Underclassmen are declaring for the NFL draft, and the first round is filling up with younger, higher-upside talent.
As more college teams play their bowl games and finish their seasons, more players are looking ahead at their future prospects. Jadeveon Clowney declared his intention immediately following the Capital One Bowl, as did Teddy Bridgewater after the Russell Athletic Bowl.
They are two of the most highly touted guys in the class of 2014, and even more blue-chippers could forgo eligibility and get paydays along with them.
1. Houston Texans: Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville
The decision for new head coach Bill O'Brien comes down to this: sticking with Case Keenum as the signal-caller, or going with the best quarterback available.
So the Houston Texans are going to take Teddy Bridgewater.
He could put on a few pounds to bolster his strength and durability, but Bridgewater can make all the throws and combines nice mobility with poise in the pocket. This is a QB-heavy draft, but the Louisville product is the best of the class.
2. St. Louis Rams (via Washington Redskins): Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M
With two first-rounders in 2014, the St. Louis Rams could look for a receiving weapon here, but that's probably not an option after Jake Long's injury.
Rams tackle Jake Long has torn ACL and MCL http://t.co/lGAgB5w9nN— Sports Illustrated (@SInow) December 24, 2013
St. Louis will have a pressing need on the offensive line in both the short term and the long term, so taking the best tackle available is the way to go.
Jake Matthews will be a capable pass protector, and his mean streak and penchant for mauling will complement Zac Stacy's power running game.
3. Jacksonville Jaguars: Blake Bortles, QB, UCF
Chad Henne is not the dynamic QB of the future the Jacksonville Jaguars need, but they have an in-state option they can look to.
Between his big arm and his ability to make plays with his legs, Blake Bortles can revitalize a moribund Jacksonville offense, one that will potentially be without Maurice Jones-Drew next season and will need a centerpiece.
Justin Blackmon and Cecil Shorts have a ton of talent on the outside, and a passer like Blake Bortles can make the Jags incredibly explosive.
4. Cleveland Browns: Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M
The Cleveland Browns also could use someone under center who can create with both his arm and his legs, and no one can do that like Johnny Manziel.
He's only 6'1", but in the age of Drew Brees and Russell Wilson, prototypical size is becoming less important for quarterback prospects. Johnny Football could hit Josh Gordon with the deep ball and scramble to make something happen when the offense needs him to.
5. Oakland Raiders: Brett Hundley, QB, UCLA
Though the redshirt sophomore could choose to return to college, he has the potential to go even higher if he does declare.
Brett Hundley is a legit two-way threat, someone who can do consistent damage with designed runs and not just use his legs to set up better passing opportunities.
Terrelle Pryor and Matt McGloin were both surprisingly effective at times in 2013, but neither is the answer for the Oakland Raiders. There's too much talent at QB for them to draft another position here.
6. Atlanta Falcons: Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina
Jadeveon Clowney is not dropping out of the top five because of any issues with his game. Remember, he's the guy who once did this:
Hands down, he's the most fearsome defensive player available in 2014, and the Atlanta Falcons will pick him with glee if he's available here.
If the Texans didn't have severe need at quarterback—and, to a lesser extent, if they didn't run a 3-4—they could easily take Clowney first overall. Demand for QBs is just as deep as supply this season, and Matt Ryan's team will reap the benefits.
7. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson
Mike Glennon threw for 2,608 yards, 19 touchdowns and nine interceptions in 13 games. Those are solid numbers for any rookie, let alone one who wasn't expected to start last season.
He might not be the guy for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but he's worth exploring, so pairing Vincent Jackson with another big-play wideout such as Sammy Watkins is the way to go.
If Watkins and Jackson can help Glennon power an effective aerial attack, then great. Worst-case scenario, the next option at QB has a great receiving corps to work with.
8. Minnesota Vikings: Derek Carr, QB, Fresno State
He's already the fifth quarterback off the board here, but Derek Carr is just as good as the guys ahead of him. With his arm strength and smarts, he has what it takes to beat NFL defenses over the top.
You can't say the same for Christian Ponder, and with Adrian Peterson at running back and Cordarrelle Patterson all over the field, you can only imagine what the Minnesota Vikings would do with a big-armed QB.
9. Buffalo Bills: Mike Evans, WR, Texas A&M
The third Aggie off the board already gives the Buffalo Bills the tall target they need.
Steve Johnson is a very good option on the outside who can use his route running and leaping ability to get himself space in the red zone, but E.J. Manuel would greatly benefit from having an athletic 6'5" wideout like Mike Evans.
Manuel showed promise at times last season, and a guy like Evans should bring it out more consistently.
10. Detroit Lions: Justin Gilbert, CB, Oklahoma State
While the Jim Schwartz-era Detroit Lions built a ferocious defensive line behind Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley, Schwartz is out after five seasons without a coherent secondary to back it up.
So to be clear, the Lions have jettisoned Jim Schwartz, Scott Linehan and Tim Lappano. The rest of the coaches remain, for now.— Albert Breer (@AlbertBreer) December 30, 2013
Regardless of who takes over on the Detroit sideline, defending the pass will be a priority.
Enter Justin Gilbert, a 6'0", 201-pound cornerback who has the size, speed and ball skills to contribute immediately. Whatever the Lions decide to do on defense, Gilbert will be able to fit in.
11. Tennessee Titans: Khalil Mack, OLB/DE, Buffalo
The Tennessee Titans have the opposite problem: Their secondary emerged is one of the NFL's best in 2013, even without a pass rush to support it.
Don't let Khalil Mack's MAC pedigree dissuade you. He's a monster coming off the edge with the speed, power and patience to defend the run as well as let loose and hunt down the quarterback.
Watching Khalil Mack vs Ohio State…My pen is almost out of ink. Too many positive things to write down.— Daniel Jeremiah (@MoveTheSticks) December 28, 2013
Mack may not have always faced the strongest competition in college, but he has too much potential to focus on the past.
12. New York Giants: C.J. Mosley, LB, Alabama
If the New York Giants choose to keep Jon Beason in the middle of their defense next season, there will still be a pressing need at outside linebacker. Either way, C.J. Mosley should fit in nicely.
He has the speed to play any linebacker spot and the intelligence and eye for the ball-carrier to range across the field to make tackles.
His exact position is immaterial; when Mosley steps on the field, he makes plays everywhere.
13. St. Louis Rams: Marqise Lee, WR, USC
Like the Bucs, the Rams have to determine whether their young quarterback is really the best bet for the organization.
Sam Bradford is still just 26, and he has never had a deep threat like Marqise Lee. The 6'0", 195-pound receiver can burn down the sideline and leap out of the stadium, which would be a welcome addition after years of limited downfield options.
14. Chicago Bears: Anthony Barr, OLB/DE, UCLA
It's strange to say, but the Chicago Bears really need more athletes on the defensive side of the ball.
Man... If Anthony Barr really wanted to do it, he could be like a more athletic John Abraham out there.— Scott Carasik (@ScottCarasik) December 31, 2013
Anthony Barr is exactly the type of guy a rebuilding defense needs. His versatility as an every-down player from both the defensive end and outside linebacker position allows the Bears to add more players around him and insert him where needed.
If Chicago figures out its edge rush, Barr will stand up and chase down running backs, and he can put his hand down and get after the passer if the Bears fill out the linebacker corps. No matter what, he will produce.
15. Pittsburgh Steelers: Cyrus Kouandjio, OT, Alabama
Protecting Ben Roethlisberger is always essential, and now that Le'Veon Bell has given the Pittsburgh Steelers a power-running feature back again, they could use a staunch right tackle to clear the way.
Cyrus Kouandjio is a Nick Saban mauler, which is about as reliable an archetype as you can look for in the NFL draft. He's got the skills, savvy and experience to start immediately at the next level and continue to grow over time, which is exactly what Pittsburgh needs.
16. Baltimore Ravens: Greg Robinson, OT, Auburn
The Baltimore Ravens have the same o-line needs as their bitter division rivals do, but the sudden implosion of Ray Rice in 2013 makes Baltimore's problem even more pressing.
Robinson has more raw ability than Kouandjio and has a better chance to develop into a great pass protector as well as a road grader, but he is just a redshirt sophomore who became an offensive lineman in his junior year of high school. The talent and ability are there, but he is a project too.
(Coin toss will decide draft order with Baltimore Ravens and Dallas Cowboys. Alphabetical order will be used for now.)
17. Dallas Cowboys: Kony Ealy, DE, Missouri
Though the Dallas Cowboys were miserable against the pass last season, Kony Ealy is too valuable here to pass up.
The 6'5", 275-pound Ealy has 4-3 defensive end written all over him, making him a perfect bookend opposite DeMarcus Ware. Though Ealy is also a redshirt sophomore, he has been lauded as a leader on the Tigers, and his pass-rush prowess would give Dallas greater freedom to drop more defenders back in coverage.
18. New York Jets: Eric Ebron, TE, North Carolina
Geno Smith needs a new wide receiver more than a tight end, but Eric Ebron is the most valuable receiver available.
Also standing 6'5" and weighing 245 pounds, Ebron is stronger and a better leaper than Mike Evans, and he runs well enough to get open against safety coverage.
His blocking and consistency could use some work, but his Jimmy Graham-like physical makeup make him too tantalizing to slip past the receiver-needy New York Jets.
19. Miami Dolphins: Taylor Lewan, OT, Michigan
The Miami Dolphins could not run the ball very well and allowed Ryan Tannehill to get sacked 58 times, the most of any quarterback in 2013. Needless to say, this is not a sustainable formula for success.
Taylor Lewan is a senior offensive tackle with the strength to step in and boost the running game immediately and enough quickness to compete against NFL edge-rushers and help out Tannehill.
The pass protection will likely take some time with Lewan, but it's a start for Miami.
20. Arizona Cardinals: Cameron Erving, OT, Florida State
On the issue of harried quarterbacks, Carson Palmer was sacked 41 times for an Arizona Cardinals team that won 10 games and still missed the postseason. With offensive weapons already on hand, Palmer just needs time to find them.
Certainly, Cameron Erving has given Jameis Winston plenty of that this season. At 6'6", 311 pounds, he has the prototypical size and athleticism to guard the blind side on Sundays, which the Cardinals will surely take from the fifth tackle off the board.
(The order of picks 21-32 will be based on the outcome of the playoffs.)
21. Green Bay Packers: Ryan Shazier, OLB, Ohio State
Weighing in at 229 pounds, Ryan Shazier could stand to put on some weight to play in the NFL. Still, a lean, speedy two-way linebacker is just what the Green Bay Packers need on the outside.
Ohio State hasn't asked Shazier to get after the passer much, but considering how he chases down runners in the backfield, he should be able to get around the edge just fine opposite Clay Matthews. He'll struggle contending with fullback help until he's stronger, but he should fit nicely right away.
22. San Diego Chargers: Darqueze Dennard, CB, Michigan State
Even with Eric Weddle manning the safety position, the San Diego Chargers secondary is atrocious and desperately in need of some talent at corner.
The reigning Thorpe Award winner should do just fine.
Darqueze Dennard is an ace in press coverage. Though he's not exceptionally big at 5'11", 196 pounds, he excels at bumping receivers off their routes and containing them within the first five yards.
He might get in trouble at times for using his hands too much, but if he can avoid penalties, Dennard can be a star.
23. Philadelphia Eagles: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, S, Alabama
The best safety in the draft would be a coup for the 32nd-ranked pass defense.
With his ability to come up and defend the run or play center field and be a ball-hawk, Clinton-Dix has the talent to be an immediate game-changer; it won't be a surprise at all if he's a Pro Bowler someday. It's only due to more pressing needs of other teams that he's dropping so far, and the Philadelphia Eagles are more than happy to scoop him up.
24. Kansas City Chiefs: Jace Amaro, TE, Texas Tech
Ebron would be nice if he somehow fell this far, but Jace Amaro will have to do.
Jace Amaro is headed to NFL after breaking #NCAA record for receiving yards in a season by a tight end. Proud of all he has accomplished.— Scott Lacefield (@ScottLacefield) December 31, 2013
He exploded in the high-flying Red Raider offense, and at 6'6", 260 pounds, he has the size to be a terror in the red zone in the NFL. If the Kansas City Chiefs can stretch the defense down the middle of the field and give Charles more space to operate, they'll be very dangerous.
25. Cincinnati Bengals: Jason Verrett, CB, TCU
The Cincinnati Bengals have held up well in the secondary this season, but they can't count on that forever.
Leon Hall has missed 18 games over the past three seasons and is 29 years old. He won't be a lockdown corner forever, so bringing in an athletic heir apparent like Jason Verrett to learn for a year or so is the logical step.
26. Cleveland Browns (via Indianapolis Colts): Odell Beckham, WR, LSU
With Manziel locked up, the Browns could use another weapon for him to work with on the outside.
The combination of Josh Gordon and Jordan Cameron is already attractive for a young quarterback, but adding Odell Beckham to the mix would give Cleveland the makings of a great passing attack someday. Between the three of them, the speed, size and leaping ability would be too much to stop.
27. New Orleans Saints: Benardrick McKinney, OLB/DE, Mississippi State
Rob Ryan has energized the New Orleans Saints pass rush this season, but Ryan can always find a way to employ more talent if he has it to work with.
Benardrick McKinney is a 4-3 defensive end at Mississippi State, and the redshirt sophomore has the potential to be a mid-first-rounder if he declares. At 6'5", 235 pounds, he'd easily be able to make the transition to 3-4 outside linebacker, and New Orleans wouldn't be able to pass him up here.
28. New England Patriots: Allen Robinson, WR, Penn State
Penn State All-American WR Allen Robinson will enter the NFL Draft. Robinson had 97 catches for 1,432 yards this year.— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) January 2, 2014
Allen Robinson just tore up the Big Ten this season, and at 6'3", 209 pounds, the 20-year-old is exactly what Tom Brady needs. Even if he doesn't immediately emerge as a home run threat, having a receiver who can credibly stretch the field will make life easier underneath for Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman.
29. San Francisco 49ers: Brandin Cooks, WR, Oregon State
Similarly, Colin Kaepernick's dual-threat game at quarterback is at its strongest when he has the receiving weapons to threaten the defense.
Brandin Cooks is by no means a ringer for Anquan Boldin's physical game, but with Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis working the deep routes, the speedy Beaver should be able to find plenty of space to make plays and get yards after the catch.
The impact that Brandin Cooks had on @OSUBeaversFB was undeniable. He's a special young man who will succeed in the NFL and life. No doubt.— Shawn Heilbron (@ShawnHeilbron) January 2, 2014
The San Francisco 49ers have not offered Kaepernick a dynamic possession receiver in his time under center. Cooks would give him just that.
30. Carolina Panthers: Jordan Matthews, WR, Vanderbilt
Cam Newton is making strides with the Carolina Panthers despite a pretty disappointing batch of receivers. Steve Smith is injured again, Greg Olsen disappears on a week-to-week basis, and no one else has what it takes to step up and be a reliable outside option.
WR yards vs #SEC competition: 1. Mike Evans 980 2. Jordan Matthews 907 3. Jarvis Landry 839 4. Donte Moncrief 636 5. Sammie Coates 616— Saturday Down South (@SDS) December 28, 2013
Jordan Matthews is 6'3"; that height already sets him apart from every wide receiver currently in Carolina. He was able to use his physical gifts to dominate at Vandy, so he should be able to keep up the great work with Cam throwing him the ball.
31. Denver Broncos: Zack Martin, OT, Notre Dame
An underrated part of Peyton Manning's record-breaking season: He has done it all behind a suspect offensive line.
Adding a senior tackle like Zack Martin is a great step toward preserving Manning's longevity. Notre Dame's offensive line allowed just eight sacks of Tommy Rees all season, and Martin's play earned him an unlikely Pinstripe Bowl MVP nod.
Yesterday, LT Zack Martin became the first OL to be sole MVP of a bowl game since Penn State C Jay Huffman was MVP of the 1959 Liberty Bowl.— Notre Dame Football (@NDFootball) December 30, 2013
Add him to Manning's line, and the Denver Broncos will ensure the Hall of Fame QB stays upright and otherworldly.
32. Seattle Seahawks: Loucheiz Purifoy, CB, Florida
It's not like the Seattle Seahawks need much help on the defensive side of the ball, but they should protect their depth at cornerback.
Brandon Browner is suspended indefinitely, leaving Seattle in need of a third option at corner. Loucheiz Purifoy stands 6'0", 185 pounds and should hold up fine as a member of the physical Seahawks secondary.
Richard Sherman and Walter Thurmond keep this from being urgent, but Seattle is still getting plenty of talent at a position of some need.