Selecting NFL prospects in the first round is a bit like playing the lottery. No matter how much time, effort and money is put into evaluating young players, surprising stars crop up every single year—not to mention some epic duds.
This upcoming mock draft will highlight a few top players who are sure to avoid falling into the "dud" category along with a few who will emerge as sleepers in the latter half of Round 1.
Note: Studs and sleepers will be highlighted with italics.
1. Houston Texans: Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina
There isn't a more physically gifted player at any position in the 2014 NFL draft class than defensive end Jadeveon Clowney.
There also isn't a single quarterback in this year's draft who is considered a lock (like Andrew Luck, Peyton Manning, etc.), meaning the Texans could easily decide to go with the stud defensive end instead, as described by Albert Breer of NFL.com and B/R's Matt Miller:
While Clowney's 2013-14 stats didn't come close to living up to his preseason hype, he expects to blow up the combine, where he'll participate in every drill, as noted by Josh Kendall of The State:
2. St. Louis Rams (via Washington): Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson
The St. Louis Rams are in an enviable position with the No. 2 overall pick and another first-rounder at No. 13. Look for general manager Les Snead to go for another big splash after taking Tavon Austin last year, as adding a true No. 1 receiver would give the Rams the talent to compete with Seattle and San Francisco in the NFC West.
3. Jacksonville Jaguars: Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville
The Jacksonville Jaguars need a quarterback who can come in right away and make plays while taking good care of the football. Teddy Bridgewater played in a run-first system at Louisville and understands how to operate out of a pro-style system. This team surprised many by winning four games, and a competent quarterback would be tremendously helpful in 2014.
4. Cleveland Browns: Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M
The Browns are so high on Johnny Manziel that Jason La Canfora of CBSSports.com reports the franchise is willing to move up from its No. 4 spot to land him. It remains to be seen whether any other teams view Manziel in the same light, but there's no doubt Johnny Football is an intriguing pro prospect.
In addition to the fact that Manziel is a magician when he breaks away from the pocket, he has an uncanny ability to turn broken plays into daggers against opposing defenses. Because he's an excellent runner, teams must decide whether to attack him or stay with receivers, and he can burn them either way.
But he's not just a dual-threat passer. As pointed out by the NFL on ESPN, Manziel compared favorably to (if not better than) Bridgewater this past year:
The Browns need someone who can get the most out of receiver Josh Gordon, and Manziel could be that guy.
5. Oakland Raiders: Blake Bortles, QB, UCF
Oakland isn't going to be good for another couple of years, but there's no doubt this team won't go far without a star quarterback. Blake Bortles wasn't mentioned as a potential top pick before the season began, but after throwing 50 touchdowns and just 16 interceptions the past two years at UCF, he's gaining steam.
6. Atlanta Falcons: Anthony Barr, OLB/DE, UCLA
Without a star pass-rusher pressuring opposing quarterbacks, Mike Nolan's defense suffered last year. Osi Umenyiora might have something left in the tank, but he needs help. Adding a young pass-rushing phenom like Anthony Barr, who tallied 23.5 sacks the past two years at UCLA, would be a smart move.
7. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Greg Robinson, OT, Auburn
Donald Penn is a serviceable right tackle, but he was abused at times on the left side this past year. Overall, Tampa Bay's offensive line struggled, and rookie quarterback Mike Glennon was sacked 40 times in 13 starts.
Greg Robinson out of Auburn is building momentum heading into the combine. His fine play on the left side was a huge key to Auburn's title-game run, and he showed elite athleticism in both the running game and passing game during that stretch.
Tigers offensive line coach J.B. Grimes was effusive in his praise of Robinson's abilities before the tackle declared for the draft, as noted by Joel A. Erickson of AL.com: "I think, could possibly be a year from now, the first player picked overall. Without a doubt, I think he's that kind of player. I don't think that'll happen this year, but he's obviously a great talent."
Robinson would immediately help the Bucs offense improve on running and passing downs.
8. Minnesota Vikings: Khalil Mack, OLB, Buffalo
New Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer loves dynamic defenders, and he'll want to improve Minnesota's mediocre defense as soon as possible. Khalil Mack out of Buffalo is one of the most exciting pass-rushers in this year's draft, and he'd be a welcome addition to a defense that needs fresh blood on the edge.
9. Buffalo Bills: Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M
The Bills would love to see Jake Matthews fall into their laps at No. 9. He's the best left tackle in the draft from a technique standpoint and is ready to step into the starting lineup on the left side for Buffalo from the first day of training camp.
10. Detroit Lions: Justin Gilbert, CB, Oklahoma State
Detroit can't continue to play defense with mediocre cornerbacks. Justin Gilbert possesses the size (6'0" and 200 lbs.), speed and athleticism to hang with the NFL's top receivers. He'll provide an instant upgrade on the perimeter for the Lions.
11. Tennessee Titans: Darqueze Dennard, CB, Michigan State
Alterraun Verner needs a counterpart in the secondary of Tennessee's defense. The Titans need to be able to stop Andrew Luck in order to have success within their own division, and adding Darqueze Dennard would be a good first step toward that goal.
12. New York Giants: Mike Evans, WR, Texas A&M
Rather than re-up with free agent Hakeem Nicks—who failed to catch a single touchdown in 2013—the New York Giants could decide to just draft his replacement. Mike Evans would be the yin to Victor Cruz's yang for Big Blue, and he'd likely be cheaper to sign than Nicks anyway.
13. St. Louis Rams: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, S, Alabama
St. Louis needs to finish better than 19th against the pass in order to challenge for a playoff spot in 2014. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix was the leader of Alabama's secondary the past two years, racking up seven interceptions in 19 starts while helping the Crimson Tide dominate opposing offenses.
14. Chicago Bears: Kony Ealy, DE, Missouri
Kony Ealy out of Missouri is a sleeper as potentially the most dynamic defender in this year's draft.
His teammate Michael Sam received more national honors and is the more recognizable name. However, many draft analysts are drooling over Ealy's potential, including Charles Davis of NFL.com, who likes Ealy better as a pro prospect:
Both are really promising prospects. They bring good speed off the edge and hold the point of attack vs. the run better than you think.
Ealy, who rushes from the inside in certain packages, is a little stouter, though, and his pass rush is just as effective as Sam's...Protections were geared to stopping him early in the season, which allowed Sam to get off to an unbelievable start.
Chicago has long been known for its defense, but the Monsters of the Midway are currently nowhere to be found. Adding a physical freak like Ealy to learn from Julius Peppers before he's gone for good would give the Bears a big jolt on defense.
15. Pittsburgh Steelers: Taylor Lewan, OT, Michigan
Ben Roethlisberger is remarkable, but he cannot be expected to continue playing at a high level if he is repeatedly getting pounded by opposing defensive linemen. Mike Adams appears to be a failure as a starting-caliber left tackle, so it's time to move on. Taylor Lewan didn't perform as well as he would have liked in his final year at Michigan, but he possesses elite talent and skill.
16. Baltimore Ravens: C.J. Mosley, LB, Alabama
Baltimore needs a successor to take Ray Lewis' spot in the middle for the next decade, and C.J. Mosley fits the bill. He's a proven leader who can play any linebacking spot on the field, and he's a player the Ravens can build around in the years to come.
17. Dallas Cowboys: Stephon Tuitt, DL, Notre Dame
Monte Kiffin's 4-3 defense relies on the front four getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Jason Hatcher was a dynamo this past year, but there wasn't another top dog on the line with him, thanks to injuries to DeMarcus Ware.
Stephon Tuitt possesses enough strength, quickness and agility to play any position on the line, and he'd be a perfect fit playing next to Hatcher on the inside in 2014.
18. New York Jets: Marqise Lee, WR, USC
Santonio Holmes hasn't been a viable weapon the past two years, and there isn't another offensive playmaker on New York's roster with a shred of legitimate NFL-level skill. Marqise Lee showed off some impressive skills during his time at USC, hauling in 29 touchdowns in three years.
19. Miami Dolphins: Cyrus Kouandjio, OT, Alabama
Nobody was sacked more than Ryan Tannehill (58) last year. He's a talented young quarterback with plenty of promise, but a couple of seasons like that could ruin him. Cyrus Kouandjio needs to work on his quickness, but he possesses all the other tools needed to become a solid (or better) left tackle.
20. Arizona Cardinals: Eric Ebron, TE, North Carolina
Head coach Bruce Arians loves to attack opposing defensive secondaries with a relentless passing attack. Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd are a couple of excellent receivers, but Arizona is missing a top-level tight end who can work the safeties to take pressure off of them.
Eric Ebron projects as an elite tight end at the next level. He'd be a significant improvement over Rob Housler, who started for the Cardinals last year.
21. Green Bay Packers: Calvin Pryor, S, Louisville
Morgan Burnett and M.D. Jennings were the two starting safeties for Green Bay last year, and they both ranked in the bottom 60 against other qualified safeties, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). There are only 64 starting safeties at any given time in the NFL.
Needless to say, the Packers could use an upgrade at this position of dire need.
Calvin Pryor isn't being hyped like a top star, but he sure played like one during his tenure at Louisville. Daniel Jeremiah of NFL.com provides some quick scouting notes:
Pryor would be an instant upgrade for the Packers—a team that desperately needs to get better against the pass playing in the NFC North against quarterbacks such as Jay Cutler and Matthew Stafford.
22. Philadelphia Eagles: Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Florida State
Nick Foles sure looks like a guy the Eagles can build around for the next 10-plus years, and that's just what the team should do here with its first-round pick. Adding a physical specimen of a receiver such as Kelvin Benjamin (6'4.5" and 238 lbs.) to play alongside Riley Cooper and DeSean Jackson would give Foles every opportunity to blossom into one of the league's most feared signal-callers under Chip Kelly's tutelage.
23. Kansas City Chiefs: Odell Beckham, WR, LSU
Odell Beckham (6'0" and 197 lbs.) perfectly fits the type of receiver Andy Reid collected during his tenure at Philadelphia. He's more quick than fast, and he possesses excellent body control and stellar hands. Adding him to play alongside Dwayne Bowe and Donnie Avery would present a challenge to opposing defenses, which must also try to stop running back Jamaal Charles.
24. Cincinnati Bengals: Loucheiz Purifoy, CB, Florida
Loucheiz Purifoy may have come out a year early. If he had stayed in school for another year, there's a good chance he would have been drafted in the top 10 in 2015, but he's a steal here at No. 24 for a team that has the ability to develop his elite talent.
25. San Diego Chargers: Louis Nix III, DT, Notre Dame
At the heart of every dominant 3-4 defense lies a stud nose tackle. Currently, San Diego is lacking one of those, but drafting Louis Nix out of Notre Dame would solve that problem in a hurry. With Nix clogging up the middle, you can be sure the Chargers would allow less than 4.6 yards per carry (2013 average).
26. Cleveland Browns (via Indianapolis): Brandin Cooks, WR, Oregon State
The Browns need a productive receiver to play opposite Josh Gordon, who is developing into a league superstar. Brandin Cooks was highly productive at Oregon State, and he capped off his career with a stellar 2013-14 campaign, catching 128 passes for 1,730 yards and 16 touchdowns.
27. New Orleans Saints: Ryan Shazier, OLB, Ohio State
The Saints finished the regular season with the fourth-most sacks in the league (49) thanks to the aggressive play-calling of Rob Ryan. Adding a speedy linebacker such as Ryan Shazier would help Ryan's defense put up even better numbers in 2014 and beyond.
28. Carolina Panthers: Jordan Matthews, WR, Vanderbilt
Steve Smith isn't going to last much longer, and Brandon LaFell is limited as a complementary player. The Panthers must bring in new talent at the receiver position in order to ensure Cam Newton has the tools he needs to develop. Jordan Matthews isn't a speed demon, but he possesses an exciting blend of size, athleticism and polish that will serve him well in the NFL.
29. New England Patriots: Jace Amaro, TE, Texas Tech
There's no guarantee Rob Gronkowski will ever get back to playing at an elite level. He's been unable to stay healthy in his short career, and the Patriots need to find someone Tom Brady can rely on in tough situations. Jace Amaro isn't a great run-blocker, and he'll need to get better quickly, but he's a skilled receiver who would become a big threat in the middle.
30. San Francisco 49ers: Allen Robinson, WR, Penn State
Anquan Boldin will be a free agent, and given the many players the 49ers need to extend soon, he might not stick around for the 2014 season. Even if Boldin does come back for another year or two, the 49ers need to continue looking for talented receivers to play alongside Michael Crabtree. Allen Robinson showed plenty of promise during his time at Penn State, and he's an intriguing player to add to San Francisco's loaded roster.
31. Denver Broncos: Timmy Jernigan, DT, Florida State
The Broncos have been fortunate to overcome a lack of depth on the defensive line this season. It would be better next year to not need good fortune, however. Timmy Jernigan is extremely disruptive, and he'd be a terrific fit playing next to Terrance "Pot Roast" Knighton.
32. Seattle Seahawks: Austin Seferian-Jenkins, TE, Washington
It's tough to guess who Seattle will choose, as the franchise has a penchant for owning a big board unlike any other. That said, it makes sense that a playmaking tight end such as Austin Seferian-Jenkins would be a welcome addition to the team's offense.
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