ESPN's Mel Kiper has released the latest version of his 2014 NFL mock draft, and it's a whirlwind of surprises thanks to the drastic changes the first days of free agency have caused on team needs around the league.
Like Kiper hints near the top of the mock, teams are not even close to having an actual selection pegged down at their respective slots. There is simply too much free agency left on the table, and many teams are still hard at work getting through thousands of hours of film.
That said, Kiper has nailed down what looks like a quality mock once more. Perhaps more than ever, it is littered with surprises not many may consider right away.
Note: Kiper's mock can be found at ESPN.com (subscription required).
1. Houston Texans: Khalil Mack, OLB, Buffalo
Now this is how you start things off with a bang.
Funnily enough, Houston has not been very active in free agency, but the move here makes enough sense for it to work. The Texans run a 3-4, and rather than go with South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney, who is not a great fit for the system, Kiper has them grabbing Khalil Mack here as a better fit.
In fact, many experts are getting on the bandwagon that says Mack is better than Clowney anyway. ESPN's Chris Mortensen is one:
A handful of evaluators have greater confidence re: Buffalo LB Khalil Mack than Jadeveon Clowney. Mack's skills, consistency & versatility— Chris Mortensen (@mortreport) March 8, 2014
Mack would start right away and give offensive lines nightmares when paired with J.J. Watt. As Kiper quips near the end of his analysis, it has also been almost a full calendar year since a player from the MAC went No. 1 overall.
7. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson
This has been done before by some experts, but the spin Kiper puts on the Sammy Watkins to Tampa Bay train thanks to free agency makes even more sense:
The Bucs are going to be good on the defensive side of the ball. They've added a good defensive end in Michael Johnson and a good cornerback in Alterraun Verner, and they may not be done. But they also have uncertainty at QB even with the addition of Josh McCown. And whether it's McCown or second-year option Mike Glennon, another weapon in the passing game will help, and Watkins becomes a pretty good value at this point. His experience implies a player ready to succeed early; the offense will get a bump from his presence.
Like Kiper points out, the Buccaneers and coach Lovie Smith went a bit off the deep end in terms of free-agency expenditures this offseason on the defensive side of the ball—with the notable exception being the addition of journeyman quarterback Josh McCown.
Believe it or not, Smith has already apparently named McCown the starter over second-year quarterback Mike Glennon, as captured by Greg Auman of the Tampa Bay Times:
Bucs' Lovie Smith, asked if Josh McCown is his quarterback: "Yes, he is."— Greg Auman (@gregauman) March 12, 2014
This makes it even more imperative that the Buccaneers grab the draft's top offensive weapon, and it's nice to see Kiper on board with the logic.
12. New York Giants: Eric Ebron, TE, North Carolina
Not that Eric Ebron is not worth a selection this high, but there are very few experts who considered him a serious option at No. 12 overall for the New York Giants.
After all, the team has bigger needs. Like Kiper points out, the Giants need a linebacker—although he says one of value is not on the board. The team also needs help in the offensive trenches with Eli Manning coming off a miserable year in which he threw 27 interceptions last year (it should be noted that Michigan's Taylor Lewan is off the board along with three other tackles by the time the Giants pick in Kiper's mock).
The next best way to help a struggling signal-caller is to give him a bigger tight end who catches anything thrown his way. Ebron does just that at 6'4" and 250 pounds, but he can also burn defenses deep with jaw-dropping speed that saw him run the 40-yard dash at the combine in 4.60 seconds.
20. Arizona Cardinals: Darqueze Dennard, CB, Michigan State
The rest of the league better hope this doesn't happen.
With the news that the Arizona Cardinals brought on elite offensive tackle Jared Veldheer—who ranked as the No. 12 overall tackle in 2012 before playing in just five games last season, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required)—the team suddenly has some wiggle room in the first round with its biggest need filled.
While a bit of a luxury, the thought of Darqueze Dennard in the desert is downright scary. Not only is he considered the top corner in the class by many, he'd join Patrick Peterson (the No. 16 overall corner last year, per PFF) and Tyrann Mathieu (No. 3 overall last year) to form what can easily develop into the most formidable secondary in the league.