There is a lot to be said for a smart front office in sports. Too often we get caught up in the talent on the field, but someone has to put all the pieces together to win that elusive championship.
Look at the teams who played in the conference championship games last year (San Francisco, New England, Denver, Seattle). They all have brilliant head coaches and general managers who understand how to play their hand in the greatest crap shoot of all: the draft.
All 32 NFL franchises aspire to build a smart front office that can load a roster with talent. Some are more apt than others, but that doesn't mean even the bottom-feeders are incapable of hitting a home run when the right pick is staring them in the face.
Our latest first-round mock draft highlights the smartest picks teams can make, with the most obvious being italicized.
1. Houston Texans: Khalil Mack, LB, Buffalo
The natural assumption is the Houston Texans are just a quarterback away from being a Super Bowl contender, so why not go for one of the big three players at the position with this pick?
Well, Johnny Manziel, Blake Bortles and Teddy Bridgewater don't warrant being the top player taken in a draft loaded with talent at other positions. It also helps that the Texans do have needs in other areas to address with this pick.
Enter, Khalil Mack.
We've seen how important having a multidimensional outside linebacker is to defenses in recent years (Aldon Smith, Clay Matthews, Tamba Hali).
Mack might have more raw talent than any of those players, as he possesses the power and agility to rush the passer and the speed to drop back into coverage. He can anchor a defense for the next decade.
2. St. Louis Rams (via Washington): Greg Robinson, OT, Auburn
Sam Bradford hasn't been a bust with the Rams. In fact, when he's healthy, the former No. 1 overall pick has played quite well in spots. But he's got no protection thanks to a porous offensive line.
Shoring up that unit with the best tackle—and arguably the best player—in the draft, Greg Robinson, will go a long way to seeing just how good Bradford really can be.
3. Jacksonville Jaguars: Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina
Like the Texans, conventional wisdom tells you that the Jaguars should take a quarterback. Unlike the Texans, the Jaguars aren't just a quarterback away from being a contender in the AFC.
Given the multitude of needs, combined with Clowney's huge upside as a pass-rusher in a pass-happy league, there really should be no debate in Jacksonville's war room on draft day if the South Carolina standout is still on the board.
4. Cleveland Browns: Blake Bortles, QB, Central Florida
Here's where the run on quarterbacks begins. It's no secret the Browns have to come out of this draft with a starting signal-caller. They released Brandon Weeden and Jason Campbell on Wednesday, and Brian Hoyer is recovering from a torn ACL.
Ray Farmer, the new general manager in Cleveland, told Mary Kay Cabot of The Plain Dealer that he already knows which quarterback he would take if the draft were held today.
I've studied the quarterbacks and I've studied other players, and I've already started to formulate the rank and order of each position. I do know what I'd do if I was held down at the moment. It doesn't mean that can't change, but I currently have somebody in front.
Bortles may not have the track record that Manziel and Teddy Bridgewater do, but he's a prototypical NFL quarterback with a 6'5", 235-pound frame and accuracy. His arm strength isn't great, but it will get the job done.
5. Oakland Raiders: Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M
The Raiders can't even give their money away, offensive tackle Rodger Saffold failed his physical, which negated the deal the Raiders offered him when free agency started. It's the latest in a long line of reasons to laugh at the Oakland franchise.
As a result of this ineptitude, the Raiders will want to generate excitement and buzz. Who better to do that than the lightning rod that is Johnny Manziel? I can't say he's the best, or right, fit for the Raiders, but when has that stopped them from making a splashy pick?
6. Atlanta Falcons: Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M
The Falcons may want/need an edge-rusher to take pressure off a weak secondary, but it's hard to complain with their fallback plan.
Matt Ryan got beat up in 2013, taking 44 sacks, but kept getting up to play out the string in what turned out to be a disastrous season in every conceivable way. In order for him to get back to his elite level, or just survive a season, the Falcons have to fix their offensive line.
Jake Matthews isn't quite at Greg Robinson's level, but he's close enough that getting him with the sixth pick could be considered a steal. Bleacher Report NFL Draft Lead Writer Matt Miller had the Texas A&M star ranked fifth overall on his post-combine big board.
This is the pick the Falcons need to make.
7. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson
With Vincent Jackson on one side, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers can suddenly boast one of the most interesting offenses in the NFL by adding Sammy Watkins to play on the other side.
Tampa Bay has spent a lot of money already in free agency, but it's all been on the defensive side of the ball. That's no surprise considering new head coach Lovie Smith wants to remake this team in his image, but it certainly makes you wonder what the Bucs draft will look like.
Watkins is a playmaker extraordinaire, with incredible hands, separation ability and rare big-play talent. Whether the team goes with Josh McCown or Mike Glennon at quarterback, the tandem of Jackson and Watkins can make them look a lot better than they really are.
8. Minnesota Vikings: Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville
The Vikings can luck into the most NFL-ready quarterback in this draft, Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater. Minnesota had to use four players at the position last year, even re-signing Matt Cassel to a two-year deal before free agency started.
Bridgewater may not have the biggest frame, but he's a smart, accurate passer with good arm strength to make all the necessary throws. Minnesota invested a lot of money in Greg Jennings last year. He needs someone who can get him the ball to make it a worthwhile investment.
9. Buffalo Bills: C.J. Mosley, ILB, Alabama
This isn't necessarily a need pick for the Bills, who found a stud inside linebacker in Kiko Alonso last year, but think about all the problems they can create by having a dynamic duo with Alonso alongside C.J. Mosley.
Mosley has incredible instincts and sideline-to-sideline range. He can be beaten by bigger backs, but that's the only major flaw in an otherwise stellar talent.
10. Detroit Lions: Justin Gilbert, CB, Oklahoma State
For years, the Lions have tried to supplement their deficiencies in the secondary by going after defensive linemen who can sack the quarterback. It hasn't worked, so they can finally address the problem in a draft loaded with cornerbacks.
Justin Gilbert was the best cover man in the country last year. His eyes are fantastic, being able to read the hips of an opposing receiver to cut off his route or the eyes of a quarterback to jump the pass.
11. Tennessee Titans: Ha Ha Clinton Dix, S, Alabama
The Titans did bring back safety Bernard Pollard for another year, but they need more upside and youth in the defensive backfield. Considering the contracts we have seen for safeties this offseason, it's clear the position has become more vital than ever.
Ha Ha Clinton Dix is a coverage specialist in the secondary, displaying an innate ability to find the ball and hit receivers trying to go over the middle. The Titans need a toughness and edge on defense in the AFC South.
12. New York Giants: Taylor Lewan, OT, Michigan
If Eli Manning is going to get back to his Super Bowl-caliber ways, the Giants have to surround him with better talent up front. He got sacked 39 times last year, 11th-most in the NFL. The team also struggled in the running game, ranking 29th in the NFL.
Assuming the Giants aren't able to move up to get one of the two big tackles in this class, they can wait out the market and get good value by drafting a top-10 talent in Taylor Lewan. He will bring an intensity and toughness that's been lacking in New York's line.
13. St. Louis Rams: Mike Evans, WR, Texas A&M
We have laughed at the Detroit Lions in the past for drafting so many wide receivers in the first round, yet here we have St. Louis going after another pass-catcher one year after taking Tavon Austin in the first round.
The difference between the Lions and Rams is the decision-makers with the latter have some clue what they are doing. It also helps that Mike Evans serves a very clear purpose in the offense and for Austin.
Evans is a true No. 1 wide receiver, capable of stretching defenses vertically or making plays underneath. Austin is a Wes Welker-type slot guy who doesn't need a lot of space underneath to break big plays.
After getting Bradford's tackle with the second pick, the Rams will get the outside receiver he needs to take the next step.
14. Chicago Bears: Aaron Donald, DT, Pittsburgh
Sometimes a player and team just fit together. Aaron Donald lacks the usual size for a defensive tackle, but has the incredible strength and quickness to penetrate opposing teams backfields and disrupt the run.
The Bears were dreadful against the run last year. They were the only team to allow more than five yards per carry and ranked last with 161.4 yards per game allowed. Donald won't solve all those problems on his own, but he's a step in the right direction.
15. Pittsburgh Steelers: Calvin Pryor, S, Louisville
Despite re-signing Troy Polamalu for three years, the Steelers have to start thinking about their long-term future.
Calvin Pryor isn't the coverage safety that fellow 2014 draftee Ha Ha Clinton Dix is, though he can hold his own in that category. Where he shines is in the open field and playing in the box, making tackles all over the field.
The Steelers have lost their identity as one of the most physical teams in the NFL. Pryor's ability to hit hard would go a long way towards getting that swagger back.
16. Dallas Cowboys: Timmy Jernigan, DT, Florida State
If the Cowboys ever want to escape the doldrums of 8-8, they need to find an identity on defense. They haven't had one in more than a decade and now have to cope with losing DeMarcus Ware.
Another problem the Cowboys have had on defense is stopping the run. They ranked 26th in rushing touchdowns allowed and 27th in rushing yards allowed last year.
Timmy Jernigan isn't without flaws—he's not much of a pass-rusher—but his 299-pound frame and powerful lower half allow him to take on offensive linemen to give linebackers a chance to make plays in the backfield.
Jerry Jones always loves to make a splash in the draft, which is part of the reason the Cowboys have been mediocre for so long. They need to look for more substance than style in this year's draft.
17. Baltimore Ravens: Odell Beckham Jr., WR, LSU
Based on the way the board breaks, the Ravens are in an ideal position to solve their biggest problem: wide receiver. Joe Flacco's performance in 2013 suffered without Anquan Boldin, and the team never figured out a way to replace the veteran wide receiver.
That has to change this offseason, and it will likely happen through the draft, unless a bargain free agent comes to them.
Odell Beckham is a nice safety option, though he's a bit undersized at 5'11", 198 pounds. He gets off the line so quick that a lack of elite speed doesn't hurt him.
18. New York Jets: Marqise Lee, WR, USC
The Jets may have paid Eric Decker to be their No. 1 wide receiver, but there has to be serious concern about how he will look without Peyton Manning throwing to him. That's why the team has to keep bolstering its receiving corps.
Marqise Lee's didn't run a blazing 40-yard dash at the combine (4.52 seconds), but his tape at USC showed a playmaker capable of creating space and using his body to get separation. His hands are tremendous, and he showed a knack for going to get the football.
19. Miami Dolphins: Zack Martin, OT, Notre Dame
The Dolphins have started making necessary changes to their offensive line, trading Jonathan Martin to San Francisco and signing Branden Albert away from Kansas City. There is still a lot of work to be done, so it's fortunate that this is a good draft for the position.
Zack Martin is in the second-tier of offensive tackles in this draft, though that's a testament to how strong the group is than any indictment of the Notre Dame product. He's the perfect fit for the Dolphins and will become Ryan Tannehill's best friend very soon.
20. Arizona Cardinals: Anthony Barr, OLB, UCLA
After losing Karlos Dansby to the Cleveland Browns, the Cardinals will be thrilled if UCLA outside linebacker Anthony Barr falls to them. He's still learning the intricacies of the position after moving from the offensive side of the ball two years ago.
What Barr lacks in linebacker instincts right now he more than makes up for in raw athleticism. He's certainly not lacking in confidence, telling Ross Jones of Fox Sports that he should be the No. 1 overall pick:
I think I am the complete package. I can help a team right away win football games, playoff games and championships. It’s something that I always dreamed about. The teams that do pass on me will regret it.
That kind of confidence can rub some people the wrong way. But it's exactly what you want to hear from a young player. Putting Barr on this young, exciting defense is enough to put them in the discussion with San Francisco and Seattle for best unit in the NFC West.
21. Green Bay Packers: Louis Nix III, DT, Notre Dame
Louis Nix III isn't a game-changing defensive tackle, lacking elite pass-rushing ability, but he's such a big body and defends the run so well that he is going to help a defensive line in need of depth.
The Packers re-signed B.J.Raji to a one-year deal, so Nix doesn't have to step in and start right away. He can rotate in and out while learning to play the position in the NFL. It's a perfect match.
22. Philadelphia Eagles: Darqueze Dennard, CB, Michigan State
It's clear the Eagles want to upgrade their secondary. ESPN's Adam Schefter listed them as a team to watch for Darrelle Revis when he was released by Tampa Bay earlier in the week.
Two teams to watch on CB Darrelle Revis once Tampa releases him: Philadelphia and New England (Jets fans shudder).— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) March 11, 2014
That didn't work out, but the Eagles didn't have to spend big money to add impact talent because the draft is loaded in the secondary. Darqueze Dennard is a ball hawk at cornerback. He can make any play against any receiver thanks to incredible instincts and solid top speed.
23. Kansas City Chiefs: Brandin Cooks, WR, Oregon State
Alex Smith is not a quarterback who can win games on his own, so the Chiefs have to surround him with more high-end talent on the outside. Dwayne Bowe has been the No. 1 target in Kansas City for years, but he's 29 and his yards per reception have gone down each of the last three years.
Putting Brandin Cooks on the other side of the field opens up all sorts of possibilities for the Chiefs. He's a bit small at 5'10", making up for it with blazing speed (4.33 40-yard dash) and toughness to make catches in traffic.
24. Cincinnati Bengals: Bradley Roby, CB, Ohio State
The Bengals already have the front seven needed to compete with any offense in the NFL. Now it is time to address the secondary, which hasn't been as strong. Bradley Roby is a perfect fit for Marvin Lewis' defense.
Roby is a local product, playing college ball at Ohio State, which is an added bonus. But he's also an intelligent cornerback who understands routes well and makes plays thanks to high-level instincts.
25. San Diego Chargers: Ryan Shazier, OLB, Ohio State
The Chargers are a team that can take the leap next season, going from borderline playoff contender that sneaks in thanks to a number of losses by other teams late in the season to a serious player in the AFC.
They need to shore up the second and third levels of their defense, by choosing an outside linebacker or cornerback. Ryan Shazier isn't a sexy player, lacking impact tools and a high ceiling. But the Ohio State product does nothing but make plays.
Sometimes that's all you have to do.
26. Cleveland Browns (via Indianapolis): Jason Verrett, CB, TCU
The Browns have the luxury of doing whatever they want with this pick because they addressed their biggest need with the No. 4 selection and can get a running back much later.
They're trying to establish a new identity on defense, signing Donte Whitner and Karlos Dansby to put with Joe Haden. Landing another top-tier cornerback like Jason Verrett, who is an aggressive, fast ball hawk, and pairing him with Haden will make it difficult for anyone to throw on.
27. New Orleans Saints: Stephon Tuitt, DE, Notre Dame
After trading or releasing virtually everyone on the roster not named Drew Brees, the Saints have to plug holes in the front end of their defense if they want to keep up with the top teams in the NFC.
Stephon Tuitt is a reach at this point, especially after a disappointing 2013 season at Notre Dame, but there was a time when he looked like a mid-first-round talent and that potential is still there.
He's not a prototypical pass-rushing defensive end, lacking speed to move around offensive tackles, but owning the tremendous raw strength to be a disruptive force in the backfield.
28. Carolina Panthers: Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Florida State
There might not be a bigger lock in the 2014 draft than the Carolina Panthers taking a wide receiver in the first round. Once Steve Smith was released by the team, and Ted Ginn Jr. signed in Arizona, they didn't have a receiver on the roster who has caught a pass in the NFL.
Kelvin Benjamin, therefore, makes perfect sense for the Panthers. He's a matchup nightmare at 6'5", 240 pounds and makes up for less-than-ideal speed (4.61 40-yard dash) with great leaping ability and long limbs to create separation.
29. New England Patriots: Ra'Shede Hageman, DT, Minnesota
If the tension between the Patriots and Vince Wilfork intensifies, with the defensive tackle reportedly asking to be released, according to NFL.com's Ian Rapoport.
#Patriots Pro Bowl DT Vince Wilfork has asked that the team release him after 10 seasons in New England, according to sources.— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) March 13, 2014
Adding depth at defensive tackle was already a priority, especially since Wilfork is 32 and played just four games last season, but it will become urgent if the team grants his wish.
Ra'Shede Hageman is a project, boasting tremendous size, but lacking in consistency. Bill Belichick loves to bet on high-end talent, even if it will take time to see the results.
30. San Francisco 49ers: Kyle Fuller, CB, Virginia Tech
The 49ers have to address the cornerback position at some point. They are going to get Chris Culliver back from a torn ACL, but the team released Carlos Rogers and, as reported by the San Jose Mercury News, free agent corner Tarell Brown signed with the Oakland Raiders. There aren't a lot of holes on this roster, but the secondary is clearly an area of need.
While Kyle Fuller isn't a strong one-on-one cover corner, he's got good size and speed. He doesn't give up a lot of big plays over the top, but needs to be more physical at the line to avoid giving up a lot of catches and allowing receivers to make plays in open space.
31. Denver Broncos: Dee Ford, DE, Auburn
Even with the addition of DeMarcus Ware and the return of Von Miller, the Broncos need to add more depth on the defensive line. In this pass-happy NFL, you can never have too many quality pass-rushers.
Ford is a limited player because he's not very good against the run, playing too aggressively off the edge and lacking the bulk to hold up against offensive linemen. But he's got tremendous speed to run around the tackle and disrupt the quarterback.
32. Seattle Seahawks: Morgan Moses, OT, Virginia
Russell Wilson's late-season lull wasn't entirely his fault. The offensive line didn't provide him with a lot of protection, making it one of the few areas where the Seahawks can stand to add talent.
Morgan Moses is the kind of player who isn't going to draw a huge crowd. He does everything well, but doesn't excel in one area. His all-around capability will serve him well blocking for Wilson and opening holes for Marshawn Lynch.
Note: All combine results courtesy of NFL.com's results tracker.
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