The Super Bowl is on the horizon, but for 30 teams the attention has been on the Senior Bowl, where the nation's top four-year prospects took part in a week-long event to open up the race to the draft.
While not many participants from the big event will make it into the first round come draft day, names such as Pittsburgh's Aaron Donald now have a major shot at doing so if they continue to have an impressive path to the draft.
Teams, as always, will undoubtedly search for the best possible value at each pick. Whether that is an immediate contributor or a forward-looking maneuver varies by the state of each franchise and how the board falls.
1. Houston Texans: Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville
It has become popular as of late to proclaim that Teddy Bridgewater will not be the first player off the board, especially after NFL Network's Daniel Jeremiah reported some teams do not view him as a first-round pick:
As great as a defensive front with J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney would be, the Houston Texans understand that quarterback is the most important position of all, and prospects such as Bridgewater do not come around often.
Folks are down on Bridgewater at the moment (Are those teams that do not view him in the first even squads with a need at the position?), but he will win their hearts back rather easily in the lengthy process that leads to the draft.
2. St. Louis Rams (via Washington): Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina
The St. Louis Rams can go a variety of ways here with the knowledge they have another pick a little further down the board.
Offensive tackle is not a good value considering a top talent may fall, and while wideout is a need, the jaw-dropping depth to this class and the fact they took one in the first round last year means the value is simply not right.
No, the best value would be to grab the draft's best defender and pair him with Chris Long and Robert Quinn. Clowney is a can't-miss prospect with Mario Williams-esque upside.
3. Jacksonville Jaguars: Blake Bortles, QB, UCF
The Jacksonville Jaguars are not in a position to wait any longer on a potential franchise quarterback, especially after they got cute last year and took a right tackle with the No. 2 overall pick.
A franchise quarterback changes things in a hurry, and the team will surely have its eyes set on local talent Blake Bortles, although ESPN's Adam Caplan says teams are wildly different in their evaluations of the UCF product:
Jacksonville needs a franchise player, and Bortles is the safest prospect available.
4. Cleveland Browns: Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M
Johnny Manziel has been obnoxiously linked to the Cleveland Browns this offseason, which is a notion that makes loads of sense.
According to CBS Sports' Jason La Canfora, the Browns are willing to trade up to grab Manziel.
While this may be a shrewd way to inflate Manziel's stock so another quarterback falls, Manziel makes too much sense in Cleveland. The Browns play in the AFC North, where quarterbacks who can extend plays in a way that Ben Roethlisberger of the Pittsburgh Steelers does are critical.
5. Oakland Raiders: Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson
Talk about a tough spot for the Oakland Raiders.
With the top two quarterback prospects off the board, the Raiders will have to settle for another year of Terrelle Pryor and Matt McGloin.
Oakland can soften the blow with the draft's most explosive weapon in Sammy Watkins, who is a sound centerpiece to build the offense around for the next few years.
6. Atlanta Falcons: Khalil Mack, OLB, Buffalo
Offensive tackle seems to be a sexy pick here for the Atlanta Falcons, but if one goes by value, it does not make much sense—once again, thanks to the impressive depth of the class.
Atlanta can get a strong prospect in the offensive trenches in the second round, but an elite pass-rusher such as Khalil Mack will simply not be around much longer.
Mack is a versatile player who can put his hand in the dirt or stand up and rush, which is precisely what the Falcons look for in a pass-rusher. After Mack blows away the competition in offseason workouts and everyone sees the film against Ohio State where he simply had his way, Mack may go even higher than this.
7. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Anthony Barr, OLB/DE, UCLA
UCLA's Anthony Barr is an elite raw prospect, but the word "raw" is what is most important here.
As ESPN's Louis Riddick illustrates, Barr at times simply does not understand how to use his skill set:
In terms of value, the future potential here is through the roof as long as Barr lands with the right staff. He does just that in Tampa Bay with Lovie Smith, and while he may not explode onto the scene right away, the Buccaneers get a stellar player in Barr.
8. Minnesota Vikings: Derek Carr, QB, Fresno State
Much debate will unfold in the coming months as to whether or not Derek Carr deserves to be taken in the first round, but the Fresno State signal-caller is certainly on the right path after a strong Senior Bowl.
Jeremiah reports that teams are high on Carr after his strong week:
Carr was clearly the top signal-caller during the week of practices and he played at a high level during the game on Saturday afternoon. He had plenty of arm strength to cut through a heavy wind early in the week and he threw the ball accurately both from the pocket and on the move. I talked to a few teams that interviewed him and they came away very impressed with his maturity and football intelligence.
Minnesota is interesting because the run game will be strong next year and the defense figures to be as well thanks to new head coach Mike Zimmer.
Translation—the Vikings may not pick this high again for a few years and need to find a potential franchise quarterback with a top pick right now.
9. Buffalo Bills: Greg Robinson, OT, Auburn
Greg Robinson is suddenly the hottest name in the NFL draft, especially after NFL.com's Bucky Brooks ranked him as the top tackle in the draft:
The most dominant edge blocker in the college game. Robinson mauls defenders in the run game, while also displaying exceptional balance and body control in pass protection. "Plug-and-play" prospect with unlimited upside.
Robinson looks the part and has recently captured the mind of the NFL. The Buffalo Bills are surely paying attention, as they need more quality talent in front of franchise quarterback EJ Manuel if he is to succeed in the long-term and avoid a sophomore slump.
10. Detroit Lions: Darqueze Dennard, CB, Michigan State
Fans may point out that cornerback is not a major area of need and would rather see someone flashy such as a top receiver taken here, but wideout especially does not make a lot of sense considering the Detroit Lions can plug in a guy off the street and he will find success across from Calvin Johnson.
Wide receiver is simply too deep for the Lions to invest in here, but the same cannot be said for cornerback.
The Detroit secondary is a mess, and Darqueze Dennard happens to be an instant starter who has the look of a player who could one day be the best corner at the pro level.
11. Tennessee Titans: C.J. Mosley, LB, Alabama
It should be a crime to sleep on Alabama's C.J. Mosley, who has uncannily gone under the radar despite his Alabama pedigree.
As ESPN's Kevin Weidl points out, Mosley is nothing but an elite prospect:
Tennessee could use a player like Mosley to act as the heart and soul of the defense. He starts right away and is a centerpiece to build around for years to come.
12. New York Giants: Louis Nix III, DT, Notre Dame
The New York Giants can flip a coin here to decide between offensive and defensive tackle but must do so with the understanding that players like Notre Dame's Louis Nix III only come around so often.
Nix is a mammoth of a tackle who absorbs blockers and single-handily blows up running plays.
Despite his impressive size that sees him weigh in at north of 340 pounds, Nix is capable of providing a stout pass rush from the interior.
13. St. Louis Rams: Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M
The board falls in a perfect manner here for the Rams, a team that enters the draft in need of help on both sides of the trenches.
Matthews is an instant starter and will help to better protect Sam Bradford, who clearly needs all the help he can get after his season-ending injury a year ago.
Even if Matthews has to start on the right side for a few years, this is a sound pick given the fact the Rams smartly had two selections to work with.
14. Chicago Bears: Timmy Jernigan, DT, Florida State
With star defensive tackle Henry Melton coming off an injury, headed to free agency and recently involved in an alleged altercation that led to his arrest, it is safe to say the Chicago Bears are going to be a bit predictable in the first round.
That is far from a bad thing with Timmy Jernigan on the board.
Jernigan has won the hearts and minds of the draft community as of late, mostly thanks to his sound ability to rush the passer from the interior of the line. This is exactly what Chicago needs, especially if Melton leaves.
15. Pittsburgh Steelers: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, S, Alabama
As Andrew Gribble of the Birmingham News points out, Alabama safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix has been given his expected first-round grade by the NFL:
The first of two safety prospects worthy of the grade, Clinton-Dix fits like a glove in the Steelers secondary, especially with Ryan Clark and Troy Polamalu getting up there in age.
Not a bad duo for the draft's top safety to learn from for a few years.
16. Baltimore Ravens: Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Florida State
Value is the name of the game, which means the alarming upside of a 6'5" and 234-pound wideout will be difficult for the Baltimore Ravens to pass up.
This is especially the case for Baltimore after it saw quarterback Joe Flacco struggle mightily in 2013 without big-bodied receiver Anquan Boldin.
Benjamin has some work to do in the drops department, but the good certainly outweighs the bad.
17. Dallas Cowboys: Kony Ealy, DE, Missouri
The Dallas Cowboys have to find elite talent on defense right away if the scheme is actually going to work.
Kony Ealy is the answer to Dallas' woes after an impressive year in which he outplayed teammate and bigger name Michael Sam.
Ealy can start from Day 1 and provide the Cowboys with a stout pass rush that will do much to disguise what is an inadequate and developing secondary.
18. New York Jets: Eric Ebron, TE, North Carolina
Geno Smith will not survive with the New York Jets if the team does not do a better job of surrounding him with weapons.
Stephen Hill still has plenty of potential, and running back Chris Ivory has proved to be the answer as long as he stays healthy, but the list of quality weapons around Smith ends there.
That changes in a hurry if Eric Ebron comes to town. Ebron is an elite athlete who seemingly grabs any pass thrown his way and will consistently move the chains and open things up for other weapons on the offense.
19. Miami Dolphins: Cyrus Kouandjio, OT, Alabama
Cyrus Kouandjio is the perfect example of how deep the tackle spot is in 2014.
Kouandjio has seen his stock wildly fluctuate over the course of the collegiate season, but a safe bet is a landing spot in this range based on his physical prowess and sound upside.
Miami is the obvious choice. Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill was sacked more than any other signal-caller in the NFL last year, and this is far from the last time the team will select a lineman in this year's draft.
20. Arizona Cardinals: Jace Amaro, TE, Texas Tech
The Arizona Cardinals are an offensive-minded team with a guru such as Bruce Arians at the helm, so it is only a matter of time before he brings in another elite weapon to play with.
Jace Amaro has a shot at being the first tight end off the board. In Arizona, he pairs well with fellow tight end Rob Housler and receivers Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd to form one of the NFL's most formidable units.
21. Green Bay Packers: Ra'Shede Hageman, DT, Minnesota
The Green Bay Packers have an issue this offseason with defensive tackle B.J. Raji headed to free agency.
Raji is likely to cost too much, so Minnesota's Ra'Shede Hageman is a safe bet in the first. Bleacher Report's Andrew Garda explained why defensive line will once again be the pick in the first round:
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.
Hageman is a versatile piece who fits the scheme in Green Bay well and is talented enough to start right away. As far as value goes, it does not get much better at a position of need.
22. Philadelphia Eagles: Justin Gilbert, CB, Oklahoma State
Secondary is the approach for the Philadelphia Eagles in the opening rounds of the draft, with corner being the priority—especially if the board falls in such a favorable manner.
Justin Gilbert is one of the best available, and his combination of instincts and physical traits has big names like Jeremiah singing his praises:
Gilbert will steal playing time from the likes of Cary Williams right away and help to improve Chip Kelly's mediocre secondary.
23. Kansas City Chiefs: Mike Evans, WR, Texas A&M
There was a time when Mike Evans was heralded as a top-10 pick, but he had an iffy close to his final collegiate season, and his stock has taken a hit as a result.
NFL Network's Gil Brandt is one name arguing that Evans should have stayed in school for another season:
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.
Evans was smart to get out along with Manziel, but he tumbles to this spot, where the Kansas City Chiefs are more than happy to scoop him up for their methodical, big-receiver-reliant passing attack.
24. Cincinnati Bengals: Zack Martin, OL, Notre Dame
The Cincinnati Bengals are unlikely to retain backup tackle Anthony Collins after his strong start last season.
That is not really a major issue, as the Bengals are deep enough to address any number of positions in the first round.
But Zack Martin far and away makes the most sense here. Martin can start right away at left guard and act as an upgrade over Clint Boling. At some point down the line, he can even kick outside to left tackle when Andrew Whitworth decides to call it quits.
25. San Diego Chargers: Jason Verrett, CB, TCU
Jason Verrett is another name who has seen his stock fluctuate to this point, but he surely will not make it out of the first round.
Verrett combines sound coverage skills with a physicality not often seen from cornerbacks against the run.
San Diego needs help at the position in a bad way, so Verrett makes too much sense after his tumble down the board.
26. Cleveland Browns (via Indianapolis): Allen Robinson, WR, Penn State
The Browns may have liked Martin here but at this point can afford to wait on an upgrade at the interior of the offensive line.
Instead, expect Cleveland to look for a starter opposite of Josh Gordon to help ease their new franchise quarterback into things. As ESPN's Ryan McCrystal points out, Robinson may turn out to be a Boldin-esque receiver:
Across from an explosive player like Gordon, the Browns need a reliable option to move the chains. Robinson clearly fits the bill.
27. New Orleans Saints: Ryan Shazier, OLB, Ohio State
Rob Ryan's defense was one of the NFL's biggest surprises last season as he took over a unit mostly made up of leftover scraps from a 4-3 scheme and implemented his amoeba defense.
After adding Kenny Vaccaro last year, Ryan needs to continue to add talent that fits his scheme. This is where Ryan Shazier comes into play, as he is a stout run defender who can blitz when needed—the type of versatility necessary to succeed in a Ryan defense.
28. Carolina Panthers: Odell Beckham Jr., WR, LSU
Odell Beckham Jr. is another large receiver with big-play potential who will make his way into the first round of what is a scary-deep class.
Beckham Jr. fits well with the offense in Carolina that features an aging Steve Smith and a project in Tedd Ginn. LSU receivers have not had the most success in Carolina as of late, but Beckham Jr. is talented enough to buck that trend in a big way.
29. New England Patriots: Marqise Lee, WR, USC
It is unfortunate that Marqise Lee's stock took a massive hit after a chaotic year for the USC program, but such is the nature of the beast.
Lee's loss is a big gain for the New England Patriots. While the Patriots do not necessarily need another wideout, Lee's tremendous upside and strong match with the New England offense make this an obvious pairing.
30. San Francisco 49ers: Jordan Matthews, WR, Vanderbilt
It is no secret the San Francisco 49ers will look to grab a wide receiver in the first round with Boldin on his way to free agency.
The best bet and value is Jordan Matthews, who boosted his stock a ton with an impressive week at the Senior Bowl. NFL Network's Charles Davis was especially impressed, as captured by NFL.com's Chase Goodbread:
He will go into the briar patch, take his hits and keep on ticking. I never worry about that part with him. Obviously, people are going to want to know what he runs (at the combine). All in all, I think he's a big-time prospect. Let's face it: How many quarterbacks threw to him at Vanderbilt? Try to name them all. Yet everyone knew he was coming each week in the SEC.
31. Denver Broncos: Calvin Pryor, FS, Louisville
Calvin Pryor is the other top safety prospect worthy of a pick in the draft's opening rounds. Some, such as Jeremiah, even rank him as the No. 1 prospect at his position.
Denver has a bad pick here, but Pryor falls down the board enough to make this need a reality. The current duo in the defensive backfield is simply not getting it done, and Pryor takes over one spot right away.
32. Seattle Seahawks: Dee Ford, DE, Auburn
Dee Ford has arrived as a first-round pick.
Ford was already on the radar as a strong prospect, but his two sacks and MVP award at the Senior Bowl help to guarantee he will come off the board in the first.
Seattle does not have a major need at end but could use some reinforcements, a rotational piece and an eventual starter.
The team would be hard-pressed to find a better fit than Ford given the slot.
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