In a typical season, the opening preseason game is one with little fanfare. The starters are in for one series or two and the majority of the game is decided by players who have to struggle to make the roster, much less be big-time contributors once the season begins. But the Vikings preseason opener with the Jaguars doesn't look to be typical in any sense of the term.
The Jags, like the Vikings, are looking to build anew from momentum the team has tried to build since the end of last season. After losing five of the last six games, the Jacksonville's only head coach in franchise history, Tom Coughlin, was fired and replaced by former Vikings linebacker Jack Del Rio. He is looking to regain some defensive intensity and may give his frontline players a little longer to show their wares.
The position perhaps in the most disarray is quarterback. Mark Brunell has been the starter since the inaugural season of the Jags, but youngsters David Garrard and Byron Leftwich are both hungry for a shot at stealing the starting job away from Brunell. While the job is still Brunell's to lose, if Leftwich can get into training camp and work with the first team, it's anyone's guess who starts opening day for the Jags. For now, though, Leftwich won't be attending this game.
The running game is much more settled … as long as Fred Taylor stays healthy. That has been a problem in the past, and Taylor remains a fragile enigma. He is expected to play tonight. With former backup Stacy Mack gone via free agency, the backup role with the Jags is up for grabs in the preseason. Rookie LaBrandon Toefield and third-year man Elvis Joseph will be vying for the No. 2 slot in the RB rotation. Fullback looks to be set with veteran Marc Edwards as the starter with Dan Alexander as the backup.
The receiver corps is much more in flux. Jimmy Smith is showing the signs of age and, after failing to replace Keenan McCardell last year, the Jags spent to get the job done this time. J.J. Stokes, Donald Hayes and Kevin Lockett were all vets brought in during free agency to fill the void, but the players to watch vs. the Vikings will be youngsters Micah Ross and Jimmy Redmond — a pair of big receivers Del Rio loves. Kyle Brady returns as the starting TE for now, with rookie George Wrighster waiting in the wings, along with veteran Johnny Mitchell and former Viking Matt Cercone fighting for roster spots.
The biggest turnaround the Jags will face is on the offensive line. Two years ago, the team lost All-Pro Tony Boselli. This season, they lost three starters to free agency — Todd Fordham, John Wade and Zach Wiegert. The result has been near chaos and will result in preseason battles up and down the line. At the tackles, Mike Pearson and Maurice Williams are both being pushed by fourth-year man Leander Jordan. At guard, rookie Vince Manuwai is likely going to team with Chris Naeole as the starters, with Jamar Nesbit, Daryl Terrell and Dave Kadela likely to fight for playing time. At center, the job belongs to Brad Meester with rookie backup Brett Romberg looking to figure in the mix.
The changes Del Rio hopes to bring the Jags start on defense, where depth has been added and a superstar has been signed. The Jags made the biggest free-agent splash of all by signing Hugh Douglas to a long-term deal. With a front four of Douglas, Marco Coleman, Marcus Stroud and John Henderson, the Jags have the real deal up front. Del Rio may play them a little longer to get more game-time continuity, but the real battles will be for backup spots. Reggie McGrew, Larry Smith and Clinton Ballard are fighting for backup roles at tackle, while the end position is cluttered — with Paul Spicer, Rob Meier, Chris Combs Javor Mills and Brandon Green looking to replace former starter Tony Brackens for a precious few roster spots.
Like the Vikings, linebacker has gone from a position of weakness to one of strength. The signing of MLB Mike Peterson from the Colts is a huge signing and gives the Jags depth at all three 'backer spots. Peterson is expected to be flanked by Akin Ayodele and fellow free agent Keith Mitchell as the starters, but Eric Westmoreland is also a viable candidate on the weak side. A couple players to watch against the Vikings are T.J. Slaughter and Danny Clark — each saw starting time last year and is looking to reclaim those jobs as the preseason progresses.
In the secondary, the Jags have talent and are building depth. At the corners, Fernando Bryant and Jason Craft are the starters, but Del Rio likes bigger corners, which could open a spot for rookie Rashean Mathis or even fourth-year man Ike Charlton. At safety, Donovan Darius is one of the best around, but after being franchised by the Jags is not happy. Marlon McCree is capable of making big plays and also giving them up. If Darius is eventually traded, job openings could be created for current backups Johndale Carty, James Trapp and Ainsley Battles, but for now Darius and McCree are the frontliners.
Del Rio has promised change in Jacksonville and it's coming on both sides of the ball. It may take time, but the Vikings will be his first chance to show he's got the mettle to be an NFL head coach, as he returns to the site of many of his greatest moments to make his head coaching debut at the Metrodome. Don't expect preseason as usual when Del Rio and Tice lock horns. It should be more fun than usual.
Del Rio Bringing Change To Jaguars
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