With what appears to be one of the most talent-rich drafts in recent memory on the horizon, football fans everywhere are eagerly anticipating May 8, as their favorite teams will have a golden opportunity to take the next step by selecting a new franchise player in the first round.
Almost every position seems to have a considerable amount of depth, which means that every team picking in the first round from top to bottom should have a great chance to get better both immediately and in the future.
Along with a full first-round mock draft, here are projections for what every first-round team will do and why they'll ultimately decide to go in that direction.
1. Houston Texans (2-14): Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville
Many factors contributed to the Texans' surprisingly bad 2-14 season in 2013, but it was immediately apparent that quarterback was the biggest issue. They'll have their pick of the litter, but look for them to go with the most polished and NFL-ready guy in Bridgewater.
2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (projected trade with STL from WAS): Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina
Since the Rams don't have a need at defensive end, it would make perfect sense for them to trade out of the No. 2 spot. A number of teams would love to make a bold move in order to nab Clowney, and expect the Buccaneers to be that team now that a new, defense-oriented regime is in place.
3. Jacksonville Jaguars (4-12): Blake Bortles, QB, UCF
Perhaps no college football player boosted his draft stock more with a bowl performance this season than UCF quarterback Blake Bortles. The Knights entered their Fiesta Bowl contest against Baylor as decided underdogs, but Bortles took control to the tune of nearly 400 total yards and four touchdowns. Bortles was fantastic all season long, and at 6'4" and 230 pounds, he has the ideal size and frame NFL teams look for in a quarterback.
Of course, his level of competition and relatively short span of great production could count against him. Bortles appears to be the ultimate boom-or-bust pick on the surface, and that could cause some teams to shy away, as missing on a quarterback can be devastating. If any team needs to take a chance, though, it is the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Jags have been awful for the past several seasons, and they desperately need to move on from Blaine Gabbert and Chad Henne at quarterback. They have a tough decision to make, though, as ESPN's Adam Caplan is reporting that teams have wide-ranging opinions on Bortles:
Teams all over the place on QB Blake Bortles. Process of evaluating him going forward crucial to where he ends up.— Adam Caplan (@caplannfl) January 8, 2014
Based on his size, toughness and improvisational ability, Bortles compares favorably to Pittsburgh Steelers signal-caller Ben Roethlisberger. It's impossible to say at this point whether his skill set will translate as well as Big Ben's did, but there is a history of quarterbacks from unheralded schools thriving in the NFL. Due to the fact that he is an in-state product, Bortles will probably appeal to the Jaguars. Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel will probably be considered as well, but look for Jacksonville to ultimately settle on Bortles.
4. Cleveland Browns (4-12): Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M
Browns fans can't possibly stomach another year with Brandon Weeden under center, and going with a guy like Jason Campbell or Brian Hoyer instead simply delays the process of bringing in a franchise guy. With that in mind, Cleveland should take a chance on perhaps the biggest risk-reward player in the draft in Manziel.
5. Oakland Raiders (4-12): Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M
It wouldn't be a stretch to consider Matthews the best overall prospect in this draft due to his consistency and body of work. As much as the Raiders could use a quarterback, they'd be much better off continuing to build around the quarterback position first.
6. Atlanta Falcons (4-12): Greg Robinson, OT, Auburn
Robinson's stock has seemingly been on the rise over the past several weeks due to Auburn's success running the ball, and his performance in the National Championship Game helped immensely as well. The Falcons need help in the trenches, and Robinson is their best option.
7. St. Louis Rams (Projected Trade with TB): Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson
Although the Rams could stay at No. 2 and select Watkins without anyone thinking twice about it, there is a very strong possibility Watkins will still be available at No. 7. If that is the case, St. Louis will be in prime position to win the draft.
8. Minnesota Vikings (5-10-1): Anthony Barr, OLB, UCLA
Now that the Vikings have their head coaching situation sorted out after after hiring former Cincinnati Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, it's time to address the personnel. Minnesota gave up more points than any other team in 2013, but a big-time pass-rusher like Barr could change that.
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9. Buffalo Bills (6-10): Khalil Mack, OLB, Buffalo
Mack will unquestionably be the highest-drafted University at Buffalo product ever, but it remains to be seen exactly where he slots in. Provided he is available at No. 9, there is no way the Bills will pass up the opportunity to round out their defense with the local product.
10. Detroit Lions (7-9): Darqueze Dennard, CB, Michigan State
Since Detroit already has an excellent offensive nucleus in place, it is time to address the defensive side of the ball. In order to supplement what could become the NFL's fiercest front four, a reliable cover cornerback such as Dennard is an absolute necessity.
11. Tennessee Titans (7-9): C.J. Mosley, ILB, Alabama
With new head coach Ken Whisenhunt in place, it is entirely possible the Titans could look to address the quarterback position. It is more likely Jake Locker will be given one more year to prove himself, though, which will allow Tennessee to take Mosley as the best player available.
12. New York Giants (7-9): Cyrus Kouandjio, OT, Alabama
Quarterback Eli Manning suffered through an inconsistent and disjointed 2013 season, and breakdowns in protection contributed heavily to that. It's time to rebuild the offensive line in New York, and Kouandjio is a great start.
13. St. Louis Rams (7-9): Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, S, Alabama
The Rams have done an excellent job addressing needs over the past couple of drafts, and after finding a running mate for Tavon Austin on offense, they should plug their biggest defensive hole by taking Clinton-Dix, who is the best safety in this class.
14. Chicago Bears (8-8): Kony Ealy, DE, Missouri
Chicago is now an offense-first team with Marc Trestman at the helm, but it must get back to its roots to some degree. The defensive line was a mess in 2013, but the addition of Ealy would make the Bears a pass-rushing threat once again.
15. Pittsburgh Steelers (8-8): Justin Gilbert, CB, Oklahoma State
After New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady dropped 432 yards and 55 points on the Steelers in Week 9, it became quite apparent that improvements needed to be made in the secondary. Gilbert should be a starter at corner from day one.
16. Baltimore Ravens (8-8 pending coin flip): Mike Evans, WR, Texas A&M
Losing wide receiver Anquan Boldin hurt quarterback Joe Flacco significantly this past season, and there is no doubt that receiver Torrey Smith needs someone on the other side to complement him. The Ravens would likely run to the podium to select Evans if he lasts this long.
17. Dallas Cowboys (8-8 pending coin flip): Ra'Shede Hageman, DL, Minnesota
Not only do the Cowboys need help along the defensive line, but they also need versatile players, as they seem to deal with injuries constantly. With that in mind, Hageman is the perfect selection at No. 17 because he can be used in a number of different spots on the line.
18. New York Jets (8-8): Jace Amaro, TE, Texas Tech
Amaro appears to be the best and most dynamic tight end to enter the draft in quite some time from a pass-catching perspective. The Jets absolutely must get quarterback Geno Smith some help, and Amaro would likely be his favorite target immediately.
19. Miami Dolphins (8-8): Cameron Erving, OT, Florida State
It is no secret that the Dolphins pretty much have to take the best available offensive lineman at No. 19. Luckily for them, this class is stacked with talent at offensive tackle. Erving may have the most upside of anyone available, and he should ensure that quarterback Ryan Tannehill doesn't hit the deck as often in 2014.
20. Arizona Cardinals (10-6): Taylor Lewan, OT, Michigan
After finishing 10-6 in 2013, the Cardinals are ready to take the next step by qualifying for the playoffs. That means they could really use an impact player in the first round, and it seems likely that Lewan would be a starter at offensive tackle right away.
21. Green Bay Packers (8-7-1): Stephon Tuitt, DL, Notre Dame
From an offensive perspective, the Green Bay Packers are pretty much set. They struggled at times on that side of the ball due to the fact that quarterback Aaron Rodgers missed nearly half the season, but the Pack was potent with Rodgers under center. The same can't be said for Green Bay's defense, however. The defensive unit has some big-time players, with linebacker Clay Matthews chief among them, but they experience too many breakdowns on a game-by-game basis.
The defensive line is key to the success of Green Bay's 3-4 defense, but there is plenty of uncertainty surrounding it. Ryan Pickett, B.J. Raji, Johnny Jolly and C.J. Wilson are all set to hit free agency, so the Packers may have to rebuild their entire line. If that is the case, Notre Dame defensive end Stephon Tuitt is a great place to start. Tuitt was a dominant presence during his time with the Irish, and Terez A. Paylor of The Kansas City Star is particularly impressed with his pass-rushing ability:
My take on Tuitt: I like a massive 3-4 DE with 19.5 sacks last two years. #Chiefs need a pass-rushing interior DL to team with Poe in nickel— Terez A. Paylor (@TerezPaylor) January 16, 2014
Paylor believes the hometown Chiefs should target him, but it is difficult to imagine the Packers passing on such an immense talent at a position of need. At 6'7" and 322 pounds, the massive Tuitt should be great at taking on blockers at the next level while also providing a supplemental pass rush in addition to the one Matthews consistently generates. A guy like Tuitt could pull the entire Green Bay defense together, so he has to be the pick if he's there.
22. Philadelphia Eagles (10-6): Jason Verrett, CB, TCU
The Eagles made a great deal of progress in all facets in their first season under head coach Chip Kelly, but improvements still need to be made. That is especially true on the defensive side of the ball, as Philly struggled against the pass at times, but Verrett would help immensely in that regard.
23. Kansas City Chiefs (11-5): Marqise Lee, WR, USC
Quarterback Alex Smith took some big strides forward during his first season with the Chiefs, and he can potentially get even better with a little help. Adding Lee to an offense that already boasts Dwayne Bowe and Jamaal Charles could work wonders in 2014.
24. Cincinnati Bengals (11-5): Bradley Roby, CB, Ohio State
The Bengals have an uphill climb defensively now that former defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer has left to become head coach of the Vikings, but their talent level on that side of the ball is still excellent, and Roby will only add to it.
25. San Diego Chargers (9-7): Zack Martin, OG, Notre Dame
The Chargers had an extremely successful season despite dealing with a makeshift offensive line for most of it. Quarterback Philip Rivers isn't particularly mobile, so he could really use better protection, which Martin would help provide.
26. Cleveland Browns (from 11-5 Indianapolis Colts): Ka'Deem Carey, RB, Arizona
It has become common in recent years to refrain from selecting running backs in the first round, but the Browns' need at that position is so significant that they would be wise to select Carey and pair him with earlier selection Johnny Manziel.
27. New Orleans Saints (11-5): Ryan Shazier, OLB, Ohio State
The Saints defense certainly improved this past season, but there are still major holes in the front seven. New Orleans desperately needs a 4-3 outside linebacker who can do a little bit of everything, and Shazier fits the bill.
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28. Carolina Panthers (12-4): Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Florida State
Panthers quarterback Cam Newton will never reach elite status unless the front office surrounds him with some more weapons. Benjamin would be ideal, as the National Championship Game hero would give Newton a huge target in the red zone.
29. New England Patriots (12-4): Cyril Richardson, OG, Baylor
The Patriots haven't been shy about selecting big linemen in the early rounds over the course of Bill Belichick's time as head coach. They could use some help along the offensive line for the benefit of quarterback Tom Brady, and Richardson would be a great fit.
30. San Francisco 49ers (12-4): Odell Beckham Jr., WR, LSU
With three consecutive trips to the NFC Championship Game under their belts, it should come as no surprise that the San Francisco 49ers boast one of the NFL's most complete rosters. They have so much depth, in fact, that it is difficult to identify any glaring needs. It is always possible to get better, though, and the Niners will have an opportunity to do that in the draft. Although quarterback Colin Kaepernick has a nice group of pass-catchers to throw to, San Francisco should consider LSU wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. with this selection, as he officially declared for the draft, according to ESPN's Joe Schad:
LSU WR Odell Beckham: "I’d like to officially announce my intention to forgo my senior season and enter the 2014 NFL Draft."— Joe Schad (@schadjoe) January 15, 2014
It may seem unnecessary for the 49ers to take Beckham with Michael Crabtree, Anquan Boldin and tight end Vernon Davis already in place, but it's impossible to have too many playmakers on offense. After all, Boldin is set to hit free agency, so he could potentially play elsewhere next season. Even if he stays, Beckham could provide the Niners with a deep threat, which is something they don't necessarily have right now.
Crabtree and Boldin are more or less possession receivers, but Beckham is a speedy guy who can truly stretch the field. San Francisco tried to address this need with the No. 30 pick in 2012 by taking A.J. Jenkins out of Illinois, but that didn't work out, as the Niners ended up trading him to the Kansas City Chiefs. Perhaps the 49ers will be a bit hesitant to go to the well once again, but Beckham is a more polished prospect who should make plays at the next level.
31. Denver Broncos (13-3): Antonio Richardson, OT, Tennessee
There is no question that protecting quarterback Peyton Manning is the most important goal for the Broncos on a game-by-game basis. His blind side will be well covered if Ryan Clady comes back strong in 2014, but he could benefit from another big tackle on the right side, such as Richardson.
32. Seattle Seahawks (13-3): Eric Ebron, TE, North Carolina
The Seahawks are in an ideal position. They have very few weaknesses and can afford to take the best player available who falls to them. Seattle can afford to upgrade the tight end position, though, and Ebron just so happens to be a steal.
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