It is the nature of the livelihood that over the final month of the 2005 season, rookie quarterbacks will probably be under more scrutiny than players at any other position.
The ability of Kyle Orton to not only shepherd the Chicago Bears to their first playoff berth since 2001, but to perhaps take a team blessed with the NFL's top defense deep into the postseason, will be scrutinized. The progress of Alex Smith, the top overall choice in the 2005 draft, will be under the microscope in San Francisco. And if for no other reason than his Ivy League pedigree, Ryan Fitzpatrick of the St. Louis Rams will continue to be a story line that holds national interest.
But there is a group of rookies at other positions, notably cornerback, where players will be tested over the final month, and where franchises, no matter their standing, want to get a chance to evaluate them on the field as opposed to merely in practice. That evaluation process extends beyond just first-rounders but does include some top selections in the '05 draft who have not been sufficiently apprised at this point in the season.
At cornerback, for instance, the undefeated Indianapolis Colts aren't likely to rock the boat and break up the tandem of Nick Harper and Jason David, a duet that has started all but one of 12 games to date. Still, the Colts' brass is eager to get an extended look at first-round cornerback Marlin Jackson, who started in Harper's place last week and played very well, and who possesses the prototypical size and aggressiveness all teams are seeking now at the position.
Fellow first-round cornerbacks Carlos Rogers of Washington and Antrel Rolle of Arizona likewise figure to get on the field more. Rolle played the first three games of the season before missing the last nine because of a knee injury, but is expected to return to practice this week. The Cardinals gambled that Rolle might be able to make it back for the last month of the season, eschewed placing him on injured reserve for that reason, and could nudge the prized cover defender into the lineup for the final four games. Rogers, who has started four games, has interceptions in each of his last two outings, and the Redskins want to see more of him.
"There's a reason you invested [a first-round] choice in those guys," Cardinals coach Dennis Green said. "So you're always going to want the chance to evaluate your investment."
Here are a few other players, from the first round and beyond, who could earn increased playing time over the final month of the season:
• LB David Pollack, Cincinnati (first round): Projected as the strong-side starter when the Bengals grabbed him with the 17th overall choice in the draft, but a lengthy camp holdout cost him a shot at opening the season with the No. 1 defense. The fourth-leading sacker in SEC history, and a guy with a huge motor, Pollack has seen his playing time increased of late, especially in nickel situations, and has 2½ sacks. He had a big sack Sunday at Pittsburgh on the Steelers' final possession, with Cincinnati using just a three-man front.
• OT Todd Herremans, Philadelphia (fourth round): Started at left tackle in preseason while incumbent Tra Thomas was recovering from a back problem. With Thomas now out for the season, and having undergone back surgery this week, Herremans is back with the starters and will almost certainly remain there the rest of the year. Thomas is expected to fully recover for 2006, but back surgeries are always dicey, plus he carried a very high salary and his play has declined. How well Herremans performs in the final month might determine how Eagles officials view Thomas for the future.
• S Brodney Pool, Cleveland (second round): Hasn't started a single game yet, and most of his playing time has come on special teams and in some nickel situations. But there is no denying his physical tools, and if he can get through some nagging injuries, coaches might want to get a better look at him this month. The former Oklahoma star has posted 25 tackles, one sack and one interception.
• RB Ryan Moats, Philadelphia (third round): The former Louisiana Tech star was often compared to Eagles starter Brian Westbrook. And now, with Westbrook sidelined for the rest of the year by a foot injury, Moats might get an extended opportunity to reinforce the comparisons. He's been active for only 3 of 12 games, and in Monday night's fiasco, Moats carried 10 times for just 26 yards and lost a fumble that was returned for a score. Still, he flashed some quickness and burst on a 14-yard run and almost certainly is going to log some playing time now.
• CB Justin Miller, New York Jets (second round): Because of injuries, he has started the last four games and performed pretty well. Although the former Clemson standout has been inconsistent at times in coverage, his tenacity and aggressiveness have been a pretty pleasant surprise to coaches, and he has 24 tackles in his four starts. The Jets aren't likely to bring Ty Law back for 2006, and if Miller plays well down the stretch, he could make that decision a little easier on the New York brass.
• WR Jerome Mathis, Houston (fourth round): As advertised, one of the NFL's fastest players, and is second in the league in kickoff returns, with a 30.8-yard average. The former Hampton University star is the only player in the NFL with two kickoff returns for touchdowns. He is very raw as a receiver and has a lot to learn, but with Houston still struggling to find a complement to Andre Johnson, he might play more from scrimmage in the final month. He has three catches for 49 yards and one touchdown.
• DT C.J. Mosley, Minnesota (sixth round): He didn't even dress for the first three games of the season, then played sparingly over the next two months, until injuries forced the coaches to use him. In the past two games, the former University of Missouri standout has 10 tackles and three sacks for the resurgent Vikings. He certainly isn't going back to the inactive list anytime soon.
• LB Thomas Davis, Carolina (first round): Started the season at strong safety but looked so lost in the opener that he was replaced by journeyman Marlon McCree. The suspicion now is that Davis, who played linebacker and safety at Georgia, is probably better suited at LB. Those suspicions gained credence when Davis logged considerable playing time at linebacker, deployed as a spy on Michael Vick, in last Sunday's victory over the Atlanta Falcons. There is no denying Davis' explosiveness and hitting ability and the Carolina staff will try to divine more ways, as was the case Sunday, to get him onto the field.
• RB Frank Gore, San Francisco (third round): Although he has yet to start a game, and has battled some injuries, the former University of Miami star has rushed for 348 yards and one touchdown on just 71 attempts, a healthy 4.9-yard average. Gore also has nine catches for 55 yards. If he can stay healthy, he'll merit a long look in December, since this 49ers staff certainly isn't sold on starter Kevan Barlow. San Francisco might be in a position to select Southern California's Reggie Bush, so getting a solid read on the team's current tailbacks, and how they might project, is a priority.
• OG Chris Kemoeatu, Pittsburgh (sixth round): The former Utah strong man hasn't even played a down yet this season. But last week he got some practice snaps with the No. 1 offense, and with starting right guard Kendall Simmons struggling mightily and drawing far too many false-start penalties, it might be only a matter of time until the Pittsburgh coaches decide to give Kemoeatu a shot.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here.