Friday night at 7:30 Eastern, the Jacksonville Jaguars will don their uniforms and hit the field for their first game since January. As in 2009, they'll be traveling to Philadelphia for a preseason tune-up at Lincoln Financial Field against the Eagles.
Last year, the big news in these teams' August clash was the return of Philadelphia quarterback Michael Vick, a former number one overall draft pick, to the NFL after 19 months in prison. A few Eagles fans protested, but the vast majority clamored for Vick instead of incumbent starter Donovan McNabb—perhaps foreshadowing McNabb's offseason departure.
Now, Vick's entrenched as a backup on Philadelphia's depth chart. For Jaguars fans whose curiosity might have been piqued by the Eagles' new addition last year, the spotlight will shine brighter on Jacksonville's sideline Friday.
Generally, it's only the special-teamers who go anywhere near full-tilt in the first preseason game.
As much as the offensive and defensive starters might feel their adrenaline spike Friday night when they hit the field, they'll be well-aware that the upcoming regular season is a long and grueling one. It's only fair that they tread cautiously, easing themselves back into real football.
Their confirmed backups won't want to put out a 110-percent effort, either, as much as they'll want to show how well they've learned their roles and the playbook.
But the undrafted rookies and veteran journeymen on Jacksonville's kick coverage team face very real consequences. A standout effort could mean the difference between getting cut a check or just getting cut.
In that atmosphere of cojones-to-the-wall tenacity, rookie Jaguars Deji Karim and Scotty McGee will cut their teeth on their first in-game kick and punt returns. Jacksonville fans will know quickly whether they've struck gold or junk on returners in this past April's draft.
The Jacksonville media's speculation has been interesting and informed over the first two weeks of the Jaguars' practices. Still, there's nothing quite so solid as a team-issued depth chart to show who's hot and who's not in the coaches' eyes.
Wide receiver Mike Thomas' starting gig opposite Mike Sims-Walker was a bit of an anticlimax after he blew past his competition earlier this month. At safety, on the other hand, head coach Jack Del Rio's selections of Gerald Alexander and Anthony Smith went against a few recent news items involving that position battle.
In the past, of course, Del Rio hasn't been above using his depth chart as a motivational tool. Former second round draft pick Quentin Groves was demoted to special teams last summer in an effort to goad better results out of him.
Nelson and Considine's responses to second-teamer status will likely weigh heavy in the ongoing four-man fight at the back of Jacksonville's defensive backfield.
Since steamrolling the Tennessee Titans' beaten defense in garbage time of last October's 37-17 blowout, 2009 seventh-rounder Rashad Jennings hasn't gotten more than six touches in any game.
Though the ice bag on superstar starter Maurice Jones-Drew's knee one day last week wasn't anything serious, Jacksonville won't want to use him very extensively before the regular season. Instead, the bulk of Friday night's touches figure to fall to Jennings.
And, considering how well he's performed this summer, don't take "touches" as a strict reference to carries.
Vic Ketchman, the senior editor of the Jaguars' website, speculated in a recent mailbag article that Jennings "may have the best hands on the whole team, period."
Granted, catching a few passes out of the backfield against the Eagles won't vault Jennings past Jones-Drew on the depth chart. But fantasy football owners who've drafted "MJD" might be interested to see that his handcuff offers value as a receiving threat, too.
The Philadelphia Eagles' pass defense is not a top-caliber unit, to be sure. Despite 44 sacks and heaps of pressure from their pass rush, they ranked in the middle of the NFL in terms of passing yards allowed.
With veteran corner Sheldon Brown gone and rookie safety Nate Allen in the mix, the Eagles will be breaking new personnel in Friday. Still, former Pro Bowler Asante Samuel has a reputation for playing predatory defense and capitalizing on opposing quarterbacks' mistakes.
When David Garrard first targets Mike Sims-Walker, who'll likely line up across from Samuel, we'll know how good his poker face is.
Past finding and exploiting holes in the Eagles' secondary, Garrard will get his first in-game chance to calibrate his internal clock for 2010. With coach Del Rio's recent admonition against too much patience in the pocket fresh in his mind, he'll want as much to get rid of the ball quickly as smartly.
Along with passing the ball, rushing the passer is the other primary concern in the modern NFL. Eight of the league's top 10 quarterbacks made the playoffs in 2009, and the Indianapolis Colts, led by Peyton Manning, have dominated the Jaguars' division of late.
Jacksonville's offseason has been nothing if not an attack on Manning and Matt Schaub of the perennially "underdoggy" Houston Texans.
In signing defensive end Aaron Kampman, whose knee has rehabbed far ahead of schedule, and drafting athletic defensive tackle Tyson Alualu, the Jaguars have tried to retool a unit that managed only 14 sacks. That number was the worst in the NFL, and it won't fit their self-image of an up-and-coming team going forward.
Whether it's Kampman, 2008 first-rounder Derrick Harvey, one of Jacksonville's savvy blitzing linebackers, or a second-teamer—Alualu won't be playing due to a calf strain—a sack against Philadelphia would be a symbolic early return on the Jaguars' investments in their pass rush.