The 2014 NFL draft has so much depth that teams will be disappointed to not land a key franchise cornerstone in the first round even more so than in other years.
Great value should be had as the draft progresses, but teams near the top of the order are in the unenviable position of having had a poor previous season and needing to nail their No. 1 selection.
As stockpiled as this draft seems to be with gems and blue-chip players, the most important position of quarterback remains a question mark. There are plenty of QB-needy organizations toward the beginning of the first round, so how some of them choose will have a bigger impact in the large-scale domino effect this exciting event tends to create.
Below is a mock of the entire first round, with a particular focus on the picks that will alter the course of multiple franchises and how it will impact what teams will do later in the selection process.
Note: All combine results and player measurements courtesy of NFL.com's results tracker.
1. Houston Texans (2-14): Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina
Concerns about work ethic and production in his final season engulf Clowney. When he ran a 4.53-second 40 at the NFL Scouting Combine, though, he should have cemented his status as the No. 1 overall pick.
Current San Francisco 49ers running back Marcus Lattimore was a teammate of Clowney's with the Gamecocks. He recently vouched for Clowney and even implied he'd be the top draft choice by mentioning J.J. Watt, per NFL.com's Daniel Kim:
I think when he gets around professionals, once he gets around J.J. Watt, those veterans, sees what it takes every single day, he'll be just like those guys. He's going to be fine. That's what happens. You get around pros, and you learn, and you start doing it. When the competition gets high, he'll rise to it...He has all the talent in the world. He kind of reminds me of Aldon Smith with how athletic he is, the quickness. I think he's going to do great.
Clowney is a gamble, but one who would enter a Texans organization in the midst of a no-nonsense coaching change to Bill O'Brien. Oh, and the 6'5", 266-pounder's mentor would be Watt. That combination starting opposite each other at defensive end should prove too tantalizing to pass up.
Houston should stick with Case Keenum at least for this year due to aforementioned uncertainty surrounding this draft's quarterbacks. O'Brien is a reputed QB guru, and Keenum flashed enough in 2013 to at least warrant a look at what he can do in this new offense with the likes of Andre Johnson and DeAndre Hopkins to throw to.
The prospect of pairing Clowney and Watt together should be too tantalizing for general manager Rick Smith to pass up.
2. St. Louis Rams (7-9, via Washington): Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson
Is Sam Bradford the answer at quarterback? The Rams may never know without surrounding him with top-tier talent, which is exactly what Watkins is. The former Tiger stud is blazing fast, has great route-running ability and is the clear class of this rich 2014 receiver class.
Add Watkins to the mix with a strong running game led by Zac Stacy and extra playmakers such as Tavon Austin and Jared Cook, and Bradford will reveal his true colors this coming season.
3. Jacksonville Jaguars (4-12): Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville
Even though Bridgewater is far from a sure thing due to his slender frame, he is the most pro-ready quarterback and one that the Jaguars can sleep well knowing they chose him at No. 3.
The Louisville product is well-versed in a pro-style offense and has taken multiple plays to the line of scrimmage, read defenses and checked his team into the proper audible. That's rare and something that shouldn't be taken lightly in the evaluation process.
Bleacher Report's Aaron Nagler has no doubts as to who the best QB in the 2014 draft is:
A rather decent Jacksonville cast awaits to aid Bridgewater if he were to begin his NFL journey with the Jags. Cecil Shorts, Ace Sanders, Mike Brown and tight end Marcedes Lewis provide Bridgewater options to work with—good enough to even make a decent move in a lackluster AFC South division this coming season.
The defense should continue improving under enthusiastic coach Gus Bradley, the former Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator, and Bridgewater would bring stability to the most important position. If general manager David Caldwell can deliver that, everything else should take care of itself in the coming years in Jacksonville.
4. Cleveland Browns (4-12): Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M
No franchise needs a legitimate quarterback more than the Browns, and although there is risk in taking Manziel because of his diminutive size, it is one worth taking.
Manziel can make all the throws required of a franchise quarterback—not to mention he'd be a great fit from a schematic and sentimental standpoint.
Matt Miller of Bleacher Report compares Manziel to Robert Griffin III, who enjoyed success as a rookie under current Browns offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. There is a track record of production here, and for a team that needs to establish a better running game, Manziel is just the spark needed to ignite it.
As reported by the Houston Chronicle's John McClain, the Aggies Heisman Trophy winner hasn't shied away from proclaiming himself as a potential savior in Cleveland:
If something happens, and it’s the Cleveland Browns, I’m going to pour my heart out for the Dawg Pound and try to win a Super Bowl for Cleveland. I don’t care if they’ve had 20 starting quarterbacks since 1999. I’m going to be the 21st and the guy that brought them the Super Bowl.
Ray Farmer has to make a splash in his first draft, but choosing Manziel isn't a publicity stunt. With an upgraded backfield, the NFL's leading receiver in Josh Gordon, a Pro Bowl tight end in Jordan Cameron and another weapon or two added to the equation, a big, quick turnaround could come for the Browns at last.
The key is to have the courage to select Manziel, live with any and all consequences and trust that the unique, dual-threat wunderkind will make good on the big investment. If it all crashes and burns, isn't this just the same old Browns, back to square one again?
5. Oakland Raiders (4-12): Greg Robinson, OT, Auburn
In a perfect world, Oakland might keep Jared Veldheer, but Robinson presents an upgrade that comes with a lesser price tag than Veldheer is likely to command. Reggie McKenzie is on the hot seat as general manager, as is head coach Dennis Allen.
The Raiders regime needs to win now, and it doesn't have time to develop a young QB. Look for Oakland to seek out a veteran stopgap option under center if Terrelle Pryor doesn't look capable in training camp with Robinson or a legitimate left tackle blocking for him.
6. Atlanta Falcons (4-12): Khalil Mack, OLB, Buffalo
The linebacker corps is thin in Atlanta, so the Falcons would do well to take arguably the best player on the board at this point in Mack. His presence would add a pass-rushing threat off the edge and a solid all-around player. Mack's 40-inch combine vertical and 4.18-second 20-yard shuttle give an idea of the incredible amount of ground he can cover.
7. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-12): Anthony Barr, OLB, UCLA
New coach Lovie Smith should look to the defense and take Barr, a former running back who can diagnose plays well and still has plenty of upside to explore given his great athleticism. Putting him and All-Pro Lavonte David at the outside linebacker spots will give Tampa Bay teeth against the high-octane offenses of the NFC South.
8. Minnesota Vikings (5-10-1): Derek Carr, QB, Fresno State
Whether it's Blake Bortles or Carr here, one of the two will plummet to the 20s in Round 1, barring some sort of trade. If the Raiders really are enamored with Carr, they had better not trade down too far if they don't want to miss out on him.
The pick for the Vikings in any event should be Carr, though, because all the criticism he faces don't seem to matter in light of the situation he'd be walking into in Minnesota.
The defense has little direction to go but up, and the Vikings have one of the most underrated casts of skill players in the NFL—even excluding superstar running back Adrian Peterson. Between budding dynamo Cordarrelle Patterson, No. 1 wideout Greg Jennings, Pro Bowl tight end Kyle Rudolph and even Jarius Wright, there are some serious pieces in place.
Former first-round pick Christian Ponder hasn't capitalized on eight-man boxes and can't deliver the ball down the field with all that much touch or accuracy, which essentially wastes what Peterson brings to the table. Carr is an even better athlete than Ponder, evident by his 4.69 40-yard dash, and he has the most pure arm talent of any quarterback in his class.
Some knocks on Carr are mechanics, a tendency to wilt in the face of pressure and a lot of quick throws at Fresno State that inflated his completion percentage and yardage numbers. ESPN's Todd McShay doesn't think highly of Carr:
Well, since he has a quick release and a powerful right arm, Carr should be able to get rid of the ball fast when defenses converge to stuff Peterson, and he should have a clean pocket on play-action fakes. Throwing it deep is his strength. Contrary to what McShay says, it looks as though Carr can put touch and air under longer throws that the other quarterbacks in this draft just can't—and his ball placement is exceptional.
Minnesota would do well to take advantage of Carr's gifts as a passer and work on developing him under offensive coordinator Norv Turner, whose offense seems like an ideal fit with Peterson in the backfield.
9. Buffalo Bills (6-10): Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M
Second-year signal-caller E.J. Manuel could use some insurance on his blind side, which is exactly what Matthews would provide. The two-time All-American should be a Pro Bowl-caliber player for years to come and help the continual building of a promising offense masterminded by coach Doug Marrone.
10. Detroit Lions (7-9): Darqueze Dennard, CB, Michigan State
The Lions have neglected to address the secondary for too long, and in an NFC North division that features so many good opposing receivers, Dennard should be the pick here. He was a key fixture in the Spartans' elite defense and is the best in man coverage of all his peers.
11. Tennessee Titans (7-9): Justin Gilbert, CB, Oklahoma State
Paying Gilbert on his rookie contract for the foreseeable future is a more financially viable option than forking over a fortune for free agent Alterraun Verner to solidify the cornerback position. Gilbert ran well with a 4.37-second 40 in his combine workout and has 6'0", 202-pound size to match up with bigger NFL wideouts on the outside.
12. New York Giants (7-9): Eric Ebron, TE, North Carolina
In the event that Hakeem Nicks is gone in free agency, Eli Manning needs some weapons after he chucked 27 interceptions in 2013. Few are friendlier than a rare athlete at tight end to serve as a security blanket. Ebron is an athletic freak who would thrive catching balls from a two-time Super Bowl MVP.
13. St. Louis Rams (7-9): Taylor Lewan, OT, Michigan
To eliminate any further excuses for Bradford not living up to the hype, St. Louis goes and gets a franchise left tackle with the No. 13 overall pick in Lewan. The ex-Wolverine has the tenacity that goes well with coach Jeff Fisher's philosophy, and that's needed in a hotly competitive NFC West division.
14. Chicago Bears (8-8): Aaron Donald, DT, Pittsburgh
Despite a staggering 28.5 tackles for loss in his senior campaign with the Panthers, Donald didn't soar up draft boards until his amazing workout in Indianapolis. A 4.73-second 40 and 35 reps on the bench press showed the type of athlete Donald is and the strength he possesses at 6'1" and 285 pounds—a perfect antidote to the ailing, thin Bears defensive line.
15. Pittsburgh Steelers (8-8): Mike Evans, WR, Texas A&M
Imagining Evans in Steelers gear is intimidating as it is. Ben Roethlisberger needs a big, formidable target on the outside, and Evans is just that. It also helps that Evans ran a 4.53-second 40 at the combine, which could cause him to be off the board even sooner.
16. Dallas Cowboys (8-8): Calvin Pryor, FS, Louisville
America's Team needs an attitude adjustment. Pryor is the physical, booming force to usher in a new mindset to the Cowboys secondary. He has exceptional ball skills and is unafraid of stepping up in run support. There's a lot of Earl Thomas in him from what the game tape shows—and that's something Dallas could certainly use.
17. Baltimore Ravens (8-8): Zack Martin, OL, Notre Dame
Martin's NFL.com draft profile writeup is by Nolan Nawrocki, who suggests that Martin is versatile and athletic enough to move to guard at the professional level. Whether he plays tackle or guard, the Ravens need help and will be getting a bargain at No. 17 with Martin to aid the struggling running game and help block for QB Joe Flacco.
18. New York Jets (8-8): Odell Beckham Jr., WR, LSU
Bleacher Report expert Matt Bowen feels that Beckham had the best all-around workout of any receiver at the combine, and the numbers back that up. Beckham brings some explosive playmaking ability and can stretch the field vertically. That serves as a nice complement to Geno Smith's skill set as he learns the nuances of Marty Mornhinweg's West Coast offense.
19. Miami Dolphins (8-8): Timmy Jernigan, DT, Florida State
Randy Starks and Paul Soliai are unrestricted free agents, making defensive tackle a sudden position of need for the Dolphins.
If Jernigan falls into new GM Dennis Hickey's lap, he'll have an easy decision for his inaugural top draft pick. Where Hickey will be judged more is in free agency; he'll have to build a decent offensive line around third-year QB Ryan Tannehill.
20. Arizona Cardinals (10-6): Blake Bortles, QB, UCF
No other teams really need a quarterback, other than maybe the Jets, until this slot. It could be argued that the Cardinals will just stick with Carson Palmer and look elsewhere. But while Palmer may be the answer in 2014, he's certainly not a long-term option.
Bortles is an unpolished product who can sit and learn as the heir apparent behind Palmer and prepare to take the reins in the following season or sooner. All that depends on how Palmer performs amid heightened expectations following a 10-win season.
You have to like that Bortles threw at the combine when no other top QBs did, but it also speaks some volumes that he felt he had to.
21. Green Bay Packers (8-7-1): Jace Amaro, TE, Texas Tech
The uncertainty surrounding Jermichael Finley's future after his spinal fusion surgery and the lack of top-flight defenders that fit in Green Bay should lead GM Ted Thompson to find another pass-catcher for QB Aaron Rodgers.
Amaro had 106 receptions for 1,352 yards and seven touchdowns as a junior, justifying his decision to declare for the draft. At 6'5" and 265 pounds, he has the thickness to develop into a serviceable blocker and absorb any punishment he encounters up the seam, but his real value is in how he's able to split out wide or in the slot.
22. Philadelphia Eagles (10-6): Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, FS, Alabama
Chip Kelly proved that his up-tempo offense could translate well to the pros. Now, the Eagles have to figure out how to stop opponents more often. Plugging in Clinton-Dix at free safety will give Philadelphia a savvy player well-versed in complex schematics from his college days.
Plus, the Star-Ledger's Eliot Shorr reports that Patrick Chung will likely be released this offseason, leaving room for Clinton-Dix to fill in as a Week 1 starter and a big upgrade at that.
23. Kansas City Chiefs (11-5): Marqise Lee, WR, USC
Beckham's combine performance and Lee's disappointing 40 time (4.52) should drop the former Trojan in the first round, where Kansas City would be happy to grab him. Lee is a big-play threat who should develop into a go-to target in the Chiefs' precise, short passing game if he's tutored by Andy Reid.
24. Cincinnati Bengals (11-5): Kony Ealy, DE, Missouri
Michael Johnson is a likely free-agent casualty, so the Bengals could use an athletic pass-rusher in Ealy's mold to keep the defense playing at a high level. That has to be a priority, because the departure of coordinator Mike Zimmer leaves the unit in a precarious position entering 2014.
25. San Diego Chargers (9-7): Louis Nix, DT, Notre Dame
The 331-pounder has cut weight as of late and has excellent quickness for his size, allowing him to be a disruptive force. San Diego has plenty of assets on offense, but what held the Chargers back last season was a leaky defense. Nix will help the effort to improve that side of the ball as coach Mike McCoy looks to take his team to the next level in year two.
26. Cleveland Browns (via Indianapolis): Brandin Cooks, WR, Oregon State
Cooks was cooking at the combine, which will cause the New Orleans Saints to miss out on their rumored esteemed commodity at No. 27 by one pick. A 4.33 40-yard dash wasn't even the most impressive number Cooks posted—try a 3.81-second 20-yard shuttle and a time of 10.76 in the 60-yard shuttle.
Between that blistering workout and his collegiate production (128 receptions, 1,730 yards and 16 TDs in 2013), the Browns couldn't do much better at No. 26 than to add the Biletnikoff Award winner to the roster.
27. New Orleans Saints (11-5): Ryan Shazier, OLB, Ohio State
Adding speed to a defense doesn't hurt, especially when the Saints have Drew Brees under center to keep his unit among the league's elite. Shazier should have a field day in Rob Ryan's aggressive schemes, using his sideline-to-sideline range and instincts to be an immediate impact player.
28. Carolina Panthers (12-4): Allen Robinson, WR, Penn State
Steve Smith will be 35 in May. Sure, he can still play—maybe not for more than another year or two. Robinson is a sure-handed receiver with a big body (6'2", 220 pounds) who posted a 39-inch vertical at the combine. Good luck to the Panthers selling the fans and QB Cam Newton on the offense's future if the front office passes up a talent like Robinson at No. 28, barring a blue-chip free-agent acquisition.
29. New England Patriots (12-4): Dee Ford, DE, Auburn
Strong performances in the national title game for the Tigers and at the Senior Bowl have vaulted Ford into the first-round picture, though it was disappointing he was unable to work out at the combine. Ford would add another body to the Patriots defensive line and a quick pass-rusher to go with Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones.
30. San Francisco 49ers (12-4): Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Florida State
Do seven wide receivers in the first 30 picks seem like too many? With how deep this corps of playmakers is, don't be surprised if this is actually what materializes.
The 49ers don't know what they're getting out of Anquan Boldin beyond 2014, and he can help mold a raw but similarly gifted Benjamin this coming season. Benjamin can also serve as an X-factor and a valuable red-zone target at 6'5", 240 pounds to go with Boldin, Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis.
With QB Colin Kaepernick in a contract year, there shouldn't be any doubts as to whether or not he's the long-term answer with such a strong supporting cast if Benjamin joins the fold.
31. Denver Broncos (13-3): Ra'Shede Hageman, DT, Minnesota
Help is needed in the secondary with the aging Champ Bailey gone and thin depth at cornerback and safety, but the Broncos also need help in the trenches up the middle.
Enter Hageman, who's a bit of a project yet is the type of flier Denver should take given his 6'6", 310-pound frame and ability to line up anywhere along the defensive line. He could crack the rotation and help make up for the void left by pass-rushing linebacker Von Miller, whose recovery from a torn ACL will span from six to nine months and could cause him to miss the start of 2014. There's no guarantee Miller will be himself when he does return, either.
32. Seattle Seahawks (13-3): Cyrus Kouandjio, OT, Alabama
Russell Okung is a franchise left tackle, but he has proven to be injury-prone, and there's a need at the other tackle spot with Breno Giacomini hitting the open market. The Super Bowl champions must make a better attempt to protect elusive signal-caller Russell Wilson and perhaps add another wideout in free agency or in the second round of the draft given the depth at the position.
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