The 2014 NFL draft is loaded with prospects who are expected to become excellent pros, and many of them will be drafted in the first round.
NFL teams find difference-makers throughout the draft, and some even slip through the cracks to become undrafted free agents. That said, there's no doubt the players who are selected in Round 1 bear more pressure to become impact starters—either immediately or in the near future.
Here's a look at what could occur once the draft kicks off in New York on May 8, 2014, as teams attempt to inject new life into their rosters.
1. Houston Texans: Blake Bortles, QB, UCF
Most mock drafts project Teddy Bridgewater as the top pick, and he could easily be the first man off the board. However, like we saw with offensive tackle Eric Fisher last season, Blake Bortles is picking up some serious steam heading into the Senior Bowl and beyond.
Draft Insider's Tony Pauline recently wrote that Bortles is a "clear-cut favorite" to be selected by Houston at the top of the draft, adding:
Bortles has the physical skills and mental capacity to lead a franchise at the next level, as well as too much upside to pass up. Bortles is also a Bill O’Brien-type of passer, and Houston is a franchise in desperate need of a signal-caller.
What this analysis really highlights is that there's no Andrew Luck in this year's draft. Nobody should be surprised if we see a surprise at the top, and it shouldn't be shocking if there's some trade action as well.
2. St. Louis Rams (via Washington): Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M
Speaking of trade action, Washington must be really kicking itself here after selling the farm for Robert Griffin III in 2012.
But I digress.
St. Louis needs to secure its left tackle for the next decade in order to stabilize its offense. Jake Matthews is the clear-cut top tackle in this year's draft, and he'll be an instant starter for the Rams.
Who should be No. 1?
3. Jacksonville Jaguars: Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville
If Bridgewater's still on the board here, then there's no way the Jaguars will let him slide any further. He looks the part of a franchise quarterback, with plenty of arm strength, athleticism, accuracy and leadership.
4. Cleveland Browns: Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M
The Browns have struck out more times at the quarterback position than any team in recent memory. While Johnny Manziel isn't a safe bet, he's certainly a difference-maker who is nothing like the players Cleveland has previously drafted to play the position.
He'a a mobile quarterback who is at his best when plays break down, which happens more than you might think in the NFL.
That said, nobody should lump Manziel in with other "mobile" quarterbacks like Tim Tebow or Jake Locker. He's vastly improved his abilities as a passer in the past year, as illustrated to great effect by NFL on ESPN, which compares him to Bridgewater:
5. Oakland Raiders: Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina
Come on down, Mr. Clowney! Your draft-day slide has come to an end.
The talented pass-rusher didn't blow the socks off the 2013-14 season, but his God-given talent will be coveted by many a team. The Raiders have holes to fill at just about every position conceivable, so taking the best player available is an easy call here.
6. Atlanta Falcons: Anthony Barr, OLB/DE, UCLA
Clowney would have been ideal for the Falcons, but they'll happily settle for the second-best pure pass-rusher in this year's draft. Anthony Barr is similar to Dion Jordan from last year's draft class in terms of size, speed and athleticism, except he's been far more productive at the college level (10 sacks in 2013).
7. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson
"After much prayerful consideration," Sammy Watkins recently said, via ESPN.com, "I have decided to take the next step in pursuing my lifelong dream of playing in the NFL."
Watkins made the right decision, because he's this year's A.J. Green/Julio Jones.
The Buccaneers would be thrilled to add a talented playmaker like Watkins to their offense to pair him with Vincent Jackson. Such a pairing would give quarterback Mike Glennon a huge boost for his sophomore season.
8. Minnesota Vikings: Derek Carr, QB, Fresno State
There's no doubt the Vikings need a quarterback. Unfortunately, all the "top" guys have already come off the board.
Carr's perceived draft stock took a hit when he stunk it up in his final game at Fresno State against USC in the Las Vegas Bowl (4.0 yards per attempt; 29-of-54 passing). However, the younger brother of former No. 1 overall pick David Carr has all the physical and mental tools to become successful in the NFL.
9. Buffalo Bills: Greg Robinson, OT, Auburn
The Bills love to run the ball, and the team needs help in pass-protection as well. Thankfully, Greg Robinson excels in both departments. Given his physical frame (6'5" and 320 pounds) and exceptional athleticism, Robinson could turn out to be an elite left tackle.
10. Detroit Lions: Justin Gilbert, CB, Oklahoma State
The Detroit Lions have needed to draft a top cornerback for years now, but the franchise has invested its first-round picks in other positions. If the team is smart, it will not do the same again in 2014, and Justin Gilbert out of Oklahoma State would be an excellent choice to fill the void.
11. Tennessee Titans: Khalil Mack, OLB/DE, Buffalo
Scouts are divided about where Khalil Mack should be drafted.
Bucky Brooks of NFL.com called Mack a "late first-round pick" after watching him play at the Potato Bowl, while Josh Norris notes most people on twitter think he's better than Anthony Barr, who's already been selected in this mock:
Nobody can deny Mack's college production, though, nor his exceptional athletic prowess. He's going to come off the board early and could contribute right away on obvious passing situations.
12. New York Giants: Cyrus Kouandjio, OT, Alabama
The Giants were terrible on offense in 2013, in large part because New York's offensive line is atrocious. Adding a stalwart offensive tackle to play opposite Justin Pugh would give this team a couple of cornerstones for the future.
13. St. Louis Rams: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, S, Alabama
St. Louis already features one of the most feared front sevens in the NFL (and getting better), but the back end was questionable this past season. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is a hard-hitting safety who can also cover in space—a prototypical defensive back in today's NFL.
14. Chicago Bears: C.J. Mosley, LB, Alabama
It's no secret that Chicago's defense was terrible in 2013. Lance Briggs struggled to stay healthy, and the team missed Brian Urlacher's presence in the middle. C.J. Mosley is as NFL-ready as any player coming into the draft, and he has the skill, athleticism and instincts to become an instant starter for the Bears.
15. Pittsburgh Steelers: Cedric Ogbuehi, OT, Texas A&M
Ben Roethlisberger has been hit far too often the past handful of years, as Kevin Lincoln of Fox Sports Live amusingly alluded to in October:
The Steelers' season is just one endlessly looping GIF of Ben Roethlisberger getting sacked by a lamp post— Kevin Lincoln (@KTLincoln) October 27, 2013
The Steelers drafted Mike Adams out of Ohio State a couple of years ago, but he hasn't been the answer. Cedric Ogbuehi out of Texas A&M has impressed scouts with his ability to move laterally and with his power in the running game. He could be the answer Pittsburgh has been looking for.
16. Baltimore Ravens: Eric Ebron, TE, North Carolina
Joe Flacco needs weapons. Eric Ebron is one of this year's premier offensive playmakers, and the speedy tight end would be a perfect fit for Flacco's rocket of an arm. His ability to beat linebackers and safeties over the top would open up passing lanes for the team's other receivers underneath—not to mention it would be a terrific complement to Torrey Smith's game-breaking speed.
17. Dallas Cowboys: Kony Ealy, DE, Missouri
Defensive tackle Jason Hatcher was the leading sack man for Dallas in 2013 (11), while DeMarcus Ware struggled with injuries (six sacks). Adding a physical freak like Ealy to play opposite Ware would give the Cowboys a fantastic one-two punch off the edges.
18. New York Jets: Marqise Lee, WR, USC
There isn't another NFL franchise that can compare to the New York Jets when it comes to a lack of talent at the skill positions on offense. Geno Smith didn't have a chance to succeed, given the players he was working with.
Marqise Lee fell of the radar a bit without Matt Barkley in 2013 (also, he was injured for much of the year). However, he possesses elite abilities that translate well to the NFL game. He'd be a great fit as a replacement for Santonio Holmes, whose career has waned already.
19. Miami Dolphins: Timmy Jernigan, DT, Florida State
With Cameron Wake and Dion Jordan attacking the edges, Miami needs a dominant, physical defensive tackle to clog up the middle in order to truly become fearsome up front. Timmy Jernigan is that space-eater in the run game, but he's also adept at pressing the pocket inside, which complements edge-rushers to perfection.
20. Arizona Cardinals: Vic Beasley, OLB, Clemson
Beasley could decide to stay in school, and recent rumors suggest he'll do just that, as relayed by ESPN's Joe Schad:
Dabo Swinney said DE Vic Beasley still undecided; he has no new info re: Chad Morris and any Vandy interest— Joe Schad (@schadjoe) January 13, 2014
However, if the talented pass-rusher does decide to come out and declare for the draft, then he'd be a perfect fit in Arizona's hybrid defense.
21. Green Bay Packers: Darqueze Dennard, CB, Michigan State
Green Bay's secondary was a ruinous joke in 2012, and then it was again last season. Something's gotta change. A lockdown, man-to-man specialist like Darqueze Dennard could have a positive influence on the beleaguered unit in the years to come.
22. Philadelphia Eagles: Mike Evans, WR, Texas A&M
Size is a key element that has been missing in Philadelphia's passing attack for years now. Andy Reid's system utilized speedy receivers, but he focused on adding height to the equation. Chip Kelly's offense would greatly benefit from a Vincent Jackson clone, which is exactly what Mike Evans is.
23. Kansas City Chiefs: Odell Beckham, WR, LSU
Donnie Avery and Dexter McCluster can only get you so far, Kansas City.
The Chiefs desperately need a legitimate No. 2 receiver to play opposite Dwayne Bowe. Odell Beckham is that guy. Though not a big receiver, at 6'0" and 187 pounds, Beckham is highly skilled and is known to make some ridiculous catches from time to time:
24. Cincinnati Bengals: Jason Verrett, CB, TCU
The Bengals loaded up on offensive playmakers last year, selecting Tyler Eifert and Giovani Bernard. This year, it's time to invest once again in defense. Verrett is a pitbull of a cornerback who is somewhat like Tyrann Mathieu, in that he plays much bigger than his 5'10", 176-pound frame.
He'd be a perfect fit as a Nickel corner for the Bengals and should be able to contribute right away.
25. San Diego Chargers: David Yankey, OG, Stanford
Mike McCoy likes to run the ball.
David Yankey likes to pave superhighways in the running game.
It's a perfect combination, and adding the Stanford All-American to play on the line with D.J. Fluker would give the Chargers two young studs to build around for the future.
26. Cleveland Browns (via Indianapolis): Allen Robinson, WR, Penn State
Josh Gordon proved to be one of the NFL's best receivers in 2013, playing with mediocre quarterbacks—at best. Tight end Jordan Cameron also showed promise, but the team still needs to add talent on offense.
With Johnny Football in place, the next thing Michael Lombardi needs to do is draft another playmaker. Allen Robinson was incredibly productive at Penn State, and he'd be a perfect fit as a possession receiver playing alongside Gordon.
27. New Orleans Saints: Ryan Shazier, OLB, Ohio State
Rob Ryan did a fantastic job getting his defense to perform in 2013, but there's plenty of room for improvement. The roster wasn't built for a 3-4 defense, and it's going to take time to bring in the right players to become truly elite.
Adding a laser-guided missile like Ryan Shazier would certainly speed up the process.
Before the season began, Daniel Jeremiah of NFL.com said Shazier was better than Alec Ogletree, who came out last year and had a phenomenal year for the Rams:
In my opinion, Ohio St LB Ryan Shazier is a better player than Alec Ogletree. He's more instinctive and his take-on skills are superior.— Daniel Jeremiah (@MoveTheSticks) June 25, 2013
Shazier improved his game since that point, so he'd be an absolute steal here at the bottom of the first round.
28. Carolina Panthers: Jace Amaro, TE, Texas Tech
The Panthers would be absolutely deadly on offense utilizing two tight ends, much like the New England Patriots did before the 2013 season. Adding Jace Amaro to play alongside Greg Olsen would give Cam Newton two dangerous targets in the middle of the field.
29. New England Patriots: Louis Nix III, DT, Notre Dame
Vince Wilfork's injury really highlighted this team's need to bring in fresh blood on the interior of the defensive line. Louis Nix is a talented nose tackle who would help New England's front seven become impenetrable against the run.
30. San Francisco 49ers: Stephon Tuitt, DE, Notre Dame
Justin Smith isn't going to last forever (sorry, 49ers fans).
Adding Tank Carradine last year was a smart move, but the 49ers need to continue bringing in top young talent to plug into the defensive line if they want to remain dominant on defense for the next decade. Stephon Tuitt grew up in a 3-4 system at Notre Dame, and he'd be a nice backup to Smith until he retires.
31. Denver Broncos: Ra’Shede Hageman, DT, Minnesota
Ra'Shede Hageman has shown tremendous abilities against the run and the pass from his time at Minnesota. He's incredibly strong, and better yet, he's quick for a man of his considerable size (6'6" and 311 pounds). The Broncos have need of his talents up front, because Sylvester Williams isn't cutting it.
32. Seattle Seahawks: Trent Murphy, DE/OLB, Stanford
What does the best defense in the NFL clearly need more of?
Pass-rushers, of course.
Trent Murphy isn't a speed demon off the edge, but he's an excellent technician who is deceptively agile. He's only going to get stronger, too, and he's already difficult for offensive tackles to handle on the bull rush.
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