The NFL draft brings a thrilling deluge of assessment and speculation locked in a seemingly endless tango, but once the season begins and the cleats meet the turf, statistics become the primary measuring stick for rookies on offense.
We not only skip past the draft, we skip to the end of the 2014 season to predict what each skill-position neophyte will put up in his maiden campaign. In the interest of consistency, I will use the draft picks from my March 13 mock draft that listed selections addressing each team's biggest need.
In all, there were three quarterbacks, seven offensive linemen, six wide receivers, one tight end and zero running backs taken in the first round of that mock, plus five defensive linemen, three linebackers and seven defensive backs.
That means exactly 10 guys picked in the first round who will be trying to score touchdowns, and we have fearless forecasts for the stats on each.
I will not verge into vagaries of projecting pancake blocks and the like, but here are the landing spots for first-round offensive linemen:
Jake Matthews (T, Texas A&M) to the St. Louis Rams, Greg Robinson, (T, Auburn) to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Taylor Lewan (T, Michigan) to the Buffalo Bills, Zack Martin (T, Notre Dame) to the Detroit Lions, Xavier Su'a-Filo (G, UCLA) to the Miami Dolphins, Cyrus Kouandjio (T, Alabama) to the New Orleans Saints and David Yankey (G, Stanford) to the Seattle Seahawks.
Those are the blockers, but these 10 guys who handle the pigskin will be in the spotlight this season with mixed results.
1. Houston Texans: Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M
2014 projection: 3,200 yards, 24 TD, 18 INT
Johnny Manziel is certainly the quarterback with the most notoriety in the draft, but that doesn't mean the Texans will jump on him. ESPN's Todd McShay (subscription required) prefers Blake Bortles as the first-overall selection based on new Houston head coach Bill O'Brien's history at UCF.
Quarterback is a thorny position to project. Russell Wilson has a Super Bowl title, while Vince Young and Tim Tebow are out of football. Johnny Football will be somewhere in between there thrilling with his athleticism and agonizing with his gun-slinging (read: turnover-producing) mentality.
If the Texans can bounce back under the new regime, Manziel and Andre Johnson could make for a potent match. However, this team needs a ton of help after a disgraceful 2013 season, and a new QB won't change that overnight. You may recall watching David Carr run for his life after being their first selection in 2002.
4. Cleveland Browns: Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville
2014 projection: 2,900 yards, 20 TD, 12 INT
Aaron Rodgers completed a total of 35 passes over his first three seasons, but once he took the reins, it became clear that he was a top-five NFL quarterback. Since he was drafted in 2005, the developmental approach has changed substantially for QBs. The new mantra is, "Take the ball, kid. And develop quick!"
Teddy Bridgewater looks like the most NFL-ready signal-caller available in the draft.
His athleticism and media profile can't compare to Manziel, but his 2013 stats (71 completion percentage, 3,970 yards, 31 TD, four picks) combined with his 6'2" frame, top-notch athleticism and accurate passing could eventually be the solution to the riddle under center in Cleveland.
5. Oakland Raiders: Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson
2014 projection: 60 catches, 850 yards, seven TD
Sammy Watkins put up formidable numbers as a junior at Clemson: 101 catches, 1,464 yards and 12 touchdowns. For those with short memories, he likely seems even better after erupting for 16 receptions, 227 yards and two scores in the Tigers' Orange Bowl win over Ohio State.
The sure-handed wideout can create yards after the catch and works well in space. His rookie numbers will be right in line with the likes of A.J. Green and Julio Jones, and Watkins has the skills to become a perennial Pro Bowler.
8. Minnesota Vikings: Blake Bortles, QB, UCF
2014 projection: Nine starts, 1,800 yards, 13 TD, eight INT
Blake Bortles has the most work to do of all three first-round QBs, but his ceiling is high enough to be the first-overall selection. The concern is that he will not be able to win the job in camp as his team molds him to fit their image.
His footwork has been the most frequently maligned aspect of his game, but that is not viewed as a significant roadblock for his development.
Don't expect Bortles to be the Week 1 starter, but he'll get his share of games in. He has the potential to be the Vikes' starter for the next half-decade, but it will likely be a slow learning process once he hits the pro level.
13. St. Louis Rams: Mike Evans, WR, Texas A&M
2014 projection: 55 catches, 650 yards, six TD
Mike Evans presents a massive target at 6'5". You could actually just post him up on the block and feed him the entry pass like a forward. The Rams need more targets for Sam Bradford, and Evans is a huge one.
Teams drafting Evans need to understand what they're getting: a big, possession wideout. Evans lacks the downfield speed most teams want to see out of an early first-round WR, but he's got great hands and plays with the tenacity to match his size. He's effective as a run-blocker as well, and he would be a nice complement to St. Louis' 2013 first-rounder, speed demon Tavon Austin.
17. Baltimore Ravens: Eric Ebron, TE, UNC
2014 projection: 50 catches, 600 yards, four TD
Tight end is the new vogue position in football, but finding the guys with the requisite physicality to fit the trend is a challenge. In fact, most of these new "joker" tight ends come from basketball backgrounds.
The Ravens' passing attack did not recover from losing Anquan Boldin, and they have to get Torrey Smith some help. Ebron brings just that.
18. New York Jets: Marqise Lee, WR, USC
2014 projection: 13 games, 40 catches, 550 yards, four TD
Marqise Lee comes with some injury concerns, but the Jets need guys to catch the darn ball. When healthy, Lee was one of the top receivers in college football, but durability questions are not something teams want to gamble on in the first round. However, Gang Green are desperate.
As noted by Chris Wesseling of NFL.com on Wednesday, the Jets inked free-agent pass-catcher Eric Decker, formerly of the AFC champion Denver Broncos. Since the Jets had practically no wideouts last season, they need to keep adding at the position, especially after releasing Santonio Holmes, who was a complete disaster in New York.
26. Cleveland Browns (from Indianapolis Colts): Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Florida State
2014 projection: 40 catches, 600 yards, four TD
Mike Evans has nothing on Kelvin Benjamin, at least when it comes to standing tall. At 6'5", the FSU product grabbed 15 touchdowns and averaged nearly 19 yards per catch on 54 receptions. He's got some giddy-up to him, so he's not just a guy with possession-receiver size since he can threaten downfield as well. He'd make a nice weapon next to last season's standout in Cleveland, Josh Gordon.
One minor concern is the concussion Benjamin suffered in a game against Wake Forest, but that is one of the unfortunate hazards of the sport.
28. Carolina Panthers: Odell Beckham Jr., WR, LSU
2014 projection: 35 catches, 450 yards, three TD
Steve Smith has lined up at wide receiver for each of the last 13 seasons in Carolina, but there won't be a 14th season. As Smith's agent Derrick Fox told the Associated Press' Steve Reed on Wednesday: "[Smith] is not going to play for the Panthers next year, I know that. I just don't know when that transaction is going to take place."
So long, Steve, thanks for everything. With the 34-year-old gone, the Panthers can renew their youth movement with Odell Beckham. He's a little undersized at 5'11", and he doesn't quite tip the scale at 200 pounds, but Beckham has elite speed once he gets a head of steam. He brings no injury concerns, and he can return kicks if Carolina wants.
30. San Francisco 49ers: Brandin Cooks, WR, Oregon State
2014 projection: 30 catches, 400 yards, three TD
Brandin Cooks ran the fastest official time in the 40-yard dash at the scouting combine of any wide receiver at 4.33 seconds. He doesn't even measure at 5'10" unless he stands on his tippy-toes, but he is an absolute burner as his time in the 40 suggests.
Cooks put up ridiculous numbers last year (128 receptions, 1,730 yards, 16 TD), but he will struggle against the size of NFL opponents. Cooks will start out as a speedy specialist as he gets acclimated, so expect him to return some kicks as well. Cooks' quickness will keep him in the first round.
The end of the first round will bring a jumble of receivers into the mix, and team fit will help decide who gets snapped up and who falls to the second round.
Penn State's Allen Robinson and Fresno State's Davante Adams could sneak into the first round. Jordan Matthews of Vanderbilt is the highest-rated senior on the board and could attract some early suitors. LSU's Jarvis Landry is another candidate whom a team could reach for.
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