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Rookie Meter: Thanksgiving provides big stage for youngsters

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Posted Nov. 22, 2011 @ 2:14 p.m. ET
By Kevin Fishbain

With Thanksgiving approaching, all the NFL rookies can have something to be thankful for, aside from being on an NFL roster.

They can be thankful that the lockout did not carry into the season.

The NFL lockout certainly had an impact on rookies, but as we've seen in the Rookie Meter each week, the top rookies showed little effect from missing minicamp, instead making immediate contributions.

For rookies playing on Thanksgiving, the game presents two challenges for the first-year players. Firstly, it will be their first Thursday game as a pro, having to play on very short rest. There are also few regular-season stages bigger than playing on Thanksgiving Day.

Arguably, the most memorable rookie performance on Turkey Day was in 1998, when Randy Moss had three catches for 163 yards, with each catch going for a touchdown, in the Vikings' win over the Cowboys. Moss' touchdowns went for 51, 56 and 56 yards, respectively.

In Barry Sanders' first game on Thanksgiving, he rushed for 145 yards in a 13-10 win over the Browns.

Plus, who could forget Cowboys rookie QB Clint Longley, who replaced an injured Roger Staubach in 1974, rallying Dallas to a 24-23 Turkey Day win over the Redskins.

Last season, multiple rookies who found themselves on the meter throughout the season played on Thanksgiving, and a few shined under the spotlight.

The festivities began with Lions-Patriots, a game full of stellar rookies. Devin McCourty had two interceptions, including one while covering WR Calvin Johnson. On the other side of the ball, Lions DT Ndamukong Suh had a sack and two tackles for loss in a losing effort.

In the Saints-Cowboys game, Dallas WR Dez Bryant couldn't step up on the big stage. He was targeted six times but didn't have a single reception. On the other side, Saints rookie RB Chris Ivory rushed for two scores.

In the Jets-Bengals nightcap, Bengals WR Jordan Shipley caught a touchdown and DE Carlos Dunlap recorded two sacks.

This Thanksgiving, a pair of high-performing rookie "Smiths" face off in the night game, in the form of 49ers OLB Aldon Smith and Ravens WR Torrey Smith.

In the highly anticipated Lions-Packers game, fans will get a glimpse at rookies Nick Fairley, Titus Young and Randall Cobb. Dolphins rookies C Mike Pouncey and RB Daniel Thomas have helped get Miami back on track, as they will look to continue the run against Dallas in the afternoon game.

The best rookie of the Turkey Day crop may be Cowboys RB DeMarco Murray. Murray, who already broke an Emmitt Smith record earlier this season when he rushed for 253 yards in one game, will try to top the Hall of Famer again. In Smith's Thanksgiving Day game during his rookie season, he rushed for 132 yards and two touchdowns in the Cowboys' 27-17 win over the Redskins.

So grab some gravy and stuffing and enjoy this week's Rookie Meter.

1. Broncos OLB Von Miller (first round, second overall pick)
Last week's ranking: 1

Miller didn't just have the best rookie performance in Week 11, he was PFW's Defensive Player of the Week. Miller led Denver with 10 tackles, including 1½ sacks and three tackles for loss, in a Thursday-night win over the Jets. Miller added four QB hits, a pass defensed and a forced fumble.

2. Panthers QB Cam Newton (1, 1)
Last week's ranking: 2

If Andy Dalton catches Newton for Offensive Rookie of the Year honors, it will be because of two things — turnovers and losses. Newton's Panthers couldn't hang on to a 24-7 early lead. They couldn't stop the Lions, but Newton's four interceptions didn't help, either. He had another big game statistically, throwing for 280 yards and a score in addition to rushing for two touchdowns, giving him nine rushing scores on the year, the most by a rookie quarterback since 1970. But the Panthers are 2-8.

3. Bengals QB Andy Dalton (2, 35)
Last week's ranking: 3

Dalton had another opportunity to make a statement to further close the gap with Newton, or even pass him, but the Bengals fell to the Ravens and Dalton threw three picks. He threw for 373 yards and added 32 on the ground, but for the second week in a row, Dalton's turnovers were part of the reason Cincy couldn't pull off an upset. Dalton's 15 TD passes this season tie him with Dan Marino and Peyton Manning for most by a rookie in a team's first 10 games since 1970. Not bad company.

4. Redskins OLB Ryan Kerrigan (1, 16)
Last week's ranking: 6

Kerrigan notched another sack and two QB hits in Washington's overtime loss to the Cowboys. He is tied for third among rookies in sacks and is first in forced fumbles. Kerrigan gets the edge over Aldon Smith with his 45 tackles on the season.

5. Bengals WR A.J. Green (1, 4)
Last week's ranking: 4

Green joined Julio Jones as the top rookie wide receivers not playing in Week 11. It was Green's first missed game this season, but he still holds a sizable lead in rookie receiving yards. Be sure to check out Eric Edholm's "Shorts and Shells" for more on Green, Jones and a tough day for the top offensive rookies.

6. 49ers OLB Aldon Smith (1, 7)
Last week's ranking: 7

Smith moves up a spot after notching a sack in the 49ers' win over the Cardinals. He added two QB hits and a pass defensed. Smith trails Miller by two sacks for the rookie lead.

7. Cowboys RB DeMarco Murray (3, 71)
Last week's ranking: 5

Despite a career-high 25 carries, Murray was held to 73 yards (2.9 average). He did lead the team with six catches on seven targets, totaling 32 receiving yards. Felix Jones is back from injury, and we'll see on Thanksgiving how much that will cut into the carries of Murray, who is still expected to finish as the league's top rookie back.

8. Texans DE J.J. Watt (1, 11)
Last week's ranking: 8

Watt's Texans had a bye in Week 11. Without Matt Schaub, the defense will be counted on to continue its elevated play. Watt still ranks relatively high among rookies with 32 tackles this season. He also has two fumble recoveries.

9. Ravens WR Torrey Smith (2, 58)
Last week's ranking: NR

Smith returns to the meter after a huge day in Week 11, catching six passes for 165 yards and a touchdown on seven targets. The speedster has proven that his debut, when he scored three touchdowns in the first quarter, was no fluke, and he is becoming one of Joe Flacco's top targets. With Green and Julio Jones inactive, Smith moved to second among rookies behind Green with 590 receiving yards and five touchdowns.

10. Browns DT Phil Taylor (1, 21)
Last week's ranking: NR

Taylor returns to the meter after a productive day in the Browns' win over the Jaguars. He finished with nine tackles, a pretty high total for an interior D-lineman. On the season, Taylor is ranked high among rookies with 40 tackles and four sacks and is one of the top-ranked defensive tackles in the league in sacks.

On the cusp (listed alphabetically)

Seahawks WR Doug Baldwin (undrafted)
Bills DT Marcell Dareus (1, 3)
Falcons WR Julio Jones (1, 6)
Titans DT Karl Klug (5, 142)
Browns WR Greg Little (2, 59)
Raiders WR Denarius Moore (5, 148)
Cardinals CB Patrick Peterson (1, 5)
Texans OLB Brooks Reed (2, 42)
Browns OLB Jabaal Sheard (2, 37)
Jets DE Muhammad Wilkerson (1, 30)

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