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Five rookies to watch in Thursday's preseason games

There's plenty to distill from preseason football.

Granted, it's a stripped-down (occasionally sleepy) version of the game we love, but August is critical as teams piece together their final 53. These summertime affairs also bring our first look at the rookies.

Offensive weapon Tavon Austin of the St. Louis Rams is an obvious draw. He'll play his first NFL game Thursday against the Cleveland Browns, and's Adam Schein said it best: "The Rams have a great opportunity to be a true sleeper team this year, and Austin is a big reason for that."

With six contests on tap Thursday, here are five other first-year players we're excited to check out:

1. Christine Michael, Seahawks running back

Michael has to earn his carries as a rookie, according to Seahawks running backs coach Sherman Smith, but his battering-ram style of play has turned heads in Seattle. With Robert Turbin coming off a foot injury, Michael should see plenty of work against the San Diego Chargers.

"You're going to see Christine Michael right off the bat. I don't mind telling you that," coach Pete Carroll said this week, via KIRO-AM. "I'm kind of anxious to see that myself."

With Turbin and Michael behind three-time Pro Bowl selection Marshawn Lynch, we see the Seahawks as the league's second-deepest backfield. Michael fits their hard-running style and has a chance to impact this offense this season.

2. Matt Elam, Ravens safety

Elam is a likely candidate to beat out veteran James Ihedigbo for Baltimore's starting strong safety spot post-Bernard Pollard.

"He's fast, and he's tough,"Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees told reporters, via the Carroll County Times. "That's what you want in a strong safety. The guy will come hit you."

He's smart, too. Elam deftly negotiated his own rookie contract, and we expect him to play a leading role in the Ravens' rebuilt defense, which takes the field against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

3. Barkevious Mingo, Browns outside linebacker

Mingo lands in Cleveland at an opportune time. Under new defensive coordinator Ray Horton, the No. 6 overall draft pick will be meshed into action as a situational pass rusher behind Paul Kruger and Jabaal Sheard.

"It's going to be a good mix-up," Sheard told the Akron Beacon Journal. "We rotate. It's going to be exciting. We're going to stay with fresh legs, and it should be fun up front."

Chargers rookie offensive tackle D.J. Fluker called Mingo "the best speed rusher in college football" last season. His 6-foot-4, 240-pound frame has some concerned about a lack of bulk, but Browns coach Rob Chudzinski isn't sweating it. "He flashed," Chud said after Mingo's first practice. Now it's game time.

4. Montee Ball, Broncos running back

Ronnie Hillman was listed as Denver's starter on its first unofficial depth chart.'s Peter King isn't buying it, and neither are we.

Ball was an every-down bell cow at Wisconsin, with 663 carries and 3,753 yards over the past two seasons. He has the tools to replace the departed Willis McGahee, and Ball is "already at the top tier of the rotation in the run game," per ESPN. Expect a committee approach in Denver, but Ball has a chance to earn the bulk of the work. His first carries will come against the San Francisco 49ers.

5. Vance McDonald, 49ers tight end

McDonald is a good bet to replace the versatile Delanie Walker in San Francisco's multiple-look offense. Primed for a "very long look" in preseason play, McDonald was the "most impressive rookie" during offseason practices, according to longtime 49ers beat writer Matt Maiocco.

Offensive coordinator Greg Roman used Walker creatively last season, and McDonald is no stranger to versatility, confirming in April that he "played all over the field" at Rice. No team does funkier stuff with their tight ends than San Francisco, one reason we're keeping an eye on McDonald.

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