UCF quarterback Blake Bortles is among the big names looking for an early fit in the 2014 NFL Draft.
The 2014 NFL draft season—or perhaps more accurately, mock draft season—is well underway.
Many of the rumors and projections flying around will prove inaccurate come May, but the process of making those projections is similar to what NFL teams are also doing: trying to determine which players are the best fits for each team’s rosters and schemes.
From the first overall pick to No. 256, the draft is all about finding those fits. When a team is on the clock, making its draft choice isn’t simply about picking the highest-ranked player on the board but is about selecting the player who most closely embodies what that team is looking to add to its personnel.
This is even true with the draft’s biggest names—players who are potential top-10 selections.
While dynamic triple-threat Sammy Watkins might be the missing piece in one offense, another team might see more benefit in adding skyscraper target Mike Evans to its stable of wide receivers.
While one team might see Texas A&M’s Jake Matthews and his terrific footwork as the perfect fit to lead its offensive line, another might believe Auburn’s Greg Robinson and his ability to overpower is the key to dominating up front.
In the following slides, we take a look at 10 of the prospects in this year’s draft class who have been generating the most February buzz, and at which teams would be their most natural landing spots.
Best Fits: Houston Texans, Jacksonville Jaguars, Cleveland Browns, Oakland Raiders
Although there is no consensus among draft prognosticators as to who this draft’s top quarterback is, Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater should be considered a fit for all four teams who could potentially draft a quarterback with a top-five overall pick.
The most complete and pro-ready quarterback in this year’s draft, Bridgewater has all the fundamental tools an NFL quarterback needs to succeed.
He throws the ball with accuracy and velocity, has efficient mechanics and footwork, makes smart decisions with the football and has demonstrated toughness and leadership.
Bridgewater doesn’t have the playmaking ability of Johnny Manziel, the size of Blake Bortles or the arm strength of Derek Carr, but his game comes with far fewer flaws than any of the other quarterbacks in this year’s draft class.
If the Houston Texans also feel that way and become sold that Bridgewater can be their franchise quarterback, he won’t make it past the No. 1 overall pick.
Should Houston pass him up, he shouldn’t stay on the board long with the Jacksonville Jaguars (picking No. 3 overall), Cleveland Browns (No. 4) and Oakland Raiders (No. 5) also in need of a quarterback. All of those teams have suffered from poor quarterback play in recent years; Bridgewater could be a quick fix to the lingering problem for any of them.
Best Fits: Cleveland Browns, Jacksonville Jaguars, Cincinnati Bengals
Though he is projected as the No. 1 overall pick by ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. (subscription required) and some other media draft analysts, Johnny Manziel isn’t a very good fit for the Houston Texans. His often-erratic, razzle-dazzle style of play as a scrambler would be a stark change for new Texans head coach Bill O’Brien, whose offenses with the New England Patriots and at Penn State thrived from efficient downfield pocket passing.
For one of the other teams in need of a quarterback, however, Manziel’s ability to make big plays with both his arm and legs, and to extend plays both inside and outside the pocket, could be exactly what it is looking for. Specifically, the Jacksonville Jaguars and Cleveland Browns stand out as potential top-five destinations for Johnny Football.
It isn’t quite clear what Jacksonville is looking for in a signal-caller, but Jaguars offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch told ESPN’s Michael DiRocco in December that he encourages quarterbacks to scramble and to launch the ball deep.
That’s exactly what Jacksonville could get from Manziel, who has drawn comparisons to Russell Wilson, a young star Jaguars head coach Gus Bradley knows first hand from being the Seattle Seahawks’ defensive coordinator in 2012.
Manziel also looks like a good fit for the Cleveland Browns and their new coaching staff. Head coach Mike Pettine comes from the Bills, who had a rookie dual-threat quarterback in EJ Manuel last season, while offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan also comes from working with a young mobile playmaker, Robert Griffin III, in his time with the Washington Redskins.
It would come as a surprise if Manziel falls out of the top four selections, but he could be primed for a fall down the draft board if he makes it past the Browns. In that case, a dark-horse landing spot could be the Cincinnati Bengals, who hold the No. 24 overall pick and should be in the market for competition for Andy Dalton as the fourth-year incumbent enters his contract year.
Best Fits: Arizona Cardinals, Minnesota Vikings, Houston Texans
The other quarterback option being projected as the No. 1 overall pick by CBS Sports’ Dane Brugler and some others, UCF’s Blake Bortles, would be a better fit than Johnny Manziel if the Houston Texans end up going with one of the two players being reported as the team’s “initial targets” by Sports on Earth’s Russ Lande.
Bortles is closer to Matt McGloin than he is Tom Brady as a downfield passer at this point, but he has the size, arm strength and playmaking ability O’Brien and the Texans could covet. His fundamentals still need to develop significantly for him to be an NFL franchise quarterback, but he just might be Houston’s choice if O’Brien feels confident in his ability to develop and maximize the UCF passer’s potential.
Should the Texans go in another direction, Bortles’ best fits sit later in Round 1.
The Minnesota Vikings need a better passer to man their offense, and Bortles could be their guy if available at the No. 8 overall pick. Minnesota will be looking for a strong-armed quarterback like Bortles who can launch the ball deep under new offensive coordinator Norv Turner.
The ideal fit for Bortles, though not for his draft stock, would be with the Arizona Cardinals.
Bortles draws comparisons to Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians worked with for five years as Pittsburgh offensive coordinator. Should Bortles be available with the No. 20 overall pick, he could be selected as an heir apparent to Carson Palmer, which could also give him a year to work out the kinks in his game rather than being thrown into the fire immediately.
Best Fits: Oakland Raiders, Atlanta Falcons, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The best defensive prospect in this year’s draft class and the possessor of a remarkable physical skill set, South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney could be off the board as the No. 1 overall pick. Even among the teams in desperate need of quarterback help, Clowney’s sky-high potential makes him worthy of consideration for any team with a chance to select him.
Among the top four picks, the Houston Texans and Jacksonville Jaguars are the most likely landing spots, while he could also be a trade-up target if the St. Louis Rams move down from the No. 2 slot. It would really be a surprise, however, to see Clowney fall much further than the Oakland Raiders at the No. 5 overall pick.
The Raiders have many needs but arguably none bigger than a premium pass-rusher to lead their defensive line. They could get that immediately from Clowney, an explosive athlete who can beat blockers outside and inside with size (6’6”, 274 lbs), speed and power.
Oakland needs to add playmakers to its defense, and it could do no better than Clowney, who is an ideal fit for the Raiders’ need for a three-down player at defensive end in its 4-3 scheme.
Yet, should a coveted quarterback fall into the Raiders’ lap or should Oakland surprisingly pass up Clowney for another playmaker, there are plenty of ideal suitors waiting in line behind him.
It’s highly unlikely he would make it past the Atlanta Falcons at No. 6 or the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at No. 7, as both of those teams also desperately need pass-rushing upgrades for their 4-3 defenses.
Best Fits: Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Oakland Raiders
A dynamic offensive weapon with the speed to torch defensive backs deep but also the agility and strength to make defenders miss in the open field, Clemson’s Sammy Watkins is projected to be a top-10 pick in this year’s draft.
He has the potential to add another dimension to an NFL offense, not only as a possible No. 1 wide receiver but also as a runner on gadget plays and on kickoff returns. Two of the teams who could most benefit from his skill set are the Oakland Raiders and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The Raiders don’t have any star playmakers on their offense, so the addition of Watkins with the No. 5 overall pick could really make a big difference for them. Also a crisp route-runner with good size (6’1”, 205 lbs), Watkins could immediately become Oakland’s best wideout and could also be an upgrade on kickoff returns.
The Buccaneers have significantly more talent on offense, including a No. 1 receiver in Vincent Jackson, but they don’t have much at the position outside of Jackson and Mike Williams. As a weapon who could be used both outside and from the slot, Watkins could add downfield speed and malleable talent for new Tampa Bay offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford to work with.
There aren’t many players with as dynamic an offensive skill set as Watkins, so he has the potential to immediately make most NFL offenses better. It would be a surprise if he gets past the Buccaneers at No. 7, but if he does, other possible landing spots could include the Buffalo Bills (No. 9), Detroit Lions (No. 10), Baltimore Ravens (No. 16/17) and New York Jets (No. 18).
Best Fits: St. Louis Rams, Buffalo Bills, Pittsburgh Steelers
With a sound all-around game, four years of collegiate starting experience and demonstrated excellence on both sides of the offensive lines, Texas A&M’s Jake Matthews is a great fit for any team in need of an offensive tackle in this year’s draft.
Arguably the most complete prospect at any position in this year’s draft, Matthews has terrific feet, a good frame (6’5”, 305 lbs) and no significant technical flaws in his skill set. He should be ready to step in and handle an immediate role at either left or right tackle.
Should the St. Louis Rams stay put with the No. 2 overall selection, Matthews would be an ideal choice as an upgrade at right tackle, while he could also provide insurance should left tackle Jake Long be unable to return for Week 1 as he recovers from two torn ligaments in his right knee.
Matthews could fall out of the top five selections if the Rams don’t pounce on him, but he would be a terrific choice for any team looking for an offensive tackle upgrade.
The Atlanta Falcons could bring him into a similar situation at the No. 6 overall pick, where he could be an immediate upgrade at right tackle and provide insurance as left tackle Sam Baker comes back from injury. For the Buffalo Bills at No. 9, he would be a big upgrade over shaky starting right tackle Erik Pears.
It would be a big surprise for a prospect as solid as Matthews to fall any further than the top 10 selections. Should he slide or entice a team to trade up, the Pittsburgh Steelers, who hold the No. 15 overall selection, could utilize him immediately at left tackle.
Best Fits: Atlanta Falcons, Buffalo Bills, St. Louis Rams
Despite his outstanding Texas A&M career and a skill set that should quickly translate to NFL success, Jake Matthews is no longer a sure bet to be this draft’s top offensive tackle selection, thanks to the emergence of Auburn’s Greg Robinson in his redshirt sophomore year.
By showcasing a special combination of size (6’5”, 320 lbs), athleticism and power, Robinson made a big name for himself in Auburn’s run to the BCS National Championship Game. As a result, he is now competing with Matthews for the same top-10 real estate among teams in need of offensive tackle upgrades.
One team that specifically could be more drawn to Robinson than Matthews is the Atlanta Falcons, whose blocking schemes are likely to emphasize power up front under new offensive line coach Mike Tice, who is described as a “smash the opponent in the face” type of coach by Bleacher Report’s Scott Carasik.
For the Falcons, Robinson could immediately project as a starting right tackle or be kicked inside to fill a need at right guard. The same could be said for the Buffalo Bills, where he would be an upgrade at right tackle but also has huge potential if projected as a left guard.
It’s possible that Robinson could even be in play for the St. Louis Rams at the No. 2 overall pick. A better fit to kick inside to guard, if only temporarily, he could fill a need there in St. Louis or otherwise be an immediate right tackle upgrade.
Should the Rams go in another direction at No. 2 or trade down, Robinson could also be in play at a new slot, or in the unlikely event he falls to St. Louis’ second first-round pick, at No. 13 overall.
Best Fits: Tennessee Titans, Oakland Raiders, Minnesota Vikings
Ideally cut out to be an every-down outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense, Khalil Mack could be a perfect fit for the Tennessee Titans. He is the premier pass-rusher and all-around playmaker Tennessee needs at that position as its new coaching staff converts the defense from a 4-3 scheme.
Unfortunately for the Titans, Mack isn’t expected to make it to their pick at No. 11 overall. A terrific all-around athlete with versatility as both a pass and run defender, Mack is very likely to be a top-10 pick—even if that means converting to a new position in a 4-3 defense.
Mack possesses enough strength to play defensive end at the line of scrimmage but also the range and tackling ability needed to play outside linebacker. While he sets the edge effectively as a run defender and can drop back into pass coverage fluidly, he would likely be used in a 4-3 defense as a strong-side linebacker on early downs and as a defensive end in pass-rushing situations.
He could be a great addition in that hybrid edge-defender role for the Oakland Raiders, who need defensive playmakers anywhere they can get them, especially in their outside pass rush.
Another strong fit would be with the Minnesota Vikings at the No. 8 overall pick. He would fit the mold for new Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer, whose Cincinnati Bengals defenses often had larger hybrid strong-side linebackers. Additionally, he could provide a pass-rushing boost that will be needed if Minnesota loses defensive end Jared Allen to free agency.
Best Fits: Tennessee Titans, New York Giants
Anthony Barr is another ultra-athletic hybrid outside linebacker with serious potential to be a top-10 draft selection, but if the presence of Khalil Mack and other top edge-defenders pushes him out of the top 10, he might find a more natural fit.
Should the Tennessee Titans miss out on Mack, Barr would be a strong consolation prize at No. 11 overall. Barr is not as strong or fundamentally sound as Mack, but his measurables, pass-rushing ability and playmaking range make him ideally suited to play outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense.
If he gets past the Titans, Barr would be a great choice for the New York Giants at the No. 12 pick. While he has to become more natural in coverage at linebacker and stronger to play defensive end, he could add a playmaker to one of the NFL’s worst linebacker groups and provide a situational pass-rushing boost opposite Jason Pierre-Paul.
A versatile playmaker with the athletic upside to develop into a star, Barr could be a legitimate selection for any of the teams picking between the fifth through 12th selections, as every one of them would benefit from adding another edge-defender. The Atlanta Falcons (No. 6) and Minnesota Vikings (No. 8) would be his best fits in the top 10.
Best Fits: Baltimore Ravens, New York Jets, Buffalo Bills
Texas A&M wide receiver Mike Evans is another big name in this year’s draft with the potential to go anywhere from the top 10 to the late middle of Round 1. A 6’5”, 225-pound vertical threat who plays with great physicality and body control, Evans could be a very valuable addition as a big, go-to target on a passing offense.
His best fit within the top 10 would be the Buffalo Bills (No. 9 overall), who need size and playmaking ability at wide receiver and could use a player like Evans to be a go-to target for developing young quarterback EJ Manuel. Evans would give Buffalo a serious weapon in the red zone, and although he does not have great speed, his vision and strength give him the ability to make big plays downfield and in the open field.
The Detroit Lions could also be an option at No. 10 if they are in the market for a No. 2 receiver upgrade opposite Calvin Johnson, but Evans’ best fits would come right around the midway point of the first round.
The perfect match for Evans might be the Baltimore Ravens, who will either hold the No. 16 or 17 overall pick in this year’s draft (dependent on a coin flip with the Dallas Cowboys at the NFL Scouting Combine).
As an aggressive playmaker who goes up and attacks the ball, Evans could immediately give Baltimore the skill set it lost when it traded Anquan Boldin last offseason.
Should he surprisingly slide past the Ravens, the New York Jets would be smart to pounce on an opportunity to select Evans at No. 18 overall. The Jets have a serious lack of receiving talent and could greatly benefit by adding a go-to target like Evans for their developing second-year quarterback, Geno Smith.
Dan Hope is an NFL/NFL draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.