Football fans are in the midst of perhaps the most exciting draft time of the year outside of the national holiday itself.
The collegiate bowl season is just getting underway, which coincides with the final weeks of the pro season—which in turn helps to determine where each team picks and to define the most pressing needs for each franchise.
With one week to go in the NFL season, fans have a better idea than ever before at what positions their favorite team will look to upgrade. Here is the latest take on how things will shake out in the 2014 draft, based on a projected draft order, prospect performance and team needs.
1. Houston Texans: Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville
There is no doubt Teddy Bridgewater is the No. 1 overall pick. It is easy to drum up speculation that he has competition for the top spot, thanks to a relatively quiet junior season for the Louisville signal-caller, but none of the traits that have made Bridgewater the consensus top pick have suddenly vanished.
Bridgewater does not make the schedule for the Cardinals. Had he, fans would have seen much more of him this past season. They will see plenty when he ushers in a new era for the Houston Texans.
2. St. Louis Rams (via Washington): Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M
How smart do the St. Louis Rams look right now?
Chaos enshrouds the franchise in Washington, which has done nothing short of give the Rams a top-five selection. The front office will go the smart route here with a surefire top prospect along the offensive line to protect franchise quarterback Sam Bradford.
Fun fact—two of five NFL personnel executives prefer Matthews over last year's No. 2 overall pick, Luke Joeckel, per NFL.com's Daniel Jeremiah.
A safe pick, which is the best possible move considering the Rams are far from done selecting top-10 prospects this year.
3. Jacksonville Jaguars: Blake Bortles, QB, UCF
Blake Bortles is a name sure to explode in the coming weeks when it comes to draft talk and for good reason. In fact, the hype train has just begun, in part thanks to a quote by Sports Illustrated's Peter King on NBC's Football Night in America, via Paul Tenorio of the Orlando Sentinel:
The fastest rising quarterback in the first round, should he choose to come out, is fourth-year junior Blake Bortles of Central Florida. I’ve spoken to a team that’s likely to have a top 10 pick, and they like him better than any quarterback in this draft.
Bortles does a lot well and does so with mediocre talent around him. This is slowly beginning to catch the eye of media types and fans alike, although it is safe to bet he has been on the NFL radar for quite some time.
Jacksonville has played itself out of a Bridgewater but has plenty of options here. Bortles stays local, and while he may not put butts in seats via his name, his play on the field is capable of doing so with time.
4. Oakland Raiders: Derek Carr, QB, Fresno State
At two different points this season, it appeared the Oakland Raiders were in a position to give a young quarterback another year to prove himself while using a top-10 pick to improve another position.
Not anymore. Terrelle Pryor and Matt McGloin have both shown flashes, but it is hard to imagine the brass in Oakland gives either another shot. This is especially the case if coach Dennis Allen is fired as Eddie Borsilli of SiriusXM NFL Radio hints:
I was told tonight by a pretty good source that Dennis Allen will likely not be back as #Raiders coach next season— Eddie Borsilli (@Borsilli) December 18, 2013
A new coach means a new franchise quarterback, which is where Derek Carr out of Fresno State comes into play.
5. Cleveland Browns: Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M
Johnny Manziel may have missed out on another Heisman trophy, but his sophomore campaign was arguably better than his freshman year.
Provided Manziel checks out in pre-draft interviews in what is sure to be one of the most extensive background checks by NFL teams, Manziel makes too many plays on the field to not go in the top 10.
Manziel meshes well with the vertical offense in Cleveland, and even better, he can extend plays with his feet and help to make up for a miserable running game.
6. Atlanta Falcons: Anthony Barr, OLB/DE, UCLA
Much noise has been made about the demise of Jadeveon Clowney's draft stock out of South Carolina, which has in turn given rise to the emergence of UCLA's Anthony Barr as the first defender off the board.
That is a highly debatable notion, but the team selecting here makes it come to fruition. Barr is versatile and can fill the gaping hole at the defensive end-linebacker hybrid role in the Atlanta defense. As far as fit goes, it is the definition of perfect.
7. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina
Jadeveon Clowney slides a bit here, in part because of a quarterback frenzy. That is just fine with Tampa Bay, a team in need of help at the position.
Clowney remains a top prospect despite what some may call a down year. He is an ideal fit in the Buccaneers defense and truly the only option as he meshes well and is easily the best player left on the board for a team in need of as much help as possible.
Of course, be careful—Clowney is one of several big names yet to make his future known as NFL Network's Albert Breer points out:
We mentioned Manziel was missing from that list of 158 players who hadn't yet submitted their names. Another one missing: Jadeveon Clowney.— Albert Breer (@AlbertBreer) December 19, 2013
8. Minnesota Vikings: Brett Hundley, QB, UCLA
Brett Hundley is a bit of a polarizing prospect in that many question his first-round stock, but he is the type of prospect teams select based on his staggering upside.
Right now, that is exactly what Minnesota needs. Veteran quarterback Matt Cassel has proved competent in recent weeks but is far from the answer. Adrian Peterson's prime is dwindling, but it does not make sense for the Vikings to go any other route here.
9. Buffalo Bills: Khalil Mack, OLB, Buffalo
Buffalo needs help generating a pass rush despite a name such as Mario Williams, which is fine considering Khalil Mack is still on the board.
Mack embarrassed an Ohio State offensive line early in the year and is firmly a top-10 pick at an integral position in today's NFL. Buffalo finds a role and immediately fields an upgraded unit in 2014.
10. St. Louis Rams: Louis Nix III, NT, Notre Dame
St. Louis must stick to the trenches this year after last year's splurge on sexy skill players such as Jared Cook and Tavon Austin.
The plan backfired as the defense is routinely gashed, and Bradford went down to yet another injury. But the building blocks are now in place, which means defensive tackle Louis Nix is the war daddy in the middle off the board here.
Nix stuffs the run and generates a rush with relative ease. The 340-pound tackle will make an immediate impact.
11. Tennessee Titans: C.J. Mosley, LB, Alabama
Tennessee enters the first round with one thing on its mind—defense.
The offense is set as long as the team elects to bring back quarterback Jake Locker (if not, what's wrong with another year of Fitzmagic?).
After extensively upgrading the offensive line last year, the Titans must find a leader on defense. That man would be C.J. Mosley after yet another captivating collegiate season at Alabama.
12. New York Giants: Ryan Shazier, OLB, Ohio State
Not far behind Mosley in terms of draft stock is Ohio State's Ryan Shazier, who arrives just in time for the woeful New York Giants defense.
Look, the trade for veteran linebacker Jon Beason made a world of difference for the defense midseason, so the addition of an elite prospect here who can fill in at any spot is the type of boost New York desperately needs.
A member of the secondary would be nice here, but Shazier brings too much to the table right away, whereas rookie corners traditionally struggle to adapt to the pro game. Right now, New York wants to win.
13. New York Jets: Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson
Sammy Watkins is far and away the draft's most explosive weapon, so the New York Jets are getting quite the deal here.
Rookie quarterback Geno Smith had been nothing short of putrid without receiver Jeremy Kerley, so imagine what he can do in his sophomore season with Watkins next to Kerley.
Not only does Watkins help Smith, his assistance prevents defenses from stacking the box for running back Chris Ivory, who has been a pleasant surprise now that his body has held up for almost an entire season.
14. Pittsburgh Steelers: Cyrus Kouandjio, OT, Alabama
Pittsburgh could go a variety of ways here, especially with one of the NFL's oldest defenses in need of help.
But the move that makes the most sense is helping to extend the career of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who has once again been used as a crash-test dummy by opposing defenses.
Things have been better in recent weeks, but pair the return of Maurkice Pouncey with an elite prospect such as Cyrus Kouandjio and suddenly Big Ben has plenty of time to find targets down the field.
15. Miami Dolphins: Cameron Erving, OT, Florida State
Miami surely is not happy about missing out on Kouandjio, but Cameron Erving out of Florida State is a nice consolation prize.
There is no doubt the Dolphins are upgrading quarterback Ryan Tannehill's protection here. He has been smooth through his first two years but needs more time and cannot continue to be the NFL's most sacked quarterback (51 through Week 16).
16. Chicago Bears: Darqueze Dennard, CB, Michigan State
Chicago has an issue in its secondary with star Charles Tillman set to become an unrestricted free agent, not to mention the fact he is dealing with a serious injury that will keep him out the rest of the year as coach Marc Trestman told the media, per Sports Illustrated's Scooby Axson:
Tillman will be unavailable for the rest of the year. He’s not going to be available to practice for the rest of the regular season because he’s not far enough in his recovery to do that.
Given the uncertainty at the position, it only makes sense for Chicago to nab the draft's top corner, Darqueze Dennard. Like Tillman, Dennard is physical against the run and an outstanding coverage player who fits the scheme well.
17. San Diego Chargers: Jason Verrett, CB, TCU
San Diego has done a lot right under new coach Mike McCoy, but little of that falls into the defensive category.
To be more specific, the Chargers simply cannot defend the pass. Jason Verrett is a nice remedy to the problem here as a physical corner who can start right away.
While Verrett may struggle, especially if the front seven cannot get pressure, he is a better option than the patchwork crew currently assembled at the position in San Diego.
18. Green Bay Packers: Eric Ebron, TE, North Carolina
It seems a foregone conclusion that the Green Bay Packers will take a tight end in the first round.
The only question that remains is which one the brass likes.
Eric Ebron seems like the obvious choice here after an explosive junior season. He is a big-bodied target at 6'4" and 245 pounds who catches the ball at its highest point. In other words, he is what Aaron Rodgers loves from his tight ends.
19. Dallas Cowboys: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, S, Alabama
Where to start in Dallas?
Obviously help is needed on the defensive side of things, but exactly where is much harder to discern.
With the top corners, linemen and linebackers off the board, it only makes sense to go after the top player at a position if the fit and spot is right, which it is for Alabama's Ha Ha Clinton-Dix.
Clinton-Dix is an immediate starter, and it is hard to imagine he can be any worse than the current duo of Barry Church and J.J. Wilcox.
20. Philadelphia Eagles: Bradley Roby, CB, Ohio State
Bradley Roby has experienced a miserable fall from grace as the draft's top corner, thanks to a rough year in which he was repeatedly exposed, but Philadelphia is more than happy to pluck him from his fall here.
Charles Davis of NFL.com makes the argument for the struggling Roby best:
NFL teams are going to want his services, and possibly very early. Keep an eye on him. I still lean toward him being drafted in the second round, but before it's said and done -- if he tests really well -- he could put himself in the first-round mix. NFL teams can never have enough good corners, and Roby has the tools to be a very good one.
Philadelphia is simply awful against the pass and has little at the cornerback position to be happy about. Roby may have a rough learning curve ahead of him, but the Eagles cannot afford to pass on his potential at perhaps one of the most important positions of all in a pass-happy league.
21. Baltimore Ravens: Mike Evans, WR, Texas A&M
Joe Flacco and the Baltimore Ravens are lost without Anquan Boldin, who averaged 95 yards per game and scored four times last postseason, not to mention leading Baltimore in receiving in each of the past three years.
That is a lot to replace, but Mike Evans is more than up to the task as arguably the draft's most pro-ready receiver. He is a big-bodied target at 6'5" and 225 pounds who could pass as a tight end to the unobservant eye.
To summarize, he is exactly what the Baltimore offense needs to stay relevant.
22. Arizona Cardinals: Vic Beasley, DE, Clemson
The biggest loss in Arizona this year during a surprise season has been defensive coordinator Ray Horton, but the franchise can continue to overcome his departure to Cleveland by adding impressive talent.
Which is exactly what Vic Beasley is at the moment. Beasley is a versatile player who can fill in at a multitude of positions and provide a stout rush.
Regardless of fit, Beasley is a smart move for a team that sometimes struggles to put pressure on quarterbacks. Add in an unbelievably high ceiling and no other player makes sense.
23. Cleveland Browns (via IND): Marqise Lee, WR, USC
Josh Gordon is arguably the next big thing at wide receiver, but he needs a running mate to help stretch defenses thin.
Marqise Lee has seen his draft stock take a hit after injuries put a dent in his 2013 season at USC, but he remains one of the top options at the position. In fact, one scout believes Lee is still a top-10 pick, per Chase Goodbread of NFL.com.
Lee runs crisp routes and catches anything thrown his way, which will give defenses fits as he exploits single coverage with all the attention thrown Gordon's way.
24. San Francisco 49ers: Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, CB, Oregon
San Francisco is often heralded as one of the deepest teams in the NFL, and while it is mostly true, the team quietly has an issue defending the pass.
These issues can be quickly mitigated with the addition of Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, a defensive standout from a school primarily known for its offensive prowess. While not an immediate fix, Ekpre-Olomu has the traits of a franchise corner once adapted to the pro level.
25. Detroit Lions: Justin Gilbert, CB, Oklahoma State
It is no secret the Detroit Lions are yet another team with an explosive offense but a miserable secondary that allows opponents to stay in games.
The duo of Chris Houston and veteran Rashean Mathis is simply not getting it done, and Darius Slay clearly needs work. Justin Gilbert enters the mix as a legit starter and possible upgrade unless it is something simply in the water preventing Detroit corners from playing at a competent level.
26. Cincinnati Bengals: Taylor Lewan, OT, Michigan
Cincinnati is one of the deeper teams in the NFL, but a subtle problem is emerging on the offensive line.
Left tackle Andrew Whitworth has clearly lost a step in 2013 and has kicked inside to guard as of late to help make up for injuries. He should remain there at this stage in his career and give the nod to Taylor Lewan at left tackle.
Lewan is a raw prospect in need of proper coaching, which he will certainly get in Cincinnati, especially while being protected by Whitworth.
Here are some thoughts on Lewan, courtesy of NFL Network's Albert Breer, which explain why Lewan is so polarizing and takes a plummet here:
Coming into the season, many considered Lewan to be jockeying with Texas A&M's Jake Matthews (and perhaps Alabama's Cyrus Kouandjio) for the label of best left tackle prospect in college football. Lewan has lost ground since...an NFC personnel executive questioned if Lewan has enough of a mean streak, saying he sees him as a third-round prospect. It seems certain now he'll be picked after Matthews. How far after is the question.
27. Kansas City Chiefs: Austin Seferian-Jenkins, TE, Washington
If Andy Reid's offense is to continue being an efficient, balanced attack, it is going to need more production from the tight end position.
Quarterback Alex Smith needs big targets to hit on his seemingly rare instances of throwing rather than handing off to Jamaal Charles, so Austin Seferian-Jenkins makes the most sense here on a team with few glaring needs.
Seferian-Jenkins not only has the traits to make him a starter, it gives Reid some flexibility with the two-tight end fad currently sweeping the league.
28. New Orleans Saints: Stephon Tuitt, DE, Notre Dame
Rob Ryan has done an admirable job in New Orleans with his amoeba defense given the pieces he was provided from a traditional 4-3.
He brought in names like Victor Butler, Parys Haralson and Kenny Vaccaro, but Ryan's ideal unit is far from done. Stephon Tuitt is the next piece in the process as a versatile player who can fit multiple spots and scenarios regardless of down and distance.
As the makeover continues, that is all Ryan can ask for from another first-round defender.
29. New England Patriots: Trent Murphy, DE, Stanford
For all the praise Tom Brady and the New England Patriots get for their offensive firepower, coach Bill Belichick has quietly built a strong defense that allows an average of 22.2 points per game in 2013.
That hardly means the team will stop adding defensive talent.
Stanford's Trent Murphy is an ideal candidate for the Patriots. He can fit the scheme well and make a quick transition as a role player before taking over in a few years. His high ceiling only makes the pick that much better.
30. Carolina Panthers: Antonio Richardson, OT, Tennessee
It was a popular notion in mocks around the start of the season to give Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton more weapons, but the emergence of both Brandon LaFell and Ted Ginn has made that hard to justify.
Instead, Newton could use some help on the offensive line. Antonio Richardson may very well be a top-15 pick by the time the draft rolls around, but for now he nicely slots here and fights for a starting job right away.
31. Denver Broncos: Cyril Richardson, OG, Baylor
Peyton Manning and his laser-rocket arm are in the midst of another jaw-dropping season, so it only makes sense for Denver to want to prolong this trend as long as possible.
Like guards such as Kevin Zeitler in recent years, Cyril Richardson is arguably one of the best overall players in the draft but is hurt by the value of his position at the next level.
Like Zeitler, Richardson enters the NFL as an immediate starter and difference-maker. Bleacher Report's Matt Miller concurs:
Baylor's Cyril Richardson is Mike Iupati to me. Quickness, power and agility. Rarely misses when blocking on the move.— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) October 28, 2013
32. Seattle Seahawks: RaShede Hageman, DT, Minnesota
RaShede Hageman's stock is going to wildly fluctuate on his path to the draft, but it is at least clear he is a surefire first-round selection at this point.
Hageman made short work of the Big Ten during his time in college and transitions to the NFL rather easily as he joins one of football's most dominant front sevens.