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Rookie expectations for the Thanksgiving game

After a great performance by several members of the Detroit Lions’ 2021 rookie class against Cleveland, expectations for them are higher than ever for this upcoming Thanksgiving game.

Against Cleveland, some of these rookies got the start, while others were thrown into the action due to injuries. Now set to face Chicago on Thursday, many from this class could have larger roles against the Bears.

On the offensive line, first-round pick Penei Sewell held his own against Jadeveon Clowney and didn’t allow a sack for a fifth-straight game. He will start against Chicago and hope to repeat his success against their defensive line. Luckily for Sewell, Chicago’s star defensive lineman Akiem Hicks will sit out of this matchup.

Undrafted rookies Tommy Kraemer and Ryan McCollum both were thrust into their first offensive snaps due to injuries to starters Evan Brown and Halapoulivaati Vaitai. Both of them performed fairly well, especially given the circumstances. This Thanksgiving, McCollum will be the sole backup center for Brown while Kraemer is expected to start at right guard while Vaitai recovers from a concussion.

Running back Jermar Jefferson, who missed last week’s game, is questionable to appear in this week’s Thanksgiving showdown. The rookie had shown serious potential on limited snaps this season. If Jefferson is able to play on Thursday, he will serve as a backup behind D’Andre Swift and Jamaal Williams.

Against Cleveland, only one Lions receiver showed up in the box score — Amon-Ra St. Brown. Due to poor play from second-string quarterback Tim Boyle, St. Brown and the rest of the receiving corps weren’t given much opportunity. This week, Jared Goff should return to the helm of the offense. If he does, expect St. Brown to get his fair share of catches.

Undrafted rookie tight end Brock Wright got involved early against the Browns, catching a 12-yard pass from Boyle on the first play of the game. Though he didn’t record a stat for the rest of the game, he did help the Lions’ run game go for 168 yards and a touchdown as a blocker. He’s still the only tight end on the roster other than T.J. Hockenson, so he will see plenty of reps on Thursday.

On the defensive line, Levi Onwuzurike and Alim McNeill both earned a good amount of snaps against Cleveland. The two have the chance to do some real damage against the Bears. Chicago has allowed the most sacks in the NFL this season and are going to be without mobile quarterback Justin Fields. Against a much less mobile Andy Dalton, they should be able to put on a significant amount of pressure up front and collapse the pocket, opening up the door for Detroit’s defense to get to the quarterback.

Linebacker Derrick Barnes is still serving as a rotational inside linebacker for Detroit. He showed some real struggles in coverage against the Browns and also had a hard time against running back Nick Chubb. Now he will have to face Chicago’s duo of Khalil Herbert and David Montgomery. With a short week to prepare, don’t expect much from this rookie.

In the secondary, there is potential for two undrafted rookies to start. Rookie AJ Parker is sitting out due to an injury, meaning fellow first-year cornerback Jerry Jacobs could be shifted in to the slot. If this happens, Mark Gilbert could be the guy on the outside for Detroit. If Will Harris is moved into the slot instead, Jacobs will start on the outside and Gilbert will be the next man up.

Rookie kicker Riley Patterson could see the field for the first time on Thursday. He was inactive last week as Detroit opted to elevate Aldrick Rosas and use him as their placekicker instead. Rosas likely has the upper hand, but don’t count out Patterson.

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