While the Super Bowl is just under a week away, we're already ramping up draft analysis, just like the 30 teams who didn't make it to the championship game.
It's going to be a long process, and while much will change between now and the first pick on May 8, we're still going to take a run at what could happen when things finally kick off.
There are several places where the draft order hasn't been decided yet. Dallas and Baltimore will decide who gets pick 16 and who gets pick 17 with a coin flip. And of course, Denver and Seattle will decide who gets pick No. 31 and No. 32 in less than a week.
So in both of those cases, we went in alphabetical order, for the sake of simplicity.
In an early mock like this, we're mostly looking at teams' needs or where players appear to be slotted right now, rather than accuracy. Things will change around the NFL Scouting Combine, during Pro Days and when free agency starts.
But you have to start somewhere, so we're kicking things off here.
We’re seeing a lot of different takes for this first pick, and I’ve seen mocks with Jadeveon Clowney, per Rob Rang of CBSSports.com, Johnny Manziel, per ESPN Insider Mel Kiper Jr. (subscription required) and even Blake Bortles as Houston’s pick, per Dane Brugler of CBSSports.com. For me, the biggest need in a passing league and a division where you’re competing with Andrew Luck is quarterback.
There are enough questions about Clowney for me to think Houston doesn’t take the chance.
Looking at the quarterbacks, I get the media’s impulse to cram Johnny Manziel in here. He’s a local boy and certainly exciting. I’m not sure I can see Bortles here, but stranger things have happened.
Still, to me, picking Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater is the safe and smart pick. Bridgewater has shown ability in a pro-style offense, good mobility, sharp accuracy and leadership in the huddle.
Manziel is flashier but also riskier. Bridgewater is the smart pick here.
I could actually see Jadeveon Clowney going anywhere from first overall to the back half of the top 10. The problem is we don’t know how concerned teams really are about his drive and work ethic.
Not knowing that, but knowing based on actual games he’s played, it’s hard to imagine him dropping past the first two or three picks.
Clowney has a great combination of size, athleticism and strength as well as a toolbox filled with pass-rush moves.
Athletically, Clowney is easily the best player in this draft. If he can ease concerns about his work ethic during combine interviews and his pro day, there is no way he drops very far in May.
Central Florida quarterback Blake Bortles is a raw prospect with a ton of upside. While he has a smooth release and can make every throw, he lacks elite arm strength, and his mechanics need some work. He has a habit of not stepping into his throws and having his weight in the wrong spot as well.
Ultimately, though, scouts saw more of the good than bad near the end of UCF’s season, especially in the win over Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl.
Fair or unfair, there will be teams who will pass on Johnny Manziel because of the perception of his off-field issues. After missing so badly on Blaine Gabbert, the Jacksonville Jaguars need a quarterback, but they can’t afford a mistake. In the end, they’ll lean toward Bortles as the safer of the two options.
While new head coach Mike Pettine is a defensive guy, he’s not going to be able to ignore that his team will not win without a quarterback. In fact, having been with the Buffalo Bills and the New York Jets, he got a close-up look at what happens when you don’t.
While Brian Hoyer has received some praise from his new coach, per Mary Kay Cabot of The Northeast Ohio Media Group, the truth is that he’s a placeholder. Even at his best, he’s good, but not great.
Johnny Manziel has the tools to be great. Is there perceived risk off the field? Yes, but analysis points to a good work ethic many overlook in the hype around his partying demeanor.
It’s his upside that will attract the Cleveland Browns and it is pretty high. If Hoyer sticks around, Manziel might even get a chance to develop more slowly or perhaps loom as a reminder that if he doesn’t get the job done on the field because of what he does off it, he is just a quick whistle away from having a seat on the bench.
Risky? Sure. But it's worth it.
The Oakland Raiders have so many holes, they have to start somewhere. While it’s true that they appear to still need a quarterback, I’m not sold enough on Derek Carr after watching him in Mobile to pull the trigger this early.
Whoever is throwing the ball needs more weapons, and Sammy Watkins is a dynamic player who catches the ball well and is dangerous after the catch.
He is a big play waiting to happen. The Raiders just need to get him the ball.
Pro Football Focus ranked all 32 offensive lines recently, and the only team they rated worse than the Atlanta Falcons was the Arizona Cardinals. Sam Baker has been OK over his career, but after signing a fat contract last year, he ended up hurt.
Nobody else really stepped up much (although PFF points to Justin Blalock as a high point this year), and even when Baker comes back, you have to wonder how effective he’ll be.
Greg Robinson is a tough road-grader who struggles a little on pass blocking, but he has the tools to master it. The Falcons can ill-afford to lose Matt Ryan to injury, so they need to start getting serious about his protection. Robinson could even develop at right tackle as Baker plays out his contract.
While I could see the Tampa Bay Buccaneers wanting a quarterback, I have the same problem here that I had with the Oakland Raiders’ pick. I just don’t have that much faith in Derek Carr, I don't think someone will definitely reach for him.
We’re also talking Lovie Smith, new head coach and defensive mastermind, so the Bucs leaning toward defense is a very viable option.
Khalil Mack has a high motor and is a very explosive hitter. Picturing him across from Lavonte David just gave me chills.
The only thing the Minnesota Vikings don’t have on offense is a quarterback, but unless they trade up (or way back), they shouldn’t mess with a quarterback here.
This is especially true considering new head coach Mike Zimmer is a defensive guy,and the Vikings defense needs help. Despite having some talent, the Vikings have an equal amount of holes and several aging players.
Anthony Barr is a guy whom some have higher on their boards than Mack—and with good reason. He’s got quick feet, can change direction to avoid blockers and pursues the ball well. He’d be a great addition to a defense I think is going to open eyes in a year or two.
The Buffalo Bills could go with defense, but they really need another weapon for quarterback EJ Manuel. Stevie Johnson has been it, though rookies Robert Woods and Marquise Lee had moments.
Eric Ebron is a freakish athlete who has great hands, speed and the size team look for in a tight end these days. He needs to work on his blocking a bit, but he looks like he needs to add weight in order to help him in that area.
He’d be a big help to Manuel in his second year.
The Detroit Lions are a mess in the secondary. They did improve this year, but they really only have one-half of a successful cornerback tandem in Chris Houston. In the division and conference they are in, the Lions need more than what they have.
Oklahoma State’s Justin Gilbert is coming off a tremendous season and has all the tools you want in a corner: the size to avoid getting pushed around, the speed to keep up with elite receivers and the agility to go up and deflect passes.
All of these are things this Detroit secondary desperately needs.
The Tennessee Titans were not very good at linebacker last season, specifically at middle linebacker, where C.J. Mosley would be an immediate upgrade over Moise Fokou.
Mosley is good at using his length and overall agility to get through a crowd cleanly and deliver a big hit. When tackling, he does an excellent job of wrapping up a ball-carrier and driving through him. He is also very field aware, rarely making mental mistakes and able to adjust on the fly, instinctively.
The Titans have a lot of needs, and could go many different ways, but grabbing Mosley here would be a big boost for their defense.
The New York Giants have a lot of issues, but offensive line is probably the biggest issue. Injuries destroyed a line thin in talent and depth. Now with David Diehl retiring, it’s even worse. Pro Football Focus ranked the offensive line as No. 29 in the NFL for 2013 and had no full-time starter with a positive overall grade, save rookie tackle Justin Pugh, per PFF (subscription required). Other than Pugh, there’s nobody else worth mentioning anymore.
Jake Matthews is a tremendous talent, quick off the snap and a great pass-blocker.
If the Giants want to bounce back, they need quarterback Eli Manning to rebound as well, and to do that they must address a desperate need for help on the offensive line.
The St. Louis Rams were hoping to have a solid idea as to whether they were going to pay quarterback Sam Bradford, but since he was injured, they have to wait and see if he improves as a quarterback this year. If they want him to stay healthy, they need to improve on Pro Football Focus’ 17th-ranked offensive line.
They might have been able to limp along with Jake Long, who rebounded in St. Louis after two terrible years in Miami, but his season ended when he tore his MCL and ACL. They don’t know how he’ll look when he comes back.
So they need another alternative, and they might as well look to Long’s alma mater, Michigan, for a solution. Taylor Lewan plays with a nasty streak, has very quick feet and can move laterally very well. While not as good as Greg Robinson and Jake Matthews, he is still a very good prospect who can step in immediately.
The Chicago Bears got dominated by opposing running backs, so first and foremost their attention should be directed to the interior during their defensive rebuild.
In the BCS Championship Game against Auburn, Timmy Jernigan capped off a great junior season with an outstanding game, cementing a first-round pick.
Jernigan has excellent burst and agility as well as top-shelf strength and power, so he will be able to step in and clog the running lanes. As a bonus, he can collapse the pocket and will help contain the powerful NFC passing offenses the Bears have to overcome to make the Super Bowl.
The Pittsburgh Steelers need some help along the defensive front. Nobody really replaced James Harrison’s production, and Lamarr Woodley has seen much better days and may not be long for the team.
As Daniel Jeremiah of NFL Network reported last week, Auburn’s Dee Ford was a guy who most teams had as a second-rounder, but after a tremendous Senior Bowl week, capped by an MVP-worthy performance during the game, via Tommy Hicks of AL.com, that will be changing.
Scouts originally seemed to feel he’d fit better in a 4-3 which split him out wide to rush the quarterback from the edge, he proved last week he can also move to an outside linebacker in a 3-4 with no issues.
His enthusiasm and energy were apparent during every Senior Bowl practice I watched last week, the highlight of which was the very last pass rush of Wednesday’s practice. Keep in mind, it’s “hands off” when it comes to the quarterbacks in drills, so there is no way to actually sack someone.
However, as he hit the corner and came in untouched, you could hear him shout “WHEE” as he closed in for what would have been a huge sack. That joy of the game can translate to the players around him and could help in the transition coming for the Steelers defense.
Is this early? Maybe. But someone always goes earlier than he should, and I have been told from sources that the Steelers absolutely love this kid.
If they want him, they may not be able to let him pass here.
The Baltimore Ravens really missed Anquan Boldin’s physicality in 2013.
While they have the speedy outside threat, they lack a guy who can and will fight for the ball, essentially playing tough football.
Mike Evans has played that style of football and has tremendous body control, as well as the size and strength to overpower a defensive back.
Most importantly, Evans has the mental toughness to go across the middle and catch balls in traffic. When the ball is in the air, he wants it, and that “my ball mentality” is something the Ravens could really use.
What isn’t a mess when it comes to the Dallas Cowboys defense? The secondary and defensive front both have issues, and the team needs to get under the cap as well, so a free-agency fix is unlikely.
So expect a defense-heavy draft, starting with this pick. The question is, which position is the way to go?
Right now, there are only two free safeties worth drafting in the first round (Alabama’s Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Louisville’s Calvin Pryor) and maybe one in the second (Stanford’s Ed Reynolds), and the dropoff after that is precipitous.
So safety is the way to go, as far as I am concerned, and in that case, I’d see Clinton-Dix as the guy.
Clinton-Dix can easily handle the deep routes and support in man coverage, doesn’t get fooled by the quarterback’s eyes often and always takes a good angle of attack to the ball.
He’d be an immediate upgrade for a Dallas secondary in need of one.
The New York Jets might be tempted by a few defensive players here, but it would be a huge mistake to ignore the offense.
Quarterback Geno Smith will likely hold on to his starting job, and if the team wants him to improve in his second year, he needs receivers beyond Jeremy Kerley. Santonio Holmes is probably gone this offseason, while Stephen Hill hasn’t shown any improvement since the Jets drafted him in 2012.
When healthy, Lee has the look of the No. 1 receiver the Jets are desperate for. He’s an explosive receiver who runs solid routes, showing an ability to change direction and cut while not losing speed. He’s not afraid to fight for the ball either.
Whether Smith is the quarterback or not for the 2014 season, the Jets can ill afford to go into it without a real receiver for their offense.
While the Miami Dolphins' offensive line actually had some very nice moments this season, it was a tattered mess for most of it. We can be sure neither Richie Incognito nor Jonathan Martin will be with the team in 2014, and aside from center Mike Pouncey, the offensive line isn’t all that great.
The Dolphins certainly don’t have the depth to overcome losing the whole left side of their line.
Zack Martin isn’t the prototypical size for an NFL tackle, but he gets low and keeps his balance, is quick off the snap and plays with a nice nasty streak when run blocking.
Martin could easily slide to guard instead if the Dolphins add a tackle via free agency.
The Arizona Cardinals have a few question marks on the defensive side of the ball, but nothing like the messy situation they have at offensive line. Jonathan Cooper will return to play guard after a season during which he ended up on injured reserve, but as a whole the line didn’t perform very well on a consistent basis.
Cyrus Kouandijo is a solid tackle who has the size and athleticism to step in immediately at either tackle spot.
While safety is actually a high priority for the Green Bay Packers, I was told by several Green Bay Packers media members that defensive line might be just as big a need, if not bigger. What they told me was they expected B.J. Raji would leave this offseason and that coupled with some questions about whether Ryan Pickett or anyone else can shore up the line make defensive line just as likely a pick.
Last week I watched Minnesota defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman trash offensive linemen and eat up the middle of the offensive line constantly during practice. While his Wednesday practice was a bit spotty, he dominated the rest of the week and had a decent game last Saturday.
A lot of scouts and teams were talking about him in Mobile, and I came away with the feeling he could be a perfect fit in Green Bay and a solution to some of its defensive-line woes.
The Philadelphia Eagles finished ranked at No. 30 against the pass this season, and the secondary certainly shares its fair share of blame for that.
While cornerback is a possibility, safeties are at a premium in this draft, and Calvin Pryor is the only other safety besides Ha Ha Clinton-Dix worthy of a first-round pick.
A physical, instinctive safety, Pryor had a great career at Louisville under Mack Strong and would flourish in Philadelphia.
Let’s face it; Dwayne Bowe is a good, but not great, wide receiver. He sure can’t do it alone, and while Donnie Avery had moments this past season, the offense is sorely lacking in receiving threats.
Kelvin Benjamin is fast but also has a big frame and the strength to play physical on shorter routes.
He can simply overpower defenders, would be a huge help for quarterback Alex Smith and is the type of player Andy Reid can use in his offense.
It will be interesting to see the changes that defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer's departure will invoke and how it may alter a pick like this.
That said, without Zimmer, my concern is that the Cincinnati Bengals won’t be able to overcome an overall so-so talent at cornerback. Adam Jones and Terence Newman are both getting old and coming off mediocre seasons, and while Leon Hall will be returning from injury this season, they need someone who can be an upgrade as a starter.
Darqueze Dennard is a great player, potentially the most well-rounded corner in the draft in fact. He’s a hard worker who can fit into any type of scheme so even if the Bengals change things up, he will be a great player for them.
The San Diego Chargers have a few issues on defense, including cornerback, but with Louis Nix dropping here, it’s hard to argue with a pick like this.
Cam Thomas, the current nose tackle, was ranked No. 48 out of 69 players by Pro Football Focus (subscription required), so it’s safe to say the team needs an upgrade.
Nix is a two-gap player who can fit into any scheme, hold up at the point of attack and also get off blocks to occasionally get into the backfield.
He’d be a big upgrade over Thomas, and Chargers fans would be ecstatic if he fell here.
While John Greco did a good job in 2013 (mostly at left guard), even he was only ranked No. 32 by Pro Football Focus, and overall this line had issues at guard all year, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
David Yankey is the top-ranked guard in the draft at this point in the process and comes out of an excellent offensive line at Stanford. He is especially good for run blocking, with an initial burst at the snap to knock a defender backward, and when he gets to the second level, he does a great job of holding up in space.
Yankey is also a solid pass-blocker and should be able to help an already decent offensive-line rebound from an inconsistent season.
I’ve actually seen this pick around before, but it makes a ton of sense.
Like his namesake, “Charlie” Brown wasn’t exactly good at what he wanted to do last year, in this case protecting Drew Brees.
Antonio “Tiny” Richardson is anything but, and at 6’6”, 327 pounds, he is awfully tough to move off the line when he is blocking. Despite his size, though, Richardson is agile, quick and able to move in both pass protection as well as run blocking.
Some will point to the game where he was blown up against South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, but that’s one game against the best defensive end on college football. Overall, Richardson is very good, and while yes, he’ll see players on Clowney’s level weekly, he will have success against them as he develops at the pro level.
The Carolina Panthers have long needed someone across from veteran Steve Smith, and now, they might need someone to replace Smith, who is definitely nearing the end of his career.
Odell Beckham Jr. has excellent acceleration, which will quickly make defensive backs give him space or risk him whipping by. When a defensive back forces press coverage, Beckham does a good job of getting off the line with minimal disruption to his route.
He’d be a great weapon for Cam Newton which will help the offense improve and take some pressure off the defense.
It’s hard to know which way the New England Patriots will go in this draft, as they had so many injuries that it made everything cloudy.
That said, losing Aaron Hernandez to jail and Rob Gronkowski to injury (multiple times this season), it would seem tight end is a pretty sizable need.
The Patriots work very well out of the two-tight end set, something they couldn’t do this season for obvious reasons.
Jace Amaro lined up in the slot quite often at Texas Tech, so we know he could fit in here for the Patriots. He’s got big, soft hands which he uses to catch the ball away from his body, reducing the chance of a bobble. Amaro is able to use crisp route running to create separation and is a very dangerous player with the ball in his hand after the catch.
As I wrote over at CSS-Sports.com this weekend, Jordan Matthews’ week of Senior Bowl practices left a bit to be desired. That said, he would be a great player across from Michael Crabtree, able to replicate the style of play Anquan Boldin has over the course of his career.
Matthews has a big body and great length, is physical off the line and can make some spectacular grabs. He made a few catches last week which certainly made you think he might be a great red-zone weapon at least, and he can beat a lot of defensive backs by aggressively going up and grabbing the ball.
He's lacking in his quickness while running a route. If he doesn’t get separation off the line, he often resorts to physical contact later which might get him flagged.
Still, the Niners don’t need him as a vertical threat, they just need him to make tough catches. Without a doubt he can do that.
We don’t know if Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie will leave in free agency, Champ Bailey’s better days are absolutely behind him, and none of the other corners have the characteristics necessary to be a really solid complement to Chris Harris.
Win or lose on Super Bowl Sunday, the Denver Broncos still have things they need to improve, and cornerback is one place they can definitely attack.
TCU’s Jason Verrett is a ball-hawking defender who is great at suckering quarterbacks into throws he can pick off, whether it’s by jumping a route or laying off a receiver to bait a throw.
Verrett is also very tough in run support and has no compunctions about hitting ball-carriers when the opportunity arises.
The Seattle Seahawks can go any number of ways in this draft. They could use some wide receiver help, but there are plenty of prospects they can pick up later whose upside isn’t that far off what they can get here. They may also look at defensive tackles to replace Michael Bennett if he escapes during free agency.
But ultimately offensive line continues to be an issue they have to address. So many guys were hurt along this line that it’s too long a list to compile. Suffice to say, relying on guys like Paul McQuistion at guard, let alone tackle, is a good way to get burned.
That they overcame it is a testament mostly to Marshawn Lynch's run-after-contact ability.
Going into Senior Bowl week, I would have had Baylor’s Cyril Richardson here, but he was not good in Mobile, and a lot of his struggles raised some red flags for me. I’ll have to go back to the tape later and take another look.
Instead, I have UCLA’s Xavier Su’a-Filo slotted here, and he might even be a better fit. Su’a-Filo has been a longtime starter for the Bruins, giving him a ton of experience to bring to the table at the pro level. A strong, athletic player, Su’a-Filo is a great anchor and is very tough to knock off his spot in pass protection.
Andrew Garda is a member of the Pro Football Writers Association and fresh off another trip to the Senior Bowl. He is also a member of the fantasy football staff at FootballGuys.com and the NFL writer at CheeseheadTV.com. You can follow him at @andrew_garda on Twitter.