The 2014 NFL draft is still over two months away, but with the NFL Scouting Combine in the books, there are few big moves left to be made. At this point, the general form of the draft is already in place, with slight adjustments the most likely changes on teams' draft boards.
Thus, it is a bit more practical to try to forecast player-to-team connections with more intel on how the league perceives certain prospects. The information provided may not be entirely accurate, of course, given the fact that teams are still polishing their prospect profiles and will not reach final verdicts for some time.
Nevertheless, we have the majority of the information about the 2014 NFL draft at this point. With that in mind, here are a few projections for which teams will land five of the top prospects in the upcoming class.
Jadeveon Clowney: Houston Texans
Bleacher Report's Mike Freeman stirred up the draft rumor mill when he suggested that Clowney's combine performance may have sent the Texans leaning toward the South Carolina defensive end. Consequently, the national perception on Clowney to Houston appears to have changed as well:
It's a puzzling sentiment, given that many believe Clowney would be better suited as a 4-3 defensive end, something that would make him incongruent with Bill O'Brien's 3-4 scheme. Even if O'Brien and the Texans are not sold on any of the top quarterbacks, trading down or selecting a more versatile talent like Buffalo's Khalil Mack could be a likelier option.
Then again, Clowney's freakish athleticism should defy schemes. In fact, Clowney has been most dangerous when playing in space, a role he would play frequently as a 3-4 outside linebacker. If the Texans pass on Clowney, it will likely stem more from his questionable intangibles than his on-field talent.
Teddy Bridgewater: Cleveland Browns
Bridgewater was the consensus top quarterback in the early portion of the draft process, but recent support for Johnny Manziel and even Blake Bortles have cast doubt upon that. However, as Bleacher Report's Matt Miller notes, there's an excellent fit for the Louisville quarterback that should keep him within the top five:
For a team desperate for leadership and a charismatic franchise player, Bridgewater would immediately change the atmosphere surrounding the moribund Browns. And with a pair of young weapons at his disposal in Josh Gordon and Cameron Jordan, the cupboard is not as bare in Cleveland as it typically is for perennial cellar dwellers.
Bridgewater's excellent mechanics and smart decision-making should compensate for his lack of top-end athleticism, providing steady play for an organization that has not experienced that luxury since its reincarnation.
Johnny Manziel: Jacksonville Jaguars
Manziel appears to have settled in as a likely top-five selection, in spite of questions about his maturity and frequent improvisational inclinations. Still, it does not appear the Jaguars were put off by the question marks surrounding Manziel when they interviewed him at the combine:
In fact, CBSSports.com's Jeff Reynolds suggested the Jaguars were actually "intrigued" by a well-prepared Manziel. With ex-Aggie teammate Luke Joeckel around to provide a direct account of Manziel, the Jaguars should receive a better scouting report than most.
Selecting Manziel would go beyond selling tickets and igniting local attention, though that certainly does not hurt. The Jaguars went with Chad Henne as a placeholder last season and cannot afford to let another season pass without taking a risk that could move the franchise decisively forward. For all his doubters, Manziel provides the ability to maximize young targets like Cecil Shorts and Justin Blackmon, while providing a lost franchise some direction.
Khalil Mack: Atlanta Falcons
For a team totally lacking in defensive front-seven playmakers last season, this year's draft crop is a dream for the Atlanta Falcons. With the sixth pick, Atlanta has been linked at various times to the terrorizing trio of Clowney, Mack and Anthony Barr.
In recent weeks, Mack has skyrocketed up draft boards, to the point where some like NFL.com's Mike Mayock see him as the best prospect available. The Falcons appear commensurate with the prevailing wisdom in Mack's rising draft stock:
There is little not to love about Mack, especially for a defense that ranked 24th in takeaways last season. Mack accrued 10.5 sacks and five forced fumbles last season, and his versatility to rush the passer and drop back in coverage makes him a doubled-edged weapon. More than virtually any other team, the Falcons need to infuse their defense with a playmaker like Mack.
Sammy Watkins: Oakland Raiders
The Raiders are famously obsessed with speed, especially from their skill-position players. Therefore, even with a disappointing (!) 4.43 40-yard dash time at the combine, per NFL.com, Clemson's Sammy Watkins likely sits firmly on Oakland's radar:
Though the Raiders have whiffed on speed merchants before, Watkins is no one-trick pony like some previous Oakland selections. Watkins' exceptional body control and excellent hands make him extremely dangerous on screens and slants, where he can wreak havoc in the open field.
As Football Outsiders' Matt Waldman confirms in this highly informative scouting report, Watkins possesses the tools necessary to develop into an all-around threat, even if Clemson did not utilize him in that method. The Raiders have failed to develop a franchise quarterback over the past decade, but perhaps providing a weapon like Watkins could accelerate the growth of their next quarterback hope.