The path to the 2014 NFL draft is a lengthy one. Each year, it helps to sort prospects before franchises make selections that will shape the league's future—for better or worse.
The top of the draft is usually reserved for such decisions. When the Indianapolis Colts took Andrew Luck No. 1 overall in 2012, it solidified the team's status as a contender for another decade in the wake of Peyton Manning's departure.
But league-changing picks are not limited to the early goings. A guy by the name of Ray Lewis fell all the way to No. 26 in the 1996 draft. The rest of that story writes itself.
Projecting such picks is no easy task, but certain prospects, especially paired with certain situations, absolutely look the part.
Italics denote players who will most shape the league's future.
1. Houston Texans: Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville
The Houston Texans understand they cannot blow this pick, which is why Teddy Bridgewater will be the choice.
With the quarterback situation in Houston a mess, Bridgewater instantly makes the Texans contenders again, as the roster in place will largely return intact next season and has the look of a strong squad.
Bridgewater is the most-pro ready quarterback in the class and is an exemplary franchise player off the field. The Louisville product was even upset with his NCAA-best completion percentage, per NFL.com:
Teddy Bridgewater unsatisfied w/ his NCAA-best completion%. in 2013. "It should have been 80 or 85%." http://t.co/PcdI4Ofw7i— CollegeFootball 24/7 (@NFL_CFB) February 11, 2014
Bridgewater will have a Luck-type impact when all is said and done. Best of all, they get to combine for what may possibly be one of the NFL's best quarterback rivalries.
2. St. Louis Rams (via Washington): Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina
Yes, the St. Louis Rams already have two top pass-rushers. But Robert Quinn hits the open market after the 2014 season, and the Rams may not have the capital to keep him around.
Besides, Jadeveon Clowney is a physical freak who will surely blow teams away in offseason workouts.
The Rams have two picks in the first round, so a pick here on a rare prospect who will only play in a rotational capacity is not a bad option.
3. Jacksonville Jaguars: Blake Bortles, QB, UCF
This selection has the potential to backfire, as does any quarterback pick after No. 1 overall.
But Jacksonville cannot afford to wait on a quarterback any longer, as Blaine Gabbert and Chad Henne are holding the franchise back.
Blake Bortles is a local kid, has a great arm, looks the part physically and can develop along with the franchise itself as the rebuild continues. At this point in time, no other option really makes sense for the Jaguars.
4. Cleveland Browns: Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M
Talk about a dream scenario for the Cleveland Browns.
Despite all the turmoil in the organization, the team can feel comfortable bringing on the polarizing Johnny Manziel thanks to the addition of Kyle Shanahan, as NFL Network's Albert Breer points out:
And if the Browns' early feelings on Johnny Manziel sustain, who better to work w/him than Shanahan, who reworked his offense for RG3.— Albert Breer (@AlbertBreer) February 1, 2014
If any prospect is going to take the Browns over the hump (They quietly have a roster that is oozing quality talent.), it will be Manziel, who can dance his way out of trouble against the elite defenses of the AFC North.
The Browns being relevant thanks to Manziel certainly reshapes the league's future.
5. Oakland Raiders: Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson
With no top quarterback left on the board, the Oakland Raiders have little strategy to adhere to at this spot.
In that case, a hapless organization with a matching roster must go with the best player available.
Here, that is Clemson's Sammy Watkins. Receiver is not of the utmost importance in Oakland thanks to an unheralded group already in place, but Watkins brings big plays to the table on returns and has Percy Harvin-esque versatility.
Oakland will take it and not complain.
6. Atlanta Falcons: Khalil Mack, OLB, Buffalo
Khalil Mack is a rare player.
Regardless of how well known he is at this point, Mack brings a skill set to the NFL that is hard to find, and as CBSSports.com's Rob Rang points out, he may go even higher than this spot:
Atlanta needs a versatile rusher to play a bit of a hybrid role, and Mack can do it all. With a stout pass rush from Mack, the Falcons can once again field a strong defense and get back in contention.
7. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Anthony Barr, OLB/DE, UCLA
Tampa Bay is in an interesting position. Mike Glennon showed promise under center last year. The team was hit with a few key injuries and had a head coach who simply did not get it—"it" being how the pro level of football works.
Now, Lovie Smith is in town and has a top pick to spend however he chooses. His pick will likely be a stout pass-rusher to supplement an already sound unit, so Anthony Barr fits the bill here.
Barr is a bit of a project, but Smith is known for his ability to squeeze the most out of players.
8. Minnesota Vikings: Derek Carr, QB, Fresno State
The Minnesota Vikings are in no way stuck with picking a quarterback here, but it is currently the best way for the franchise to go.
With Mike Zimmer at the helm, the Vikings will tout a strong defense no matter what. On offense, key cogs such as Adrian Peterson and Cordarrelle Patterson are already in place.
All that is missing is a quarterback, and Derek Carr is the best of the scraps left. That is not meant to disrespect Carr—he is a total package who can succeed at the pro level with proper grooming.
9. Buffalo Bills: Greg Robinson, OT, Auburn
Greg Robinson has catapulted up boards as of late after a dominant year in a run-first offense.
Robinson reeks of the perfect fit for the Buffalo Bills. He can immediately start at right tackle and pave the way for C.J. Spiller and Co. and will hold up well enough in pass protection to not be considered a liability.
If EJ Manuel is to succeed, Robinson needs to be the pick.
10. Detroit Lions: Darqueze Dennard, CB, Michigan State
Imagine a Detroit Lions team that could actually stop opposing offenses.
That's quite the scary thought considering the Lions annually tout one of the NFL's best offenses.
While Darqueze Dennard is far from the ultimate answer in Detroit, he is a heck of a leap in the right direction. One shutdown corner has a ripple effect on a defense—it makes an offense more predictable and gives rushers more chances to hit the quarterback.
Dennard is the type of selection teams and fans look back on a few years down the road and simply admire.
11. Tennessee Titans: C.J. Mosley, LB, Alabama
Do not sleep on quarterback here for the Tennessee Titans, but if that fails, new head coach Ken Whisenhunt surely will have no issue taking the top linebacker available.
The Titans do not have a major hole to fill across the board, but Mosley is tough to pass up after an elite collegiate career with the Crimson Tide. Dane Brugler put it best:
He might not be elite in every category, but it's tough to find holes in LB C.J. Mosley's game. Very smart and reliable player #NFLDraft— Dane Brugler (@dpbrugler) January 3, 2014
Mosley is the type of centerpiece a team can build around, and the Titans need one badly.
12. New York Giants: Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M
While certainly not a selection that will bring fans out of their seats, the New York Giants have to upgrade the offensive trenches to keep the erratic Eli Manning in check.
Flexibility is the name of the game here, as an upgrade on the edge gives the Giants time to address the interior in free agency or the later rounds.
Jake Matthews was at one point considered the top tackle in the draft—and still is by many—so the Giants get a big steal here.
13. St. Louis Rams: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, S, Alabama
Teams in the NFC West simply will not survive for long if they cannot match the brutality of the defenses.
While some may argue there is a need for more targets on offense, it is important for the Rams to continue to build a defense that can match the rest of the division.
With this thought in mind, the Rams grab the draft's best safety to upgrade another spot on the unit. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is a physical presence who brings a semblance of violence against the run and some much-needed attitude to the unit overall.
14. Chicago Bears: Aaron Donald, DT, Pittsburgh
Aaron Donald is the hottest name in the stock department at the moment after a strong Senior Bowl performance in which he blew away the competition:
At 6'0" and 285 pounds, Donald is an ideal interior pass-rusher in the Geno Atkins mold. He fits perfectly in Chicago considering the Bears are losing franchise defensive tackle Henry Melton to free agency.
Interior pressure without a blitz is a unique commodity in today's NFL. Chicago can simply not pass up Donald at this spot.
15. Pittsburgh Steelers: Louis Nix III, DT, Notre Dame
Louis Nix is far and away the top 3-4 nose tackle in the NFL draft, so it only makes sense for Pittsburgh to grab him should he fall to this point.
Bleacher Report's Matt Miller agrees that Nix is top of the class:
Notre Dame's Louis Nix RT @crmetz23: Who is the best 3-4 nose tackle in the draft— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) January 6, 2014
Nix is an absolute game-changer for the Steelers. They need to begin a rebuild on the defensive side of things, and there is no better way to do so than by grabbing an elite prospect in the trenches who creates a positive ripple effect on the rest of the unit.
Pittsburgh back to defensive prominence is the last thing the league wants to see, but Nix puts them on that path.
16. Baltimore Ravens: Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Florida State
It is clear that Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco struggles without big-bodied receivers who can move the chains in a reliable fashion.
This was apparent last season with Anquan Boldin out of the picture and tight end Dennis Pitta shelved with an injury.
Kelvin Benjamin is an unlimited-upside remedy to the situation. Better yet, he comes at a rather cheap cost. Across from Torrey Smith, the struggles of Flacco from last year will be a one-time thing.
17. Dallas Cowboys: Kony Ealy, DE, Missouri
Kony Ealy is one of the best rushers in the draft class, which should not come as a surprise, as Missouri seems to push out quality prospects in that vein annually.
In the schematics of the Dallas defense, Ealy fits well and provides a jolt of youth and depth. As a forward-looking maneuver, Ealy is a good fit for a unit that needs help right away and into the future.
As the Giants of past years have shown the Cowboys, a strong rush can mask a bad secondary.
18. New York Jets: Eric Ebron, TE, North Carolina
Tight ends are all the rage in the NFL right now, and Eric Ebron is the top of a class that should see several come off the board in the early rounds.
The New York Jets do not have a major need at the spot, but if Geno Smith is to succeed, it would not hurt them to take a Bengals-Andy Dalton approach and give him elite talent to work with.
Ebron solves a lot of problems in New York rather quickly, as he will make the lives of other receivers easier and move the chains consistently.
19. Miami Dolphins: Cyrus Kouandjio OT, Alabama
The Miami Dolphins are in a straitjacket here.
Sure, they could go a different route, but franchise quarterback Ryan Tannehill will suffer as a result of their ineptitude.
Cyrus Kouandjio is arguably the best option, and his Alabama pedigree is hard to ignore. Kouandjio mauled his way through the SEC in collegiate play and has a game on film that easily translates to the pros.
He is the first step in a long process for Miami.
20. Arizona Cardinals: Jace Amaro, TE, Texas Tech
Jace Amaro is a close second to Ebron in this class, with the one true knock being that it is hard to peg his actual position down.
It does not really matter for Arizona and offensive guru Bruce Arians, who want to milk as much production out of Carson Palmer as possible. A big, reliable target such as Amaro to pair with Rob Housler opens things up for deadly receivers on the outside.
This is a roundabout way of fixing a questionable offensive line, but it will be surprisingly effective.
21. Green Bay Packers: Ra'Shede Hageman, DT, Minnesota
As ESPN.com's Rob Demovsky pointed out back in December, the future is blurry for Green Bay and defensive lineman B.J. Raji.
With only so much cap space to work with and Raji apparently wanting to test the market, now would be an ideal time for the Packers to hit the position early.
Ra'Shede Hageman touts a rare combo of power and speed not normally seen from linemen, which meshes well with the scheme in Green Bay. Given the responsibilities of the position in that particular scheme, it will not change the landscape of the league, but it is a noteworthy move that helps the Packers in a big way.
22. Philadelphia Eagles: Calvin Pryor, FS, Louisville
As Brugler pointed out back in January, the Calvin Pryor secret is out:
Sounds like the Calvin Pryor secret is out. 1st round stud #NFLDraft— Dane Brugler (@dpbrugler) January 15, 2014
Pryor is a close second at the position this year and has great range to cover all areas of the field.
Safety just so happens to be Philadelphia's biggest need this year, so this is a natural fit. Pryor starts right away and gives the Eagles a major boost.
23. Kansas City Chiefs: Mike Evans, WR, Texas A&M
Andy Reid's offense in Kansas City will not blow many minds, but the methodical unit led by quarterback Alex Smith has a nice mix of explosiveness and pace.
As does Mike Evans, who can break a game open or move the chains from multiple positions on the field as a bit of a hybrid player.
Smith needs other options to hit outside of Dwayne Bowe and Jamaal Charles out of the backfield, so Evans is a great value here regardless of how Reid ends up using him (if he ever settles on one particular spot).
24. Cincinnati Bengals: Justin Gilbert, CB, Oklahoma State
With a swath of veterans approaching the wrong side of 30 and Dre Kirkpatrick showing last season that he is not ready to start, the Cincinnati Bengals enter the draft with an obvious need.
Luckily, Justin Gilbert is still on the board in this scenario, and he is the best corner overall in the minds of some:
Finalizing game notes on Justin Gilbert (CB-OKState). Would have drafted him over any CB not-named Patrick Peterson in last three classes.— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) January 24, 2014
The best part is that Cincinnati does not need Gilbert to step into immediate action unless veterans succumb to injury.
The forward-looking approach will once again allow the Bengals to ensure they have an elite defense for years to come.
25. San Diego Chargers: Jason Verrett, CB, TCU
San Diego is in a similar situation to Detroit—imagine if the Chargers could stop opposing offenses!
Philip Rivers and Mike McCoy proved to be a match made in heaven, as did the addition of Keenan Allen. But the defense, especially the secondary, was a major issue for most of the year.
With Jason Verrett, the Chargers get a physical corner who can start right away and eventually develop into a No. 1 corner.
26. Cleveland Browns (via Indianapolis): Allen Robinson, WR, Penn State
Franchise quarterback in tow, the Cleveland Browns might as well go all-in on the offensive side of the ball after investing so much capital in the defense last offseason.
At this juncture, Allen Robinson is an absolute steal in a very deep class.
Like some of the bigger players taken before him, Robinson does well with his frame to move the chains in a reliable fashion. In Cleveland, that skill set across from Josh Gordon makes for a dangerous duo, especially when one remembers tight end Jordan Cameron is in the mix too.
27. New Orleans Saints: Dee Ford, DE, Auburn
The sky is the limit for Dee Ford after an MVP performance at the Senior Bowl. ESPN's Louis Riddick captures this notion perfectly:
Hearing more and more about how exceptional the football/personal character of #Auburn DE Dee Ford is. Going to go over well at combine..— Louis Riddick (@LRiddickESPN) February 8, 2014
Ford lands in a nice spot here with the Saints. Under the tutelage of defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, Ford can play a versatile role in an amoeba defense and provide a boost to an already stellar unit.
28. Carolina Panthers: Odell Beckham Jr., WR, LSU
Odell Beckham Jr. is another receiver who is getting a bit lost in the shuffle in what is honestly the deepest class in years.
This is great news for the Panthers, who need as much talent as possible at wideout. Beckham Jr. fits the offense well and can assume No. 1 duties when Smith finally hangs up the cleats.
29. New England Patriots: Timmy Jernigan, DT, Florida State
One can never truly predict what is going on in the mind of Bill Belichick, which makes it that much more likely he'll do something unexpected in the first round.
Timmy Jernigan fits the bill as a versatile defensive lineman who could line up in multiple spots depending on the situation.
Jernigan is a forward-looking pick, but he makes sense given the Patriots needs.
30. San Francisco 49ers: Jordan Matthews, WR, Vanderbilt
Wide receiver has been the pick here for the San Francisco 49ers for quite some time thanks to the team's obvious need if it cannot retain Boldin.
Bet against Boldin coming back. The Super Bowl window remains open for the roster but not for long, as many names are in need of an upcoming payday.
Jordan Matthews is an adequate replacement for the 49ers here. Cost effective, productive and scheme-friendly, Matthews is a great value who would have come off the board higher in most other classes.
31. Denver Broncos: Zack Martin, OL, Notre Dame
This is in no way a knee-jerk reaction to Denver's performance in the offensive trenches in the Super Bowl. That unit simply needs to get healthy and actually prepare for games.
All kidding aside, the Broncos will love what they see in the versatile Zack Martin here. If and when injuries do strike again, Martin is quality depth who will one day step into a starting role.
This deep in the round, that is a great value.
32. Seattle Seahawks: Marqise Lee, WR, USC
Marqise Lee fits well in Seattle.
He fits a need. Golden Tate is headed to free agency, as is Doug Baldwin, albeit in a restricted manner.
Lee is a strong blocker, has strong character and will fall to this point unless he blows away the NFL at the combine. Lee can start right away and join a cast of undervalued receivers who continue to prove the masses wrong.