With many teams still alive in the playoff chase and two weeks remaining in the season, the 2014 NFL draft may seem far away for some teams. But for fans who have watched their teams struggle all season, the season can't end, and the draft can't come, soon enough.
College football is entering the bowl season, so several of these projections could change as players rise and fall down draft boards. But with several players already announcing their intentions as to whether they are returning to college for one more season or departing for the draft, here is a prediction of the first round of the 2014 NFL draft.
1. Houston Texans: Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville
Remember when the Houston Texans were considered as a potential No. 1 seed in the AFC and Super Bowl contenders prior to the start of the 2013 season? Well, now they're in line to have the No. 1 selection in the NFL draft.
There has been a lot of speculation this week as to whether or not Teddy Bridgewater will decide to leave Louisville for the NFL or return for his senior campaign. Brett McMurphy of ESPN tweeted the news from Bridgewater on Tuesday:
UL's Teddy Bridgewater told @ESPN he's "undecided" whether to leave early for NFL & "not leaning either way"— Brett McMurphy (@McMurphyESPN) December 17, 2013
If Bridgewater does ultimately decide to enter his name into the draft, he would likely be the first pick for the Texans. The best quarterback in this year's draft, Bridgewater has done nothing to change scouts' minds this season and could be Houston's starter next season.
Case Keenum is not the answer for Houston and Matt Schaub's time has run out. The door is wide open for Bridgewater to step in and compete with Andrew Luck as two of the best young quarterbacks in the AFC South.
2. St. Louis Rams (from Washington Redskins): Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M
With Jake Long on one side and Jake Matthews on the other, the Rams would have one of the best offensive lines in the NFL for whoever starts behind center in 2014. As the best offensive tackle in this year's draft, Matthews would come in and play on either side of the line for the Rams.
3. Oakland Raiders: Jadeveon Clowney, DL, South Carolina
Likely the most talented player in the entire draft, Jadeveon Clowney would bring fear back to the Oakland Raiders defense. If Clowney falls far enough past Houston or St. Louis—which could very well trade the No. 2 pick to move down in the draft—the Raiders would snatch up this freak athlete.
Greg Bedard of Sports Illustrated profiled Clowney and said he is still one of the best pro prospects after the 2013 season:
ICYMI: Believe the hype on South Carolina DE Jadeveon Clowney, but know the NFL has lots of questions http://t.co/vTe3XRDsAG— Greg A. Bedard (@GregABedard) December 11, 2013
The Raiders have several needs, much like the rest of the top 10 picks on the board, but it appears the defense really needs to fill holes. Did anyone watch what Jamaal Charles did in Week 15?
While Clowney had his issues this season with speeding and sitting out of games, but the talent is still there, and it's undeniable. If the Raiders still hold a top-five pick when the draft rolls around, Clowney will likely be at the top of their board, unless they try to go for a quarterback.
4. Jacksonville Jaguars: Derek Carr, QB, Fresno State
Nothing against Derek Carr, but odds are that the Texans won't gamble on another Carr in the draft. But given the fact that Carr is the second-best quarterback in this year's draft, he will likely be picked by the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Carr has the physical tools to make him a good quarterback in the NFL, but he might not be worthy of a top-three pick. But neither Blaine Gabbert nor Chad Henne are the answer under center for the Jaguars, so Jacksonville will likely take the gamble.
5. Cleveland Browns: Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M
My, what a year for quarterbacks. Johnny Manziel, one of the most polarizing figures in college football for the last two seasons, proved this season that his explosiveness did not take a step back and showed scouts that he improved tremendously as a passer.
With a receiving corps that includes Josh Gordon and Jordan Cameron, Manziel's ability to extend plays and move the ball with his feet will fit in perfectly with the Cleveland Browns. The situation with Brian Hoyer could dictate whether or not the Browns pull the trigger on Manziel, but he would be the pick here if they did.
6. Atlanta Falcons: Anthony Barr, OLB, UCLA
Whether it was due to injuries or just poor execution, the Atlanta Falcons have found their way into the top 10 of the NFL Draft with a plethora of talent already on the roster. With the No. 6 pick in the draft, the Falcons will likely go with the most talented player left, and that is Anthony Barr.
The senior has emerged as the No. 1 linebacker in this year's draft and could very well go earlier, but if he falls into the Falcons' lap he would fit too perfectly into their system not to take him.
7. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson
Last season, Mike Glennon saw first-hand what the explosiveness of Sammy Watkins can bring to a team when the wide receiver went off for 110 yards and a touchdown against his N.C. State team in Clemson. In 2014, Glennon might be looking for Watkins in the pocket for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The Buccaneers will have a choice to make: Should they get more protection for their new franchise quarterback or another weapon for him to throw to? Either one works here, but Watkins is easily the most explosive playmaker in this year's draft.
8. Minnesota Vikings: Blake Bortles, QB, Central Florida
Christian Ponder didn't work. Josh Freeman didn't work. Matt Cassel looks capable, but he's not exactly the future for the Minnesota Vikings. With a ton of talent on the roster, including Greg Jennings and Adrian Peterson, the Vikings simply need consistency at quarterback.
Bortles has been a fast riser late in the season and deservedly so. The UCF quarterback is intelligent, has great size for a quarterback at 6'3", 227 pounds and has a good arm. If the Vikings want to take the next step, they'll need a quarterback. Bortles might be the best guy for the job this late in the draft.
9. Tennessee Titans: Khalil Mack, OLB, Buffalo
The Tennessee Titans' needs are great after this season, but one of the biggest needs they have is in the front seven. The rushing defense has been atrocious, and bringing in a sure tackler like Khalil Mack could be a game-changer.
Mack is tied for the most tackles for loss in NCAA history and has already set the record for most forced fumbles. With one game remaining, Mack's performance on the big stage of a bowl game could lead to another rise in the rankings.
10. Buffalo Bills: C.J. Mosley, ILB, Alabama
With Kiko Alonso on one side and C.J. Mosley on the other, the Buffalo Bills could have one of the best young linebacking corps in the NFL. With a few other needs on the roster, Buffalo could go with an offensive tackle here, but Mosley is a perfect fit for a team that already includes Alonso and Mario Williams in its front seven.
11. New York Giants: Taylor Lewan, OT, Michigan
The New York Giants are another one of those teams that already have enough talent on the roster, but just haven't lived up to expectations. With a player like Taylor Lewan shoring up the blind side for Eli Manning, hopefully it will give the quarterback more time in the pocket and—fingers crossed—help him reduce the amount of interceptions he throws.
12. Pittsburgh Steelers: Cyrus Kouandjio, OT, Alabama
With a franchise quarterback and an emerging running back in Le'Veon Bell, the Pittsburgh Steelers will look to protect those assets. Kouandjio, at 6'5", 310 pounds, might be just the guy to serve as protection for both of those prized possessions.
13. New York Jets: Eric Ebron, TE, North Carolina
When it comes to freak athletes, Eric Ebron might take the cake for the first round picks this season. Ebron is not a great blocking tight end, but his hands, physicality and speed make him the best tight end in the draft.
The Jets would likely want to take a wide receiver to help Geno Smith in the passing game, but Ebron is the best safety valve in college football. Here is a video released by UNC Athletics (Just a tip: The video gets fun around the 25-second mark.):
The 6'4", 245-pounder is a man in the passing game and fits perfectly into the Jets system for another reason. During a one-on-one interview before a game against the Miami Hurricanes earlier this season—in which he finished with 199 yards and a touchdown—Ebron told me his philosophy on taking on double-teams:
Every team just double teams me. At this point, I’ve come to expect it. But one thing teams have got to understand is that it doesn’t matter who you line up against me, I’m going to produce for my team. If you’re in my way, I’m sorry but you’re not going to stop me. I know that may sound like a cocky statement, but it’s not, it’s a confident one.
It doesn’t matter whether Miami sends their best corner, their best linebacker or their best safety. I believe my team trusts me to come through and I’ll find a way to come through for them.
The Jets need talent around Geno Smith to win games next year. Ebron is that talent.
14. St. Louis Rams: Darqueze Dennard, CB, Michigan State
After filling a hole on the offensive line or potentially drafting down and landing a player like Taylor Lewan or Cyrus Kouandjio, the Rams will look to grab the No. 1 overall cornerback on the board. Dennard is not only a great cover corner, but his physical style of play with the Spartans will translate well to the NFL.
With the 27th-ranked pass defense in the NFL, St. Louis needs to improve in the secondary, and it will go after Dennard. If Dennard can start right away next season, he will immediately elevate the Rams defense.
15. Dallas Cowboys: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, FS, Alabama
The fact that the Dallas Cowboys have holes on the defensive side of the ball is no secret. And with a middle pick in the draft, they will look to immediately fill one of those positions with an SEC-caliber safety who can cover the entire field.
Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, at 6'1", 208 pounds, can accelerate on the ball and moves fluidly around the field. With great hands, vision and the ability to read a quarterback's eyes, Clinton-Dix would improve a pass defense that ranks dead last in the NFL this season.
16. San Diego Chargers: Justin Gilbert, CB, Oklahoma State
Much like the Cowboys, the San Diego Chargers need help stopping the pass. With a player like Justin Gilbert, who has better size than most corners in this year's draft, to play man coverage, his ability could not only improve the Chargers defensively but also create more possessions for Philip Rivers and the offense.
17. Baltimore Ravens: Mike Evans, WR, Texas A&M
The Baltimore Ravens need a physical receiver who can be depended on in the red zone. Mike Evans made a career out of doing just that for Johnny Manziel and the Texas A&M offense. With a home run threat in Torrey Smith and a corner end-zone receiver in Marlon Brown, the Ravens would give Joe Flacco an ideal situation with Evans across the middle.
Evans' playmaking ability is evident, but the biggest thing he brings to an NFL team is his uncanny ability to haul in nearly every pass. For two straight seasons, Evans finished with over 1,000 yards receiving and will fit in perfectly if he falls to the Ravens.
18. Green Bay Packers: Jace Amaro, TE, Texas Tech
With the future of Jermichael Finley in question after a spinal injury this season, the Green Bay Packers need to have an insurance plan. In Jace Amaro, the Packers would have not only a great blocker but an outstanding pass-catcher.
19. Philadelphia Eagles: Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, CB, Oregon
Chip Kelly made the move from the Oregon Ducks to the Philadelphia Eagles this season, and the transition seems to be working out well for the Eagles. In the 2014 draft, Kelly will look to help one of his former corners make a seamless transition to the NFL as well when he takes Ifo Ekpre-Olomu.
Ekpre-Olomu had another standout season with the Ducks and has recently seen his draft stock rising. If he is still available this late in the draft when the first round actually comes around, look for Kelly to go with a player he knows fits his system.
20. Chicago Bears: Stephon Tuitt, DE, Notre Dame
If Stephon Tuitt ultimately decides to forgo his final season with Notre Dame, the defensive end would be a perfect fit for the Bears. After a year where everything has fallen apart for the Bears defensively, Tuitt could serve as either a defensive end or tackle to help rush the passer or stop the run.
Both have been issues for the Bears this season, but if Tuitt can help fill one of those holes, they could see change as soon as next season.
21. Detroit Lions: Ryan Shazier, OLB, Ohio State
The Detroit Lions' unrelenting effort to have one of the best defensive fronts in the NFL will likely lead them to Ryan Shazier. As one of the most functional defensive players in the draft, Shazier can play either at the inside or outside position and find a comfort level.
Shazier could easily go earlier in the draft to a team that has needs at the linebacker position, but his lack of size could drop him in the Lions' lap. If he does, it would be hard not to take him.
22. Miami Dolphins: Cameron Erving, OT, Florida State
With an emerging quarterback and a young receiving corps and backfield, the Miami Dolphins have the parts to get the job done offensively. Now all they need is better protection for Ryan Tannehill, which is why Cameron Erving makes perfect sense here.
Erving is rising up draft boards and, like Shazier for the Lions, he could end up going too early for Miami to pick him up. Erving is one of the most talented offensive linemen in the class and playing in Tallahassee for the last three years has given him a comfort level with the state of Florida, where he'll likely remain.
23. Cleveland Browns (from Indianapolis Colts): Marqise Lee, WR, USC
With an already lethal receiver on one side of the field in Josh Gordon, the Browns will look for a receiver to take some of the pressure off him. This is where Marqise Lee fits in. Despite injuries this season, Lee has stepped up big in games and still shows the ability that had him at the top of wide receiver lists when the season began.
Ryan Abraham of Rivals.com tweeted out a picture of Lee practicing and reported that he will be healthy enough to play in the Las Vegas Bowl for the Trojans:
His stock is low due to the nagging injuries that kept him out of the lineup this season, but Lee is still one of the most talented wideouts in this year's draft. If he has a great showing for USC in the bowl game, he could move back up draft boards, but for now, he sits near the bottom of the first round.
With a one-two punch in Gordon and Lee along with Jordan Cameron, the Browns might finally have the type of talent it takes to move up the ladder in the AFC North. This might also make giving away Trent Richardson worth it if Lee can become the offensive weapon he's capable of being for Cleveland.
24. Cincinnati Bengals: E.J. Gaines, CB, Missouri
The Cincinnati Bengals have improved dramatically over the last few seasons, but the improvement won't stop this season. E.J. Gaines is a fantastic corner who can cover just about any receiver one-on-one in the college game.
Against Texas A&M, Gaines held standout receiver Mike Evans to just four receptions for eight yards, his lowest total yards of the year. Gaines could be matched up against Evans again if the two fall to the Bengals and Ravens. If that's the case, get your popcorn ready.
25. Arizona Cardinals: Vic Beasley, OLB, Clemson
The Arizona Cardinals have had one of their best seasons since 2008, but they are still stuck inside a division that has unrelenting defenses. Insert Vic Beasley, one of the best linebackers in this class, who has fallen recently in the rankings.
Despite finishing with 12 sacks this season in the ACC, the attention on Beasley has decreased while other linebackers have slowly climbed up the list. If the Cardinals do select Beasley, he would not only fill a need for the team, but fill it immediately.
26. New England Patriots: Louis Nix III, DT, Notre Dame
Louis Nix III would be yet another standout defensive lineman going to a team looking to improve defensively if he were drafted by the New England Patriots. While there are still offensive needs, like the tight end position if Rob Gronkowski can't return to form after his injury, Bill Belichick will likely look to improve his defensive front.
Nix III would be a great stopgap for the Patriots that rank 31st in the NFL in rushing defense, just ahead of the Bears, ironically enough.
27. Carolina Panthers: Allen Robinson, WR, Penn State
As great as Steve Smith is for the Carolina Panthers, he will eventually need to "Ice up" and call it a career sooner or later. While the Panthers already have another good receiver in Brandon LaFell and tight end in Greg Olsen, Allen Robinson would be a great fit.
At 6'3", 210 pounds, Robinson is almost exactly the same size as LaFell and has the speed and playmaking ability to eventually fill Smith's role. Not to say that anyone will ever perfectly fill Smith's shoes in Panthers fan's hearts, but Robinson is certainly another great receiver to add to the stable for Cam Newton.
28. San Francisco 49ers: Jason Verrett, CB, TCU
The rich just keep getting richer with the San Francisco 49ers, as they could be looking to add another key defensive player on an already stingy defense. Jason Verrett is a physical corner who would fit the mold of the NFC West perfectly.
With great footwork and the ability to cover receivers in man coverage, Verrett would fit in perfectly with an already lethal 49ers defense.
29. New Orleans Saints: Kony Ealy, DE, Missouri
With an already improved pass defense, the New Orleans Saints now need help getting to the quarterback. Kony Ealy is a player who could easily go higher on draft boards, but with his size and ability to shed blocks, he would be a perfect fit for a Rob Ryan defense.
30. Kansas City Chiefs: Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Florida State
Kelvin Benjamin is huge. He's fast. And he has really burst onto the scene as of late with nine touchdowns in his last five games with the Seminoles. With a good quarterback behind center in Alex Smith, Dwayne Bowe and a defense that can single-handedly win games, Benjamin could be a player who puts the Chiefs over the top.
If he doesn't continue to rise up draft boards and go earlier to a team like the Panthers, Benjamin would be a perfect fit for Kansas City.
31. Denver Broncos: Ra'Shede Hageman, DT, Minnesota
The Denver Broncos defense simply hasn't looked as good as last season. With Peyton Manning behind center and an offense that can put up huge numbers against any defense, the Broncos will look to add another defensive piece in the draft.
The GopherGridiron Instagram account posted this video of Hageman making a tackle behind the line of scrimmage without his helmet on:
Ra'Shede Hageman is one of the nastiest players in the college game and would fit in perfectly with a defensive front that already includes Von Miller. Hageman is currently a fringe first-rounder, but his talent is undeniable, and he could immediately help the Broncos defense.
32. Seattle Seahawks: Zack Martin, OG, Notre Dame
The Seattle Seahawks are currently one of the deepest teams in the league and don't have a lot of holes to fill, which is why they are Super Bowl favorites this season. But they do have this one guy named Russell Wilson who they are likely going to want to protect.
Zack Martin is a great pass-blocker and has good quickness off the snap. He also has good athleticism, which would fit well into the Seahawks' system. He could very well be a player who falls into the second round, but so could any number of players late in the first round