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Rookie Meter: Rookies excelling in return game

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Posted Oct. 05, 2010 @ 5:47 p.m. ET
By Kevin Fishbain

In this space last week, we mentioned how it's difficult for a rookie wide receiver to emerge as his team's No. 1, which helps explain the rare occasion of a wideout taking home Rookie of the Year honors.

So how else can rookie receivers and other speedsters make their marks? In the return game. And through four weeks this season, they are making big impacts.

Titans rookie Marc Mariani took a kickoff 98 yards for a TD in their Week Four loss to the Broncos. Mariani, a seventh-round pick out of Montana, originally thought it was a practical joke when the Titans informed him that he had been drafted. Now, he is one of five rookies to already have a return touchdown.

Bills RB C.J. Spiller and Steelers WR Antonio Brown join Mariani as rookies with kickoff-return TDs. Chiefs RB-WR Dexter McCluster and Cowboys WR Dez Bryant each have a punt-return TD.

Last season, rookies accounted for seven kick-return TDs all year (two by Offensive Rookie of the Year Percy Harvin) and zero punt-return TDs.

Broncos WR Demaryius Thomas is throwing his hat into the ring of receivers doubling as return men with a 65-yard kick return on Sunday. Rams WR Mardy Gilyard, Cowboys DB Akwasi Owusu-Ansah and Raiders WR Jacoby Ford are all getting their share of kick returns.

Seahawks WR Golden Tate leads rookies with 144 punt-return yards, averaging 18 yards a return. Chiefs DB Javier Arenas splits time with fellow rookie McCluster returning punts.

Unless a rookie puts together a Devin Hester-like performance in the return game, he won't win Rookie of the Year for simply being a return specialist. But for the wide receivers, defensive backs, and running backs who dabble in the return game, it's another way to improve their résumé.

Now, on to this week's Rookie Meter.

1. Rams QB Sam Bradford (first round, first overall)
Last week's ranking: 2

Bradford led the Rams to their second consecutive victory, a 20-3 win over the Seahawks. The Rams have already doubled last year's win total and are tied for first in the NFC West. Bradford went 23-of-41 passing with two TDs and one INT. On one TD drive in the third quarter, Bradford relied on his running backs, completing a pass to Steven Jackson that turned into a 49-yard play before finding Kenneth Darby for a 19-yard catch-and-run.

2. Lions RB Jahvid Best (1, 30)
Last week's ranking: 1

The Lions gave the Packers a run for their money, and while playing from behind, Best saw fewer touches in the running game but still was targeted in the passing game. Best had 50 yards rushing on 12 carries and had five receptions for 34 yards on seven targets, but zero TDs. With the Rams coming to Detroit in Week Five, Best could have a very productive game.

3. Chargers RB Ryan Mathews (1, 12)
Last week's ranking: 5

Mathews returned to the gridiron on Sunday in the Chargers' thrashing of the Cardinals. The rookie reached the endzone for the first time in his career on a 15-yard TD run. He had 55 yards on nine carries for an average of 6.1. Mathews also had a reception for 13 yards. He may have trouble picking up carries near the goal line, even when he is 100 percent. Bulldozing FB Mike Tolbert has shined, and he ran for 100 yards on 16 carries with a TD on Sunday.

4. Lions DT Ndamukong Suh (1, 2)
Last week's ranking: 3

Suh recorded another sack on Sunday among his three tackles. He leads all rookies with three sacks through four games this season. As his head coach alluded to earlier this season, it's not easy for a defensive tackle to rack up sacks, and Suh is tied with Jets DT Sedrick Ellis for most sacks this season by a defensive tackle. He is a big reason the Lions' front seven is improved as they held the Packers scoreless for most of the second half.

5. Patriots TE Aaron Hernandez (4, 113)
Last week's ranking: 6

The biggest rookie surprise had a relatively quiet game in Week Four, catching all five balls targeted at him for 29 yards as the Dolphins did a good job of keeping Hernandez in check after the catch. Hernandez did have a 36-yard catch wiped out by a holding penalty. He still leads all rookies with 240 yards receiving through four games and is a serious candidate to be the first tight end ever to be the Rookie of the Year.

6. Buccaneers WR Mike Williams (4, 101)
Last week's ranking: 4

The Buccaneers had a bye in Week Four as Williams got an extra week to rest leading up to a Week Five game against the Bengals. Williams benefits from being QB Josh Freeman's top receiving option and he leads the team in receptions, yards and receiving TDs.

7. Chiefs TE Tony Moeaki (3, 93)
Last week's ranking: 7

The undefeated Chiefs had a bye in Week Four and will face the Colts in Week Five. Moeaki could have a big game against an inconsistent Colts defense. He leads the team in receptions, yards and targets through three games, and that includes leading established WRs Dwayne Bowe and Chris Chambers.

8. Cowboys WR Dez Bryant (1, 24)
Last week's ranking: 8

The Cowboys had a bye in Week Four, and Bryant faces the Titans' defense in Week Five. The 'Boys seem to have their prolific offense figured out after starting the season 0-2, and that's a good sign for Bryant. The rookie out of Oklahoma State can also make an impact in the return game.

9. Seahawks FS Earl Thomas (1, 14)
Last week's ranking: 9

A week after his game-clinching interception against the Chargers, Thomas struck again, recording another INT in the Seahawks' loss to the Rams. Thomas read fellow rookie Sam Bradford's eyes as he ran east to west in the endzone, leaping to make the INT and taking possible Rams points off the board. Thomas has 23 tackles on the season and added another pass defended on Sunday. He is tied with Nate Allen for the rookie lead in interceptions with three.

10. Eagles FS Nate Allen (2, 37)
Last week's ranking: NR

Allen was the Eagles' second-round pick they received from the Redskins in the Donovan McNabb trade, and the safety picked off McNabb in Week Four for his third interception of the season, tying him with Thomas for the lead among rookies. Allen has seven passes defended this season and 14 tackles, with one sack.

On the cusp (listed alphabetically)

Chiefs FS Eric Berry (1, 5)
Bengals TE Jermaine Gresham (1, 21)
49ers SS Taylor Mays (2, 49)
Raiders OLB Rolando McClain (1, 8)
Chiefs WR-RS Dexter McCluster (2, 36)
Steelers C Maurkice Pouncey (1, 18)
Bengals WR Jordan Shipley (3, 84)
Bills RB C.J. Spiller (1, 9)
Broncos WR Demaryius Thomas (1, 22)
Browns FS T.J. Ward (2, 38)

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