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Welcome to a new season of the Pro Football Weekly Rookie of the Year Meter, a weekly look at the players most likely to take home top rookie honors at conclusion of the season.
After weeks of awful haircuts and other bouts of rookie hazing, these youngsters are ready to hit the gridiron for the first time in a regular-season game. Check in every Tuesday to see which rookies lived up to the hype and which ones just aren't ready for the NFL.
The preseason is the time for NFL teams to closely examine their rookies to decide which draft picks were worthwhile investments, which ones need a lot of development and which undrafted free agents are worth a shot.
But with the preseason comes injuries. In the case of rookies SS Morgan Burnett (Packers) and CB Devin McCourty (Patriots), injuries to veteran starters (Atari Bigby and Leigh Bodden, respectively) have paved the way for the youngsters to start.
The flipside of that isn't pretty; just ask the Browns and Texans who both lost rookies for the season before playing a real game.
Texans RB Ben Tate broke his ankle in his first preseason game after a 12-yard run. The second-rounder out of Auburn was expected to battle Arian Foster and Steve Slaton for carries.
The Browns took a risk when they drafted injury-prone RB Montario Hardesty out of Tennessee in the second round. Hardesty, who missed most of training camp recovering from a bone bruise in his right knee, tore the ACL in his left knee in his first preseason game — the Browns' preseason finale against the Bears.
Now Tate and Hardesty have to sit out their first season in the NFL and watch the following guys go for the Rookie of the Year.
1. Chargers RB Ryan Mathews (first round, 12th overall)
With LaDainian Tomlinson, who had been the Chargers' starting running back in every game but three the past nine seasons, now a Jet, a new era is about to dawn in San Diego. Mathews, a workhorse at Fresno State and poised to be the same as a first-year pro, could have an incredibly productive season. He will benefit from having a top QB in Philip Rivers directing a dangerous passing game in addition to having the brilliant offensive mind of head coach Norv Turner calling plays for him. Mathews should have ample opportunities to run wild this season.
2. Bills RB C.J. Spiller (1, 9)
Spiller is more electric than Mathews, but will have to split carries. RB Marshawn Lynch will be healthy for Week One and RB Fred Jackson isn't far behind. The key is whether he can stay healthy. If he does, he should still have a big season. Thrust into the starting role in the preseason, Spiller ran for three touchdowns and had a long run of 31 yards.
3. Raiders MLB Rolando McClain (1, 8)
Slotted in the middle of the Raiders' defense, McClain is in line to collect a host of tackles in his first season. He had a good preseason, with coaches and teammates raving about his maturity. McClain has handled himself like a pro and will be a key component in stopping the run.
4. Chiefs FS Eric Berry (1, 5)
A playmaker in college, Berry looks to be one of the Chiefs' first solid safeties in a long time, equally adept at defending the pass and the run. In PFW's 2010 Draft Preview, Nolan Nawrocki called Berry "one of the more gifted safeties to emerge from the college ranks in the last decade."
5. Lions RB Jahvid Best (1, 30)
With a preseason injury to RB Kevin Smith, Best asserted himself as the team's starting RB and impressed with a 51-yard run in his third preseason game. Best is small but extremely quick, and if QB Matthew Stafford can open up the passing game this season, Best should find open space and scamper his way into the Rookie of the Year hunt.
6. Buccaneers WR Mike Williams (4, 101)
Williams is the biggest surprise on this list and also the biggest mover this preseason. The rookie became the Buccaneers' No. 1 wideout this preseason with seven catches for 157 yards (22.4 average). Williams' success in 2010 obviously depends on the health and accuracy of second-year QB Josh Freeman, but Williams has asserted himself nicely this preseason and being his team's top target puts him on the rookie watch.
7. Lions DT Ndamukong Suh (1, 2)
Suh made headlines for the wrong reason this preseason. His violent takedown of Browns QB Jake Delhomme cost him $7,500 and possibly some disrespect around the league for his rough play. But Suh has incredible strength on the line and is expected to find his way into backfields across the NFL this season.
8. Rams QB Sam Bradford (1, 1)
Bradford did everything to prove he deserves to start Week One for the Rams. He torched the Patriots' starting secondary in his third game for 189 yards passing and two touchdowns. In his last audition for the starting job, the No. 1 pick completed all six of his passing attempts for 68 yards and a TD. If he gets the protection and somebody steps up as a viable target, Bradford can have a big year. But those are big "ifs."
9. Buccaneers DT Gerald McCoy (1, 3)
McCoy was overshadowed by Suh during the draft, but he also looks to be a force on the defensive line in his rookie season. Alongside fellow rookie DT Brian Price, McCoy battled double-teams in the preseason but excelled against the Jaguars in the Bucs' third game when he got into the backfield and collected a QB hit on David Garrard.
10. Steelers C Maurkice Pouncey (1, 18)
Pouncey performed well enough this preseason for the Steelers to name him as their starting center and let nine-year veteran Justin Hartwig go. Earlier this summer, Pouncey was a possibility at right guard, but he played so well in training camp and the preseason to earn the starting center job. Without Ben Roethlisberger for the first four weeks, the Steelers make look to pound the ball on the ground, so Pouncey will get tested early.
On the cusp (listed alphabetically)
Cowboys WR Dez Bryant (1, 24)
49ers ORT Anthony Davis (1, 11)
Bengals TE Jermaine Gresham (1, 21)
Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski (2, 42)
Rams TE Michael Hoomanawanui (5, 132)
49ers OLG Mike Iupati (1, 17)
Chiefs WR-RS Dexter McCluster (2, 36)
Rams OLT Rodger Saffold (2, 33)
Seahawks FS Earl Thomas (1, 14)
Jets CB Kyle Wilson (1, 29)
For authoritative coverage and analysis of NFL news, free agency and fantasy football, visit ProFootballWeekly.com.