The third preseason game is always the most important for teams. Starters play well into the second half looking to build that "game day" chemistry. With the season only two weeks away, coaches also want to see how players adjust at halftime, especially the rookies.
All four teams will be relying on their rookie classes to contribute in a big way this season. Here are the four most important rookies to keep your eye on in tonight’s games.
New England Patriots vs. Detroit Lions
Ezekiel “Ziggy” Ansah – DE Detroit Lions
Going against the Patriots? That’s a whole different story.
I’m intrigued to see how Ansah preforms going up against Patriots left tackle Nate Solder, and if he can get pressure on Tom Brady.
Brady has one of the quickest releases in the NFL and Ansah will have to be at the top of his game, both mentally and physically, to make an impact.
The Lions have put together one of the best defensive lines in the NFL, led by Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley. Ansah will have to be the pass rush specialist they've been looking for. If he can solidify the edge in the run game, he’ll prove worthy of his top 5 selection.
Kenbrell Thompkins – WR New England Patriots
Who? Kenbrell Thompkins, the undrafted free agent out of Cincinnati has been one of the most interesting stories of the entire preseason. The Patriots lost their top five pass catchers from a year ago. As a result, they have brought in a very young and very inexperienced group of WRs to compete and earn rosters spots.
Thompkins has been one of Brady’s favorite target in practice this training camp, and he will look to continue that in an actual game. So far this preseason Thompkins has recorded five catches for 26 yards.
The Patriots drafted two wide receivers this year, Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce, in the second and fourth round respectively. However it has been Thompkins making all the headlines.
Look for Thompkins to have his coming out party tonight against a relatively weak Lions secondary. If he and Brady can build some chemistry, the Patriots may have found their next star wide receiver.
Carolina Panthers vs. Baltimore Ravens
Kawann Short – DT Carolina Panthers
The Panthers second round pick out of Purdue, Kawann Short, is looking to prove that he can be a 16 game starter for Carolina this season. In the draft the Panthers obviously felt as though their pass rush was depleted as they drafted two defensive tackles with their first two picks. First round pick Star Lotulelei, has the higher expectations, and was more coveted coming out of Utah.
However, so far this preseason, Short has stood up to the task and has out preformed Lotulelei, and has even seen more plays. Both players are expected to make an immediate impact, but Short seems to be having the better preseason.
Short’s biggest test of the preseason will come this week as Pro Bowl RG Marshall Yanda is expected to make his return to the Ravens’ starting lineup. Look for Short to have a big impact in the Baltimore running game, forcing Ray Rice and Bernard Piece to run outside. Short’s impact won’t be seen in stats, but he is primed for a big year with the Panthers.
Matt Elam – S Baltimore Ravens
The Baltimore Ravens completely revamped their defense this offseason. While Matt Elam has yet to earn the starting nod, his impact has been seen all over the field. Currently veteran safety James Ihedigbo is slated to start, but Elam is closing the gap, fast.
Coming out of Florida, Elam was known for his big hits and electrifying plays. So far, this preseason, Elam has continued to deliver punishing hits and make plays at the line of scrimmage.
Expect to see Elam overtake Ihedigbo this week with increased playing time and a more productive performance against a below-average Panthers passing attack. The coaches have praised Elam since rookie OTAs, commenting on his leadership skills and knowledge of the playbook.
Elam could be a huge difference-maker for the Ravens this season. As the third safety taken in the draft, Elam has a chip on his shoulder and will use that as motivation to succeed not only this year, but for many years to come.