The 2014 NFL draft is ticking nearer and nearer, and now that the NFL Scouting Combine is over with and players eye big performances at their pro days, it's getting down to crunch time for the nation's top prospects.
It's still awfully tough to gauge what direction some of the teams atop the draft board are going to go in come May 8, but some of these top guys have stood out from the rest and proven themselves as franchise changing players in order to be selected higher.
Just as well, players' stocks seem to change by the day. Whether it's reports citing anonymous NFL scouts about flaws from a top quarterback or a bad pro day, there are many variables that could impact the most highly touted prospects in the class.
With so many factors coming into play, let's break down where everything stands right now as to who should be selected in the first round.
1. Houston Texans: Blake Bortles, QB, UCF
The Texans have an awfully tough decision ahead of them over these next few months as they gear up for the draft, but it will end with them selecting the best pro-style quarterback in this class—Blake Bortles.
There's the allure of in-state star Johnny Manziel, or perhaps Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater, but neither completely match up with Bortles from a measurables standpoint. With a 6'5", 230-pound frame, Bortles is perfectly crafted to succeed in today's NFL that demands so much from the players under center.
Bortles isn't the best passer to come out in years, but he's got as much raw talent as any other QB in the class while proving he still has plenty of skills that can be developed at a pro level.
The league is dominated by quarterbacks, and that will keep Houston searching for its franchise signal caller, ultimately ending with the UCF product.
2. St. Louis Rams (via Redskins): Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson
St. Louis hasn't had a dynamic play maker to grace the sidelines in a while. Adding Tavon Austin in 2013 was a first step, but implementing Sammy Watkins would allow Sam Bradford to reach another level. The Clemson star boasts breakaway speed and open-field elusiveness that will help the Rams to stretch the field every time they're on offense.
3. Jacksonville Jaguars: Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina
If any franchise near the top of this draft needs a quarterback, it's Jacksonville—but an attention-needing organization like the Jaguars' won't pass up on the chance to put its jersey on one of the most physically gifted players to come out of college in recent history.
Clowney could find a better fit than Jacksonville, but the Jags will not waste any time snatching up the South Carolina product and marketing him as the face of their franchise as much as humanly possible.
4. Cleveland Browns: Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M
It's a match made in heaven.
On one side, there's the Cleveland Browns—a franchise that's quarterback situation has become one of the punch lines of the NFL in the last few decades. On the other, there's Johnny Manziel—one of the most hyped players to ever come out of the college ranks and one of the draft's top QBs.
As Cleveland kicks off the Mike Pettine era, it will need some firepower and excitement around the franchise in order to give him a legitimate chance at not crashing and burning in his first year. Bringing in a Heisman Trophy winner and an improvisational guru in the pocket such as Johnny Football will ignite excitement back into the Browns organization.
5. Oakland Raiders: Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville
Once pegged as the unquestionable top prospect in this year's class, Teddy Bridgewater will find himself in a solid situation once the dust settles. The Raiders won't be able to pass up on a quarterback who looks to be a sure thing as a starter at the next level, especially given the turmoil they have seen under center in the past few years.
6. Atlanta Falcons: Khalil Mack, OLB, Buffalo
The Falcons need some serious help on the defensive side of the ball, as they ranked second to last in run defense and in the bottom half of the league against the pass. Adding Khalil Mack would allow Atlanta to get some heat on the passer with one of the best overall defensive players in this year's class.
7. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Mike Evans, WR, Texas A&M
With Mike Glennon starting to come into his own as perhaps Tampa Bay's franchise quarterback, the Bucs need some help on the outside in order to take it to the next level. Enter Mike Evans.
Evans proved in his short time as a star at Texas A&M that he can go up and catch deep balls, fight through double and triple coverage while still putting up gaudy numbers. After towering over pro-style SEC cornerbacks, it's obvious his size will be one of his biggest assets.
8. Minnesota Vikings: Derek Carr, QB, Fresno State
Minnesota is one of many teams at the top of the draft that need a quarterback, and thankfully for Mike Zimmer and the Vikings, this class is awfully deep at the position. They will be able to settle with Derek Carr, who could very well end up becoming the most talented quarterback in the draft when it's all said and done.
9. Buffalo Bills: Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M
In most drafts, an offensive lineman of Jake Matthews' pedigree, size and talent level would be off the board in the top three or four picks. Thankfully for Buffalo, he will fall to the Bills thanks to a quarterback-crazy class and a number of defensive studs emerging. Matthews will be able to start right away in Buffalo and help anchor its offensive line.
10. Detroit Lions: Greg Robinson, OT, Auburn
The Lions already needed to address their offensive line heading into the draft, and that only became more apparent when the team released Leroy Harris Monday per ESPN's Michael Rothstein. While Robinson plays tackle and not Harris' guard position, Detroit still needs big bodies up front and Robinson will prove to be an immediate impact player.
11. Tennessee Titans: Anthony Barr, OLB, UCLA
Anthony Barr was once regarded as rivaling Clowney as the draft's top defensive player, but he won't fall far as the Titans will nab him just outside the top 10. And he falls into the perfect position.
With the Titans adjusting to a 3-4 hybrid scheme under Ken Whisenhunt, they need speedy pass rushers on the outside to wreak havoc on opposing offenses. Barr comes in with just that level of skill and expertise, and he will fit right in with Tennessee.
12. New York Giants: Kony Ealy, DE, Missouri
After tearing apart the combine, Kony Ealy has made a name for himself in the conversation of top outside rushers in this year's class. The Missouri product has the prototypical size of an elite NFL pass rusher, and would be able to work opposite Jason Pierre-Paul as the two grow into one of the league's most feared defensive end tandems.
13. St. Louis Rams: Taylor Lewan, OT, Michigan
With the Rams picking twice in the first round, they could be compelled to trade away their second overall pick and choose to pick solely with their 13th selection. In that case, it would be a lot more likely for them to look for a playmaking wide receiver a la Watkins, the pick I have them making at No. 2 overall.
But if that's not the case, expect St. Louis to shore up its offensive line by going with Taylor Lewan. The Michigan tackle emerged as one of the top offensive linemen in the country by dominating Big Ten defenses, and would allow the Rams to add some extra security in front of Bradford.
14. Chicago Bears: Justin Gilbert, CB, Oklahoma State
The Bears haven't had a dynamic secondary player to unload on opposing wideouts in a while, but that would change in an instant with the selection of Justin Gilbert. The Oklahoma State cornerback can not only shut down an island on the outside, but also serve as an option in the return game for Chicago's special teams as he gets acclimated into the league.
15. Pittsburgh Steelers: Brandin Cooks, WR, Oregon State
Ever since Mike Wallace left, Pittsburgh's offense hasn't been the same. His exit allowed for Antonio Brown to reach superstar level with his play in 2013, but Ben Roethlisberger needs more options and Brandin Cooks would be a huge upgrade.
Cooks is one of the quickest players to come out of this class and can make some incredible things happen in the open field. If Pittsburgh can get him the ball in space and allow him to make plays, it will be a disaster for whoever the Steelers are up against.
16. Dallas Cowboys: Aaron Donald, DT, Pittsburgh
Free agency will be a huge telling factor in how the Cowboys deal with their defensive line, but if Jason Hatcher and Anthony Spencer don't re-sign with Dallas, it will be forced to rebuild through the draft. Aaron Donald would be able to come in, immediately play some snaps and develop into a starter all in a short time.
17. Baltimore Ravens: Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Florida State
Other than Torrey Smith, big plays from the wide receiving corps were hard to come by for Baltimore in 2013. Once Kelvin Benjamin enters the scene, that should change awfully quick as the Florida State wideout possesses an NFL size and skill set that will allow him to flourish off the bat.
18. New York Jets: Eric Ebron, TE, North Carolina
The worst-kept secret in the NFL today is the Jets' glaring need of receivers and play makers in the passing game. With many of the draft's best receivers off the board, however, New York could add the top tight end in Eric Ebron and won't pass on doing so as it bolsters its pass offense in a huge way.
19. Miami Dolphins: Antonio Richardson, OT, Tennessee
The Dolphins need help on the offensive line as soon as possible, which will force them to look toward the line with the No. 19 pick even if it's not ideal to do so. Antonio "Tiny" Richardson from Tennessee hasn't cracked many first-round mocks, but his 6'6", 330-pound frame translates perfectly into the NFL and he will be able to start from Day 1—something that can't be said of many lineman at this portion of the draft.
20. Arizona Cardinals: Ryan Shazier, OLB, Ohio State
Arizona made huge strides with its defense in 2013 during head coach Bruce Arians' first year, but it needs to continue developing stud talent in order to guarantee future success. With a player of Ryan Shazier's skill set and ability in the fold, the Cardinals can make sure they have one of the top prospects at the position to develop over the coming years.
21. Green Bay Packers: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, S, Alabama
The Packers could hardly stop anyone in the passing game last season, as opposing quarterbacks had field days against the Green Bay secondary. It's obvious that help is needed immediately, and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix could bring in his experience from Alabama and put it to good use as he lays the hammer on receivers.
22. Philadelphia Eagles: Darqueze Dennard, CB, Michigan State
If Green Bay was bad against the pass last season, Philadelphia was atrocious—the Eagles ranked dead last in yards given up per game through the air. Michigan State cornerback Darqueze Dennard could come in and develop into a future starter as the Eagles look to build off an inspiring start to the Chip Kelly era.
23. Kansas City Chiefs: Jace Amaro, TE, Texas Tech
Giving quarterback Alex Smith another weapon in the passing game should be a must for the Chiefs over the offseason, as it is their most glaring need. Much of that is due to inefficiency at tight end, which Jace Amaro could come in and immediately fix as he's one of the top tight ends in the class.
24. Cincinnati Bengals: Dee Ford, DE, Auburn
The Bengals are already pretty stout on defense, but with a number of young play makers on offense, Cincy will end up adding more talent on the defensive side of the ball. Dee Ford emerged as one of the most dangerous pass rushers in the country during his senior season at Auburn, where he was one of the leaders on a Tiger team that came awfully close to winning a national title.
25. San Diego Chargers: Louis Nix III, DT, Notre Dame
San Diego had a surprisingly effective 2013 season and turned heads by making the playoffs, but it wasn't without massive inefficiency from the pass defense. Much of that was due to a lack of push from the trenches, which Louis Nix III would immediately fix. The Notre Dame product is one of the biggest bodies in the draft and will help the Chargers to make things chaotic up front.
26. Cleveland Browns (via Colts): Marqise Lee, WR, USC
Cleveland has the core of what could become one of the NFL's most dangerous passing offenses with Josh Gordon and Jordan Cameron. However, the Browns need at least one more weapon to really take it to the next level for whichever quarterback Cleveland picks early in the draft.
Marqise Lee could step in and immediately serve as a big-play option. You can't double-team him with Gordon on the other side, so Lee will have much more room to roam and make an impact as a youngster.
27. New Orleans Saints: C.J.Mosley, ILB, Alabama
C.J. Mosley could end up off the board much earlier in the first round, but the Saints won't argue if he falls to them at No. 27 as he will fit right in with New Orleans. Mosley is one of the most intelligent defensive players in the class, which would allow him to adjust to Rob Ryan's schemes on the fly and thrive in his system.
28. Carolina Panthers: Zack Martin, OT, Notre Dame
With Jordan Gross retiring, the Panthers could really use their first-round pick to step into that position and immediately start. Zack Martin could do just that, as he would allow Carolina to help alleviate the burden of losing a veteran like Gross and develop a player who could become an elite tackle.
29. New England Patriots: Timmy Jernigan, DT, Florida State
Very few teams are as reliant on one player as the Patriots are to Vince Wilfork, and that was proven when New England became one of the worst run defenses after he suffered a season-ending injury. Adding Jernigan would give some more depth up front to the Patriots defensive line and allow the team to survive without Wilfork in the fold.
30. San Francisco 49ers: Allen Robinson, WR, Penn State
The 49ers don't need to address too many concerns, but wide receiver is certainly one. If San Francisco is going to get past Seattle and make it back to the Super Bowl, it will need young studs on the outside to beat the Seahawks' stud secondary. Robinson could help to do just that, developing into more playing time and eventually becoming a starter.
31. Denver Broncos: Odell Beckham Jr., WR, LSU
The Broncos obviously have one of the most potent wide receiving corps in the NFL, but with Eric Decker probably leaving via free agency over the offseason, Denver will need some immediate help. Peyton Manning could give Odell Beckham Jr. some looks in his offense early and get his confidence up as a player who could be special at the next level.
32. Seattle Seahawks: Cyrus Kouandjio, OT, Alabama
Just like most of their company at the end of the first round, Seattle doesn't need much help but won't shy away from adding a physical specimen to their offensive line rotation. Cyrus Kouandjio from Alabama has been going up against the nation's best defenders ever since he arrived in Tuscaloosa and will have no problem going up against the rigors of the NFL.
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