The 2013 NFL season is just one game away from being finished, and 30 teams have already turned the page to 2014. There are still over three months until the 2014 NFL Draft, but the scouting process is already in full swing.
Consequently, a consensus is starting to solidify about the top first-round prospects. There will surely still be a surprise or two at the top of the draft, but the list of players likely to hear their name called on Day 1 is dwindling.
Teams drafting at the top usually have pretty glaring needs, making draft projections a bit more predictable for the best prospects. Of course, there will be trades that shake things up between now and early May, but strong links are already developing between players and teams.
The plethora of Big Boards vary in their rankings, but there are a handful of players near the top of everyone's list. Here is an early read on the most likely destinations for the cream of the 2014 draft crop.
Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville: Houston Texans
Mel Kiper Jr. stirred up some debate when he slotted quarterback Johnny Manziel to the Texans instead of Bridgewater, as has long been expected. Nevertheless, Bridgewater remains the more polished quarterback, and has recently been targeted as a heavy favorite to go first overall:
There's a school of thought that Houston should simply take the best player available, implying Jadeveon Clowney. A Clowney-J.J. Watt tandem is frightening just to imagine, but in reality, the Texans cannot hope to contend without passable quarterback play.
Some have targeted Houston as a prime bounceback candidate, a la the Chiefs this past season, citing their overall talent and poor record in close games. However, no amount of regression to the mean is going to compensate for the atrocious quarterback play the Texans received from a suddenly incompetent Matt Schaub or the overmatched Case Keenum.
In the short term, Bridgewater offers the most likely possibility of a massive upgrade from the 2013 quarterback production (it's worth noting that league average would constitute said upgrade). Long term, Bridgewater is the most likely candidate to develop into a reliable franchise quarterback, making him the most reasonable top pick.
Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina: Jacksonville Jaguars
Most consider Clowney the top talent in the draft, but the first two teams have more pressing needs. As such, the South Carolina product could fall to third, into the laps of a Jaguars team in desperate need of playmakers:
Jaguars coach Gus Bradley was the architect of Seattle's creative hybrid man-zone scheme that has terrorized the league, and is the type of coach who could maximize Clowney's precocious abilities. His innovative defensive mind would put Clowney in the best position to succeed, infusing a Jaguars pass rush that ranked 30th in sack percentage this season.
More than anything, Clowney also provides the Jaguars with a marketable player to build the franchise around. Even with a new owner, Jacksonville has been subject to relocation rumors for years. The apathy of public opinion surrounding the franchise is alarming. Clowney is not just a tremendous player, but someone who can bring credibility to a flagging franchise.
Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M: Cleveland Browns
Manziel to the Browns is perhaps the worst kept secret of the draft. Recent rumors have suggested Cleveland will even trade up to acquire their quarterback of choice:
Those may simply be smoke screens, but the Browns do have an extra first rounder after fleecing the Colts of their first rounder for Trent Richardson. Cleveland's eventual new coach must obviously be on board with the divisive Manziel, but finding a quarterback must be priority No. 1 for the Browns.
Manziel would already have a couple nice weapons to throw to in Josh Gordon and Jordan Cameron, as the cupboard is not totally barren. His gun-slinging propensities do make him a boom-or-bust proposition, but for an organization that has barely registered a pulse since their reincarnation, the Browns would be wise to provide a disillusioned fan base reason for excitement.
Anthony Barr, OLB, UCLA: Atlanta Falcons
There have been whispers that the Falcons might trade down to stockpile more picks and build up the middle class of a top-heavy roster. But Atlanta might take a look at Barr and find a game-changer that could resuscitate a unit that even defensive coordinator Mike Nolan admitted was a failure:
The Falcons defense totally fell apart after a few injuries forced too great a burden on too many inexperienced players. More than anything, Atlanta lacked the playmaking ability that had masked a relatively mediocre defense in past years. After ranking sixth in takeaways per game in their 13-3 2012 campaign, the Falcons fell to a dismal 25th this past season.
Barr is the kind of player who can turn that around, as the UCLA product generated 13.5 sacks, 21.5 tackles for a loss and four forced fumbles in 2012. His production dipped as teams devoted more resources toward him, but he remains a force capable of lifting pressure off the rest of the defense.
Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M: St. Louis Rams
Matthews seems like a no-brainer for a Rams team that has struggled to protect Sam Bradford throughout the quarterback's career. With left tackle Jake Long going down with a torn ACL late in the season, Bradford's blind side may be exposed to start the year:
Matthews is an NFL-ready prospect who likely would have been a top-five or 10 pick if he had declared last season, as many expected. Matthews also possesses the versatility to play right tackle if needed—that was his position when Luke Joeckel roamed College Station—which certainly adds value.
The Rams may still end up trading out of the slot, especially if a team feels a particular urge to trade up and select Johnny Manziel or Blake Bortles. But while the Rams has received maximum draft pick value from their high slots before, they need to cash this chip in to ensure the health of whoever plays quarterback for St. Louis going forward.
Khalil Mack, OLB, Buffalo: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Mack has surged up boards in recent weeks, to the point where some are placing him next to Clowney and Barr as the draft's top defensive impact prospects. Some have even gone a bit further in anointing Mack as the surest player available:
Mack would be a good fit on a Tampa roster that has few glaring defensive weaknesses. The Bucs have franchise players at all three levels in Darrelle Revis, Gerald McCoy and Lavonte David, but are still missing a viable edge-rusher. Tampa Bay ranked just 22nd in sack percentage, and that's including a remarkable 9.0 sacks from the defensive tackle McCoy.
Drafting Mack not only bolsters the pass rush, but inserts a three-down linebacker next to David. The Bucs could have one of the league's best defenses in Lovie Smith's inaugural campaign, making them underrated candidates to threaten for a playoff berth.