JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- David Garrard's back has been relatively pain free this week. No swelling, no tightness, no problems walking, sitting or getting out of bed.
Jacksonville's starting quarterback has practiced five consecutive days and he threw some of his best passes of training camp during Wednesday's joint session with Atlanta.
The real test comes tonight. Garrard will make his preseason debut when the Jaguars host the Falcons. He hasn't been hit since tweaking his back two weeks ago, but he knows his response to full contact will determine how close he is to 100 percent for the regular season.
"That will be interesting to see how that feels," Garrard said. "I'm sure at some point during the game I will probably get touched. I'm hoping not to, but I'm sure somebody will find their way to me, maybe a little later like normal. Getting that first shot out of the way will be a good thing just so I can move on from there and just continue to do my job."
Garrard also hopes to keep his job.
With rookie Blaine Gabbert showing poise, pocket presence, arm strength and decision-making ability, Jacksonville's quarterback competition has become tighter than many expected. The NFL lockout negated chances for Gabbert to work on the field and in meeting rooms, but the 10th overall draft pick has caught up in a hurry.
Gabbert started Jacksonville's preseason opener and completed 9 of 16 passes for 85 yards. He was sacked three times, but showed glimpses of being ready to be a starter in the league. His expectations are on the rise, too.
"No question, you want to make the improvements," Gabbert said. "You want to see yourself get better, see yourself make more throws, make more audibles, be correct the majority of the time. Being a rookie, you're still going to make mistakes; that's just the inevitable part of the process. But you want to make new ones. You don't want to keep making the same old mistakes week in and week out."
The Jaguars gave Gabbert more practice repetitions with the first-team offense this week, an indication coaches are at least considering making a switch at the all-important position.
Gabbert downplayed the change, saying the only reason for it was to make sure Garrard stays healthy. Garrard said he's getting close to full speed.
"You definitely don't want to rush guys out there and have something happen in the preseason that you could have prevented, and you don't have them for the regular season now," Garrard said. "We've still got to be smart."
The Jaguars are being cautious with running back Maurice Jones-Drew and defensive end Aaron Kampman. Both players are recovering from knee surgery and won't play against the Falcons.
Tight end Zach Miller (knee), right tackle Eben Britton (back), running back Rashad Jennings (concussion), linebacker Clint Session (concussion) and several others also have been ruled out for Jacksonville.
The Falcons will be without defensive tackle Corey Peters (knee), cornerback Dunta Robinson (hamstring), center Todd McClure (rest) and newly signed tight end Reggie Kelly.
Atlanta and Jacksonville held a joint practice Wednesday night, the second consecutive year the teams have shared practice fields. The Jaguars traveled to Flowery Branch last August for four joint on-field sessions. This time, the Falcons came south, but because of new camp rules in the collective bargaining agreement, the teams shared just a single, two-hour workout.
"It's good for the morale of the guys," Falcons linebacker Mike Peterson said. "We tend to pull together a little more. It changes up camp and you get out of that old rut of doing things over and over and over. It's good for camp."
It also means the Jaguars and Falcons will practice together, play each other in an exhibition game and meet again in December in the regular season.
"I don't think that happens a whole lot where you actually play in the preseason and play in the regular season," Falcons coach Mike Smith said. "So we'll know each other. ... When you work against the same guys all the time it's tough because you understand their stances, you understand all their nuances. This just gives us a really good opportunity to evaluate, especially our young players."