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The smell of football is firmly in the air, meaning it's time for a new season of the Pro Football Weekly Rookie Meter, our look at the league's 10 best rookies.
This offseason was nothing like any rookie class had ever seen before. After walking across the stage at Radio City Music Hall to get their hats and shake hands with the commish, rookies had some time to go to team facilities. They did interviews, and some got playbooks in the day of confusion when the lockout briefly ended, but then the doors shut in their faces, and rookies were forced to work out on their own.
Without OTAs and minicamps, the transition from college to pro will be harder for this year's class. While the crop of players ready to step on the field and start on Day One may be smaller because of the lockout, plenty of teams still need help, forcing the rookies to step up.
Some players, though, were drafted for their NFL-ready pedigrees and have proven that in the preseason, like Broncos OLB Von Miller and Bills DE Marcell Dareus.
Other players, like Dolphins RB Daniel Thomas, had high expectations heading into the preseason but appear to need more time to get acclimated to the NFL. Other players, like Cardinals RB Ryan Williams and Giants DT Marvin Austin, will have to wait until 2012 to play their first NFL game because of injuries.
The shorter amount of time to prepare also made it difficult for mid- to late-round players to make early marks, as our opening list is made up of all first-rounders.
Like preseason games, only so much stock can be put into the preseason Rookie Meter. Of last year's top three rookies in our first meter — Chargers RB Ryan Mathews, Bills RB C.J. Spiller and Raiders MLB Rolando McClain — none finished in the top 10 of the final Rookie Meter. Expect movement once we see how these players look in their first NFL games, especially with three months' less time to prepare than usual.
1. Broncos OLB Von Miller (first round, second overall)
Miller enters the NFL as one of those "pro-ready" players who, from the second he was drafted, was going to start on Day One in Denver. It didn't take long in the preseason for the Butkus Award winner to make his mark, as he recorded three sacks in three games. The Broncos' defense was terrible last season, and he will be counted on to improve it from the get-go.
2. Falcons WR Julio Jones (1, 6)
The Falcons got a lot of credit for making the bold move to move up in the draft for Jones, who should be the perfect complement for WR Roddy White. Jones is a physical specimen and averaged over 15 yards a catch in the preseason. He provides an exciting dynamic to Atlanta's offense.
3. Saints RB Mark Ingram (1, 28)
The Saints turned some heads by trading up for Ingram, especially with Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory on the roster (and Reggie Bush, at that time). But Ingram, who is a durable runner, is expected to spark the Saints' rushing attack, something that was lacking last season. With the success of the passing game in New Orleans, Ingram should see plenty of goal-line touches.
4. Bengals WR A.J. Green (1, 4)
The best wide receiver to come out of college in a few years might suffer in his rookie season by playing in a lackluster offense with fellow rookie Andy Dalton at the helm. Green is a playmaker but will have the odds against him until Cincy's offense gets going.
5. Bills DE Marcell Dareus (1, 3)
The Bills have very high hopes for Dareus, who will start at left end. His ability to stop the run and get after the passer should improve a Bills "D" that was woeful last season. Dareus showed flashes in the preseason with his power on the line and should make an immediate impact.
6. Texans DE J.J. Watt (1, 11)
The former Badger will be coming off the edge in the Texans' new 3-4 defense, and there are high expectations for him to make early contributions, as he will start on Day One. Whether it was sacks, forced fumbles or blocked kicks, Watt was a playmaker at Wisconsin and is a big part of Houston's revamped "D."
7. Panthers QB Cam Newton (1, 1)
The No. 1 overall pick will be the most scrutinized rookie of this class, and there is plenty of pressure on Newton, who won the starting job over Jimmy Clausen. He has a good O-line, a pair of solid running backs and a duo of pass-catching tight ends. As the starting rookie QB with the most talent around him, his chance to succeed early is higher than Andy Dalton, landing him on the meter because of his potential. However, his preseason play doesn't lend a whole lot of faith that he can make it back-to-back QBs finishing atop the Rookie Meter.
8. Cardinals CB Patrick Peterson (1, 5)
Peterson may end up being the best player in this class, but it took an injury to Greg Toler to cement the former LSU Tiger as a starter. Peterson has great ball skills and speed, and he could contribute on returns. He didn't take long to make a preseason impact, taking an interception back for a touchdown.
9. Ravens CB Jimmy Smith (1, 27)
Smith has ideal size (6-2, 211) and athleticism to start at corner for the Ravens, and the rookie is expected to get the early nod. He has upside and is in a defense full of playmakers. He was considered a boom-or-bust type draft pick but didn't show any problems in the preseason.
10. Redskins OLB Ryan Kerrigan (1, 16)
Kerrigan came out of college with the "hardworking" label, and he has brought that high-effort play to the NFL, where he will line up opposite Brian Orakpo. Being on the other side of Orakpo could give Kerrigan some favorable matchups. He was a sack and fumble-forcing machine in college. If that continues in his rookie season, he will be a mainstay on the meter.
On the cusp (listed alphabetically):
Colts RB Delone Carter (4, 119)
Buccaneers DE Adrian Clayborn (1, 20)
Lions DT Nick Fairley (1, 13)
Redskins RB Roy Helu (4, 105)
Rams TE Lance Kendricks (2, 47)
Raiders WR Denarius Moore (5, 148)
Dolphins C Mike Pouncey (1, 15)
Cowboys OT Tyron Smith (1, 9)
Dolphins RB Daniel Thomas (2, 62)
Jets DE Muhammad Wilkerson (1, 30)