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Fantasy rookies to watch for Thursday night

With the so-called "dress rehearsal" games out of the way, teams now shift their focus to the final wave of preseason games on Thursday. Most studs will sit out or see limited reps to mitigate the chance of injury (which we've seen a good number of already this preseason). The preseason Week 4 games are for players that might be on the roster bubble to prove they are worthy of making the 53-man cut, and for underdeveloped rookies to get in some additional reps.

Many rookies have stirred up their share of hype this preseason, and while some have lived up to it, many have not. Which rookies are going to see valuable playing time is worth noting when drafting, setting your Week 1 fantasy lineup and beyond. Below, we take a look at some fantasy-relevant rookie stats through the first three weeks of the preseason in preparation for what to watch in Thursday's games. Buckle up because there are 16 games as all 32 NFL teams will take the field tonight for their final tune up before the season officially kicks off. And don't forget to tune in to NFL Network to catch Bears at Browns followed by Seahawks at Raiders live tonight.

Rookie quarterbacks to stash:


Johnny Manziel, QB, Cleveland Browns: 26 for 40, 266 yds, TD, 0 INTs
Manziel didn't win the starting job over Brian Hoyer in Cleveland, but that doesn't mean he'll never get a shot at some point this season. Much of his (potential) fantasy value lies in his ability to run and make something out of nothing with his feet on broken plays. He's definitely worth a stash in deeper leagues, or two-quarterback leagues.

Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Minnesota Vikings: 24 for 42, 213 yds, TD, 0 INTs
Veteran Matt Cassel was dubbed the Vikings starting quarterback, but if the team struggles early on, they could take a chance on their first-round draft pick. Minnesota has a tough schedule in the first half of the season, so it might be rough seas ahead if Bridgewater gets a shot. Either way, his variety of talented weapons in Norv Turner's offensive shceme should carry him through.

Blake Bortles, QB, Jacksonville Jaguars: 28 for 45, 435 yds, TD, 0 INTs
Bortles has impressed a lot of folks in the preseason, including his coaches. Chad Henne will start Week 1, but Bortles is creeping up behind him and could make for a sneaky plug-and-play option later this season. The Jags, as usual, will probably be throwing quite a bit which helps his potential value.

Other rookies worthy of drafting:


Devonta Freeman, RB, Atlanta Falcons: 20 rush, 92 yds; 6 rec, 101 yds (most on team)
Freeman got reamed on the most recent episode of "Hard Knocks" for his blocking technique on a punt during a Falcons preseason game, but he's performed well otherwise and should earn a spot on the roster. Although Steven Jackson is the clear-cut No. 1 back in Atlanta, Freeman could inch his way up the depth chart if he keeps running the way he has been. If Jackson were to miss any time Freeman could be the go-to guy in somewhat of a committee backfield.

Andre Williams, RB, New York Giants: 33 rush, 151 yds, 2 TD
By now, the word is out on Andre Williams. He made quite a splash this preseason and although he lacks pass-catching skills (that's Rashad Jennings' job) he's the favorite to get some goal-line carries as the team's power back. Jennings should still get the bulk of the work on early downs, but Williams has potential to make quite a few visits to the end zone in 2014.

Bishop Sankey, RB, Tennessee Titans: 38 touches, 150 scrimmage yds, 2 TD
Sankey is probably the highest drafted rookie in fantasy leagues this season, but his role isn't completely clear yet in the Tennessee backfield. With Shonn Greene and Dexter McCluster ahead of him, he'll have to really shine with all of his reps. His numbers thus far are impressive but most haven't been against first-team defensive units. He's still worth a roster spot on your fantasy team and could prove very valuable a few weeks into the season.

Carlos Hyde, RB, San Francisco 49ers: 16 touches, 97 scrimmage yds
Hyde has stood out among rookie running backs this preseason, and with the aging Frank Gore getting limited reps, Hyde has had a chance to show what he's got. If Gore wears down this season, expect Hyde to see a high volume of carries with the 49ers as the once deep backfield has been depleted. Hyde is well worth a stash on fantasy teams.

Jeremy Hill, RB, Cincinnati Bengals: 25 touches, 123 scrimmage yds
Hill has carved out a role for himself as the power-back compliment to Giovani Bernard. It's been reported that the backs could see split playing time and both have the potential to see 200 carries this season, with Hill getting most of the goal-line work. If this is true, Hill might be a startable option come Week 1, and is virtually undrafted so far.

Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Carolina Panthers: 8 rec, 117 yds, TD
Benjamin should be Cam Newton's No. 1 option in the Panthers' passing game come Week 1, and can use his size to create mismatches in the red zone. Since Newton has limited preseason playing time due to injury, we have yet to see the chemistry fully develop between the two. That should come early in the season and as a late-round fantasy pick Benjamin could payoff for owners sooner rather than later.

John Brown, WR, Arizona Cardinals: 10 rec, 165 yds, TD
Brown went from unknown to a top rookie breakout candidate in a matter of one preseason game. He's been compared to Anquan Boldin and proved that he's worthy of the No. 3 wideout job in Arizona. He should be fed by Carson Palmer frequently as defenses will have their hands full with Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd.

Brandin Cooks, WR, New Orleans Saints: 6 rec, 71 yds, TD
Cooks is right up there on the hype meter with fellow rookie wideout Sammy Watkins. He impressed coaches and teammates all summer in camp and has made some plays in the preseason, but we really have yet to see his connection with Drew Brees in a game setting. But honestly, it doesn't matter because if Brees is throwing the ball, it's only a matter of time until the fantasy points start rolling in. Cooks is potentially the No. 3 pass-catching option in an offense that could see upwards of 5,000 yards in 2014.

Jordan Matthews, WR, Philadelphia Eagles: 15 rec, 134 yds
Another wideout with loads of upside, Matthews will play with the starters out of the gate in Philadelphia. If the injury prone Jeremy Maclin or Riley Cooper miss time for any reason, Matthews would slide right into the No. 2 receiver role in the high-octane uptempo Eagles offense under Chip Kelly. Those who take a chance at Matthews won't regret it.

Bonus! A non-rookie ... Travis Kelce, TE, Kansas City Chiefs: 10 rec, 185 yds, 2 TD
He's technically not a rookie as this is Kelce's second season in the league but he only appeared in one game last season before being placed on injured reserve. He introduced himself this summer with a 69-yard touchdown catch burning past defenders in the Chiefs first preseason game. Kelce followed up with a 43-yard scoring play in the next game. Anthony Fasano is still ahead of Kelce on the depth chart but if the young playmaker can keep doing what he's been doing, he might find himself starting at the position for Kansas City in no time.

Rookies who need more reps:


Sammy Watkins, WR, Buffalo Bills: 3 rec, 21 yds
Watkins has made some ridiculous catches in training camp practice sessions, but has yet to make an eye-popping play during a preseason game. To be fair he didn't play much in the Bills second preseason game and sat out the third with a rib injury, but wait to see more from him Thursday before you consider drafting him before Round 10, or put him in your starting lineup come Week 1.

Tre Mason, RB, St. Louis Rams: 39 touches, 117 scrimmage yds
At the start of the summer, many thought that Mason would be stealing carries from Zac Stacy. His touches to yardage totals are far from impressive and now that Sam Bradford is out for the year, Stacy should retake his spot as the Rams workhorse back until Mason (or Benny Cunningham) moves up the depth chart.

Davante Adams, WR, Green Bay Packers: 4 rec, 50 yds
Adams fumbled twice in his preseason debut earlier this month, although the weather conditions were not in his favor. Still, not a good way to start. Add to it that he was unable to haul in a pass on three targets last week and you get the feeling that the second-round pick needs more time before he feels comfortable playing with the starters. He could prove to be a solid late-round flier in the Packers offense but don't reach for him.

James White, RB, New England Patriots: 20 touches, 64 scrimmage yds
Leading up to the Patriots second preseason game, White stirred a bevvy of hype drawing praise from coach Bill Belichick and Tom Brady with his performance in camp. But come game time, he failed to impress on the chances he got and his hype deflated rapidly. The guys to own in the New England backfield are Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley, and so far, White isn't threatening anyone's job.

Ka'Deem Carey, RB, Chicago Bears: 31 touches, 101 scrimmage yds, TD
Carey has had his chances during the preseason but the majority of them have come with the second- and third-team offensive groups in Chicago. He's still behind Shaun Draughn on the Bears depth chart and has a ways to go before you should consider handcuffing him to Forte. Look for more on Thursday from Carey.

Austin Seferian-Jenkins, TE, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 4 rec, 54 yds
Jenkins stands at 6-foot-5 and was a second-round pick out of Washington. His size alone is a lethal addition to an already towering Tampa Bay receiving corps. He's failed to do much so far in the preseason, but the Bucs traded away tight end Timothy Wright to the Patriots this week which could lead to an open window of opportunity for the rookie. He should develop into a red zone matchup nightmare for defenses.

Eric Ebron, TE, Detroit Lions: 5 rec, 65 yds
When Ebron went to the Lions as the 10th overall in the NFL draft in May, fantasy enthusiats immediately started licking their chops. Unfortunately, Ebron has admittedly struggled to learn his different roles in Detroit's offense, but remains a solid pass-catching target for Matthew Stafford. Hopefully by Week 1, Ebron feels confident enough that he is over the mental hurdles of the game and can use his physical ability to become a fantasy asset.


Matt Franciscovich is an associate fantasy editor at NFL.com. Follow him on Twitter @m_franciscovich.

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