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Predicting the rising star in all eight NFL divisions

This summer, NFL Nation reporters are answering the biggest questions for every team in divisional roundtables. Click on the links after each question to view the answers.

Monday's question: Who will be the best newcomer?

Today's question: Who is the rising star in each division?

AFC East | AFC North | AFC South | AFC West
NFC East | NFC North | NFC South | NFC West


AFC East

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.


AFC North

Jeremy Fowler, Pittsburgh Steelers reporter: Cam Erving -- yes, that Cam Erving, the Browns linemen who got bulldozed for much of last year. But Erving has first-round pedigree and many respected evaluators loved his game coming out of Florida State. The Browns misused him last year as a guard. He's a center. With Alex Mack gone, Erving can settle in. He was in bad shape coming into 2015 training camp, but he has improved in that area. Less body fat will equal more body blows for opposing defensive linemen. This is a risky pick, but what the heck, I'm stumping for Cam. It's not like the AFC North is loaded with young stars. Look at the rosters. There's talent but no budding Odell Beckhams out there. Veterans still rule in Pittsburgh. Steve Smith will be the Ravens' primary option once again. The Bengals have young corners and offensive linemen who might need more time to develop.

Coley Harvey, Cincinnati Bengals reporter: Without a doubt, Bengals defensive end Carlos Dunlap is the AFC North's biggest rising star. Of course to Bengals fans, there is no "rising" about Dunlap's star at all. To them, he has long established himself as one of the best players at his position. Dunlap has been a valued member of Cincinnati's defensive line since his third-round selection in 2010, and he even set an official franchise record in single-season sacks last fall with 13.5. He has started playing more consistently well the last two seasons and he has proven just how much he can benefit from having the likes of Michael Johnson and a healthy Geno Atkins rushing the passer alongside him. All four starters in the Bengals' four-man line rotation had five or more sacks last season. Outside of Cincinnati, Dunlap's star is rising because he's beginning to have a tangible impact on NFL defensive marks. Earlier this offseason, NFL.com projected him to be one of a handful of players who could overtake Michael Strahan's single-season record of 22.5 sacks.

Jamison Hensley, Baltimore Ravens reporter: Steelers tight end Ladarius Green. It's only his first season in the AFC North, but the 26-year-old is primed for a breakout season. Green is out of the shadow of the Chargers' Antonio Gates, and he comes to an explosive Steelers offense where the focus of the secondary will be on the outside with Antonio Brown and Markus Wheaton. That should leave the middle of the field open for Green. He has more big-time pass catching upside than Heath Miller, who retired after 11 seasons in Pittsburgh. The question with Green is his health. He finished last season on injured reserve with an ankle injury and hasn't participated in offseason practices with the Steelers. The expectation is for Green to be ready for training camp and then establish himself as a popular red zone target for Ben Roethlisberger.

Pat McManamon, Cleveland Browns reporter: The temptation is to go with Steelers DL Cameron Heyward or Bengals TE Tyler Eifert, but they've both arrived. The choice here is Browns running back Duke Johnson Jr. Johnson missed two games last season and still caught 61 passes on 74 targets. On a bad offense, Johnson finished in the top five in receptions and receiving yard for running backs. New coach Hue Jackson has said that the talent of Johnson and Isaiah Crowell is "extreme," and he sounds eager to create mismatches for Johnson. "He does so many different things that gives your offense a boost," Jackson said.


AFC South

Tania Ganguli, Houston Texans reporter: The whole division now features quarterbacks in whom teams have invested significantly -- three with draft picks and one (the Texans) with money. From that group of players, I'll select my rising star. Marcus Mariota needs to stay healthy, but he has shown signs that he can be a successful NFL quarterback. It's always easier to find stardom from the QB position, and Mariota is well-poised for it. He can be an exciting player and adapted well to being a pocket passer in his rookie season, despite the Titans' lack of talent at the skill positions. They helped his protection this offseason by drafting offensive tackle Jack Conklin eighth overall, and that should help keep Mariota upright.

Paul Kuharsky, Tennessee Titans reporter: Mariota is the easy answer, and though I have less obvious entries, it's hard to move away from him. The Titans have improved their receivers, their offensive line, their running backs and their defense. Mariota should benefit from all of those upgrades, and in his second year, he will have a better sense of how to protect the ball and minimize his fumbling. I think he will have a big second season after posting the third-best passer rating in franchise history as a rookie. If I were looking to move out of the primary lane, I'd go with one of two Houston defenders, cornerback Kevin Johnson or inside linebacker Benardrick McKinney.

Michael DiRocco, Jacksonville Jaguars reporter: Mariota was adjusting to life in a pro-style offense, managing a huddle and taking snaps under center as a rookie in 2015, but he managed to put up some impressive numbers: 62.2 completion percentage, 19 TD passes, 10 INTs and a passer rating of 91.5. He did that despite having one of the league's worst running games (92.8 yards per game, which ranked 25th) and only one legitimate receiver (TE Delanie Walker caught 94 passes; no one else caught more than 36). The Titans added backs DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry, so that will help significantly, as will the development of young receivers Dorial Green-Beckham and Kendall Wright. Mariota should be much more comfortable in his second year in the offense, and I'm expecting him to make a leap similar to the one Blake Bortles made in his second season. In another year, we'll be seeing Mariota in the Pro Bowl.

Mike Wells, Indianapolis Colts reporter: One of the earlier offseason questions was if any of the quarterbacks in the division could surpass Andrew Luck. Mariota has the most potential to get to Luck's level. So much hype has surrounded the arrival of Brock Osweiler in Houston, but Mariota is the second-best quarterback in the AFC South. He's only going to get better after throwing for 2,818 yards and 19 touchdowns and rushing for 252 yards in just 12 games last season. If the Titans are going to improve, which I expect to happen, it will be because of Mariota.


AFC West

Jeff Legwold, Denver Broncos reporter: Von Miller is set to enter his sixth year in the league and has spent most of the offseason locked in contract negotiations with the Broncos. Though he has been named to four Pro Bowls, it was clear he unlocked an entirely new level of play during the Broncos' postseason run, particularly in wins against the New England Patriots and Carolina Panthers (Miller was MVP of Super Bowl 50). In that sense, Miller is still a rising star if he can recapture what he did this past postseason in the wake of the inevitable wrestling match that is contract negotiations. However, beyond Miller the youngest players poised to make leaps on the developmental curve are also edge rushers. The Raiders' Khalil Mack, with a 15-sack season in 2015 that included a five-sack day against the Broncos, has the look of being a dynamic, impactful player. Mack's athleticism is rare, and his coaches have raved about his day-to-day approach, which should serve him well in the inevitable battle with complacency that can come with success. And simply because of opportunity, Broncos outside linebacker Shane Ray, who will get more playing time since DeMarcus Ware is expected to go more to a specialty role, will have more chances to show why the Broncos used their first-round pick on him in the 2015 draft.

Adam Teicher, Kansas City Chiefs reporter: Maybe it's a stretch to call Chiefs cornerback Marcus Peters a rising star. His star was rising during a spectacular rookie season in 2015. His teammates voted quarterback Alex Smith and safety Eric Berry as co-MVPs for the Chiefs last season, but Peters was the true MVP. Peters was the difference-maker on a defense that went from being starved for turnovers in 2014 to one that was second in the league in interceptions the following season. Peters has some things to clean up from last season, because he allowed a lot of catches and a lot of yards. Peters won't allow as many plays this season. He won't see the ball as often as he did last season. Opposing quarterbacks will quit testing him as much as they did when he was a rookie.

Paul Gutierrez, Oakland Raiders reporter: I'll answer this question with one of my own -- can you really be a rising star if you've already made history? Yes, if your name happens to be Khalil Mack. The face of the Oakland Raiders' defense is what we'll call a "silent superstar" in that he has not received much national pub ... yet. Even as he was named All Pro at both outside linebacker and defensive end last season after almost quadrupling his sack total -- from four as a rookie to 15 last season, second most in the NFL. Mack was able to take a back seat, so to speak, on Oakland's defense, to the likes of veterans Charles Woodson and Justin Tuck and Aldon Smith, but with their respective retirements and suspension, all eyes are on Mack. Which is fine by him, especially with Bruce Irvin signed to be his bookend and Smith not eligible to return until mid November. Quietly, Mack's 62 tackles on plays that gained no yards or negative yardage are the second-most over the past two seasons, tied with Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald and second only to Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt's 91 such tackles, per ESPN Stats & Info. Yes, Mack is the player opposing AFC West offenses must gameplan for now, which is a far cry from this time last summer.

Eric Williams, San Diego Chargers reporter: Fresh off signing a four-year, $45 million contract extension this summer, San Diego Chargers receiver Keenan Allen should live up to the deal and make his first Pro Bowl in 2016. Allen was well on his way to making the annual NFL all-star game last season. Through eight games, Allen had 67 catches for 725 yards and four touchdown catches before suffering a lacerated kidney in a Week 8 contest against the Baltimore Ravens and missing the rest of the season. Allen dropped more weight this offseason so he can play even faster in 2016, and should benefit from the addition of speedy receiver Travis Benjamin, serving as a vertical threat for San Diego's offense and opening up the middle of the field for Allen.


NFC East

Dan Graziano, New York Giants reporter: I think I said Fletcher Cox last year and he just got paid, so just in case I'm a good luck charm, I want to be careful with this. But I'm going to go with the guy who lines up next to Cox on the Eagles' defensive line. I think Bennie Logan was a tremendous run defender last year, and the switch to Jim Schwartz's 4-3 could allow him to show more ability to generate pressure up the middle. If teams are committing extra attention to Cox, Logan could emerge as a defensive star in the division sooner rather than later.

Todd Archer, Dallas Cowboys reporter: Odell Beckham Jr. can't be considered a rising star anymore, can he? He is already considered one of the best receivers in the game with astronomical numbers in his first two years. Can he still be rising? I guess. To me, Fletcher Cox is among the most underappreciated defensive players in the league, but he is in his fifth season. The same goes for Cowboys left tackle Tyron Smith, who doesn't turn 26 until December. Cowboys third-year guard Zack Martin has been to the Pro Bowl in each of his first two seasons, but can a guard be a rising star? I'm left pitching Cowboys rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott, and he has yet to play a game in the NFL. The expectations are incredibly high for Elliott, and with good reason based on what he did at Ohio State with 3,699 yards rushing in his final two seasons and 44 career touchdowns. But we've seen can't-miss prospects take time to get accustomed to the NFL. The Cowboys don't really have that luxury. If Elliott does not run for 1,200 yards as a rookie, then it would be disappointing.

Phil Sheridan, Philadelphia Eagles reporter: If Odell Beckham Jr. is still rising, that's scary for the rest of the NFC East to contemplate. The feeling here is that Beckham has arrived and will be a great player for a long time. If the question is about a rising star, I guess I would go with Kirk Cousins. He was kind of a surprise last year. We've seen guys from Robert Griffin III to Nick Foles have one great season, though. If Cousins can come back in 2016 and keep Washington in contention, I'd have to peg him as the division's rising star. Carson Wentz may be on deck, but it doesn't look like his time yet.

John Keim, Washington Redskins reporter: Is Odell Beckham Jr. still considered rising? To me he's already a star and I view Eagles lineman Fletcher Cox as an established star, too. Ezekiel Elliott could be this guy by season's end. For now, I'm going with Redskins tight end Jordan Reed. Although he has been in the league since 2013 and is coming off an 89-catch, 11-touchdown season, he still hasn't been named to a Pro Bowl. The Redskins' passing game centers around Reed's talent and ability to quickly win one-on-one matchups. The coaches do a good job putting him in spots to create mismatches. Also, Kirk Cousins posted a 130.1 passer rating when targeting Reed last year -- and 147.5 in the second half of the season. The point: Cousins loves Reed and so do the coaches, so his targets won't decrease. And what I've been told by those who work out with him in the offseason is that Reed is stronger and running crisper, quicker routes.


NFC North

Rob Demovsky, Green Bay Packers reporter: Jeff Janis. How could it be that a player who has just four career regular-season catches for 95 yards and no touchdowns is ready to break out? The third-year receiver who had struggled to gain the trust of both his coaches and his quarterback finally showed how he can use his rare athleticism in the playoff loss at Arizona by catching seven passes for 145 yards and two touchdowns. The fan favorite may have finally earned Aaron Rodgers' trust. "All you people out there love Jeff," Rodgers said this offseason. "I love Jeff, too. Jeff made some great plays there at the end of that [playoff] game."

Jeff Dickerson, Chicago Bears reporter: Stefon Diggs in Minnesota. Diggs is the No. 1 target in the Vikings' passing attack. After catching 52 passes for 720 yards and four touchdowns as a rookie, Diggs is poised for a breakout year in 2016. With so much focus on Adrian Peterson, Diggs should emerge as Minnesota's second-most productive offensive weapon and quarterback Teddy Bridgewater's go-to guy in passing situations. Diggs was a 2015 fifth-round draft pick, so there is no way he becomes complacent. He wants to someday sign a lucrative extension in Minnesota, and to accomplish that goal he has to produce. I also gave strong consideration to Chicago tailback Jeremy Langford, but Bears coach John Fox favors a committee approach at running back. That could limit Langford's touches.

Ben Goessling, Minnesota Vikings reporter: I'm going to stay at home and offer a name from the team I cover: defensive end Danielle Hunter. The Vikings took him in the third round a year ago, convinced that they could clean up his pass-rushing technique. He had six sacks as a rookie, and he should play more in his second season. He's 6-foot-5, ran a 4.57-second 40 coming out of college and is spending part of his offseason working out with Peterson at his gym in Houston. Lining up across from Everson Griffen, Hunter could turn into a terror for opposing offenses.

Michael Rothstein, Detroit Lions reporter: I'm going to stick with the Lions and look at one of the better young defenders in the NFL. Defensive end Ezekiel Ansah could come close to being dominant. He was third in the league with 14.5 sacks last season and tied for second with four forced fumbles. With the retirement of Calvin Johnson, he's also the best player Detroit has and if he's able to follow up his Pro Bowl season in 2015 with similar or better numbers in 2016, he has a chance to become of the league's bright young stars. The biggest roadblocks between Ansah and stardom are team success -- although that has been overcome before (see: Johnson and Barry Sanders) -- and his reticence when talking with the media. If he opens up more -- his backstory of coming from Ghana is fascinating and he quietly does a lot in the community -- he has a chance to become a star in the league.


NFC South

Jenna Laine, Tampa Bay Buccaneers reporter: Jameis Winston. He's on his way to becoming very special, much in the same way Drew Brees and Cam Newton have been for their respective teams. From a pure quarterbacking standpoint, he is taking better care of the football than he did a year ago, his footwork has improved and he's a lot better moving outside the pocket than people realize. He passed for more than 4,000 yards during his rookie season and did it without a lot of his key weapons. He was without Vincent Jackson, the Bucs' most reliable receiver, for six of those games. He was also without wide receiver Louis Murphy for 10 games and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins for nine. Additionally, newcomer Kenny Bell, the team's fastest receiver, was on IR the whole season. Tampa Bay's second-leading receiver was running back Charles Sims, and we're talking yardage and not just catches. Give Winston some of his weapons back, plus tight end Cameron Brate -- who really emerged as the most consistent tight end on the Tampa Bay roster last year -- and you'll see that offensive yardage translate into more points and some wins.

Vaughn McClure, Atlanta Falcons reporter: Winston, no doubt. One of the former Buccaneers' offensive coaches put it best when he said, "Jameis just has a winning edge to him that you can't coach." Winston showed signs of it throughout last season, including in two wins against the Falcons. Nothing reflected his determination and winning mentally more than when he eluded almost the entire Falcons' defense and rolled off futile tackle attempts by Brooks Reed and Paul Worrilow to pick up 20 yards on third-and-19 fourth-quarter play that eventually set up the game-winning score. Accuracy with the deep ball and better decision-making are the next steps for Winston as he strives to elevate his game, but he definitely has winner written all over him.

David Newton, Carolina Panthers reporter: Easy, Winston. Minus the threat to run on any play, the first pick of the 2015 draft offers the Bucs many of the intangibles and tangibles that Newton did for Carolina when he was the first pick of the 2011 draft. It starts with a winning attitude, something Tampa Bay hasn't had from the quarterback since Jeff Garcia in 2008. I was impressed last season with how unfazed Winston was by mistakes, and he made more than his fair share, particularly against the Panthers. Six of his 15 interceptions came against the NFC champions. Once Winston improves on the decision-making, cuts down on the mistakes and elevates his 58.3 percent completion rate, he has the physical tools and receivers to be a star. Sounds a lot like what they said about Newton during his first two seasons, minus the receivers.

Mike Triplett, New Orleans Saints reporter: Tampa Bay receiver Mike Evans. We've already dissected a lot of the top candidates for this honor over the past three weeks, starting with the most obvious answer, Winston, as well as Falcons cornerback Desmond Trufant, Saints receiver Brandin Cooks and Saints left tackle Terron Armstead. So I'll go with Evans, a guy we haven't pumped up enough. It's hard to consider Evans underrated after he racked up more than 2,200 yards in his first two NFL seasons. But I still think he is underrated, probably because he inexplicably caught only three touchdown passes last season after grabbing 12 as a rookie. Otherwise, Evans was dominant down the stretch. Over the final 11 weeks, he had four games with at least eight catches and 126 yards. I expect the 6-foot-5, 231-pounder to get back to being a red zone monster this year -- and for years to come -- as he continues to develop a rapport with Winston.


NFC West

Josh Weinfuss, Arizona Cardinals reporter: There's a lot of young talent in the NFC West, but none is as good as Todd Gurley. The Los Angeles Rams running back returned from an ACL injury suffered during his final season at the University of Georgia and dominated defenses last season, finishing third in the league in rushing -- two places behind the running back he's most often compared to: Adrian Peterson. Gurley was named the offensive rookie of the year, went to the Pro Bowl and was second-team All-Pro last year. By all accounts, that's a pretty good rookie season. By most measures, he's a star but he's still young so "rising star" is fitting here. He has stiff competition within the division. Arizona's David Johnson burst onto the running back scene in the final five games last season, rushing for the third-most yards during that span. And Seattle's Tyler Lockett, the speedy receiver and returner, has wreaked havoc on defenses.

Nick Wagoner, Los Angeles Rams reporter: I'm going to operate under the assumption that Gurley is already considered a star after winning offensive rookie of the year and finishing third in the NFL in rushing last season. So the choice here is Arizona receiver John Brown. He probably hasn't quite reached star status yet, but after two productive seasons in which he has averaged nearly 850 receiving yards and six touchdowns per year, he's on his way. Brown has the speed to be one of the most dangerous deep-ball threats in the league, but some believe he's developed enough as a route runner to become more than just a home run hitter. With Larry Fitzgerald still productive but getting older and Michael Floyd on the final year of his rookie contract, Brown looks poised for bigger things.

Michael Wagaman, San Francisco 49ers reporter: Gurley is without question on the fast track to super-stardom. What this kid did as a rookie in just 13 games (1,106 yards, 10 touchdowns) is nothing to sniff at and is only the tip of the iceberg. Having Jared Goff in the backfield will improve the passing game, which in turn will open things up even more for the running game. With the Rams poised to make a big jump up in the standings, Gurley will find himself in the spotlight more and more. There might not be any other younger player in the division more ready for it, either.

Sheil Kapadia, Seattle Seahawks reporter: You can really make the case for any of the three second-year running backs: Thomas Rawls, Gurley and David Johnson. All three guys were impressive as rookies and figure to have major roles in 2016. I'll go with Johnson because of the different ways he can do damage. In his first season, Johnson totaled 1,038 yards from scrimmage. He averaged 4.65 yards per carry, and Johnson's 2.22 average yards after contact ranked fifth among all running backs. But he's most dangerous as a pass-catcher. No running back (minimum 30 catches) in the past 10 years has posted a better yards-per-reception average than Johnson (12.69) produced in 2015. That's a testament to his natural talent and Bruce Arians' creativity in finding ways to get Johnson the football. He should see an even bigger role next season and will be a player whom defenses have to account for on a weekly basis.