The pressure is on all NFL executives to discover a star—or at least a starter—in the upcoming NFL draft's opening round.
It's much easier to roll the dice on a hot-shot with some concerning habits in Round 4; after all, we'll only remember the pick if it works out. That same luxury, however, is not afforded to first-round selections.
Every team enters the draft with some shortcomings to address, and their respective fans are clamoring for some fresh faces to fortify the franchise's future. Building a successful squad gets awfully difficult without the aid of some fruitful draft picks.
A lot can change before the league gathers in New York on May 8, but here are the best bets for all 30 teams (sorry, Washington Redskins and Indianapolis Colts fans) picking in the first round.
1. Houston Texans: Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville
When the projected first overall pick isn't a no-brainer like Andrew Luck, said player will get dissected at every possible level. Teddy Bridgewater will get picked apart so much over these next few months that persuadable listeners will waver between projecting him to go No. 1 overall or somewhere in the second round.
Per Sports Illustrated's Peter Bukowski, former Tampa Bay Buccaneers team operations coordinator Joe Bussell compared Bridgewater to a former No. 1 pick who never met the lofty hype:
I think a good comparison—and one that might scare people away—is Sam Bradford. Bradford's mediocre production in the NFL will frighten some, but if you remove access to those results, Bradford is one of the most highly-touted quarterbacks ever, coming out of the 2010 draft.
He's not the game-changing superstar Houston would have liked to see on the table, but finishing 2-14 pressures the Texans to take a quarterback with the top spot.
2. St. Louis Rams (via Washington): Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson
Speaking of Bradford, he could use a wide receiver to bolster a run-first offense that can pass on Jadeveon Clowney at this spot due to the presence of Robert Quinn and Chris Long on the defensive line.
Sammy Watkins is a bold choice at No. 2, but it's one that can upstart St. Louis' offense dramatically. While Tavon Austin can make the occasional big play, the Clemson standout could morph into the veritable No. 1 wideout the Rams need.
3. Jacksonville Jaguars: Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina
If Clowney falls off the board, the Jaguars will pick their preference among the remaining quarterbacks. But if the defensive monster is still there, they should grab the best available player.
Although everyone outside of the Jacksonville organization reached this realization way earlier, the Jaguars finally figured out that Blaine Gabbert is not the answer under center. They need help at quarterback, but the dreadful defense needs fixing as well.
Jacksonville should grab the top talent available here and target a passer in Round 2.
4. Cleveland Browns: Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M
This draft is a messy mystery, but one thing is abundantly clear: the Browns want Johnny Manziel.
The polarizing quarterback is everything the Browns aren't. He's exciting, brash and gets everyone talking. As long as he's keeping plays alive with his masterful elusiveness, his employer won't care if some of that talk strays on the negative side.
According to CBS Sports' Jason La Canforna, the team is willing to trade up if necessary to snag Manziel. They also possess the Indianapolis Colts' first-round pick (No. 26), which could entice one of the top-three teams ahead of them, most likely the Rams:
...The Browns remain very much in transition. However, they do have game-breaking receiver Josh Gordon, 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.
5. Oakland Raiders: Blake Bortles, QB, UCF
If one of the top-three quarterbacks is waiting for the Raiders at pick No. 5, expect them to pounce. Terrelle Pryor and Matt McGloin each displayed glimpses of potential, but neither man figures to be Oakland's long-term fix under center.
Don't be shocked if Bortles isn't available here. Texans coach Bill O'Brien came away impressed after facing him while coaching at Penn State. Here's what he told the Houston Chronicle's John McClain:
Blake is a good-sized guy. He's an athletic guy for his size. He's an accurate passer. The guys who coached him at Central Florida think highly of him as a young man who really studies the game. He works hard at the game.
6. Atlanta Falcons: Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M
Slotted as high as No. 2 by ESPN's Mel Kiper (subscription required) and as low as No. 11 by Yahoo Sports' Eric Edholm, Jake Matthews' draft stock is all over the place. Of those two opposing scenarios, it's more likely he goes early, and the Falcons should not pass up a big-time offensive lineman.
One of the few teams picking inside the top 10 with a star quarterback, the Falcons will look to protect Matt Ryan for years to come. Turning a down year into a potential Pro-Bowl tackle is a shrewd move for Atlanta.
7. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Greg Robinson, OT, Auburn
Matthews has a stout challenger for the class' best offensive tackle honors in Greg Robinson, a monster from Auburn who can become a linchpin of Tampa Bay's run-first offense. B/R scouting guru Matt Miller marveled at Robinson's footwork during the 2014 VIZIO BCS National Championship Game:
With Matthews gone, the Buccaneers will gladly grab Robinson instead.
8. Minnesota Vikings: Anthony Barr, LB, UCLA
In a draft with three highly regarded quarterbacks, the Vikings are at least the fifth team up that will consider pursuing an upgrade at the position. Do the math.
They could settle for the best signal-caller available in Derek Carr, but he would be a reach at No. 8. The last time they employed that approach, they got Christian Ponder with the No. 12 pick. How did that turn out?
The team needs to focus on a bleeding defense first by adding Anthony Barr.
9. Buffalo Bills: Khalil Mack, LB, Buffalo
Khalil Mack can stay in Buffalo after the Bills snatch him up with their first pick. On The Dan Patrick Show (video above), NFL.com's Daniel Jeremiah identified Mack as the draft's surest thing.
"[Mack] is a stud," Jeremiah said. "He is a big-time guy. He can rush the passer, he can cover, he can do everything."
While Buffalo excelled at rushing the passer in 2013, the defense's coverage skills left a lot to be desired last season.
10. Detroit Lions: Justin Gilbert, CB, Oklahoma State
The Lions boast more talent than other teams picking this early, but costly mistakes hampered them from realizing their potential—well, that and the league's No. 23 passing defense that yielded 3,950 passing yards.
Welcoming physical cornerback Justin Gilbert will generate some tenacity that the secondary lacked during Detroit's late-season collapse.
11. Tennessee Titans: C.J. Mosley, LB, Alabama
If Jake Locker can sew together consistent success under Ken Whisenhunt's tutelage, the Titans' offense could become an above-average unit in 2014.
The defense, on the other hand, struggled against the run due to an underwhelming front seven. Playing with Nick Saban for four years makes C.J. Mosley a safe and effective pick.
12. New York Giants: Taylor Lewan, OT, Michigan
David Diehl announced his retirement after manning the Giants' trenches for 11 years, and four-time Pro Bowler Chris Snee's status remains a question mark. New York needs to repair an offensive line that oversaw Eli Manning's worst season ever, and Taylor Lewan is the best name on the board.
13. St. Louis Rams: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, S, Alabama
Offense won out in St. Louis' first pick of the night, so let's balance the card by giving the team a defensive player to help a lackluster secondary. In 2013, the Rams ranked ninth against the run but 19th against the pass, so nobody should laugh when the Rams select Ha Ha Clinton-Dix.
OK, nobody besides Nelson Muntz.
14. Chicago Bears: Timmy Jernigan, DT, Florida State
After surrendering a league-worst 161.4 rushing yards per game last season, the Bears will attempt to remedy that glaring deficiency by selecting Timmy Jernigan to clog up the middle. A strong title run has the 21-year-old climbing up draft boards.
15. Pittsburgh Steelers: Darqueze Dennard, CB, Michigan State
A perfect fit for both player and team, Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard enacts an ultra-physical style that will endear himself to Steel Curtain fans. With Ike Taylor and Troy Polamalu beyond their prime years, it's time for the Steelers to locate a younger defensive back.
16. Baltimore Ravens: Mike Evans, WR, Texas A&M
The Ravens could hope the sixth-round pick that they received for Anquan Boldin lands them a killer wideout, but it probably won't.
A year after out-dueling Tom Brady and Peyton Manning en route to a championship, Baltimore's offense ranked 29th in 2013, with a regressing running game and limited passing attack.
Matt Miller compared Texas A&M's Mike Evans to Vincent Jackson, one of the league's most dangerous deep threats:
It's not the ideal fit for a team that can use a better possession receiver, but Evans is too talented for the Ravens to pass up.
17. Dallas Cowboys: Kony Ealy, DE, Missouri
After seeing nearly every other mock under the sun pair the Dallas Cowboys with Kony Ealy, I'm taking the hint and following the hoard. The NFL's worst defense needs another athletic playmaker to complement the declining DeMarcus Ware, and Ealy boasts enough upside to become Ware 2.0 if all goes perfectly.
18. New York Jets: Marqise Lee, WR, Southern California
Much like pizza-ing when you should have French fried, if you're relying on Jeremy Kerley as your top receiving option, you're going to have a bad time.
The Jets need a skill player to help out Geno Smith, and Marqise Lee should become Smith's top target from Day 1.
19. Miami Dolphins: Cyrus Kouandjio, OT, Alabama
The Dolphins yielded 58 sacks last season, eight more than the next worst squad (Jaguars). Following a season where poor play and an off-the-field controversy sullied the team, Miami can regain some stability with Cyrus Kouandjio.
20. Arizona Cardinals: Eric Ebron, TE, North Carolina
Versatile tight ends with freakish athleticism are all the rage now, so Eric Ebron is garnering immense attention leading up to the draft. He's too big for a defensive back to handle and too fast for a linebacker to stymie.
Daniel Jeremiah tweeted a succinct, yet mouth-watering scouting report early in January:
Matt Miller compared him to one of the league's most dangerous receiving tight ends:
Rob Housler showed some promise, but the Cardinals will lose no sleep over replacing his intermittent production with a potential stud.
21. Green Bay Packers: Louis Nix III, DT, Notre Dame
While Nix falls seven spots after Jernigan, he easily could find a new employer first on Draft Day. The nose tackle is too talented to drop any further, so Green Bay will choose value with this pick.
22. Philadelphia Eagles: Calvin Pryor, S, Louisville
It's safe to say Chip Kelly's style works just fine in the NFL, as the Eagles' offense ranked second in total yards behind the Denver Broncos.
But for all of the team's offensive achievements, the defense fell by the wayside. All-purpose safety Calvin Pryor presents a major upgrade for Philadelphia.
23. Kansas City Chiefs: Odell Beckham, WR, LSU
Dwayne Bowe found his stride as the season progressed, but Andy Reid and Alex Smith can still use another wide out to kick-start the passing attack. Odell Beckham offers route-running capability and deep-play potential to fit in well as Kansas City's No. 2 receiver.
ESPN Insider and B/R's Ryan McCrystal thinks Beckham should go before Lee:
24. Cincinnati Bengals: Ryan Shazier, LB, Ohio State
The Bengals could burn Dalton at the stake and replace a competent quarterback with this pick, or they can address an actual position of need at linebacker.
James Harrison offered a short-term solution in 2013, but he won't hold up much longer. Ryan Shazier can wreak havoc all around the field with his unconventional speed.
25. San Diego Chargers: Bradley Roby, CB, Ohio State
Bradley Roby possesses a lower floor than most first-rounders, but players of his ilk become more acceptable late in the first round. The secondary stands out as San Diego's weak link, and Roby has the goods to alter games as a playmaker along the sidelines.
26. Cleveland Browns (via Indianapolis): Zack Martin, OT, Notre Dame
Now that the Browns have invested their future in Manziel, let's also give them an offensive lineman to protect Johnny Football. After suiting up every game during his four-year tenure with the Fighting Irish, Zack Martin is well worth dealing Trent Richardson's 3.3 yards per carry.
27. New Orleans Saints: Ra'Shede Hageman, DT, Minnesota
In an extraordinary turnaround, the Saints' defense diverged from one of the worst in league history in 2012 to a top-five unit in 2013. Most of that, however, stems from an exceptional passing defense, so they should address the rushing defense by adding Ra'Shede Hageman up the middle.
28. Carolina Panthers: Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Florida State
It's tough deciding which wide receivers deserve the most attention to close out the first round, but there's no doubt that the Panthers need one. Cam Newton has been exposed to harsh criticism without the benefit of a big-play wideout. Look for that to change when he gets a deep target in Kelvin Benjamin.
29. New England Patriots: Jace Amaro, TE, Texas Tech
Tom Brady lost all of his top targets in 2013, having little to work with besides the resurgent Julian Edelman.
Whether or not the Patriots are confident in Rob Gronkowski returning strong, Jace Amaro would give the offense that missing element that fueled their offense in seasons past.
30. San Francisco 49ers: Jason Verrett, CB, TCU
The 49ers could grab Allen Robinson or Brandin Cooks and let Anquan Boldin walk, but they'll be too tempted by Jason Verrett here to pass him up. What he lacks in size, Verrett makes up for in speed and footwork.
31. Denver Broncos: Scott Crichton, DE, Oregon State
Peyton Manning had a down year, so maybe the Broncos should take a quarterback.
Relax. Kidding. Adding another pass-rusher to the fold would be a better use of Denver's assets.
32. Seattle Seahawks: Brandin Cooks, WR, Oregon State
The Seahawks can't count on Percy Harvin staying healthy for the long haul, and their roster is stacked enough elsewhere to take a chance on another receiver to conclude the first round. Cooks dazzled at Oregon State last season, catching 128 passes for 1,730 yards and 16 touchdowns.
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