the starting job at left tackle.