The beauty of football season is that it never stops. Although the Super Bowl is over, all of the attention focuses on the scouting combine later in the month and then the NFL draft in May.
This is the time of year when each team's fans have a reason to be excited for the future. With the parity in the league, even cellar dwellers like the Houston Texans, Cleveland Browns, Oakland Raiders and Atlanta Falcons are only a move or two away from becoming division contenders.
Many of those moves happen at the draft. It's where the franchise stars of tomorrow are unearthed. Take a look at Russell Wilson. Two years into the league, he's a Super Bowl champion.
Although success wasn't guaranteed with the Seattle Seahawks quarterback, it does look to be with some of the players listed below.
Here's a prediction of how the first round of the 2014 draft will unfold, with the players underlined the biggest locks to succeed.
1. Houston Texans: Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville
Russ Lande of Sports on Earth reported that the Houston Texans prefer Blake Bortles or Johnny Manziel with the first overall pick:
According to trusted sources, the Texans are initially leaning towards taking either Blake Bortles or Johnny Manziel with the top pick. Although Manziel would obviously be the choice of owner Bob McNair, O'Brien is not sold that Manziel possesses the work ethic and intangibles necessary to be the face of a franchise.
While there's no reason to doubt the veracity of that report, there's a lot of time between now and May. It's hard to definitively say the Texans won't consider putting Teddy Bridgewater at the top of their draft board over the coming months.
Manziel makes sense commercially, but with such an important selection, you have to take make the best football move.
Bridgewater's the best QB on the board. He's a good passer with a strong enough arm. And his ability to read the field and understand the entire playbook is unmatched among this year's class of quarterbacks.
2. St. Louis Rams: Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M
It's likely the St. Louis Rams will try as hard as they can to trade this pick to somebody who desperately wants Jadeveon Clowney.
If they're stuck at No. 2, Jake Matthews would be a solid consolation prize. The Texas A&M star is athletic for his size (6'5", 305 pounds), so there's no question of him becoming a Robert Gallery-sized mistake. Having played at Texas A&M, he's also had experience playing with a pocket passer (Ryan Tannehill) and a mobile QB (Manziel), so he's flexible in pass protection.
3. Jacksonville Jaguars: Blake Bortles, QB, Central Florida
The Jacksonville Jaguars have to take a quarterback. It's merely a matter of whether it's Bortles, Manziel or Bridgewater. If Bridgewater is off the board, Bortles is the best option. While he isn't a finished product yet as a passer, he's a little more polished than Manziel. But don't be surprised if Bortles and Bridgewater swap positions on draft day.
4. Cleveland Browns: Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M
The Cleveland Browns are in the exact same position as the Jaguars in terms of needing a quarterback. With Manziel and Derek Carr as the only two realistic options, the choice is pretty clear.
Manziel improved a lot as a passer in the 2013 season. You could tell he was making a concerted effort to rely less on his legs and more on his arm. It's not like Manziel will become a pocket passer, but he should find a happy balance of running and throwing.
While the read-option offense is on the wane, the former Heisman winner shouldn't have any trouble when he hits the NFL.
5. Oakland Raiders: Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson
Sammy Watkins may be the best player in this draft, period. The performance he had against Ohio State—admittedly a bad defense—was otherworldly. And it wasn't an outlier by any stretch of the imagination. That game made you wonder how much Watkins inflated Tajh Boyd's talent level.
The Oakland Raiders would probably love to take a QB here, but there aren't any available worth taking with the eighth pick. Since they can't upgrade at quarterback, wide receiver would be the next-best option.
There's little not to like about Watkins. As Bleacher Report's Matt Miller wrote about the Clemson wideout in January, he can fit a variety of roles in the passing game:
The Clemson offense has allowed Watkins to show off his ability as a deep threat and as an intermediate possession receiver. He's flourished as both. His speed allows him to beat defenders down the field, where he's able to accelerate or high-point passes to pull down the ball. Watkins is also tough over the middle and shows the ability to break tackles to pick up extra yards after the catch.
Few players are as guaranteed to succeed as Watkins.
6. Atlanta Falcons: Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina
If Clowney falls to the Atlanta Falcons, Mike Smith and Thomas Dimitroff would do cartwheels. The South Carolina star is one of the most talented players in the draft, and he'd be the pass-rusher the defense desperately needs.
7. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Greg Robinson, OT, Auburn
There's a good chance Greg Robinson will be the first offensive lineman off the board. As things stand now, he's No. 2 behind Matthews.
As you'd expect from someone who played in the Auburn offense, the Tigers tackle is a great run-blocker. Tre Mason got the headlines, but he often benefited from holes that were opened up by Robinson. He's so strong and technically sound that he routinely pushed defenders yards back from the line of scrimmage.
Robinson's pass-blocking isn't as complete, but he should become good enough as he learns an NFL offense and gets reps on the practice field. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers could use an offensive lineman, and Robinson is one of the best in the draft.
8. Minnesota Vikings: Derek Carr, QB, Fresno State
You have to feel a bit sorry for Derek Carr. Few prospects have as much variance in terms of their draft projections. If Carr doesn't go in the top 10, he'll fall to late in the first round or could even drop into the second.
A strong showing at the Senior Bowl will have enticed the Minnesota Vikings just enough to make them think he's their QB of the future.
9. Buffalo Bills: Khalil Mack, OLB, Buffalo
Khalil Mack gets a bit of a bonus here. He's selected in the top 10, and he won't even have to worry about moving expenses. The Buffalo Bills have a very good defense, but Mack would be an upgrade at linebacker. He can rush the passer, defend the run or drop back into coverage. Mack is the complete package and just what the Bills are missing defensively.
10. Detroit Lions: Darqueze Dennard, CB, Michigan State
The Detroit Lions could go with somebody such as Mike Evans to give Calvin Johnson a capable foil in the passing game, but they'll ultimately decide to strengthen their secondary. Darqueze Dennard is very good in press coverage, and he has the speed to keep up with the best wideouts in the NFL.
11. Tennessee Titans: Anthony Barr, OLB, UCLA
Anthony Barr is an athletic freak. His ceiling is through the roof, but he needs some work if he's to fulfill his potential. The history of the draft is littered with great athletes who flamed out in the league. Vernon Gholston is the name that immediately comes to mind.
The Tennessee Titans would be taking a bit of a risk here with Barr, but if he comes good, he's a perennial Pro Bowler.
12. New York Giants: Justin Gilbert, CB, Oklahoma State
If the New York Giants don't have Barr or Mack as options, they'll look to address their secondary, and Justin Gilbert is the best corner on the board. The Oklahoma State star is a great athlete, and with the right coaching, he should become a lock-down cornerback.
13. St. Louis Rams: Mike Evans, WR, Texas A&M
If the St. Louis Rams don't pull the trigger on Sammy Watkins with their first pick, they'll take the best wide receiver available with their second. Mike Evans would be the top WR on the board in just about any other year, as his combination of size, speed and technique make him a surefire lock to be a star in the NFL.
Evans doesn't have blinding speed, but when you're 6'5", you don't need it. The only downside is that he sometimes relies too much on being bigger than the other guy. In the NFL, cornerbacks know how to nullify a physical advantage, so Evans will have to develop some other moves.
14. Chicago Bears: Kony Ealy, DE, Missouri
Kony Ealy is one of the best 4-3 defensive ends in this draft. The Missouri pass-rusher is a great athlete who made a big leap between his sophomore and junior seasons. Ealy still needs a bit of work on his technique, but it's nothing too major.
15. Pittsburgh Steelers: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, FS, Alabama
Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is the best safety in the draft. He can step up to stop the run or drop back into coverage. As a result, a team has a lot of flexibility in how to utilize him. Clinton-Dix is the shot in the arm an aging Pittsburgh Steelers defense needs at the moment.
16. Baltimore Ravens: Marqise Lee, WR, USC
The Baltimore Ravens have a few areas of concern heading into the draft—namely, wide receiver and the offensive line. Marqise Lee would help address at least one of those areas. At 6'0", he's a little undersized, but that won't stop him from becoming a solid receiver at the next level.
17. Dallas Cowboys: Calvin Pryor, FS, Louisville
The best defensive end and two best cornerbacks are off the board, so the Dallas Cowboys will look toward safety. The former two positions are much deeper in this draft, so the Cowboys will need to grab Calvin Pryor before somebody else does. He's a hard hitter who can stop the run.
18. New York Jets: Eric Ebron, TE, North Carolina
Geno Smith needs some weapons. The New York Jets can't go forward until they improve the offense. Eric Ebron fits the mold of a modern tight end, as he can run like a receiver but in a tight end's body. Even better, Ebron has improved as a blocker, so he's not a liability to the point that you can't even to run to his side when he's on the field.
19. Miami Dolphins: Taylor Lewan, OT, Michigan
With Jonathan Martin and Richie Incognito out indefinitely, the Miami Dolphins have to address the tackle position this offseason. While Taylor Lewan can't match up to former Michigan Wolverine Jake Long, he is still a lock for the first round and has the skill set to immediately step in on the Dolphins offensive line.
20. Arizona Cardinals: Zach Martin, OT, Notre Dame
Zach Martin may have to transition to guard because he lacks what you'd consider the length and range for a tackle in the NFL. Even if that ultimately happens, the 20th pick isn't a bad place to take a guard. Martin is a good blocker with enough strength to thrive in the NFL.
21. Green Bay Packers: Aaron Donald, DT, Pittsburgh
There's no guarantee B.J. Raji will be back next season. The Green Bay Packers could find his possible replacement in the first round. Aaron Donald projects as more of a 4-3 defensive tackle, but he's athletic enough to succeed as an end in a 3-4. His stock has risen a lot in recent months, and that should only continue at the combine.
22. Philadelphia Eagles: Dee Ford, DE, Auburn
Dee Ford is listed as a defensive end by some, but he looks more like a pass-rusher lining up at outside linebacker. Ford has great length, and his speed will allow him to get off the edge against most blockers. Chip Kelly loves speed, and he'll be seduced by an athlete such as Ford.
23. Kansas City Chiefs: C.J. Mosley, ILB, Alabama
The prospect of pairing C.J. Mosley with Derrick Johnson will be too enticing for Andy Reid. Put those two together, and the Kansas City Chiefs defense gets that much better. There are a lot of good receivers available in the later rounds.
24. Cincinnati Bengals: Marcus Roberson, CB, Florida
The Cincinnati Bengals need to get a cornerback this offseason. The drop-off between Leon Hall and everyone else is way too steep. Look at how much the secondary struggled after his injury last year. Both Justin Gilbert and Darqueze Dennard are off the board, so Marcus Roberson is an option here. He needs to cut down on the physicality a bit, but he's an instinctual corner who will only improve in the coming months and years.
25. San Diego Chargers: Jason Verrett, CB, TCU
Defense has been the Achilles' heel for the San Diego Chargers over the past few seasons, and no position has been a bigger problem than cornerback. Jason Verrett is a rangy ball hawk who is in the right place at the right time. He could immediately be the Chargers' best CB when he steps on the field.
26. Cleveland Browns: Ka'Deem Carey, RB, Arizona
Spending a first-round pick on a running back may be a thing of the past, especially as Giovani Bernard and Eddie Lacy were both second-rounders last year.
However, this is the Browns' second pick of the first round, so they may be a little more willing to take a chance here. Plus, their running back situation is a mess, so Ka'Deem Carey could make an immediate impact.
27. New Orleans Saints: Cyrus Kouandjio, OT, Alabama
Cyrus Kouandjio is a bit limited right now. He's a very good run-blocker, but his pass-blocking skills leave a little to be desired. Some years, that might have been good enough to get into the top 15 or top 10. This year, though, there is no shortage of talented offensive tackles, so Kouandjio could end up dropping a bit.
28. Carolina Panthers: Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Florida State
Should the Carolina Panthers get Kelvin Benjamin at No. 28, it would be a great value pick. He has loads of potential, but that goes both ways. Benjamin still needs to become a better route-runner, and he could improve his catching ability. If he does both of those things, he'll turn into a monster.
Or he could turn into a bust. Relying solely on physical tools only goes so far in the NFL.
Taking him this deep into the first round offsets some of the risk.
29. New England Patriots: Jace Amaro, TE, Texas Tech
Between Rob Gronkowski's injury problems and Aaron Hernandez's legal problems, the New England Patriots are in need of a tight end. There's no way Eric Ebron falls this far, so Jace Amaro would be the best available.
30. San Francisco 49ers: Odell Beckham Jr. WR, LSU
Michael Crabtree needs some help. Odell Beckham Jr. has been improving a lot over the past year and shouldn't have any problems in the NFL. He's still a bit raw, but the growth he made in his junior year is encouraging for the future.
31. Denver Broncos: Scott Crichton, DE, Oregon State
It's safe to say the Denver Broncos will target defense in the first round of the draft. Scott Crichton doesn't have a huge upside, but he's the kind of player who will start solidly right out of the gates. With the Broncos' small window for success, Crichton can help the team win right now.
32. Seattle Seahawks: Xavier Su'a-Filo, OG, UCLA
The Super Bowl champs don't have a ton of needs heading into the draft. They're the most complete team. A wideout such as Brandin Cooks is a solid option, but the Seattle Seahawks will opt for the offensive line. Xavier Su'a-Filo will help a unit that seemed to wear down as the season went on.
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