No matter how a team finished this season, the NFL always provides a chance for redemption the following year. A few good draft picks can change everything.
Looking at this year's NFL draft order, it is clear that a number of squads picking early are only one or two impact players away from contending for the playoffs next season. Additionally, the rest of the first round will want to find potential stars who can make big improvements on one side of the ball.
There is something for everyone in a deep class of talent. A lot can change before the draft on May 8, but here is a look at a mock first round of the 2014 NFL draft.
1. Houston Texans: Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville
Despite the struggles of this past season, the Texans have one of the most talented defenses in the NFL. Add this to an elite running back in Arian Foster and talented receivers in Andre Johnson and DeAndre Hopkins, and it is clear Houston is not far from getting back to contention.
What the squad needs is a quarterback who can handle all of these weapons, and Teddy Bridgewater is the best in the class. He has the size, arm strength, accuracy and composure necessary to lead an offense at the next level, and drafting him with the top pick should not even be a question.
2. St. Louis Rams (from Washington Redskins): Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M
There are some seriously talented players available at the top of the first round, but none of them fit the Rams' needs. While they can simply take the best on the board (Jadeveon Clowney), a trade seems more likely.
General manager Les Snead points out that a decision is a long way away, via Nick Wagoner of ESPN:
I don't want to sit here and go, 'Guess what, we're trading back no matter what.' You've always got to prepare for: What if you're there and nobody wants to trade? What if you actually want to take a player? I think it just helps you thoroughly prepare that if you do move back, if you move back to this slot, what type of player, who do you think you'll be picking from there? The thing you've got to evaluate is is that worthwhile depending on what you get?
Whether they end up sticking at the No. 2 spot or trading back a few picks, Jake Matthews is the person the Rams should target. The offensive tackle is the best in the class at his position, and he has shown the versatility to excel on either side of the offensive line.
Protecting Sam Bradford should be a goal for next season, making Matthews the perfect addition.
3. Jacksonville Jaguars: Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M
There is a big divide when it comes to Johnny Manziel.
Many scouts saw him make incredible plays over the past two years at Texas A&M and believe this is a can't-miss player. Others think he is too small and question his decision-making.
Either way, this selection is worth the risk for the Jaguars. They have gone years without a legitimate starter at quarterback, and Manziel can create instant credibility for an offense in dire need of help. Plus, his ability to create headlines can only help the often-forgotten squad.
4. Cleveland Browns: Blake Bortles, QB, UCF
This past season, the Browns had six Pro Bowlers, including four on the offensive side of the ball. Replacing Brandon Weeden/Jason Campbell with anyone could lead to a lot of success next year.
Blake Bortles has a big arm, but his best skill is the ability to extend a play in the pocket. With him being so hard to bring down, he can create some big plays with Josh Gordon over the course of the season.
5. Oakland Raiders: Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina
Many consider Jadeveon Clowney to be the best player in the draft, which makes this a no-brainer for the Raiders if he is still on the board. His combination of size, speed and athleticism will make him a nightmare for opposing linemen.
Most importantly, Clowney's ability to create havoc in the backfield will make everyone on the defense better, which is something the Raiders should be very excited about.
6. Atlanta Falcons: Khalil Mack, OLB, Buffalo
Few players are seeing their draft stock rise as quickly as linebacker Khalil Mack. Bleacher Report's Ryan Riddle said all you need to know with this tweet:
Khalil Mack is going to be a star in the NFL.— Ryan Riddle (@Ryan_Riddle) February 2, 2014
The linebacker is great at both rushing the passer and dropping back in coverage and has the ability to make a big impact on any team. Although the Falcons could use an offensive lineman, the dreadful defense from last year could use a playmaker of this ability.
7. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson
Sammy Watkins will transform offenses in the NFL as a true No. 1 receiver with a knack for making plays after the catch. As Bleacher Report's Matt Miller notes, he should not be on the board for too long:
While the Buccaneers do not need a No. 1 target with Vincent Jackson already on the roster, they have little talent outside the three-time Pro Bowler. In fact, Jackson ended the year with more than twice as many targets as anyone else on the team.
Young quarterback Mike Glennon needs another option to throw to, and Watkins could be the perfect fit. He would complement Jackson as more of a dynamic option in space, rather than a big target down the field.
If Sammy Watkins drops to 10, GMs will be fired. RT @HiJakeGriffith: if sammy drops to 10...— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) January 24, 2014
The Buccaneers clearly have other needs, but they should not pass up a talent like Watkins.
8. Minnesota Vikings: Derek Carr, QB, Fresno State
Minnesota does not want to reach for a quarterback after failing with Christian Ponder, but the fact remains that the organization needs a franchise player. Derek Carr might not be everyone's favorite prospect, but he can be that guy.
Derek Carr has great accuracy and the quick decision-making ability necessary to succeed against faster defenses. Although he spent most of his career in a spread offense, the Vikings can bring him along slowly until he is ready to thrive in the NFL.
9. Buffalo Bills: Greg Robinson, OT, Auburn
For a team that already has a pair of strong running backs in C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson, adding a dominant run-blocker like Greg Robinson would almost be unfair. The Auburn tackle cleared lanes for the top rushing attack in the country this year and can bring his skill with him to Buffalo.
The squad does not necessarily have a huge need on the offensive line, but more talent never hurts.
10. Detroit Lions: Darqueze Dennard, CB, Michigan State
There are certainly debates over who is the best cornerback in the draft between Darqueze Dennard and Justin Gilbert. While Gilbert has the athleticism and playmaking ability, Dennard will truly be a shutdown corner in the NFL.
The Thorpe award winner uses his physicality to knock receivers off their route, and he has great instincts to stay with them wherever they go. He simply knows how to play the position, and this is what should make him an appealing target for the Lions at this stage in the first round.
11. Tennessee Titans: Anthony Barr, OLB, UCLA
Tennessee's young secondary had an impressive year, but the pass defense could be even better with any elite pass-rusher in the front seven.
While Anthony Barr still is raw at the position, he has the speed and athleticism necessary to beat almost anyone on the edge. He is the type of player who will seriously turn heads at the combine and turn that into a successful career.
12. New York Giants: C.J. Mosley, ILB, Alabama
ESPN's Dan Graziano provides a very strong explanation as to why the Giants do not draft linebackers in the first round:
Especially in the salary cap era, during which teams set their priorities and only allocate high-end resources (meaning big free-agent money and high draft picks) to those positions they feel deserve them, the Giants have consistently undervalued the linebacker position and sought to address it with bargains. Even more recently, as passing offenses have evolved to dominate the game, the Giants (and many other teams) increasingly spend more time in nickel defenses, which require only two linebackers on the field if you're a base 4-3. The Giants simply do not believe linebacker is a position worthy of a first-round pick, so they don't pick linebackers in the first round.
Despite all of this, the Giants need an impact player in the middle of the defense. The linebacking corps has been a rotation of mediocre bodies for the past few seasons, and the entire unit has suffered because of it.
Jon Beason made a big impact when he came over on a trade from the Carolina Panthers. Imagine what can happen when the team adds a younger, faster player to the middle of the unit.
C.J. Mosley has proven himself with one of the best defenses in the country over the past two years, and he is worth the early pick for the Giants, regardless of what their past strategy has been.
13. St. Louis Rams: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, S, Alabama
Grabbing a big-bodied receiver like Mike Evans might make sense at this point, but the Rams already have a lot of options at the position. Instead, the Rams can look to solidify the defense by grabbing the best safety available.
Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is a playmaker in the secondary and did a great job in coverage throughout his career at Alabama. He should be able to step in on Day 1 as a starter and help the Rams compete with the rest of the great defenses in the division.
14. Chicago Bears: Louis Nix, DT, Notre Dame
After a terrible year defensively for the Bears, they need someone who can step in immediately and provide an upgrade. Louis Nix can improve the entire unit with his ability to clog the middle and take on blockers, clearing up space for everyone around him.
Although injuries heavily contributed to the struggles this season, Chicago needs youth and talent. Nix provides both as a solid first-round pick.
15. Pittsburgh Steelers: Taylor Lewan, OT, Michigan
The Steelers would like to get younger defensively, but good teams win with a great offensive line. Besides, Ben Roethlisberger will not be around for much longer without some protection.
Taylor has the size that scouts dream about at 6'7", and he has the skills necessary to be an elite tackle in the NFL. The Steelers should give him a chance to live up to his potential and upgrade the line.
Which receiver will make the biggest impact in the NFL?
16. Baltimore Ravens: Mike Evans, WR, Texas A&M
Joe Flacco got a big contract before the start of the season, but he had few targets to throw to once the games began. Torrey Smith is a solid deep threat, but the Ravens need someone who can go up and make plays on the ball.
That is exactly what Mike Evans does best as he uses his 6'5" frame to catch balls at their highest point. Flacco can connect with the rookie receiver all day long on deep balls and finally clear some room underneath for the rest of the offense.
17. Dallas Cowboys: Timmy Jernigan, DT, Florida State
Nothing really went right for the Cowboys defensively this season, ranking dead last in the league in yards allowed. They simply did not have the personnel necessary to run the defense they wanted.
Adding Timmy Jernigan would help immensely based on his ability to get consistent penetration into the backfield. His play will make things easier on the cornerbacks while taking offensive attention away from the talented defensive ends. This one acquisition could make the entire unit much better.
18. New York Jets: Marqise Lee, WR, USC
Geno Smith had the worst quarterback rating in the NFL last season among 37 qualified players. While some think this is a sign the Jets should get rid of him and start over, they should instead surround him with weapons to give him a chance to succeed.
Marqise Lee is one of the more dynamic players in the class as someone who can turn any pass into a touchdown. This could help out Smith as he would not need to do everything himself next season.
19. Miami Dolphins: Cyrus Kouandjio, OT, Alabama
No one allowed more sacks than the Dolphins this past season, and things only get worse when Jonathan Martin and Richie Incognito left the team. This hurt Ryan Tannehill's ability to develop as a passer because he had no time to make plays.
Cyrus Kouandjio is the best tackle still on the board, and he has the potential to be one of the best in the league at his position. He has plenty of experience, but he is still yet to reach his peak ability. Miami should try to bring that out of him as a true blindside tackle.
20. Arizona Cardinals: Zack Martin, OT, Notre Dame
After giving up a league-worst 58 sacks in 2012, the Cardinals only allowed 41 this year. However, this is mostly thanks to great scheming and the ability of Carson Palmer to get rid of the ball quickly.
In reality, the offensive line is still a huge weakness in Arizona. Khaled Elsayed of Pro Football Focus rated it as the worst in the NFL, ranking 31st in run-blocking and 32nd in pass-blocking.
The return of last year's first-round pick Jonathan Cooper will help tremendously, but this is not enough. The Cardinals could use another lineman who has wowed scouts with his versatility, including the Senior Bowl's Phil Savage:
Arizona should try him out at tackle and then move him around as necessary. No matter where he lands, he can provide a lot of help to the emerging contender.
21. Green Bay Packers: Calvin Pryor, FS, Louisville
Calvin Pryor is not only excellent in pass coverage, but he has shown the ability to be an enforcer over the middle. Although the rules have changed, having a hard-hitting player at safety still makes a big difference defensively, as the Seahawks showed this postseason.
The Packers could use an upgrade in the secondary, and Pryor is the team's best option.
22. Philadelphia Eagles: Kony Ealy, DE/OLB, Missouri
It appears that Chip Kelly can make any offense successful. Based on the talent and production shown this past year, it seems unlikely the Eagles look to upgrade that side of the ball.
This leaves the squad looking for a defensive star, and that comes in the form of Kony Ealy. The talented pass-rusher has the versatility to excel in either a 4-3 or 3-4 system as long as he intends to go after the quarterback.
This addition could make a big difference on a unit that struggled to get to the quarterback at times last year.
23. Kansas City Chiefs: Eric Ebron, TE, North Carolina
Alex Smith is often called a game manager because he does not often throw the ball down the field. Then again, the Chiefs receiving corps did not help him out this year as the wideouts often failed to get separation and dropped the ball when they did.
Eric Ebron is not a receiver but instead is a matchup problem for almost anyone he faces. The North Carolina product will be nearly impossible to defend and should quickly become Smith's new favorite target.
24. Cincinnati Bengals: Justin Gilbert, CB, Oklahoma State
Justin Gilbert has the potential to be an impactful player, but he is not quite there on the defensive side yet. He got beat quite a few times on double moves, and bigger receivers can cause problems with their strength.
Of course, his athleticism carries him a long way on jump balls and returns on interceptions or kicks. If he is still available, the Bengals would love to upgrade their depth with a talented player who is only going to get better.
25. San Diego Chargers: Jason Verrett, CB, TCU
San Diego needs to draft a cornerback who can come in and start right away. The unit was one of the worst in the league last year, and it only appeared better late because the coaching staff did a good job of masking the deficiencies.
Jason Verrett does not have the size of Gilbert or Dennard, but he makes up for that with pure speed and quickness to stay with any smaller receiver in the league.
26. Cleveland Browns (from Indianapolis Colts): Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Florida State
Sure, there are bigger needs for the Browns, especially considering Josh Gordon and Jordan Cameron have proven to be elite receiving targets. However, can you imagine this trio on the same field together? Defensive coordinators would go crazy trying to stop them all.
Kelvin Benjamin has the size you want from a receiver at 6'5" as well as the speed to make plays once he has the ball in his hands. Unfortunately, he is extremely raw, which has created diverse possibilities for his future according to Matt Miller:
I'd say Kelvin Benjamin's ceiling is Alshon Jeffery, but his floor is Mike Williams (Detroit, not Tampa). How he develops is the gamble— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) January 10, 2014
With the Browns taking strong-armed Blake Bortles with the first pick, the young quarterback would have plenty of options to throw to in his first year. This will make the transition to the NFL much easier.
Cleveland can look to add a running back, and more linemen in later rounds, but this possibility seems too good to pass up.
27. New Orleans Saints: Ryan Shazier, OLB, Ohio State
New Orleans had a dramatic turnaround defensively from 2012 to 2013, thanks in large part to defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. This improvement can be even better with the addition of Ryan Shazier.
The Ohio State star is a perfect fit as someone who can go inside on blitzes or sit back on coverage when he is asked. He will provide great leadership as well as someone who knows what it takes to make plays and win games.
28. Carolina Panthers: Allen Robinson, WR, Penn State
Robinson was incredibly productive at Penn State, finishing this past season with 97 catches for 1,432 receiving yards. Only once this season did he fail to catch five passes, and he always seemed to produce more when needed.
Carolina can use this prototypical target to help promote an offense that struggled to move the ball through the air this year.
29. New England Patriots: Jace Amaro, TE, Texas Tech
Tom Brady put together a fine season, but it was clear he missed Aaron Hernandez all year and Rob Gronkowski for most of it. Jace Amaro has the skill to replace at least one of these players, thanks to an elite combination of size, speed and hands.
Even if Gronkowski is healthy, New England's two tight end sets could once again be a useful part of the offense.
30. San Francisco 49ers: Odell Beckham, WR, LSU
San Francisco has a pair of receivers known for their physical presence in Michael Crabtree and Anquan Boldin. Now they need someone who can make plays in the slot and stretch the defense with his speed.
Odell Beckham would give the 49ers exactly what they are missing offensively: a dynamic playmaker with the skill to take it to the house any time he touches the ball. If the 49ers do not trade up in the first round, they will hope that the LSU receiver is still available here.
31. Denver Broncos: Stephon Tuitt, DE, Notre Dame
Regardless of what happened in the Super Bowl, the offense does not need much help after scoring 606 points during the regular season. Instead, the Broncos should look to upgrade a defense that has a bunch of holes.
Stephon Tuitt has the versatility to fix multiple problems on defense as someone who can succeed at either end or tackle. This will create depth up front and will help the squad get over the top next season.
32. Seattle Seahawks: David Yankey, OG, Stanford
Despite the Seahawks' overwhelming success this season, the offensive line still had a lot of problems, especially at guard. This contributed to Russell Wilson getting sacked 44 times, which tied for the third-most in football.
Seattle wants Wilson under center for a long time, so selecting the best offensive guard in the class to protect him would be smart. David Yankey is more of a run-blocker, but he is good enough at everything to make him a worthy pick.
Follow Rob Goldberg on Twitter for the latest breaking news and analysis.