One glance at the NFL's conference championship games will illustrate the importance of a good quarterback. In the AFC, it's a battle of legends as Peyton Manning and Tom Brady square off. In the NFC, rising stars Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick continue to build their rivalry.
In contrast, many of the teams drafting near the top of the 2014 draft lack that stability under center. Luckily, a strong quarterback group should help eliminate the issue for several teams. It won't guarantee an immediate turnaround, but it's a big step in the right direction.
Although the quarterbacks will probably dominate the headlines, the class is very deep overall and should help teams address multiple needs. Knowing that, here's a complete mock draft of the opening round, with a deeper dive into three picks as denoted by italics.
1. Houston Texans: Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville
While the Texans have talked about trading the top pick, the only way they should actually pull off a deal is if it brings in another high-impact player along with an opportunity to still draft a top quarterback. Otherwise, they should just evaluate the QBs and take the one they think is best.
2. St. Louis Rams (from Washington): Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina
The Rams will probably have a lot of teams calling about the availability of this selection, whether it be with an eye on a top quarterback or Clowney. If they end up staying put, adding a potentially elite rusher to an already strong defensive front would be huge for the defense.
3. Jacksonville Jaguars: Blake Bortles, QB, UCF
Jacksonville has a lot of work to do on both sides of the ball before it's back in playoff contention. It all starts with getting a quarterback capable of raising the level of the entire offense. Bortles certainly falls in that category after making steady progress in college.
4. Cleveland Browns: Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M
There's no doubting Manziel's star power and playmaking ability. Whether his style of play will translate to the NFL is the biggest question mark and could prevent him from going first. The Browns would happily take a chance on him to team up with Josh Gordon.
5. Oakland Raiders: Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson
Since the top three quarterbacks are off the board in this scenario, the Raiders would have to decide between Derek Carr or upgrading at another position. Given his ability to help the passing game regardless of who's under center, Watkins would be the smarter selection.
6. Atlanta Falcons: Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M
Atlanta had a season to forget as things spiraled out of control once injuries started to become a major factor. Improving the offensive line with Matthews would help get the offense, which still has enough playmaking talent to rank among the best in football, back on track.
7. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Greg Robinson, OT, Auburn
The Buccaneers are one of the toughest teams to project early in the draft process because they could go in any number of different directions. Providing more protection for Mike Glennon should be near the top of their to-do list, and Robinson can help right away.
8. Minnesota Vikings: Derek Carr, QB, Fresno State
This is an important pick for Carr because if the Vikings decide to pass, he could end up sliding for a while. Ultimately, given the team's immense struggles under center despite trying multiple different options, Minnesota is probably ready to take a chance on him.
9. Buffalo Bills: Khalil Mack, OLB, Buffalo
If Mack is available when the Bills get on the clock, they shouldn't let the talented linebacker leave Buffalo. He's a terrific prospect with the ability to rush the pass, defend the run and drop into coverage without missing a beat.
Mike Huguenin of NFL.com passed along comments from draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah, who considers Mack the surest thing in the class:
Buffalo outside linebacker Khalil Mack is the most sure thing in the 2014 NFL Draft, NFL media analyst Daniel Jeremiah said Thursday on "The Dan Patrick Show."
"Mack is a stud," Jeremiah said. "He is a big-time guy. He can rush the passer, he can cover, he can do everything."
Kiko Alonso provided a major boost to the Bills' linebacking corps, but he wasn't enough by himself to fix the team's run-stopping woes. Another high-upside linebacker like Mack can continue the process of eliminating that longstanding problem.
10. Detroit Lions: Darqueze Dennard, CB, Michigan State
The Lions let a promising season slip away with four straight losses to end the regular season. The pass defense, which ranked 23rd in the league, remains a major cause for concern. Dennard has emerged as the top cornerback option, making him a good fit.
11. Tennessee Titans: Anthony Barr, OLB, UCLA
Barr is an intriguing prospects simply due to his upside as a pass-rusher. It could take him a season to fully complete the transition to the NFL, but his speed off the edge is enough for him to generate a lot of hype and would be a welcome addition to the Titans.
12. New York Giants: Cyrus Kouandjio, OT, Alabama
New York's offensive attack was a mess this season. Struggles along the line were a major reason for those issues and must be addressed during the offseason. It's a toss-up decision between Kouandjio and Zach Martin, but the Alabama product gets the nod.
13. St. Louis Rams: Zack Martin, OT, Notre Dame
After getting passed on by the Giants, Martin doesn't have to wait long to get selected as the Rams could also use an upgrade to the line. Emerging from the first round with two building blocks for the lines on each side of the ball would be a nice haul.
14. Chicago Bears: Louis Nix III, DT, Notre Dame
The Bears finished the regular season with the last-ranked rush defense. It's tough to showcase any type of consistency while giving up over 160 yards per game on the ground, which allows opponents to control the pace. Nix would help fix the problem.
15. Pittsburgh Steelers: Ra'Shede Hageman, DT, Minnesota
Pittsburgh's selection comes down to Hageman or Timmy Jernigan, and the player who doesn't get selected could very well fall out of the first round. Both players have a lot of upside, but Hageman holds a slight edge early in the draft process.
16. Baltimore Ravens: Mike Evans, WR, Texas A&M
Joe Flacco needs more weapons around him to rediscover the success he had during the team's championship run last season. Evans is an explosive receiver who can make the downfield plays Baltimore's offense needs to open up the running game.
17. Dallas Cowboys: Kony Ealy, DE, Missouri
The Cowboys defense simply wasn't good enough, especially down the stretch. The unit ranked 30th against the pass and 27th against the run, leaving room for improvement in just about every area. Ealy represents the best value on the board who can fill a void.
18. New York Jets: Eric Ebron, TE, UNC
This is a perfect match. The Jets lack playmakers in the passing game in a major way. Jeremy Kerley led the team with just 43 catches for 523 yards. So there would be plenty of playing time available for Ebron, who's an extremely intriguing talent but needs a lot of snaps to continue his development.
As the value of pass-catching tight ends capable of serving as chief targets in the red zone continues to rise, it makes sense for the Jets to grab Ebron, who fits the bill, before even addressing the wide receiver weakness. There should be some good value available among wideouts later in the draft.
Ultimately, Ebron is an outstanding athlete who should develop into a great tight end within two or three years. By that time, the Jets should be able to build a strong wide receiver group around him and be on track for a much more explosive offense.
19. Miami Dolphins: Taylor Lewan, OT, Michigan
Miami is steadily trending in the right direction, but it still needs to start winning more battles up front on offense. Lewan could easily push toward the top 10 by draft day, but if he's still on the board when the Dolphins get up, he'll likely be the selection.
20. Arizona Cardinals: Ryan Shazier, OLB, Ohio State
Shazier could very well eventually force himself into the conversation with Mack and Barr as the top outside linebacker in the class. He can make plays from sideline to sideline with the athleticism necessary to become a better pass-rusher.
21. Green Bay Packers: C.J. Mosley, ILB, Alabama
Green Bay could opt for a defensive tackle here, which would make Jernigan the pick, but it would be difficult for the team to pass on an instant-impact linebacker like Mosley. He would bring much-needed stability to the middle of the Packers defense.
22. Philadelphia Eagles: Stephon Tuitt, DE, Notre Dame
The Eagles ranked last against the pass at nearly 290 yards against per game. Fixing the issue is a two-step process, which in this case starts with upgrading the pass rush with Tuitt. They can then add a few pieces to the secondary later on.
23. Kansas City Chiefs: Marqise Lee, WR, USC
Lee's stock has faded over the past year, but it wouldn't be a shock to see him end up pushing himself back up the rankings before draft day with some strong workouts. For now, he falls to the Chiefs, who would love another playmaker on the outside.
24. Cincinnati Bengals: Kyle Van Noy, OLB, BYU
While the Bengals were among the best defensive teams in football during the regular season, the unit was exposed to still have some flaws during Cincinnati's playoff loss. Van Noy should develop into another impact player for the unit.
25. San Diego Chargers: Justin Gilbert, CB, Oklahoma State
The Chargers got back on track offensively thanks to a rebound season from Philip Rivers. The pass defense wasn't as successful and needs some work. Gilbert is the top cornerback left on the board and is capable of playing a rotational role right away.
26. Cleveland Browns (from Indianapolis): Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Florida State
If the Browns do end up with Manziel earlier in the round, surrounding him with a lot of pass-catching talent will be the top priority. Teaming Benjamin with Gordon would give the team a solid one-two punch for many years to come.
27. New Orleans Saints: Jason Verrett, CB, TCU
Drew Brees' ability to put up mind-boggling numbers on a yearly basis allows the Saints to focus on the defense in the first round. Verrett is on the first-round fringe but certainly has enough potential to warrant a selection here.
28. Carolina Panthers: Brandin Cooks, WR, Oregon State
Cooks is only available for the Panthers because teams will have questions about his size. At 5'10'', 186 pounds, he doesn't have the ideal frame for the NFL. But everything else about his game screams impact player, from terrific speed to good hands.
Bucky Brooks of NFL.com talked with scouts late in the college football regular season and said the tide was starting to turn in favor of Cooks over the aforementioned Lee, a fellow Pac-12 star:
When I spoke to several scouts at the Stanford-USC game this weekend, the opinion was nearly unanimous that, right now, Cooks is a superior player to Lee. An NFC South scout said, "Cooks is just as explosive as Lee, but more consistent as a pass catcher." That opinion was validated when an AFC East scout told me that the debate "isn't close" based on their performance this season. He told me that Cooks has played at a higher level since the beginning of the season and is one of the most "electric players" he's seen in the Pac-12 in years.
While that doesn't mean Cooks will end up getting selected before Lee on draft day, it does show at least some talent evaluators believe he can have a lot of success at the next level.
The Panthers need another target for Cam Newton with Steve Smith no longer making the same number of big plays as he did during his prime. Cooks could fill the void by operating as a No. 3 wideout before moving up the depth chart as he gains experience.
29. New England Patriots: Scott Crichton, DE, Oregon State
Depending on the health outlook for Rob Gronkowski, the Patriots could end up seeking a tight end here to help stabilize the offense. If Gronkowski is making strides, then they will probably look to the defensive side, where Crichton would be a nice fit.
30. San Francisco 49ers: Allen Robinson, WR, Penn State
Although Michael Crabtree is having a nice playoff run, San Francisco could still use another playmaker for the passing game. Robinson had a strong final season at Penn State and has a good chance to go in the second half of the opening round.
31. Denver Broncos: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, FS, Alabama
The Broncos need to further address the secondary during the offseason. The biggest question mark is whether they will go cornerback or safety first. Clinton-Dix possesses the most value at either of those positions left on the board.
32. Seattle Seahawks: Xavier Su'a-Filo, OG, UCLA
Seattle sports a very well-rounded roster, which is why it was on cruise control for much of the regular season. One area where the Seahawks must ensure they remain strong in order to have success is the offensive line, leading to the selection of Su'a-Filo.
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