It's January, but NFL draft season is already blooming. It kicks into high gear with the Senior Bowl this week and the NFL combine a few weeks away.
There is certainly plenty of time before the 2014 NFL draft, especially given that it has been moved into May. But it is never too early to start looking ahead.
Here is my first crack at a mock draft for the first round. Of course, things will change dramatically between now and May thanks to free agency and the draft process, and there is no telling what draft-day trades will be made.
Mock drafts in January are like trying to predict the weather three months ahead of time, but it's all in good fun. Let's dive in.
Pick: Teddy Bridgwater, QB, Louisville
Will the Houston Texans trade out of the No. 1 pick? Will they use it to give that defensive line another pass-rushing weapon whom they openly admire?
Plenty can happen with that No. 1 pick, but quarterback is king in the NFL. Why not go for the gold and draft the quarterback of the future?
Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater doesn't have the gaudy statistics some of his peers will flaunt heading into the draft, but he is the best prospect at his position. Just because he isn't exactly Andrew Luck doesn't mean he shouldn't be considered with the No. 1 pick.
After all, how many prospects are like Luck?
Bridgewater is a polished player with huge potential, though, as Sports Illustrated's Peter Bukowski writes, reviews are mixed among scouts and experts about his viability as a top pick.
The Texans need a quarterback. Should they keep this pick, this seems like a likely result.
Pick: Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina
Defensive end Robert Quinn had a monster season, winning the PFWA Defensive Player of the Year award after a 19-sack season. Now imagine pairing him with Jadeveon Clowney out of South Carolina.
Granted, the Rams have plenty of needs. Sam Bradford is replaceable at quarterback, though the Rams seem to be leaning toward to keeping him and his $17.5 million salary in 2014, despite rehabbing a torn ACL and providing mediocre results since he was drafted No. 1 overall in 2010.
While the Rams drafting a quarterback-in-waiting is certainly not out of the question, it seems a bit wasteful if the intent is to stick with Bradford.
St. Louis also seems to have a need at receiver, where Brian Quick and Chris Givens do not exactly strike fear into the heart of opposing defenses. Clemson's Sammy Watkins could certainly be in play here, but the receiver class is so deep that there will be plenty of opportunity to shore up that position later in the draft.
Needs be damned, Clowney is the best player available here. Along with Chris Long, the Rams would have an incredible rotation of pass rushers.
Pick: Blake Bortles, QB, UCF
Enough is enough for Jacksonville. The Blaine Gabbert experiment is over at quarterback. At least it should be, if there is any sense in that front office.
With Teddy Bridgewater gone, Jacksonville turns its eyes on the consolation prize that is Central Florida's Blake Bortles.
Bortles is an intriguing prospect. Often compared to Ben Roethlisberger, the former Knight has excellent size at 6'4" and 230 pounds, and he has great athleticism to go with it. He also put up some great numbers in a diverse offense.
But Bortles has plenty of skeptics, at least in terms of being considered a top-five prospect in the draft.
It is possible the Jaguars will snag Teddy Bridgewater or even Johnny Manziel here should circumstances allow, but Bortles would make for an intriguing pick this early in the first round.
Pick: Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M
The Cleveland Browns are a bit of a mess at this point, if all the gossip is to be believed.
Why not add the most polarizing player in the draft to the equation?
Johnny Manziel was electrifying in his time as Texas A&M's quarterback, becoming the first freshman to ever win the Heisman Trophy in 2012 and nearly doing it again last year.
Of course, questions abound about Manziel's pro prospects. Around 6'0" and 210 pounds, the flashy quarterback doesn't have ideal size for his position. Drew Brees and Russell Wilson might have broken the mold for smaller QBs to succeed in the NFL, but there is a long list of undersized quarterbacks who didn't make it.
Still, Manziel possesses an athleticism most quarterbacks can only dream of. He needs some work with mechanics, but he is a solid passer on top of his physical abilities.
Then there is his brash persona, which rubs some the wrong way. As long as he is winning, though, Browns fans would gladly oblige some off-field drama.
This might be a bit risky, but the Browns don't have much of a choice, do they? Unless Brian Hoyer really is their savior.
Pick: Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M
There is plenty of work to do to improve the roster in Oakland. The Raiders have plenty of cap space to begin that reconstruction when free agency hits in March, so draft needs will shift accordingly.
For the purposes of this mock draft, the most visible combination of "best player available" and team need happens to be the Raiders and another Texas A&M Aggie, offensive tackle Jake Matthews.
The 6'5", 305-pound lineman protected quarterbacks Ryan Tannehill and Johny Manziel with aplomb over the past four seasons in College Station, and he is likely the best offensive lineman in this year's draft.
He will be a big upgrade for the Raiders, who just missed out on a top quarterback option in this mock.
Pick: Khalil Mack, DE, Buffalo
The Falcons were supposed to be playing into January, perhaps even into February. Instead they find themselves here, picking sixth, with top options at positions of need already gone.
Granted, Atlanta can easily move up to snag Jadeveon Clowney or Jake Matthews, or those two might not even be at the top of the list for general manager Thomas Dimitroff.
Either way, there is a clear need for a pass rush on that Falcons defense, and Khalil Mack is the best player available in that regard here.
The 6'4", 248-pound pass-rusher possesses freakish athleticism. The biggest knock on him is the level of competition he confronted while playing at the University of Buffalo. But there have been plenty of players from smaller schools who have made big impacts in the NFL.
Pick: Anthony Barr, OLB, UCLA
The Buccaneers have talent all around that defense, but their pass rush was left wanting when Michael Bennett moved to the other corner of the country and joined the Seahawks.
At outside linebacker, UCLA's Anthony Barr might not be a perfect fit for defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier's defense. But Frazier and head coach Lovie Smith will find a way to maximize Barr's potential as a pass-rusher.
Pick: Derek Carr, QB, Fresno State
Four quarterbacks in the first eight picks? Seems unlikely, but here we are, slotting Fresno State's Derek Carr in with the Vikings at the No. 8 pick.
It's Christian Ponder all over again. Poor Vikings.
Minnesota is stuck between a rock and a hard place here. Unless one of the top three quarterbacks—Teddy Bridgewater, Blake Bortles and Johnny Manziel (though that list is certainly debated among draft experts)—falls or the Vikings move up, it is a real possibility the Vikings will have to choose from among the rest of the quarterback class.
That is not to say Carr will be a bust—he does have excellent tools as a passer—but he is a bit raw.
At this point, it might be more prudent for the Vikings to go another direction in the first round and try their hand at quarterback in a later round, given that Carr isn't quite worth a top-10 pick.
Pick: Eric Ebron, TE, UNC
The Bills have talent strewn about that offense, but tight end remains a big position of need. It just so happens Eric Ebron is a top-flight option out of the University of North Carolina, and he falls to the Bills here.
The underwhelming Scott Chandler has been the best Buffalo has had at the position in recent years, and he could be gone in free agency. Second-year quarterback EJ Manuel could use a big-time option at tight end, and Ebron would be just the ticket.
The 6'4" former Tar Heel is a dynamic pass-catching target, capable of terrorizing opposing linebackers and opening up the middle of the field for the Bills offense.
Pick: Justin Gilbert, CB, Oklahoma State
It is terribly tempting to slot Clemson's Sammy Watkins here at wide receiver, given the Lions have needed a complement for Calvin Johnson since the stud receiver came into the league. But Detroit has an even bigger need at cornerback, given how bad that secondary has been over the years.
Justin Gilbert isn't the most polished option at cornerback, but the former Oklahoma State Cowboy is an excellent option in the draft.
The 6'0" defensive back has nice size and speed, and he has playmaking ability, evidenced by his six interceptions, which tied him for fourth in the Football Bowl Subdivision last season.
Pick: Kony Ealy, DE, Missouri
Tennessee needs to bolster its pass rush, among other things. With the top options gone here, it falls to Missouri's Kony Ealy to make some noise on that defensive front.
Ealy played defensive end at Aldon Smith's alma mater, but he could slide to outside linebacker at the next level. Given that new defensive coordinator Ray Horton is bringing a 3-4 defense to the Titans, that would make Ealy a good fit.
Here is what CBS Sports' Dane Brugler has to say about Ealy:
Ealy is built well for an edge rusher and wins with his quick first step, length to engage and rip and the hand strength to powerfully finish tackles. He is still developing as a run defender and needs to improve his ball awareness to better set the edge and shed consistently vs. the run. A versatile athlete, Ealy can win using speed off the edge and quickness to penetrate as an interior rusher. He's just scratching the surface of his ability and should continue to improve with his pass rush moves.
The 6'5", 275-pound specimen is a bit raw, making him an upside pick if he does go in the top 12. But, like Smith with the 49ers, Ealy could pay big dividends right away, especially in a Horton-coached defense.
Pick: Greg Robinson, OT, Auburn
Things might turn around quickly on offense if the Giants can shore up protection for quarterback Eli Manning.
That's where Auburn's Greg Robinson comes in.
The big offensive lineman was a big part of the surprising turnaround for the Tigers this season. Here is what CBS Sports' Rob Rang has to say about Robinson:
Position coach J.B. Grimes said Robinson could be the best blocker he's ever had in three decades of coaching, and told Robinson he could be the No. 1 pick in 2015.
At 6-5, 320, Robinson ran in the 4.9 range at Auburn's testing day in the spring. His vertical is between 28 and 30 inches.
A big, athletic lineman considered the best blocker a coach has seen in 30-plus years? Sounds like a nice deal for Manning and that offensive line.
Pick: Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson
Rams fans would surely rejoice if the team landed Jadeveon Clowney and Sammy Watkins, but that's the way the cards fell in this mock draft.
Admittedly, having receiver Sammy Watkins fall this far in the draft is a bit of a stretch. But crazier things have happened in the actual draft before.
Watkins would be the No. 1 receiver the Rans have sorely lacked in recent years, a perfect addition to an increasingly explosive offense featuring last year's top pick, receiver Tavon Austin.
At 6'1", Watkins isn't quite Calvin Johnson, A.J. Green or Julio Jones. He possesses great ability, nonetheless, and he would add another dynamic option for quarterback Sam Bradford, assuming the Rams keep the signal-caller.
Pick: Calvin Pryor, S, Louisville Cardinals
The Bears were atrocious on defense this season.
In all seriousness, when was the last time you saw the previous sentence?
A big part of the problem in Chicago last season was awful safety play. Chris Conte and Major Wright fell off in a big way, exposing a back line that finished in the middle of the pack in pass defense.
Chicago could also use some help up front, so a guy like FSU's Timmy Jernigan could be a serious consideration here. But arguably the best safety in the class gets the nod at this point: Louisville's Calvin Pryor.
Here is what Bleacher Report's Matt Miller recently had to say about the former Cardinal:
Pryor has range for days, showing the cut-and-explode ability to turn and attack the ball in flight. Pryor (6'2", 208 pounds) also has the size to come up inside the box and take on the run. What impresses me most, though, is his all-areas ability to attack the ball. As a zone-coverage safety—taking deep thirds or halves—his speed and instincts will be a major asset.
Sounds like a winning prospect for that Bears defense.
Pick: C.J. Mosley, ILB, Alabama
The Steelers need a help at linebacker—among other positions—even if Sean Spence can make it all the way back from a knee injury that jeopardized his career.
Enter Alabama's C.J. Mosley, the top linebacker in the draft. Mosley isn't a spectacular linebacker prospect, but he is an excellent fit for the Steelers.
Alabama runs a 3-4 defense, as does Pittsburgh. Mosley should fit right in alongside Lawrence Timmons in Pittsburgh's linebacking corps.
Pick: Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Florida State
Quarterback Joe Flacco lost a lot more than he bargained for when receiver Anquan Boldin was shipped off to San Francisco. Combined with tight end Dennis Pitta's injury, the Ravens were left with speedster Torrey Smith and the inconsistent duo of Jacoby Jones and Marlon Brown.
It was a predictably poor season for Baltimore's passing game.
General manager Ozzie Newsome might have finally healed from the burns Mark Clayton gave him as the last receiver Baltimore took in the first round (2005). Should Newsome be so inclined to address the position in the draft, Kelvin Benjamin might be an excellent replacement for Boldin.
The fellow former Seminole is a tantalizing physical specimen at 6'6" and 220 pounds. He could very well run the 40-yard dash in the 4.4-second range at the combine to boot, which would set the draft community ablaze.
Unlike Boldin, Benjamin has had issues with drops in college. That could hurt his stock enough to drop him down this far in the first round, though it might not matter much to teams if they fall in love with everything else he brings to the table.
Drafting a big-bodied, physical receiver could be just what the doctor ordered for Flacco and that offense.
Pick: HaHa Clinton-Dix, S, Alabama
Dallas is a mess, and the Cowboys still have to take an axe to that roster to get under the salary cap. There will be gaping holes heading into the draft, and picking 17th might make it tough to fill any one of them with an instant star.
Perhaps the biggest problem for Dallas has been that secondary, which featured the underwhelming Barry Church, J.J. Wilcox and Jeff Heath.
At this stage of the draft, HaHa Clinton-Dix seems like a good fit for the Cowboys.
Pick: Mike Evans, WR, Texas A&M
The Jets need a receiver in a bad way. Stephen Hill, Jeremy Kerley and Santonio Holmes have simply been abysmal as a unit, and quarterback Geno Smith isn't going to improve much without better talent around him.
Mike Evans might not be the top receiving prospect in this draft, but the former Aggie will be an upgrade for the Jets. The 6'5" receiver has great size, though he is not a speedster. He had massive production in college, helping Johnny Manziel achieve some of those gaudy numbers.
Pick: Taylor Lewan, OT, Michigan
It seems the Dolphins are constantly trying to fix the offensive line.
The Jonathan Martin saga poisoned Miami's 2013 season, but the second-year lineman wasn't very good to begin with. It didn't matter who lined up at left tackle—or at some other spots on that offensive line for that matter—quarterback Ryan Tannehill was sacked a team-record 58 times this season.
Taylor Lewan could be the answer to their woes at left tackle, however. Like former Dolphins lineman Jake Long, Lewan played at the University of Michigan. Miami owner Stephen Ross is a big Wolverines fan, though hopefully Miami isn't basing draft decisions on the owner's college preferences.
Lewan is a behemoth at 6'8" and 315 pounds, and he could quickly shore up a big position of need if the Dolphins don't go after a tackle in free agency.
Pick: Cyrus Kouandjio, OT, Alabama
Arizona had a real problem at left tackle after trading Levi Brown away to Pittsburgh last year. Bradie Sowell was the worst-rated offensive lineman in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
It seems prudent for the Cardinals to address the position this spring.
Cyrus Kouandjio would make for a solid upgrade, though methinks that could be the case for many of the tackle prospects in the draft. The 6'6", 312-pound lineman is a good all-around lineman, and he has room to add weight to that frame.
Pick: Louis Nix III, DT, Notre Dame
The Packers need to fix some things on defense, perhaps most notably at interior defensive line. Ryan Pickett wasn't terribly good at nose tackle for the Packers last season.
Enter Louis Nix out of South Bend.
The former Notre Dame lineman is a load at 340 pounds. He is coming off surgery, but that shouldn't preclude a team from taking him in the first round.
Pick: Darqueze Dennard, CB, Michigan State
The Eagles were vastly improved in 2013, but they still had the worst pass defense in the league. They need some help in that secondary.
Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard is vying for the top spot at cornerback this season, but he finds himself second to Justin Gilbert in this mock draft.
Last year's Jim Thorpe Award winner probably lacks the ideal size at 5'11" to be a top-10 pick, but he has good athleticism and solid technique in both man and zone coverage. That should be enough for a team like Philadelphia to pull the trigger should he fall this far in the first round.
Pick: Marqise Lee, WR, USC
The Chiefs were a nice surprise this season, but the passing game was a bit of an Achilles' heel for that offense in 2013.
Dwayne Bowe isn't exactly Calvin Johnson at receiver, and there is a significant dropoff behind him. Donnie Avery had a couple of big games, but there was really nothing special in that wide receiver corps.
Marqise Lee's draft stock took a bit of a hit in 2013 as he had a down year after a fantastic sophomore season. He had some issues with drops, and his production took a severe hit, though injuries and a volatile quarterback situation were certainly factors.
Still, Lee showcased his potential in 2012. He is an incredible athlete and a good route-runner, and he has decent size at 6'0".
Pairing him with Bowe would do wonders for that pass offense in Kansas City.
Pick: Jason Verrett, CB, TCU
The Bengals are in an interesting quandary with the 24th pick.
On the one hand, quarterback Andy Dalton has a ceiling that won't get the Bengals over the hump in the playoffs. On the other, there isn't likely to be a top-flight option to replace him at this stage in the first round.
So, instead of reaching for a second-tier quarterback, the Bengals bolster their secondary here with TCU's Jason Verrett.
A physical player, Verrett has the tools and polish to be a good cornerback at the next level. Unfortunately, he is undersized at 5'10", otherwise he might go much higher than this.
Pick: Bradley Roby, CB, Ohio State
The Chargers made a surprise—and fortunate—run into the playoffs last season, no thanks to their secondary. San Diego was fourth worst against the pass.
Justin Gilbert, Darqueze Dennard and Jason Verrett are gone here, so the next-best choice is Bradley Roby of Ohio State.
The 5'11" cornerback was once considered a contender for the top spot at his position, but inconsistency last season has put a bit of a damper on his draft stock. He also lacks ideal size for the position, though there are plenty of great cornerbacks under 6'0" in the NFL.
Still, Roby has an aggressive mentality and game-breaking potential. The Chargers need some of that in their secondary.
Pick: David Yankey, G, Stanford
The Browns have a variety of needs elsewhere after taking Johnny Manziel earlier in this mock draft. One of those needs is at guard, where Shawn Lauvao and Oniel Cousins were miserable last season.
Former Stanford lineman David Yankey is arguably the top guard in the draft. He played on a stout offensive line known for its collective run-blocking prowess.
Yankey is a great pulling guard, and he should be able to start right off the bat if he stays healthy. Between him and Manziel, the Browns offense got two major upgrades, even if improving the offensive line isn't a sexy move.
Pick: Antonio Richardson, OT, Tennessee
The Saints need to keep quarterback Drew Brees clean. Charles Brown did a poor job replacing the departed Jermon Bushrod last season, leaving a need at left tackle as the Saints head into the offseason.
There are certainly other spots for improvement in New Orleans, but how could the Saints resist taking Antonio Richardson out of Tennessee if he fell to them here?
The 6'6", 325-pound behemoth has a well-rounded game and is ready to start at tackle right out of the gate.
Pick: Jordan Matthews, WR, Vanderbilt
How long has it been that receiver Steve Smith has needed a bona fide running mate?
Brandon LaFell and Ted Ginn Jr. simply do not cut it, and Smith is no spring chicken. It's time the Panthers begin addressing the position.
There is a host of second-tier receiving talent in this draft. That is not to say these players are second rate, but there will be plenty to choose from with the 28th pick if Carolina doesn't move out of it.
Matthews has a nice size-and-speed combination at 6'3" and will likely display a 40-yard dash time in the 4.4s at the combine. He also had great production at Vanderbilt.
Pick: Timmy Jernigan, DT, Florida State
The Patriots were the walking wounded this season, with no bigger defensive loss than defensive tackle Vince Wilfork.
The big lineman should be back, but he needs some help on that line. Joe Vellano and Chris Jones were not adequate in his stead.
Should Timmy Jernigan fall this far—and should head coach Bill Belichick unfathomably stick with the 29th overall pick instead of trading it—the Patriots will have come away with a relative bargain in the first round.
The 6'2", 298-pound defensive tackle was a force for the Seminoles last season, amassing 63 tackles and 4.5 sacks from the middle of the defensive line. He is a great pass-rusher with work to do against the run, but he could be a terror alongside Wilfork in New England.
Pick: Stephon Tuitt, DL, Notre Dame
The 49ers might have experienced bitter disappointment in recent years, but they are relatively well stocked across the roster.
San Francisco's defensive front is already fearsome, and it will add defensive end Tank Carradine, who was injured in 2013, next season. So why draft Stephon Tuitt with Justin Smith and Ray McDonald already in the fold?
After all, the Seahawks have proven you can never really have too many good defensive linemen. Tuitt could be a part of an incredible rotation that would add flexibility along that defensive front.
The 6'5", 300-pound lineman is versatile, but he would likely stick to defensive end in the 49ers front.
Pick: Xavier Su'a-Filo, OG, UCLA
What do you get a team for Christmas that has everything?
The Seahawks are loaded, though it's clear that league MVP Peyton Manning is going to quarterback his way past that vaunted defense in Super Bowl XXLVIII.
If Seattle have one deficiency, it's along the offensive line. Particularly, the Seahawks need an upgrade at guard. Xavier Su'a-Filo out of UCLA fits that bill.
The 6'2", 302-pound lineman is an excellent lineman coming out of college, and he played both left and right guard. He is a bit older, which could ding him enough to drop him a bit, but this seems like a nice pick for the needy Seahawks.
Pick: Kyle Van Noy, OLB, BYU
Surprise! The Broncos have won Super Bowl XLVIII. This information was passed to me by my future self, which traveled two weeks back in time to reveal the score and advise me against eating that Moroccan chicken dish.
Of course, winning the Super Bowl does not preclude a team from improving in the draft, though the sensible thing could be to sit tight and make luxury picks at the end of the first round.
So, while taking the draft's best running back might seem tempting, the Broncos would be better served bolstering those trenches, particularly on the defensive side of the ball.
While defensive end Shaun Philips did a great job filling the shoes of the departed Elvis Dumervil, he is a bit long in the tooth. The Broncos need to get some help at pass-rusher.
Adding dynamic edge-rusher Kyle Van Noy out of BYU could make that front seven devastating to opposing quarterbacks. The Broncos already have outside linebacker Von Miller, though he will be making his way back this offseason from a torn ACL.
Unfortunately for Van Noy, he is a tweener at 6'3" and 245 pounds. That makes him less-than-ideal for most situations, but he could fit in nicely on that hybrid front in Denver.