A smart decision in the NFL draft can make the difference between years of prosperity or futility for a given NFL franchise.
The 2014 NFL draft is a great example of the difficult decisions teams must make in the first round, especially with the quarterback position suddenly a question mark for those teams in need of a new franchise player at the most important position of all.
The following mock picks the best player for each given franchise based on the board, prospect talent and a future outlook for each team.
1. Houston Texans: Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville
There is suddenly a major amount of negativity around Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater, the prospect most consider a sure thing at quarterback. NFL.com reports that some teams do not even see him as a first-round pick:
While it would be unwise to doubt such a report, every prospect is going to have his naysayers.
One of Bridgewater's will not be the Houston Texans. It makes no sense for the Texans to pass on Bridgewater here and roll with a lesser prospect in a later round. Houston is in the middle of a championship window and needs to win now.
2. St. Louis Rams (via Washington): Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina
The hype for Jadeveon Clowney has wavered in recent months for various reasons, but by the time the draft rolls around, his stock will be back through the roof.
One such reason is because of the NFL combine, where Clowney is set on posting impressive numbers:
Jadeveon Clowney: "The numbers I am going to put up [at the NFL Combine] are going to be amazing." http://t.co/qTmtxLNjHD— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) January 18, 2014
Clowney undoubtedly will, and St. Louis will add him to a line with Chris Long and Robert Quinn, which is downright scary.
3. Jacksonville Jaguars: Blake Bortles, QB, UCF
Again, much can be said about how this quarterback class is weak or lacks a top name, but one must remember that the NFL does not pass on potential franchise signal-callers. It is the reason a guy like Tim Tebow went in the first round. Or Christian Ponder. Or...forget it.
Blake Bortles is far from a household name, which is not exactly what Jacksonville may want. But what it does want is a prospect with a pro-ready arm who can start right away.
Bortles fits the requirements nicely.
4. Cleveland Browns: Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M
The Cleveland Browns are seemingly forever linked to Johnny Manziel, especially after a report by CBS Sports' Jason La Canfora claims they are willing to trade up to select Johnny Football:
... they are willing to trade up to land Johnny Manziel in the draft if need be, sources said, and have an owner, Jimmy Haslam, who is committed to spending their abundant cap space to try to win quickly.
As much as media personalities with fancy hairdos want to suggest that Manziel will go No. 1 overall, chances are he falls to this spot.
When he does, Manziel's ability to extend plays with his feet and make throws downfield will fit right in with the AFC North.
5. Oakland Raiders: Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson
Clemson's Sammy Watkins is far and away the draft's most explosive weapon. For a team in a full-blown rebuild like the Oakland Raiders, that is all they can really ask for with the top signal-callers off the board.
Watkins by no means fixes the iffy quarterback situation, but he does upgrade one position nicely and is a sound building block for the future.
Think Cordarrelle Patterson in Minnesota last year, without the whole Adrian Peterson in the backfield thing.
6. Atlanta Falcons: Anthony Barr, OLB/DE, UCLA
Anthony Barr is next up as far as most talented pass-rushers go, which are a hot commodity in the NFL these days in a pass-happy league.
The Atlanta Falcons' pass rush was mediocre at best last season thanks to free agency and injuries, so Barr fits right in as a versatile piece who can stand up or put his hand in the dirt.
Offensive line makes a lot of sense here, but the smart play is grabbing a player of Barr's talent with the offensive trenches being so deep this year.
7. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M
Believe it or not, former Tampa Bay head coach Greg Schiano left a very good roster in place for his successor, Lovie Smith.
Smith will need little help on the defensive side of things thanks to his scheme, so he understands that to be competitive in 2014, he must have adequate protection for second-year quarterback Mike Glennon.
Jake Matthews remains the best tackle in the class and will start right away.
8. Minnesota Vikings: Khalil Mack, OLB, Buffalo
Khalil Mack is not the most recognizable name for casual observers, but Bleacher Report's Matt Miller illustrates how hot of a prospect the Buffalo product truly is:
Sammy Watkins is up there with Bridgewater, Jake Matthews, Jadeveon Clowney and Khalil Mack as this draft's instant-impact players— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) January 4, 2014
Mack is the definition of a game-changing player and can start every down in the NFL right away.
Minnesota certainly needs some reinforcements on the defensive side of things, so Mack's selection jump-starts the process as he combines with new head coach and defensive mastermind Mike Zimmer.
9. Buffalo Bills: Greg Robinson, OT, Auburn
While certainly not the most pressing need, the Buffalo Bills take the best player available here.
Greg Robinson has slowly seen his name rise up mocks, and his riveting rise to the top is perfectly captured by ESPN's Travis Haney:
As I leave Senior Bowl, something that wouldn't at all surprise me: OT Greg Robinson to Texans at 1 becomes a thing.— Travis Haney (@TravHaneyESPN) January 23, 2014
Believe the hype—Robinson is seemingly an immovable object and can start at either tackle spot in Buffalo.
10. Detroit Lions: Darqueze Dennard, CB, Michigan State
This is probably getting boring for Detroit fans.
The Lions have a miserable secondary led by several names that would make fans shudder if actually listed here. Insert the No. 1 overall corner in the draft, who happens to have played college ball locally, and things change in a hurry.
11. Tennessee Titans: C.J. Mosley, LB, Alabama
Cornerback Alterraun Verner needs some better talent in front of him for the Tennessee Titans to take the next step as an elite defensive team.
Believe it or not, C.J. Mosley is one of the most low-profile Alabama prospects in recent memory. Mosley does his talking on the field, which scouts and the like will find out rather quickly now that the season is over.
Mosley is the type of leader and centerpiece NFL teams dream about.
12. New York Giants: Louis Nix III, DT, Notre Dame
The New York Giants need help in the trenches on both sides of the football but must go with the superior player here and nab Louis Nix III out of Notre Dame.
Nix can replace Linval Joseph with ease and is large enough to free up the edge-rushers on the outside. Given the fact New York struggled against the run and did not generate an eye-popping number of sacks, Nix is the perfect fit.
13. St. Louis Rams: Taylor Lewan, OT, Michigan
Give credit to the Rams—the Robert Griffin III trade looks great right now.
Like the Giants, the Rams need help in the trenches on both sides. Clowney upgrades the defense, but the team still needs a starter at tackle to protect franchise quarterback Sam Bradford.
Taylor Lewan is far from a perfect prospect—namely because he needs coaches to turn him from an athlete that relied on his physical prowess in college into a tackle with technique.
St. Louis and Jeff Fisher are up to the task.
14. Chicago Bears: Justin Gilbert, CB, Oklahoma State
Not far behind Darqueze Dennard as the draft's top corner is Justin Gilbert.
The 6'0", 200-pound defensive back was a nightmare for the high-flying offenses of the Big 12 and has a game that easily translates to the NFL level.
Chicago has a few holes to fill on defense, but finding a corner who can potentially replace Charles Tillman is first on the menu with the savvy veteran headed to free agency while recovering from a torn triceps.
15. Pittsburgh Steelers: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, S, Alabama
Two names rise above the rest at the safety position this year, as Miller illustrated back in early January:
If he enters, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. If not, Calvin Pryor RT @1509lucky: Who's the Best Free Safety prospect this year?— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) January 5, 2014
Not much has changed since, and Alabama's Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is an instant starter at the pro level thanks to his gritty play against the run and mostly sound play against the pass.
With Ryan Clarke's future a gray area at the moment, now is the best time for Pittsburgh to grab the top safety in a draft class—the Steelers may not have the chance to do so again.
16. Baltimore Ravens: Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Florida State
The Baltimore Ravens were nothing short of an anemic offense last year as quarterback Joe Flacco struggled without big-bodied receiver Anquan Boldin.
Kelvin Benjamin is the perfect replacement and exactly what Flacco needs to succeed. Benjamin weighs in at 6'5" and 234 pounds. While concerns about drops are legitimate, a bit of maturity and development will fix those issues quickly.
With Benjamin and tight end Dennis Pitta moving the chains and Torrey Smith stretching defenses deep, the Ravens will have a formidable offense once more.
17. Dallas Cowboys: Kony Ealy, DE, Missouri
CBS Sports' Dane Brugler put it best about Kony Ealy in early January:
He is built well for an edge pass rusher and wins with a quick first step, length to engage and rip, and the hand strength to powerfully finish tackles. ... Although he doesn't have the same production as his teammate Michael Sam, Ealy is the more attractive NFL prospect because of the tools and he has first round ability for the 2014 class if he decides to skip his senior season. The secret is out.
That it is. Ealy is a starter the minute he arrives in the pros, and if Dallas is going to somehow turn things around, it has to find talent in the trenches fast. Luckily, Ealy will still be on the board at this point.
18. New York Jets: Eric Ebron, TE, North Carolina
If Geno Smith and head coach Rex Ryan are to succeed, more talent on the offensive side of things is an immediate requirement.
Smith simply cannot get it done when his top target is Jeremy Kerley, which is why the best tight end on the board in Eric Ebron is the best option here.
Not only can Ebron stretch defenses deep, but he can also allow others to do so with less coverage as he must be accounted for underneath as he consistently moves the chains.
19. Miami Dolphins: Cyrus Kouandjio, OT, Alabama
While predictable and boring, the Miami Dolphins do not truly have a choice in the matter. The offensive line needs extensive work this offseason.
Ryan Tannehill was the NFL's most sacked quarterback and will likely not stay healthy for another full season if he continues to take such an inordinate amount of hits.
Cyrus Kouandjio's stock has fluctuated a good amount in recent months, but he remains a quality first-round talent who can hit the pro level as a starter and improve. Really, he is arguably better than what the Dolphins currently have on their roster.
20. Arizona Cardinals: Jace Amaro, TE, Texas Tech
It is certainly early, but a report from Fox Sports' Mike Jurecki links the Arizona Cardinals and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins:
Hearing Cards are intrigued by UW TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins 6'6 248 upside... Projected top TE's Eric Ebron, Seferian-Jenkins & Jace Amaro.— Mike Jurecki (@mikejurecki) January 16, 2014
Good news—an even better prospect in Jace Amaro takes the fall to Arizona's slot here and makes plenty of sense, especially with quarterback Carson Palmer surely only having a few more years of effectiveness left.
Coach Bruce Arians is an offensive guru, so the addition of an elite tight end prospect like Amaro to complement receivers Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd makes too much sense.
21. Green Bay Packers: Timmy Jernigan, DT, Florida State
While last year saw the Green Bay Packers select a defensive lineman in the first round, tackle B.J. Raji may force the organization to do so once again this year.
Per ESPN's Rob Demovsky, Raji has already turned down a mega-deal on his way to free agency and perhaps wants to play in a different scheme:
That’s currently a hot topic of debate within the organization. There’s also the chance that Raji will make that decision for them. He already has reportedly turned down an offer for $8 million a year. Perhaps Raji would prefer to play in a defense that allows its linemen more freedom to rush the passer.
22. Philadelphia Eagles: Jason Verrett, CB, TCU
Jason Verrett has been a bit lost in the shuffle behind the top two cornerbacks in the class, but he is still a surefire first-round talent who can come in and make a difference right away.
That is exactly what Philadelphia needs, as the duo of Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher was underwhelming last season.
Verrett will undoubtedly struggle as most rookie corners do, but he is a better option on the field than most of the current Philadelphia roster with the potential to develop into a lockdown corner.
23. Kansas City Chiefs: Mike Evans, WR, Texas A&M
Mike Evans is another name who has seen his stock take a massive dip in recent weeks. The Aggies wideout is one of five names listed by NFL.com's Gil Brandt as players who should have stayed in school:
But a big issue I have with Evans is that he's not a good route runner. He often pushes off on his defender and gains a big advantage with offensive pass interference. I can see why he didn't want to stay -- for one thing, he's losing a great quarterback to the draft --but I really believe that staying and improving his route-running and understanding of the passing game would've made him an even better player than he already is.
Certainly valid issues, but Evans will still find his way into the first round, as 6'5", 225-pound receivers who catch anything thrown their way tend to find success at the pro level.
Evans is yet another big-bodied target along with Dwayne Bowe, who will help quarterback Alex Smith in the confines of Andy Reid's conservative attack.
24. Cincinnati Bengals: Zack Martin, OL, Notre Dame
With Anthony Collins set to hit free agency, the Cincinnati Bengals need a backup offensive tackle who can develop until left tackle Andrew Whitworth is ready to call it quits.
That, or a prospect who can start while Whitworth remains inside at left guard, where he spent a large chunk of last season and looked great.
Zack Martin qualifies in this scenario, and the worst-case scenario is he stays inside at left guard for a few years. NFL Network's Mike Mayock also lists a worse-case scenario, which is quite alarming:
For a team as deep as the Bengals, reinforcing an immediate need and solidifying for the future is a smart approach.
25. San Diego Chargers: Bradley Roby, CB, Ohio State
Pick a spot on the San Diego Chargers defense outside of the linebackers, and go ahead and pencil in a top prospect—things were that bad last year.
The Chargers can out-gun most teams thanks to a potent offense, but it would help if once in a while the team did not perform so questionably on defense.
Bradley Roby is a smart move here. He will immediately get the nod as a starter, and he might just be more talented than any corner currently on the roster. A defensive backfield consisting of Roby and Eric Weddle is a nice start.
26. Cleveland Browns (via Indianapolis): Allen Robinson, WR, Penn State
Allen Robinson is the definition of the word "safe."
Robinson catches everything thrown his way, runs crisp routes and looks the part at 6'3" and 210 pounds.
Even better, he has yet to create a tidal wave of momentum as far as draft stock goes, so he will be here for Cleveland's second pick this round. Robinson will benefit with defenses focused on Josh Gordon and be reliable for the team's new franchise quarterback.
27. New Orleans Saints: Ryan Shazier, OLB, Ohio State
The New Orleans Saints turned things around in a big way under defensive coordinator Rob Ryan but did so with leftover scraps from a previous scheme.
Ryan must continue to infuse his unit with talent of his own liking, which is why Ryan Shazier makes sense. Shazier fits Ryan's mold because he can line up anywhere on the field and either rush the passer or stoutly defend the run.
28. Carolina Panthers: Odell Beckham Jr., WR, LSU
Best WR for CAR?
With the defense mostly set in stone outside of an upgrade in the secondary, the Carolina Panthers can worry about upgrading the weapons around Cam Newton.
This year's class is eerily deep at wideout, and now would be the time for the Panthers to grab one in the first.
Odell Beckham Jr. is an explosive weapon who will start right away across from Steve Smith. When the veteran departs, Beckham can assume the mantle of No. 1 receiver.
29. New England Patriots: Marqise Lee, WR, USC
Technically, the New England Patriots do not need another wide receiver, but with the top two tight ends off the board, the team has to look elsewhere for offensive firepower.
Marqise Lee is a solid, reliable option who saw a messy year at USC hurt his stock. He could not land in a better situation in New England with a suitable offense given his skill set and a quarterback named Tom slinging him the rock.
30. San Francisco 49ers: Jordan Matthews, WR, Vanderbilt
It is difficult to tell if the San Francisco 49ers will retain wideout Anquan Boldin after his monster postseason, so a backup plan will be necessary.
Quarterback Colin Kaepernick is at his best when he has large targets to hit, so the 6'3", 206-pound Jordan Matthews makes the most sense here.
Combine Matthews with Michael Crabtree, and Kaepernick's woes from early last season will surely not re-emerge.
31. Denver Broncos: Calvin Pryor, FS, Louisville
The duo of Mike Adams and Duke Ihenacho with some Omar Bolden sprinkled in for good measure is simply not good enough in Denver.
Calvin Pryor is the second and last top prospect at safety, so Denver must grab him at a nice cost here to upgrade the defensive secondary.
32. Seattle Seahawks: David Yankey, OG, Stanford
The Seattle Seahawks have had their fair share of injuries along the offensive line over the past year, so adding more talent is a good move here.
Not only is David Yankey an absolute steal this late in the round, but he can come in and start right away at any spot on the interior.
The health of quarterback Russell Wilson is of the utmost importance, so Yankey's addition is a must.