Most of the front offices around the league have already turned their focus to the offseason as the remaining playoff teams finish their preparations for the conference championship games. Of course, one of the biggest tasks on the horizon is the draft.
The draft process is going to take on a little extra importance this season because it's a very solid class overall. The difference between prospects at many positions, the most notable one being quarterback, is small, which makes the job of talent evaluators tougher.
Figuring out which players are going to live up to the hype at the next level and where they will be available in the first round is crucial. So let's take a look at an early mock draft for the entire round, including a deeper dive into three key picks, as noted by italics.
1. Houston Texans: Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville
This is a selection that will probably change several times in the coming months. If the Texans don't move the pick they should definitely take a quarterback, but there are at least three in contention to go first overall. At least for now, Bridgewater holds the inside edge.
2. St. Louis Rams (from Washington): Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina
The Rams should attempt to trade this selection because quarterback and defensive end aren't their biggest needs. If they get stuck making the pick, however, it would be difficult to pass on a potential superstar like Clowney despite having other voids to fill.
3. Jacksonville Jaguars: Blake Bortles, QB, UCF
Chad Henne and Blaine Gabbert have both been given multiple opportunities to prove they deserve the starting quarterback spot in Jacksonville and neither has thrived. It's time for the team to move in a new direction with Bortles ready to step right into the lineup.
4. Cleveland Browns: Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M
It wouldn't be a surprise if Manziel ultimately ends up going first simply because the potential is there to become a total game-changer. But he will have to shine throughout the workout and interview process to make that happen. The Browns are a good fit for now.
5. Oakland Raiders: Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson
Watkins racked up 240 catches for nearly 3,400 yards and 27 touchdowns in three seasons at Clemson. Those are outstanding numbers even when factoring in the pass-heavy offense. So it's not a surprise he felt ready to make the jump. TigerNet passed along comments in which he said as much:
Sammy Watkins..."I feel like I maximized my opportunity here. Coach Batson pushed me out of my comfort zone this summer."— TigerNet.com (@ClemsonTigerNet) January 10, 2014
While Rod Streater made major strides during his second season and Denarius Moore has flashed potential, the Raiders don't have a true No. 1 receiver. Both Streater and Moore would be more effective with a player like Watkins in the mix.
Oakland would probably like to get a quarterback here, but it isn't going to get a wide receiver like Watkins elsewhere and the top three QBs are off the board. If the draft plays out this way, the Raiders should grab the Clemson star.
6. Atlanta Falcons: Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M
Matt Ryan was sacked 44 times during the regular season. Not only is that too many to have a successful offense, but it also puts the franchise quarterback at high risk for injury. It means the Falcons must address the line, and Matthews is the best option on the board.
7. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Greg Robinson, OT, Auburn
Another team that will be searching for help along the offensive line is the Bucs. Robinson was a stabilizing force for Auburn during the team's remarkable run to the national title game and would be an immediate upgrade for Tampa Bay.
8. Minnesota Vikings: Derek Carr, QB, Fresno State
Given Minnesota's quarterback struggles, it would be tough for the team to pass on Carr. He isn't as highly touted as the three signal-callers taken in the top five, but he's a solid prospect with a good arm and overlooked athletic ability.
9. Buffalo Bills: Khalil Mack, OLB, Buffalo
Mack could land several different spots inside the top 10, but the Bills are the most logical landing spot. He rose to stardom in Buffalo, developing into a complete three-down linebacker, and could help a defense that's struggled to stop the run in recent years.
10. Detroit Lions: Darqueze Dennard, CB, Michigan State
Cornerback is one of the positions that's actually weaker than it has been in recent classes. That's good news for Dennard, though, because it means he should be a coveted commodity that doesn't last on the board much beyond the top 10.
11. Tennessee Titans: Anthony Barr, OLB, UCLA
Whichever team drafts Barr, which should happen in the first half of the opening round, will be doing so based on the player he could become, not his current ability. He's a raw talent, but his combination of athleticism and speed off the edge is intriguing.
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12. New York Giants: Cyrus Kouandjio, OT, Alabama
There was plenty of blame to go around for the Giants' offensive struggles. Getting things turned around starts with better play up front, both in the running game and in pass protection. Kouandjio would be a step in the right direction.
13. St. Louis Rams: Taylor Lewan, OT, Michigan
Picking for the second time in the top 13, the Rams should emerge from the first round with a pair of impact players. While upgrading the offensive line is rarely something that excites a fanbase, it's a necessity and the best move for St. Louis here.
14. Chicago Bears: Louis Nix III, DT, Notre Dame
The most important thing for the Bears is fixing their run defense. They gave up more than 160 yards per game on the ground, and when opponents are consistently able to control the ball and the clock, it's hard to be anything more than an average team.
It's going to take more than one player to fix the issue, but Nix would be a great start. The Notre Dame product has ideal size and strength for the position, yet he moves very well and showed he's a lot more than simply a run-stopper.
His ability to shed blocks and make his presence felt in the backfield is going to attract a lot of double teams. That should open up opportunities for blitzes from the second level, which will help slow down both the pass and run games.
15. Pittsburgh Steelers: Ra'Shede Hageman, DT, Minnesota
The Steelers could go several different directions with this selection. They could use another playmaker on offense or a defensive back. But the best option available that fills a need is Hageman, who can help revitalize the defensive front.
16. Baltimore Ravens: Mike Evans, WR, Texas A&M
A major reason the Ravens weren't able to make the playoffs to defend their title was a lack of big plays on offense. Evans was a key reason for Manziel's success with the Aggies and would help the Baltimore offense move the ball with more consistency in 2014.
17. Dallas Cowboys: Kony Ealy, DE, Missouri
Ealy is a well-rounded defensive end with an ability to attack the passer or slow down the running game. That's exactly what the Cowboys are looking for after a season where the defense underperformed in just about every area.
18. New York Jets: Eric Ebron, TE, UNC
It doesn't come as a shock that Ebron is starting to attract a lot of attention. He always had the athleticism to become a prototypical modern tight end and continues to learn the finer points of the position, which makes him an attractive option for the Jets.
19. Miami Dolphins: Zack Martin, OT, Notre Dame
There are question marks about whether Martin will have the length necessary to remain at tackle once he makes the NFL jump. His quickness has made up for it at the college level. That said, even if he's forced to move inside he should provide good value over time.
20. Arizona Cardinals: Ryan Shazier, OLB, Ohio State
It's hard to see the Cardinals letting Shazier slip by if he's still available at this point. The talented outside linebacker makes plays from sideline to sideline and could climb draft boards if it's clear teams aren't overly concerned about his lack of prototypical size.
21. Green Bay Packers: C.J. Mosley, ILB, Alabama
The Packers have made a habit of getting great production out of their draft classes despite rarely owning high picks in recent years. Mosley would be another example as a reliable inside linebacker who's capable of bolstering the defense right away.
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22. Philadelphia Eagles: Stephon Tuitt, DE, Notre Dame
Tuitt is a prospect with a wide range of possible landing spots as the draft process begins in earnest. He could end up pushing toward the top 10 or falling out of Round 1 altogether. He's got the tools to become a star, but he has plenty of work left to do.
23. Kansas City Chiefs: Marqise Lee, WR, USC
Lee is an example of how draft stocks can change over the course of one year. He might have been a top-five selection if he was eligible last season, but now he finds himself likely to remain on the board until the second half of the first round. He would be a good fit for the Chiefs.
24. Cincinnati Bengals: Kyle Van Noy, OLB, BYU
While the Bengals could opt to go with a wide receiver here, Van Noy is an interesting option for a defense that struggled to get off the field in a playoff loss to the San Diego Chargers. He's shown he can handle every task from pass-rushing to dropping into coverage.
25. San Diego Chargers: Justin Gilbert, CB, Oklahoma State
The main task for Gilbert between now and draft day is proving he belongs as the No. 1 cornerback in the class ahead of Darqueze Dennard. If he does that, there's a good chance he goes inside the top 10, as is the case in the Mel Kiper mock draft passed along by SportsCenter:
If he doesn't achieve top corner status, he will probably slide down the board a bit. That's perfectly fine with the Chargers, who need to upgrade a lackluster secondary that frequently struggled, as the team ranked 29th in passing yards allowed.
Gilbert is also a playmaker with good ball skills on defense and the ability to take kicks the distance on special teams. He needs to work on his press coverage, but every other area of his skill set points to a successful career at the next level.
26. Cleveland Browns (from Indianapolis): Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Florida State
Josh Gordon needs help. The elite receiver put up big numbers despite a poor quarterback group and a lack of other targets. Just imagine what he could do with a wide receiver like Benjamin forcing some of the defensive focus elsewhere.
27. New Orleans Saints: Jason Verrett, CB, TCU
The secondary should remain a point of emphasis for the Saints. When a team throws as much as New Orleans does, there's a lot of pressure on the defensive backfield to help win shootouts. Verrett can provide some useful depth as a rookie.
28. Carolina Panthers: Brandin Cooks, WR, Oregon State
Cam Newton and Co. ranked 29th in passing yards this season. With Steve Smith unable to provide the same downfield burst he did during his prime, the aerial attack lacked somebody to stretch the defense. Cooks would make sure that isn't an issue next season.
29. New England Patriots: Jace Amaro, TE, Texas Tech
The fact the New England offense continued to succeed despite missing some key pieces is a testament to the coaching staff and Tom Brady. It doesn't mean the Patriots shouldn't look to upgrade the receiving group this offseason, starting with Amaro.
30. San Francisco 49ers: Allen Robinson, WR, Penn State
San Francisco's passing game is obviously a lot more potent when Michael Crabtree is healthy, as the postseason has shown. There's still room for another target, though. A player like Robinson would provide some much-needed depth.
31. Denver Broncos: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, FS, Alabama
Clinton-Dix could end up going closer to the middle of Round 1 once it becomes clear which teams are angling for a safety. Should he end up sliding, as is the case in this scenario, the Broncos would probably scoop him up in a heartbeat.
32. Seattle Seahawks: Xavier Su'a-Filo, OG, UCLA
The Seahawks are in a position where they aren't overly desperate to improve any single position. They can go the route of best value at an area of minor need, which would include the offensive line. Su'a-Filo is a high-upside prospect worth taking a chance on to finish Round 1.