If there was any doubt about the importance of quarterbacks in today's NFL, it should be eliminated by the time the first round of the 2014 draft ends. It's shaping up to become an extremely quarterback-heavy round, especially early on.
With the rise of high-powered passing games around the league, it's become very difficult to contend without a reliable quarterback under center. That's why so many teams drafting near the top are also the teams searching for new franchise signal-callers.
Heading into the divisional round of the playoffs, here's a complete projection for how the opening round will play out. A deeper dive is taken into three particularly intriguing selections, which are denoted by italics.
1. Houston Texans: Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville
The Texans aren't as bad as their 2-14 record would suggest. They started the season 2-0 and almost stood at 3-1 before losing to the Seahawks in overtime, a loss that really seemed to start the downward spiral that resulted in the first overall pick.
Luckily for Houston, it has a chance to bounce right back into contention next season if the quarterback it selects pans out as expected. Other areas of the roster are strong, but without a QB, Houston would still be a step behind the rest of the AFC pack.
Enter Bridgewater. He enjoyed a spectacular junior season that saw him connect on 31 touchdowns with just four interceptions while completing 71 percent of his throws in a pro-style offense. All the signs point to him stepping right in and having success.
2. St. Louis Rams (from Washington): Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina
Sam Bradford showed enough promise in seven games before suffering an ACL injury to warrant another chance to assert himself as a franchise quarterback upon returning to full strength. Clowney is a physical freak capable of making a major impact right out of the gate.
3. Jacksonville Jaguars: Blake Bortles, QB, UCF
Blaine Gabbert was a bust, and Chad Henne isn't the long-term answer in Jacksonville. Bortles has skyrocketed up draft boards over the past few months after an outstanding season at UCF. Has all the tools to become a star at the NFL level.
Which QB has the brightest future?
4. Cleveland Browns: Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M
Even in a stacked class, Manziel will generate more hype than any other player. His improvement as a pocket passer and his upside should allow him to go inside the top five.
5. Oakland Raiders: Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson
Yes, the Raiders are among the teams seeking a quarterback, but it's hard to see the franchise passing up a wide receiver such as Watkins. They have lacked a No. 1 wideout for too long, and whichever QB they settle on—whether it be later in the draft or free agency—will benefit from having Watkins on the outside.
6. Atlanta Falcons: Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M
It was a season to forget in Atlanta, as Super Bowl dreams quickly turned into weekly nightmares. The good news is that the roster has enough talent to bounce back next season. But first the Falcons must upgrade an offensive line that allowed 44 sacks and struggled to open up running lanes.
7. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Greg Robinson, OT, Auburn
There were finally signs of progress in Tampa Bay this season, even if they were fleeting. To turn those occasional successes into consistent wins, the Bucs must start winning far more battles in the trenches, something Robinson has shown he can do.
8. Minnesota Vikings: Derek Carr, QB, Fresno State
Three quarterbacks took snaps for the Vikings during the 2013 season, and none of them gave us any reason to believe he is going to solidify the position moving forward. Carr doesn't come with the same type of hype as the three QBs taken before him, but he's a very projectable talent.
9. Buffalo Bills: Khalil Mack, OLB, Buffalo
No team should have a better read on Mack then the Bills, who were able to watch him closely while he dominated with the Bulls. He's a do-it-all linebacker with tremendous athleticism, good pass-rushing ability and a high work rate that will bolster an underperforming Bills defense.
10. Detroit Lions: Darqueze Dennard, CB, Michigan State
The story remains much the same for the Lions. The offensive firepower is in place to make some serious noise, but they continue to lose far too many close games. That's because when the defense needs a key stop, it often fails to deliver. A playmaker like Dennard would be a big help.
11. Tennessee Titans: Anthony Barr, OLB, UCLA
Barr is seemingly in a battle with the aforementioned Mack for the first outside linebacker to come off the board. While Mack is a more polished all-around player, which might give him the edge in the end, the UCLA product is more enticing as a pure pass-rusher.
At the outset, he's somebody the Titans might use in passing situations. They can maximize his impact while working on him to improve in terms of early-down work. Over time, however, he should become a very solid three-down player.
He's a good fit for Tennessee, which finished in a tie for 21st with just 36 sacks during the regular season. If it is going to have consistent success against the likes of Andrew Luck and two more young quarterbacks likely to enter the division early in this draft, a pass rush is essential for Tennessee.
12. New York Giants: Cyrus Kouandjio, OT, Alabama
Eli Manning took a lot of heat for throwing 27 interceptions. While some of that negative attention was warranted due to his poor decisions—mostly concerned with throwing into tight coverage—the offensive line also failed to give him a clean pocket consistently. That needs to change.
13. St. Louis Rams: Cedric Ogbuehi, OT, Texas A&M
After upgrading the defensive line with their first selection, the Rams turn their focus to protecting Bradford with their second early pick. Ogbuehi is a player with a lot of potential thanks to his combination of athleticism and physical tools.
14. Chicago Bears: Louis Nix III, DT, Notre Dame
Chicago ranked last in the NFL in run defense during the regular season at over 160 yards against per game. When opponents are able to run at will, it's tough for the Bears to control possession or the pace of play. Nix won't fix the problem alone, but he would start the process.
15. Pittsburgh Steelers: Ra'Shede Hageman, DT, Minnesota
For years, the Steelers were able to lean on their defense to carry a majority of the load. As the group has gotten older, however, the unit has fallen into the middle of the pack. Revitalizing should continue in the draft with players who are ready to step right in.
16. Baltimore Ravens: Mike Evans, WR, Texas A&M
The Ravens offense had a dreadful season. Joe Flacco made too many mistakes, Ray Rice was a non-factor in most games, and Torrey Smith was the only receiver who made a consistent impact. Evans will bring another much-needed playmaker into the mix.
17. Dallas Cowboys: Kony Ealy, DE, Missouri
It wouldn't be a surprise if Ealy ends up moving even further up the board by draft day. He's another one of those prospects who stands out because of size and athleticism. He's a force up front, making plays to help slow down both in the running and passing games.
18. New York Jets: Eric Ebron, TE, UNC
Although Geno Smith made his fair share of rookie mistakes, it's easy to see why the first-year quarterback didn't succeed when you look at the group he was throwing to. The Jets need more star power at the skill positions. Ebron fits the bill.
What should the Dolphins target in Round 1?
19. Miami Dolphins: Taylor Lewan, OT, Michigan
For most of the season, the Dolphins provided reason for optimism. Then, they dropped the final two games of the regular season to the Bills and Jets to miss the playoffs. That probably leaves a sour taste in their mouths, but they aren't far off, and Lewan will help strengthen the line.
20. Arizona Cardinals: Ryan Shazier, OLB, Ohio State
Shazier presents a classic dilemma for front offices around the league. He doesn't have prototypical size for a linebacker at the NFL level, but his production at Ohio State suggests he's got enough talent to overcome the lack of an ideal frame and still have success.
21. Green Bay Packers: C.J. Mosley, ILB, Alabama
Green Bay has found itself in contention a lot over the past decade, which means that in order to have successful drafts, it had to find good value. Often, that means taking a player at a position that wasn't necessarily the most pressing need in the first round.
It's an approach that helped the Packers land Aaron Rodgers, Clay Matthews and Nick Barnett despite drafting outside the top 20. They once again find themselves in that position and could strike gold by landing Mosley.
The Alabama linebacker could easily push closer to the top 10, but based on the current breakdown, there just isn't a perfect fit. That's fine with the Packers, who would get a linebacker with a great understanding of the game and big-game experience.
22. Philadelphia Eagles: Stephon Tuitt, DE, Notre Dame
The Eagles need to emerge from the offseason with a couple of players who are capable of getting after the quarterback. It's the only way the defensive struggles from this season are going to be alleviated. Tuitt is the best option left on the board.
23. Kansas City Chiefs: Marqise Lee, WR, USC
When a team's leading receiver is a running back, there's clearly some work to do. Jamaal Charles is a great weapon coming out of the backfield, but the Chiefs need somebody who can make plays down the field to bring a little more versatility to the offense.
24. Cincinnati Bengals: Vic Beasley, OLB, Clemson
The Bengals defense rated well during the regular season, but the Chargers eliminated them from the playoffs by controlling the game on the ground. Beasley would give Cincinnati another weapon on the edge to make the unit more reliable in those types of games.
25. San Diego Chargers: Justin Gilbert, CB, Oklahoma State
Regardless of how far the Chargers make it during the current postseason, upgrading the secondary will be the main concern heading into the offseason. Gilbert would be ready to play a rotational role right away—if not step right into the starting lineup.
26. Cleveland Browns (from Indianapolis): Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Florida State
Cleveland's offensive group could look very difficult by Week 1 next season. Aside from Josh Gordon, who enjoyed a season that moved him into the elite receiver group, there are plenty of needs. But with Manziel earlier and now Benjamin, the pieces are falling into place.
27. New Orleans Saints: Kyle Van Noy, OLB, BYU
Even though New Orleans could look at a running back here, Van Noy provides more value. The Saints will continue to put up points even without a true No. 1 back, but the defense still needs some work to become a more stable unit.
28. New England Patriots: Scott Crichton, DE, Oregon State
New England's offseason plans will likely be dictated by how healthy Tom Brady's arsenal will be heading into next season. If the front office thinks another target is necessary, it could be a wideout or tight end here, but Crichton makes sense otherwise.
29. San Francisco 49ers: Allen Robinson, WR, Penn State
The 49ers are a very dangerous playoff team because they can run the ball, control the clock and play great defense. Imagine how good they would be if they added another playmaker or two for Colin Kaepernick to work with in the passing game.
Which WR has more upside?
30. Carolina Panthers: Brandin Cooks, WR, Oregon State
In many ways, you could write the exact same thing for Carolina as for San Francisco. Both NFC squads are defense-rich with bruising offenses. Since Steve Smith is no longer the dynamic threat he was during his prime, Cooks is a good option.
31. Denver Broncos: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, FS, Alabama
As long as Peyton Manning remains under center, the Broncos don't have to spend too much time worrying about the offense. That allows them to spend a lot of early picks improving a defense that still carries a lot of question marks.
32. Seattle Seahawks: Zack Martin, OG, Notre Dame
Wrapping up the first round, the Seahawks opt for Martin to fortify the offensive line. He's a technically strong lineman who has the skill set to play either tackle or guard, which is a valuable commodity for a team with an already formidable roster.