JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The Jaguars' goal for the 2018 season is nothing less than the Lombardi Trophy. The first step toward the Super Bowl comes Thursday as the Jaguars host the Saints in the preseason opener at TIAA Bank Field. The Jaguars will, for the first time, play a game (albeit a preseason game) in the new uniforms. They will wear teal jerseys, a look they can feature three times in the regular season.
Here are four things I'll be looking for Thursday night:
How will the starters look?
We likely won’t see the Jaguars starters play extensively, although last year against the Patriots in the preseason opener, the starters did play into the second quarter. Leonard Fournette played the entire first half. This year, however, the Jaguars are a more advanced team -- more battle-tested. The need for the starters to play that much is less, but head coach Doug Marrone has a habit of not revealing his plans for playing time in advance of the game.
Will the rookies look overwhelmed?
For some rookies, Thursday night will be the biggest stage on which they have played. For others, especially those who played in college at a major school, there will be fewer people in the stadium than they are used to--TIAA Bank Field holds far less than big college stadiums in Gainesville, Baton Rouge or Tuscaloosa. That being said, the intensity and speed from training camp kicks up a notch when the games begin. It will get even more intense and faster when the regular season rolls around. But for now, this will be a great test to see how comfortable the rookies are in the NFL's version of training wheels.
How will the Jaguars special teams look?
There is no way to simulate the speed and intensity of special teams in practice. The threat of injury is too great to go live on kickoffs and punts. Thursday will be the first chance to go full-speed. Corey Grant figures to be the kick returner, but there is competition for the punt return spot. Wide receivers Dede Westbrook, Rashad Greene and Jaydon Mickens are all listed on the depth chart. While Mickens is listed first, I think the Jaguars would like for Westbrook to show that he can handle the job. That would allow for more roster flexibility. Westbrook is going to make the team as a wide receiver, while Greene and Mickens are not locks for the roster, especially if they don't win the punt return job.
We will also get a good look at rookie punter Logan Cooke facing a rush for the first time. In the practice inside the Stadium Friday, Cooke looked terrific, nailing three punts inside the 10-yard line, including two of over 60 yards.
Can they stay healthy?
To be honest, this is the most important question of the entire night. Last year, the Jaguars were very fortunate in avoiding injuries. If they want to make a run to the Super Bowl, repeating that good fortune will be vital. So far in camp, the Jaguars have had some lingering injuries--wide receivers Donte Moncrief and Marqise Lee have both missed multiple days, as has defensive end Calais Campbell. However, none of the projected regulars have sustained an injury that would likely keep them out of a regular season game. The Jaguars hope that trend continues.