Who is the AFC North's biggest rising star? Our roundtable reporters give their picks.
Jamison Hensley, Baltimore Ravens reporter: Bengals RB Joe Mixon. He’s primed for a breakout year in his second season. Mixon delivered a promising rookie campaign, leading Cincinnati with 626 yards rushing. He capped it off with a 96-yard effort against the Ravens, which could carry over into a season with a heavier workload. While Mixon needs to improve his consistency, his 3.5-yard average was also a reflection of his blocking. Mixon's production should increase with a much-improved Bengals offensive line, which added left tackle Cordy Glenn (trade with Bills) and center Billy Price (first-round pick). The upside is there with Mixon. He has big-play ability and 4.45 speed. A second-round pick in 2017, he was Pro Football Focus’ No. 16 running back last year, ranking ahead of Leonard Fournette, Devonta Freeman and Mark Ingram. Mixon is reportedly in better shape as he prepares to take over as the Bengals’ full-time feature back, which means his arrow is pointing up.
Katherine Terrell, Cincinnati Bengals reporter: Bengals DE Carl Lawson. Lawson quickly proved his fourth-round draft status wrong with 8.5 sacks last season, despite playing less than half the defensive snaps. Lawson will contend that he actually should have had 9.5 sacks, but lost one on a technicality. That would have tied Carlos Dunlap’s rookie record with the Bengals. One of the Bengals’ goals this season is to get Lawson on the field more, and if they let him line up and do what he does best, it’s hard to imagine he won’t be able to generate similar numbers. Lawson certainly has the talent to become one of the best pass rushers in the division one day.
Pat McManamon, Cleveland Browns reporter: Steelers WR JuJu Smith-Schuster. The guy who plays opposite Antonio Brown will never get a ton of catches; Brown is too good and will always lead the Steelers. That does not mean that the guy who plays opposite him is not a good player, and in drafting Smith-Schuster the Steelers got an excellent player to pair with Brown. Smith-Schuster finished with 917 receiving yards; at the age of 21 he was the youngest player ever to top 1,000 all-purpose yards in a season. With Martavis Bryant traded to Oakland, Smith-Schuster steps into a bigger role. His complete game – blocking, running, route running – will help him have another strong season opposite Brown.
Jeremy Fowler, Pittsburgh Steelers reporter: Smith-Schuster. Though William Jackson might be a Pro Bowl corner for years to come in Cincinnati, the stage is set for Smith-Schuster to outshine all AFC North risers in year two. Smith-Schuster earned Pittsburgh’s No. 2 receiver job thanks to a 917-yard, seven-touchdown rookie performance, and with that elevated role should come at least 100 targets in 2018. Smith-Schuster will have every chance to notch his first 1,000-yard season despite a mysterious offseason knee injury that is worrisome (Smith-Schuster says he’ll be 100 percent for training camp). Pass-rushers Myles Garrett and T.J. Watt have a chance to explode with double-digit sacks, but they don't catch passes from Ben Roethlisberger and play alongside Antonio Brown. The benefits of lining up with that tandem will be plentiful for Smith-Schuster. Brown’s presence creates passing lanes, and Roethlisberger exploits them.