One interesting case study is Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler, who went from undrafted free agent out of West Alabama to Super Bowl hero to Pro Bowler. That’s the true definition of a rising star, and now that he has established his place, it’s time to look for who is next in line in the AFC East.
There are plenty of worthy choices, and ESPN.com's AFC East reporters offer their take.
Mike Rodak, Buffalo Bills reporter: I'll stick in Buffalo here and go with second-year cornerback Ronald Darby. Washington's Josh Norman has received a lot of attention this offseason because of his contract situation, but Pro Football Focus actually ranked Darby as a better player than Norman last season. In fact, PFF had only two full-time cornerbacks in the NFL ranked higher than Darby: Detroit's Darius Slay and Seattle's Richard Sherman. Darby can't renegotiate his contract for another two years, but he wasn't shy in saying recently that Norman's five-year, $75 million deal has him licking his chops over what's possible down the road.
James Walker, Miami Dolphins reporter: I liked what I saw from Dolphins second-year receiver DeVante Parker this spring. In watching organized team activities, I remember thinking to myself, “Parker looks like a No. 1 receiver for the first time.” Parker is playing faster, he’s about a year removed from last summer’s foot surgery, and you can sense his increased confidence after a strong finish to the 2015 season. Parker was Miami’s top deep threat in the final six games of last season, recording 22 receptions for 445 yards and three touchdowns in that span. Parker should pick up where he left off to start this season. Barring injury, Parker is primed to post his first 1,000-yard receiving season.
Rich Cimini, New York Jets reporter: Jets defensive end Leonard Williams, drafted sixth overall in 2015, is primed to take a big step in his second season. He was quietly efficient as a rookie, but his improved familiarity with blocking schemes will allow him to make more splash plays in 2016. Defensive line coach Pepper Johnson, a hard-to-please, old-school coach, said Williams has the physical ability to be one of the top defensive linemen in the league. I believe him.
Mike Reiss, New England Patriots reporter: Is there another pass-catcher in the NFL who has produced as much as Dolphins receiver Jarvis Landry over the past two seasons but is talked about less? Landry caught 84 passes as a rookie and followed it up with 110 receptions last year. Add in his dynamic return skills and Landry’s star continues to be on the rise.