Any NFL general manager can confirm that Jadeveon Clowney, Teddy Bridgewater, Greg Robinson and Sammy Watkins are some of the best players in the 2014 draft. The really good GMs can identify which players further down the first round are flying under the radar.
Each year, there's a group of players who for whatever reasons drop down to the middle or end of the first round. Eric Reid and Kyle Long were selected at 18th and 20th, respectively, and they made the Pro Bowl in 2013.
In no other league can you find such a wealth of talent at what would be considered poor positions in the draft.
Below is a projection for how the first round of the 2014 NFL draft will unfold. The players underlined aren't getting the respect they deserve and will prove to be stalwarts for years to come.
1. Houston Texans: Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina
A month or two ago, I would've put Teddy Bridgewater here, but two things are too glaring to overlook.
First, Jadeveon Clowney truly looks to be a once-in-a-generation talent. We've seen prospects with great potential. Clowney looks to have transcendent potential.
Second, the Houston Texans will have to play Andrew Luck at least twice a year for the next decade. As much as fans wanted Vince Young or Reggie Bush in 2006, Mario Williams proved to be the smarter pick.
2. St. Louis Rams: Greg Robinson, OT, Auburn
I believe that Jake Matthews is the best tackle in the draft, as he is more ready than Greg Robinson to help a team right now. With the rebuilding plan in place with the St. Louis Rams, though, Robinson is arguably the better fit. The Rams can be much more patient with the Auburn Tigers tackle as he adapts to an NFL-style offense and more pass-blocking duties.
3. Jacksonville Jaguars: Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville
The Jacksonville Jaguars can't go through this draft without getting a new quarterback, whether it's a top prospect here, or a Derek Carr, Jimmy Garoppolo, AJ McCarron or Aaron Murray in a later round. Teddy Bridgewater is the best QB in this year's draft, and his skill set will be too good for the Jags to overlook.
4. Cleveland Browns: Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M
Some are latching onto the idea that since the Cleveland Browns didn't interview Johnny Manziel at the combine, they're not interested. What should be pointed out is that the Browns didn't interview any quarterbacks at the combine, according to Vic Carducci of Cleveland Browns Daily (via Nate Ulrich of the Akron Beacon Journal).
Cleveland will speak with any potential targets at a later date:
The Browns plan to interview quarterbacks when they host them at their facility during pre-draft visits. They’ve opted to use that strategy because they feel many answers are rehearsed during the 15-minute formal interviews done at the combine. The Browns want genuine responses, and they believe that’s especially important with quarterbacks.
With Bridgewater off the board, Manziel is the best the Browns would get here.
5. Oakland Raiders: Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson
Not even the Oakland Raiders could screw this up. Sammy Watkins is far and away the best wide receiver in the draft. He's got plenty of speed to burn, and his skill set isn't limited in a way that would make him a one-trick pony. No threat of a Darrius Heyward-Bey here.
6. Atlanta Falcons: Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M
The Atlanta Falcons may want Clowney, but Jake Matthews is a solid Plan B. He fits in perfectly with a team that has the pieces to win now. As soon as he gets to Atlanta, Matthews would improve the Falcons offensive line.
7. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Khalil Mack, OLB, Buffalo
Khalil Mack is a great fit for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Lovie Smith needs a do-it-all linebacker for his new defense. There isn't anything Mack can't do. He rushes the passer just as well as he plays inside and stuffs the run. Tampa would be getting a future centerpiece of its defense.
8. Minnesota Vikings: Blake Bortles, QB, UCF
It's always around this time that you hear scouts souring on one or more prospects, if only to make said prospect(s) sound less appealing for potential suitors. According to Bleacher Report's Matt Miller, Blake Bortles is that guy this year:
It's crazy the Blake Bortles talk I was hearing from scouts pre-combine compared to now. Smokescreen season is upon us.— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) March 5, 2014
At No. 8, Bortles is a solid gamble for the Minnesota Vikings.
9. Buffalo Bills: Mike Evans, WR, Texas A&M
The Buffalo Bills found what seems to be their franchise quarterback last year, with E.J. Manuel. Now they need to get him a top target in the passing game. Sammy Watkins is the ideal option. Mike Evans is a solid consolation. His size makes him a nice complement for the Bills' shorter wideouts, and his combination of size and speed could make him unguardable in the NFL.
10. Detroit Lions: Justin Gilbert, CB, Oklahoma State
The Detroit Lions have some good cornerbacks. The problem is that they don't have a great cornerback. Justin Gilbert is the best CB in the draft. In terms of the 10th pick, he'd be a bit of a reach. However, Gilbert could potentially be that elite corner the Lions so sorely lack.
11. Tennessee Titans: Anthony Barr, OLB, UCLA
This is a calculated risk for the Tennessee Titans. Anthony Barr has all the tools to become a perennial Pro Bowl-caliber pass-rusher. At this point, he's still pretty raw, especially for a top pick in the draft. Maybe Barr never develops his game and becomes the next Vernon Gholston. Or maybe he comes good and is the next coming of DeMarcus Ware.
12. New York Giants: Taylor Lewan, OT, Michigan
During his senior year, Taylor Lewan seemed to take a step back from being a can't-miss prospect to merely a solid first-rounder. If he falls to New York, the Giants would be getting a lot of bang for the buck. Lewan doesn't have a high ceiling, but he can come into camp right away and perform well.
13. St. Louis Rams: Calvin Pryor, FS, Louisville
The St. Louis Rams have some options here. With the best two receivers off the board, safety would be a good place to look, barring they have the pick of the litter. Calvin Pryor is a big-time hitter, which could get him into trouble if he picks up needless flags. Otherwise, he's the kind of rangy safety the Rams need right now.
14. Chicago Bears: Timmy Jernigan, DT, Florida State
Don't be fooled by Timmy Jernigan's size. Yeah, he can be a space-eater/run-stopper, but Jernigan's best assets are his speed and agility. For somebody near 300 pounds, he can move very well. Because of that, he remains one of the more intriguing players in the middle of the first round.
15. Pittsburgh Steelers: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, FS, Alabama
The Pittsburgh Steelers need to make tough financial decisions, and one of those is letting Ryan Clark go in free agency. Either Calvin Pryor or Ha Ha Clinton-Dix would work here. Clinton-Dix is another rangy ball hawk who can defend both the run and pass.
16. Dallas Cowboys: Aaron Donald, DT, Pittsburgh
At 6'1" and 285 pounds, Aaron Donald is undersized for a defensive tackle. Of course, size hasn't precluded Kyle Williams and Geno Atkins from making the Pro Bowl. As long as Donald can add a little bit of muscle, he'll be a success in the NFL.
He has only been rising in the last few months. NFL Network's Mike Mayock put the Pittsburgh star at the top of his defensive tackle rankings. The Draft Report's Luke Easterling made the comparison to Sheldon Richardson:
Aaron Donald is quickly becoming this year's Sheldon Richardson.— Luke Easterling (@NFLDraftReport) March 5, 2014
In the right defense, Donald can be a star. The Dallas Cowboys' 4-3 defense is perfect for him. He wouldn't have to be a run-stopper, nor would he need to line up as a pass-rushing tackle/end like you see in a 3-4.
17. Baltimore Ravens: Marqise Lee, WR, USC
With the Baltimore Ravens signing Dennis Pitta to an extension, it would seemingly eliminate the possibility of taking Eric Ebron in the first round. The Ravens could use help at wideout, and Marqise Lee is the best one on the board. Although he had problems with drops last season, Lee should be back to his old self now that he's out of USC.
18. New York Jets: Eric Ebron, TE, North Carolina
Having an athletic tight end is becoming more and more of a necessity. Eric Ebron is the next in line, following in the footsteps of Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski. Although wide receiver is probably the bigger need, Ebron plays like one, so he would still be a big help for Geno Smith.
19. Miami Dolphins: Zack Martin, OT, Notre Dame
The Miami Dolphins need an offensive lineman, for obvious reasons. This offseason alone, they lost Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin. Zack Martin is very strong, and what he lacks in athleticism he more than makes up for with toughness and aggression. The only problem is that Martin may have to move inside over time, as he may have trouble shuffling over to stop quick pass-rushers.
20. Arizona Cardinals: Kony Ealy, DE, Missouri
The Arizona Cardinals will face those three quarterbacks twice a year for the immediate future. They need to add a pass-rusher this offseason, or risk falling further back in the division. Kony Ealy has massive upside. He's the kind of athletic freak who could wreak havoc on opposing signal-callers for years.
If he does drop into the later part of the first round, Ealy offers tremendous value. There's the chance that he never improves his technique, but if he fulfills his potential, Ealy has the makings of an All-Pro defensive end/linebacker hybrid.
21. Green Bay Packers: Louis Nix, DT, Notre Dame
It's not a sure thing that B.J. Raji is gone. Discussions could reach the point, though, where it's more cost-effective to let him walk and look to the draft. In the event that happens, Louis Nix is an ideal replacement. He's a massive presence on the defensive line, and he's athletic enough to remain more than a one-dimensional defensive tackle.
22. Philadelphia Eagles: Darqueze Dennard, CB, Michigan State
Darqueze Dennard lacks Justin Gilbert's upside. He's not as great of an athlete, and that was reflected in his somewhat underwhelming performance at the combine.
What you can't ignore is that during Dennard's time at Michigan State, he was a true lockdown corner. The Spartans star excels in press coverage, which is a huge asset in today's NFL. Dennard may drop because he doesn't have the measurables that Gilbert has, but he may be the better pro prospect.
23. Kansas City Chiefs: Odell Beckham Jr., WR, LSU
The Kansas City Chiefs offense lacks an aerial threat over the top. That's where Odell Beckham Jr. comes in. No other receiver is more equipped than Beckham to be that straight-line burner. He's also a threat in the return game.
24. Cincinnati Bengals: Jason Verrett, CB, TCU
Imagine if the Cincinnati Bengals had to go another year relying on Adam Jones, Terence Newman and Dre Kirkpatrick at cornerback. Leon Hall can still get it done, but he's an injury risk. The Bengals have to go with a corner in the first round, or they risk getting a player of little value.
Jason Verrett is a little small for a CB. That plays into his game a bit, as he isn't afraid to get physical with opposing receivers. Verrett also has a solid on-field IQ. He knows how to step in front of the receiver and not take unnecessary risks. Although Verrett doesn't look to be the player that either Justin Gilbert or Darqueze Dennard are, he should be a productive player for years to come.
25. San Diego Chargers: Ra'Shede Hageman, DT, Minnesota
The best cornerbacks are off the board, so the San Diego Chargers would look to shoring up the defensive line. Ra'Shede Hageman is another big, strong defensive tackle. He lacks the explosiveness of Louis Nix, but that won't stop him from becoming a solid pro.
26. Cleveland Browns (from Indianapolis Colts): C.J. Mosley, ILB, Alabama
Like offensive guards, inside linebackers are always more overshadowed than their outside counterparts. It says a lot that C.J. Mosley is the best ILB in the draft, yet some experts are mocking him toward the lower part of the first round. If he does fall that far, some team is getting massive value.
With the Browns releasing D'Qwell Jackson, there's an opening in Cleveland at ILB. There isn't anything Mosley does badly. The one knock on him is that he isn't always a great tackler, sometimes lunging at the ball-carrier rather than wrapping him up. That could be worked out of his game with the right coaching.
27. New Orleans Saints: Dee Ford, DE, Auburn
The New Orleans Saints defense improved a lot last year, but there's still room for improvement. Dee Ford played defensive end at Auburn. His size means that most teams will make him transition over to outside linebacker. At this point, Ford is more of a pass-rusher exclusively, and it will be interesting to see if he can expand his game.
28. Carolina Panthers: Cyrus Kouandjio, OT, Alabama
Cyrus Kouandjio is pretty much this year's version of D.J. Fluker. He's an excellent run-blocker. When it comes to pass-blocking? Not so much. Still, Kouandjio would help the Carolina Panthers replace the retired Jordan Gross.
29. New England Patriots: Jace Amaro, TE, Texas Tech
Rob Gronkowski can't stay healthy, and Aaron Hernandez's NFL career looks to already be over. That means the New England Patriots need a tight end. If Eric Ebron is off the board, Jace Amaro is the next-best option. While he lacks Ebron's upside, he will be a solid pass-catcher in the NFL.
30. San Francisco 49ers: Brandin Cooks, WR, Oregon State
Safety and wide receiver should be the San Francisco 49ers' top two targets in the first few rounds. Unless Jimmie Ward, Deone Bucannon or Ahmad Dixon have an unforeseen rise in their respective stocks, wideout will be the Round 1 direction. Brandin Cooks brings a deep threat that the Niners' passing game lacks at the moment.
31. Denver Broncos: Bradley Roby, CB, Ohio State
The Denver Broncos don't need any major help offensively this offseason. As demonstrated in the Super Bowl, though, their defense is in disarray. Quite a few mocks have the Broncos taking a defensive linemen, but all the best options are off the board here. They'd have to settle for Bradley Roby, who, despite his regression in 2013, remains a first-round talent at cornerback.
32. Seattle Seahawks: Xavier Su'a-Filo, OG, UCLA
With the way that Xavier Su'a-Filo's stock is rising, there's a good chance that he goes much earlier than 32nd. Should he make it this far, the Seattle Seahawks would be getting one of the biggest steals of the first round.
As was the case with C.J. Mosley, Su'a-Filo is being undervalued simply by virtue of being an offensive guard. He will play and play well for a long time in the NFL. The Seahawks need to improve in the middle of their offensive line, so Su'a-Filo would be a godsend.