The Jacksonville Jaguars take the field tonight in Miami for the first time this preseason against the Miami Dolphins. For all of the change taking place during the past six months, this is the first time where any real understanding of how these manipulations will impact the team on the field in 2009.
The Jacksonville Jaguars are going to be a much younger team in transition. Youth and inexperience can be found all over the roster, and these youngsters get their first taste of life in the National Football League tonight against the Miami Dolphins.
There are certainly plenty of areas of concern, and the preseason is the time where these issues can be fully identified and then addressed. This shakedown period allows the team to determine just how effective their personnel moves will be in turning things around quickly for the Jaguars.
For the Jaguars to find success quickly, the team is going to have to rely upon rookies at skill positions on offense, as well as in critical spots along the defensive line and secondary.
No doubt, there will be kinks for the team to work out.
The receiving corps will be the most watched group in the first preseason game. Mike Walker will not participate due to an ankle injury. This leaves Torry Holt and Troy Williamson as the only receivers on the field tonight who have actually caught a pass during a game at this level.
With Holt limited to protect his knee, the rest of the receivers on the roster are going to get an opportunity to show what they can do against NFL caliber defensive backs.
The first team offense may run with Torry Holt on the field for a drive or two, but the focus on protecting him from injury is far too great to risk having him out there for any extended repetitions during the game. He has nothing to prove, and his roster spot is secure.
Mike Thomas, Jarett Dillard, Tiquan Underwood, and Nate Hughes are going to be under intense scrutiny as they encounter their first true game situations against an actual opponent under the lights.
For the rookie class, this is the time to show they can quickly assimilate their skills at the NFL level. For a player like Hughes, who has been through a training camp previously, it is an opportunity to make the plays which could allow him to land on an NFL roster.
The Jaguars receiving corps is a blank slate tonight. None of the players taking the field wore teal in 2008. These receivers represent the most significant change on the roster, replacing what was already an underachieving group. There are high hopes for this group to show significant strides over what was seen previously.
Rashad Jennings draws the dubious distinction of being tasked with proving he has what it takes to adequately replace Fred Taylor as the running back splitting carries with Maurice Jones-Drew. His path will not be nearly as difficult as the receiving corps, but any time you are being brought in to replace a legend there is a heightened level of expectations.
Jennings has shown up well during training camp, but the challenges escalate significantly with a different colored jersey on the other side of the line. They will not be playing touch football out there tonight, and how he responds to being hammered by defensive linemen, linebackers, and defensive backs will tell quite a bit about how effective he will be as a rookie.
Jennings appears to have the skills to be a contributor quickly. It will not take long to determine if that is indeed the case.
One of the most significant areas to watch this preseason offensively is the depth behind quarterback David Garrard.
The general consensus for the majority of NFL teams is if the starting quarterback goes down with an injury, the team is going to struggle significantly. The Jaguars do not hold an exclusive with regard to the concerns surrounding their backup quarterback situation.
If Garrard sustains any sort of injury requiring extended down time, their options are the aging Todd Bouman, and a wildly inconsistent Paul Smith.
The team did put feelers out prior to the draft indicating their desire to acquire another quarterback, but they steered clear of selecting one during the draft. This was not as much a ringing endorsement of the talent currently on the roster as it was an indication there was not adequate talent available for the team to pull the trigger on a signal caller.
Even with younger experienced options in free agency, the team stayed away from picking up another veteran quarterback, opting to stick with the aging journeyman and the young project.
The front office has to be monitoring this situation very closely. With one eye on their backups, and another eye on the rosters of 31 other teams, the Jaguars will no doubt be hoping to find someone landing on the waiver wire that would be considered an upgrade from the current situation.
How the backups perform during the early portion of the preseason will dictate how the team maneuvers when players do start to find their way to the street.
On defense, the question marks in search of answers reside in two critical areas.
First, in the defensive secondary the competition for the starting job at strong safety and cornerback opposite Rashean Mathis will be worth watching. If Derek Cox can continue to impress with his strong play, and Sean Considine holds on to the starting job at strong safety, the Jaguars could be forced to make a decision with Brian Williams.
If Gerald Alexander makes strides during the preseason, he could push Reggie Nelson for the starting job at free safety.
Both positions appear to be open for competition.
It is doubtful both Nelson and Williams could be sent packing, but the potential does exist for the team to move the veteran Williams if the younger, cheaper Cox wins the starting job at cornerback, and Considine retains the top spot at strong safety.
That would leave Williams to compete with Scott Starks for the nickel position. It does not seem likely the Jaguars would invest heavily in keeping Williams for this diminished role when Starks has proven to be capable of playing the spot, and doing it more cheaply.
The biggest area of concern to keep an eye on during the preseason will be the re-tooled line. With 2008 first-rounder Derrick Harvey assuming the starting role at defensive end, and Reggie Hayward moving to the other side of the line to replace Paul Spicer, the line will have a much different look this year.
The primary worry for the defensive ends is tied to the progression Harvey has made from his rookie season to now. If he makes the expected strides in improving his level of play, the Jaguars will be in a position to show improvement with their pass rush. But, that will require Harvey to have truly improved his technique.
He has bulked up and appears to be intent on being an every down defensive end. How that translates to game situations remains to be seen.
On the interior of the defensive line, the once proud group is an area which has come under a great deal of scrutiny. With the obvious decline in the play of John Henderson over the past couple of seasons, the Jaguars lack the premiere defensive tackle which had become their trademark when Henderson and Stroud lurked as the twin towers in Jacksonville.
Lining up alongside Henderson no longer carries the same swagger as he does not draw double-teams or strike fear in the hearts of offensive linemen the way he did in his prime. Granted, he could rebound and return to form, but the expectations for Henderson tend to favor a leveling off of his play in the best case scenario. The worst case would be a significant decline in the quality of play from the defensive tackle.
Henderson's line mate remains a mystery. The Jaguars did draft Terrance Knighton to fill the role, and he has had a solid camp. However, it remains to be seen how that translates to game play, and a lot of questions here will begin to find answers in Miami.
Emerging hopeful, Atiyyah Ellison has been turning heads in training camp with his play. How he carries over to real game situations will give the Jaguars a very good sense of how the interior of their line will hold up during the course of the season.
The third year player has never quite lived up to expectations, and is getting his fourth shot at sticking on a roster after spending time in San Francisco and Baltimore after being selected in the third round of the 2005 draft by the Carolina Panthers.
Ellison has shown flashes in training camp, but these camp wonders have become all too familiar to Jaguars fans. They rise to the top in these practices only to disappear when the pads go on and the plays are live.
The Jaguars are going to look very different when they take the field in Miami. The uniforms are new, and so is the attitude in the locker room. The youth movement on the roster is one which will take time to develop. The team will face a good bit of adversity before things will really start to rebound if history is the guide.
How quickly the development of the young players happens will determine how fast and how high the rebound will be for this bunch.
It all starts tonight in Miami.
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