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NFL AM: Ones to Watch Thursday

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Week 3 of the NFL preseason kicks off on Thursday night with just two games scheduled for the weeknight slate, a light start to the penultimate week of exhibition action.

But those two games and the four teams playing in them present plenty of storylines to follow in what amounts to a regular season dress rehearsal.

The third week of the preseason is often seen as the most important one, because teams and players have used the first and second games to shake off rust and set the depth chart and they’ll rest their most important players in the fourth week, with just a few days to go from there before the regular season begins. That makes Week 3, with a first round of roster cuts up ahead, the biggest exhibition game each team will play. It’s that much more important for players looking to solidify their role on their roster, shake off injuries and get ready for a new season. Here are five guys to watch do that on Thursday night.

Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Dallas Cowboys – The Cowboys, a team in desperate need of help on defense, spent the No. 4 overall pick in the draft on a luxury pick at a position that many don’t see as a commodity. But there’s no denying that Ezekiel Elliott is a dynamic player who can be a difference-maker in Dallas. Running behind that vaunted offensive line, the Cowboys expect Zeke to aid their attack in the same way DeMarco Murray did in 2014, grinding down the clock and keeping their overmatched defense off the field. But to do that, Elliott has to get on the field himself. A hamstring strain has sidelined the rookie runner for much of camp and Thursday will mark his preseason debut. It’s worth watching just to see what he’s capable, and moreover how healthy he might be when the season begins.

Kam Chancellor, SS, Seattle Seahawks – Likewise making his 2016 preseason debut will be Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor, who has been nursing a sore groin for the past few weeks but is ready to go just in time for this regular season dress rehearsal. The 2015 campaign proved just how vital Chancellor is to what the Seahawks do on defense. Though free safety Earl Thomas is the base of the operation, Chancellor is the straw that stirs the drink and during his holdout last year, Seattle was a mess on defense. Furthermore, it took them weeks to get it together once he returned. If all that hadn’t happened, perhaps they’re sitting in a different playoff position instead of visiting Carolina in the divisional round and the NFC side of the bracket plays out differently. Having their defense in place from start to finish is vital to Seattle’s success and Chancellor’s presence is an important means to that end.

Vic Beasley, EDGE, Atlanta Falcons – The No. 8 overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft was a rookie year disappointment in Atlanta, due in large part to a torn labrum in his shoulder that he played most of the season through. So it wasn’t much comfort to Falcons fans when Beasley was a late scratch from last week’s exhibition game with a shoulder injury. Fortunately, this injury is unrelated, doesn’t appear to be nearly as serious and the Clemson product is expected to play on Thursday night. But much remains to be learned about Beasley and how he fits into the Falcons defense in 2016. He spent last season coming off the edge from defensive end, but now Atlanta has him at strongside linebacker, where they hope he’ll be able to recapture the form that made him one of the most highly touted college pass rushers heading into the 2015 Draft. But Beasley has to prove he can handle the move before Atlanta commits to it.

Jay Ajayi, RB, Miami Dolphins – The running back position has been a big bugaboo in Miami for quite some time and the Dolphins have spent much time and resources this offseason trying to remedy that under new head coach Adam Gase. After letting Lamar Miller walk, the Dolphins invested another fairly early draft pick in the position, selecting Kenyan Drake, then took a flier on former All-Pro RB Arian Foster as a free agent. But the leader at the position entering this dress rehearsal appears to be incumbent Jay Ajayi, last year’s fifth round pick. Of course Ajayi’s status at the top of the depth chart is tenuous, if it wasn’t Miami wouldn’t have put so much effort into the position in the first place and the pendulum could swing another way this week if Ajayi falters, Foster shows he has something left in the tank or Drake shines.

Brice Butler, WR, Dallas Cowboys – There are plenty of Cowboys to keep and eye on aside from Elliott on Thursday night and all eyes will be on quarterback Dak Prescott to see if he can follow up on two outstanding performances or comes back to earth a bit, but with wide receiver Dez Bryant out with a concussion, the game will also present an opportunity for the other Dallas receivers to show what they can do. With Bryant as a firm No. 1, provided he’s healthy and Cole Beasley in the slot, the Cowboys are in good shape. But there’s a competition for the spot opposite Bryant between Terrence Williams and Brice Butler and given the reviews he’s been getting at Cowboys camp, Butler might be in the lead. The Cowboys traded a fifth rounder that ended up being DeAndre Washington to Oakland last year for Butler and a sixth rounder. Now they’re hoping Butler can step up and seize a role that Williams never locked down.

PATS TRADE CENTER STORK TO WASHINGTON, WILL HE REPORT?

It’s the time of year where teams use late round draft picks to take fliers on players who are about to be cut in attempt to secure their rights instead of having to fight with 30 other teams on the open market. That’s exactly what happened on Wednesday when the Washington Redskins acquired center Bryan Stork from the New England Patriots for a conditional seventh round draft pick.

Stork, a fourth round pick in the 2014 draft out of Florida State, started 17 games at center for the Pats over the past two seasons, but had lost his job in New England to David Andrews this summer. His frustrations over his decreasing role then boiled over in a joint practice with the Bears last week when he got into a fight with Chicago’s Sam Acho and was booted from practice.

His lack of productivity combined with that incident, not the first of its kind for Stork, who was tossed from a mini-camp practice in June for fighting with a teammate, left him on the outs with the organization, likely to be among their first cuts when rosters are reduced to 75 next week.

In swooped the Redskins, who are shaky at center due to the uncertainty surrounding incumbent Kory Lichtensteiger, who missed most of last season due to injury. Stork helps provide depth and a possible safety net with some experience if nothing else, that is, if he reports to Washington. Multiple reports following up on the trade indicated that the 25-year-old Stork was considering retirement instead of joining the Redskins. The situation is said to be “fluid” with Washington attempting to convince Stork to join the squad. If the center elects to call it a career, New England would not get the conditional seventh round pick agreed upon in the trade. So a non-story took a strange turn making it something worth watching. Such is life in the NFL in August.


About Devon Jeffreys

Devon Jeffreys