The Jaguars' first game at newly-christened EverBank Field won't be decided on the scoreboard. Maurice Jones-Drew and Mike Sims-Walker, two of Jacksonville's marquee players, are long shots to grab the spotlight in limited action, and members of the Jaguars' 80-man roster who won't see the field once the NFL's regular season starts will dominate about half of the action.
But if you miss the game this Saturday at 7:30 p.m., you'll wish you hadn't.
Jacksonville wrapped up training camp this week, fresh off a 28-27 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles last Friday that created more questions than it answered. Entering this weekend's contest with the Dolphins, the Jaguars have a few issues they need to straighten out.
In no particular order, here are the 10 signs that fans in Jacksonville need to see against Miami to know that their team's on the right track.
Much has been made of David Garrard's lackluster 5-of-10 performance in three series against the Eagles, especially in comparison with the three long touchdowns thrown by backup Luke McCown.
There's no quarterback controversy, of course. For starters—pun intended—Garrard was playing against Philadelphia's first-team defense. Watching from the sideline after the first quarter, he didn't get a chance to punish the Eagles' backup safeties for the lapses in deep zone coverage that allowed McCown to go long on scores from 73, 30, and 55 yards out.
And he shouldn't try to make up for that on Saturday night.
Head coach Jack Del Rio put fans' notions of a Garrard-McCown battle down in a press conference this week, suggesting that overrating their relative performances was a sign of "a lack of perspective." With the coaching staff solidly behind him, Garrard should just keep things steady in leading Jacksonville's vanilla preseason offense.
Unlike McCown, who's in a position to take chances and playing to get noticed, there's no need for the Jaguars' starter to try and be an August star.
And if McCown really wants to turn the right heads, he should set his sights a little closer to the line of scrimmage against Miami.
His home-run throws to wide receivers Troy Williamson, John Matthews, and Tiquan Underwood were the right calls, obviously. But he'll be hard-pressed to find targets that wide open in the regular season should Garrard go down.
Against defensive starters, mid-range completions—like his work with tight ends Zach Miller and Mike Caussin in Philadelphia—and check-downs become much more important.
If McCown connects with another of the Jaguars' pass-catchers on a deep route Saturday, the scoreboard will light up and the crowd will go wild. But it's the finer points of his passing, whether he's zipping an inch-perfect screen to Rashad Jennings or deciphering the intermediate traffic of linebackers and safeties, that will register with the coaches.
For NFL backups, a heavy preseason workload is usually a good thing. It's typically a sign of interest from the coaching staff, which can lead to increased regular season work.
But in Rashad Jennings' case, the Jaguars' biggest show of respect might be to take some carries away from him against the Dolphins this week.
With entrenched starter Maurice Jones-Drew still getting his feet wet before going full-tilt as the feature back in September, Jennings had the most touches (six) of any offensive player in Jacksonville's first preseason game. He carved out 28 yards on three receptions out of the backfield and impressed coach Del Rio enough to declare the backup competition closed.
As a capable understudy, Jennings has become a noteworthy commodity in fantasy football. Recently, Rotowire.com touted him as a potential top-15 running back should he replace Jones-Drew in the Jaguars' offense.
There won't be any wins, real or fantasy, at stake Saturday. Jones-Drew and Jennings will be worked into the action, but it wouldn't be surprising to see both of them finished by the third quarter.
Too little, too late? Don't tell Jarett Dillard, who's been back in practice and angling for a starting role opposite Mike Sims-Walker.
In Wednesday's work, Dillard beat a double team to make what CBS correspondent Jim Nasella described as a "circus catch" for an impressive touchdown, flashing more of the fearlessness he displayed in limited action as a rookie in 2009. Though a bit undersized at 5'10" and 187 pounds, Dillard's hands and route-running are closer to the NFL prototype than fellow second-year challenger Mike Thomas.
Considering Jacksonville's proclivity for heavy offensive packages featuring a fullback and two tight ends or a sixth offensive lineman, the drop-off in playing time between the Jaguars' second and third receivers figures to be substantial.
As one of the stars of Jacksonville's offseason to date, Thomas has a considerable head start on Dillard entering Saturday's game. But the games only get more important from here on out, and a big one could swing the battle in Dillard's favor.
For better and worse, the middle of the Jaguars' offensive line is all but set.
Better, because 2007 fifth-rounder Uche Nwaneri has evolved from a straight-line run blocking specialist into a surprisingly fleet-footed and heady starter at right guard, where he'll return in 2010.
Worse, because Jacksonville's muddled group of veterans at left guard didn't force Nwaneri to push aging center Brad Meester for snaps in the middle. Between mainstay Vince Manuwai, free agent signee Justin Smiley, and 2009 waiver-wire pickup Kynan Forney, the Jaguars had expected a better competition.
Instead, Manuwai has struggled to regain the form he showed before tearing his ACL in 2008, Smiley has been an up-and-down performer in training camp, and Forney hasn't exactly run away with the starting job in those circumstances.
With Smiley facing his former Miami teammates and Manuwai potentially fighting for his roster spot, the play at this position might be the fiercest of any on Saturday.
Overshadowing Jarett Dillard's return to practice this week was the presence of Tyson Alualu, Jacksonville's surprise first round pick this past April who had missed significant practice time and the Jaguars' first preseason game with a nagging calf injury.
In Alualu's absence, Jacksonville signed street free agent Leger Douzable to fill in as their one-gap pass rusher in the middle. Douzable has "turned heads" thus far, according to a RapidReports update from CBS, but the Jaguars will want to make up for lost time with their prized draftee this Saturday if he plays.
Should Alualu suit up with Jacksonville's starters, he'll be facing a mish-mashed Miami offensive line. Formidable rookie guard John Jerry has been slowed by a knee injury this week, utility lineman Nate Garner's broken leg will sideline him into the regular season, and centers Jake Grove and Joe Berger have yet to decide a battle at the line's most important position.
Really, whoever starts for the Dolphins will be in a situation not unlike Alualu's. None of them are pushovers, but they won't have an overwhelming edge in chemistry or teamwork. If he plays, it'll be an ideal test for his first NFL game.
He started with quick steps straight ahead off the edge, forcing his blocker into a quick backpedal and closing the space between them. Hands up and inside the lineman's pads, he separated and cut back upfield, knifing into the pocket as the quarterback stepped up. Chopping down with one arm, the ball came free for a momentum-changing red zone turnover.
Very few Jaguars fans would have guessed last season that Derrick Harvey could inspire a paragraph like that.
Told to gain 20 pounds and miscast as a run-stopping anchor in 2009, Harvey has slimmed down closer to his college playing weight this year and rededicated himself to rushing the passer. Playing without offseason additions Aaron Kampman and Tyson Alualu, he still managed an impressive sack in Jacksonville's preseason opener last week.
Both Kampman and Alualu have returned to practice this week, and both will likely get playing time Saturday against the Dolphins. Miami's Vernon Carey will be a step up from Winston Justice of the Philadelphia Eagles, and Chad Henne will be more careful than Michael Vick.
Still, stay tuned for that second sack.
No position has seen as much turnover for the Jaguars this summer than linebacker. Even Jacksonville's depth chart at defensive tackle, where rookies Tyson Alualu and D'Anthony Smith have missed significant practice time with injuries, has undergone less change.
Newly-signed journeyman Rod Wilson, a five-year veteran who's spent time with the Chicago Bears and Tampa Bay Buccaneeers, was the seventh linebacker signed by the team since the end of this year's draft.
From among veterans Tony Gilbert, Kris Griffin, Freddy Keiaho, and Teddy Lehman and undrafted rookies Kyle Bosworth and Jacob Cutrera, the Jaguars have yet to uncover a backup gem to compare with Russell Allen's emergence before last season. Several offer value as solid special-teamers, but as a group they've been underwhelming.
Like the starting jobs at safety and left guard, Jacksonville's roster spots behind starters Daryl Smith, Kirk Morrison, and Justin Durant are still wide open.
For now, Gerald Alexander and Anthony Smith sit atop Jacksonville's depth chart. But Smith, in particular, is likely to be bounced as much for his special teams value as for the potential offered by 2007 first-rounder Reggie Nelson and heady veteran Sean Considine.
If Nelson is prepared to square up and tackle his way back into the Jaguars' starting lineup, the Miami Dolphins' offense will give him plenty of opportunities to do so on Saturday.
Last season, the Dolphins' 509 rushing attempts were the third-most in the NFL, trailing only the New York Jets and Carolina Panthers. Behind an offensive line that needs to work on its chemistry, they'll likely keep the ball on the ground for the most part.
When quarterbacks Chad Henne and Tyler Thigpen take to the air, they'll be throwing to YAC (yards after the catch) monster Brandon Marshall and shifty slot receiver Davone Bess. Between run reads and receivers in his vicinity, Nelson should get plenty of tackling practice during his playing time.
To be relevant, he'll need to lay the wood on someone—or, better yet, a few "someones."
The biggest reason that this game is must-watch TV, aside from how David Garrard's handling the offense or how Tyson Alualu looks in his first professional game, is that it's one of only two that you're guaranteed to see locally in Jacksonville.
It's been widely reported that the Jaguars have fallen 3,000 tickets short of selling out the general bowl seating in EverBank Field, which would have allowed them to lift TV blackouts of regular season games in their local market.
Instead, they'll revert to last year's policy of waiting for the league's Thursday deadline to see whether enough tickets have been sold to televise each week's game.
Even with nearly 10,000 seats covered by tarps, which trims the stadium down to suit Jacksonville's relatively small NFL market, and a substantial number of tickets consigned to "group sales" so as to set a realistic sellout goal, the Jaguars' offseason sales push has failed to drum up sufficient local support.
So, if you're among the segment of Jacksonville's population who won't be attending Saturday's game in-person, feel free to enjoy it from the comfort of your living room. Along with the final preseason game on September 2 against the Atlanta Falcons, it'll be one of the last.