It's hard to believe the NFL draft remains so far away.
From the NFL Scouting Combine to pro drays to experts already unveiling several iterations of their mock drafts, the rookie draft has already undergone intense scrutiny. And we still have over a month to go.
Free agency has only enhanced our appetite for draft insight. Now that fans have a clearer picture of their squad, the incoming freshmen are the missing puzzle piece to get everyone prepared for the 2014 season.
A lot can change before May 8, but here's how I have the first round playing out today.
1. Houston Texans: Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville
Pro day? We're talking 'bout pro day?
Sorry to go Allen Iverson on everyone, but let's take a deep breath and not dismiss Teddy Bridgewater because Mike Mayock described his pro day as "average at best" (via Pro Football Talk's Darin Gantt).
How about the three years of college football, during which he completed 68.4 percent of his passes? What about his 31-to-4 touchdown-to-interception ratio from his junior year?
Let's not overreact here. The Texans need a steady quarterback, and Bridgewater is still the most pro-ready prospect in this class.
2. St. Louis Rams (from Washington): Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson
Sammy Watkins would like to play for the Detroit Lions, but don't count on him falling to No. 10. The Rams could trade down from the No. 2 pick, but why would they give up assets to acquire a luxury?
The Rams drafted Tavon Austin in the first round last year, after moving up to get him, but overspending on one wideout should not stop the Rams from securing a legit stud this time around. Watkins is the explosive playmaker St. Louis' offense desperately needs to complement Austin.
3. Jacksonville Jaguars: Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina
In his latest mock draft (subscription required), ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. said the Jaguars wouldn't pass on Jadeveon Clowney if he's available:
The Jags decided to re-sign Chad Henne, and while I don’t think they did so based on the idea he’s an immovable object at starter, I do think they believe they can win football games with him starting if they improve everywhere else. And Clowney certainly improves a pass rush that we’ve been talking about as a draft priority for way too long.
While they're unlikely to plan around Henne at quarterback, the Jaguars can take a quarterback early in the second round to compete with the veteran. The defense (tied for No. 27 in yards allowed) needs just as much help as the offense, and Clowney possesses a superstar ceiling.
4. Cleveland Browns: Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M
Like Bridgewater and every other top draft hopeful, Johnny Manziel has seen ever facet of his game dissected at length. That especially includes his lack of height, which could be a reason teams pass on the controversial quarterback. Yes, because being below 6'0" turned out to be a career-killer for Drew Brees and Russell Wilson.
5. Oakland Raiders: Blake Bortles, QB, Central Florida
Fantasy drafters know not to get sucked into a position run, but the Raiders will probably feel they have no other choice with Bridgewater and Manziel gone. With a 57.4 completion percentage and 16 turnovers through 11 games, Terrelle Pryor is not the answer under center, which is why the team made a move for veteran Matt Schaub.
If this is where Bortles goes, Oakland fans should listen to NFL Media's Bucky Brooks and keep the hype at a reasonable level.
I see a good player with a lot of upside, but I don't see a transcendent star that will significantly change the fortunes of a dismal franchise. Now, that doesn't mean he can't be an effective starter for a team, but I believe it will take him some time to develop into a solid player as a pro.
Schaub at least gives the Raiders options. They could opt to select an impact player at another position, or they could still draft a quarterback here to groom behind the veteran. I think they choose the latter in an attempt to land a top-end future QB.
6. Atlanta Falcons: Khalil Mack, DE/OLB, Buffalo
Buffalo's Khalil Mack has influenced some scouts enough to vault the linebacker to No. 1 on their big boards and mock drafts. According to ESPN's Chris Mortensen, many of them view him as a safer bet than Clowney:
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
Perhaps, but Clowney's higher peak will take him off the table first.
Mack won't fall too far, however, as the Falcons shouldn't let him slip past them. They tied the Jaguars with 379.3 yards per game allowed last year with no pass rush to be found. Mack should change that immediately.
7. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Greg Robinson, OT, Auburn
Mike Glennon or Josh McCown? It doesn't matter which quarterback wins the job; either one needs protection. A returning Doug Martin would also appreciate some bigger running holes than the ones provided to him and his replacements last season.
If the Buccaneers don't grab Greg Robinson, perhaps someone in the top five (most likely the Rams) will consider taking SportsCenter anchor Linda Cohn's advice and trading down for the promising offensive tackle:
The Bucs signed offensive tackle Anthony Collins in free agency. Pairing him with a young, rising star like Robinson could give the team a bright future on the line.
8. Minnesota Vikings: Anthony Barr, OLB, UCLA
Spurned by reaching too high for Christian Ponder, the hesitant Vikings will pass on Derek Carr and instead address their feeble defense. Jared Allen's official departure, per Lindsay H. Jones of USA Today, only multiplies the team's need for someone else to pressure the quarterback, and UCLA's Anthony Barr has double-digit sacks written all over him.
9. Buffalo Bills: Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M
The Bills led the league with 541 rushing attempts last year, so they should fortify their offensive line in order to continue their ground attack. While they look set at left tackle with youngster Cordy Glenn, right tackle is a significant weakness. Jake Matthews is one of the draft's safest selections and should assume a starting position from Week 1.
10. Detroit Lions: Justin Gilbert, CB, Oklahoma State
It's fun imagining the numbers Detroit would configure with Watkins or Mike Evans caching passes alongside Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate, but it's inefficient for the league's No. 6 offense to address an area of strength. The 23rd-ranked passing defense is the unit to improve during the first round.
And the Lions can get just the man to help in Justin Gilbert, a cornerback who excelled in press coverage at Oklahoma State.
Evans may be the sexier pick, but Gilbert is the more logical choice here.
11. Tennessee Titans: C.J. Mosley, LB, Alabama
The Titans rated 19th on Football Outsiders' DVOA while allowing 21 rushing touchdowns last year. C.J. Mosley gives them a versatile defender and strong tackler to rebrand their struggling unit.
While NFL.com's Chase Goodbread does not envision Mosley as an interior linebacker, he sees the Alabama alum thriving on the outside:
Dick Butkus recently said he saw CJ Mosley as an NFL MLB, but after watching him for 4 years, I can't agree. OLB, and a darned good one.— Chase Goodbread (@ChaseGoodbread) March 13, 2014
After signing former Denver Broncos linebacker Wesley Woodyard in free agency, adding Mosley would help fortify the linebacker corps.
12. New York Giants: Taylor Lewan, OT, Michigan
Taylor Lewan has been in headlines for the wrong reasons recently. As Michael Rothstein of ESPN.com reported, Lewan is facing three assault charges stemming from an incident in December.
Aside from the off-field concerns, there is a lot to like about him as a prospect.
A year after averaging 3.5 yards per carry and yielding 40 sacks, the Giants should replenish their offensive line by investing another first-round pick on the troubled unit. Besides, there's no defensive end to whet Jerry Reese's usual appetite for the position, so Lewan is the man to draft after a tremendous combine.
13. St. Louis Rams: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, S, Alabama
Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is the draft's top safety and can cover chunks of space in the back end of the St. Louis secondary. ESPN's Chris Sprow praised his ability to maneuver around the field:
Ha Ha Clinton-Dix has a lot of explosiveness changing direction for a guy that length, or any length. #nflcombine— Chris Sprow (@SprowESPN) February 25, 2014
The Rams should continue to add playmakers to the secondary, and Clinton-Dix would provide instanct production.
14. Chicago Bears: Timmy Jernigan, DT, Florida State
The only real question here is which defensive tackle Chicago takes to fix its atrocious run defense. Aaron Donald and Louis Nix III are other options, but Timmy Jernigan touts massive strength and disruptive capabilities up the middle.
Some might consider him small for a nose tackle at 6'2" and 299 pounds, but nobody will notice when he starts pushing around opposing linemen.
15. Pittsburgh Steelers: Darqueze Dennard, CB, Michigan State
Football Outsiders ranked the Steelers defense 19th in efficiency against the pass, and Dick LeBeau's secondary is loaded with veterans past their prime. Darqueze Dennard gives the unit youth without sacrificing any toughness in the process.
16. Dallas Cowboys: Aaron Donald, DT, Pittsburgh
Landing free-agent defensive tackle Henry Melton could be a huge coup, but that shouldn't prevent Dallas from loading up along the defensive line.
After Chicago went with Jernigan and Pittsburgh passed up the local talent, Donald will end his wait when the Cowboys take him off the board. Dallas gave up more yards than anybody in the NFL, and now its defensive line must carry on without DeMarcus Ware. Donald offers more than just run-prevention at defensive tackle, and the Cowboys need help at everything on that side of the ball.
Adding quality depth is a smart way to go for the future.
17. Baltimore Ravens: Zack Martin, OT/OG, Notre Dame
With veteran wideout Steve Smith signed, the Ravens can now shift their offensive retooling to the offensive line. The team ranked 30th in offensive DVOA per Football Outsiders while letting Joe Flacco get sacked 48 times. Notre Dame's Zack Martin isn't the prettiest selection, but a team that annually stamped its ticket to the postseason before 2013 should appreciate the low-risk choice. He's versatile and gives the team options.
18. New York Jets: Mike Evans, WR, Texas A&M
If anyone within the Jets organization saw this mock draft, they'd send a link to representatives from all 16 teams picking ahead of them in hopes of them following along. At pick No. 18, they can choose the draft's second-best wideout, Mike Evans, or the premier tight end in North Carolina's Eric Ebron.
In his sophomore campaign, Evans averaged 20.2 yards per catch while tallying 12 touchdowns. He'd give either Geno Smith or newly signed veteran Michael Vick a valuable downfield option, and either quarterback should perform much better with Evans and Eric Decker flanked on each side.
19. Miami Dolphins: Cyrus Kouandjio, OT, Alabama
Miami executives will be cursing under their breath (or out loud in the draft room) if Zack Martin is gone by this point. Their offensive line generated a disaster on and off the field, so it's awfully difficult to ignore the major need for talent up front.
Concerns over Cyrus Kouandjio's surgically repaired knee have questioned his draft stock. According to The Anniston Star's Marq Burnett, the panic over his knee has caught the offensive tackle off guard:
To be honest with you, after the combine that night my agent called me and said, ‘Hey, is there something wrong with your knee?’ I was completely confused. I said, ‘No, there’s nothing wrong with my knee.’...I was surprised.
If the Dolphins reach that conclusion by May, they'll take him at this spot. They already secured left tackle Branden Albert, which would give them time to keep the pressure off the youngster while allowing him to develop.
20. Arizona Cardinals: Eric Ebron, TE, North Carolina
Some say he's the second coming of Jimmy Graham. Maybe Vernon Davis is a more responsible comparison. Either way, tight end Eric Ebron has special traits and could make a major impact on an NFL offense.
Like many of the game's elite tight ends, Ebron is built like a basketball player, giving him the speed to burn linebackers and the size to box out defensive backs. Rob Housler could not deliver prolonged stretches of productivity for the Cardinals, who already have a defense capable of closing the gap on the NFC West's juggernauts.
21. Green Bay Packers: Calvin Pryor, S, Louisville
If healthy, Julius Peppers could give a major boost to Green Bay's defensive line. Now the league's 24th-rated passing defense can divert its energy to the secondary, where hard-hitting Calvin Pryor would provide an enormous boost in pass coverage.
22. Philadelphia Eagles: Louis Nix III, DT, Notre Dame
The Eagles must commit to upgrading their defense on draft day, and Notre Dame's Louis Nix III makes a nice start. Secondary is a bigger need, but the addition of cornerback Nolan Carroll helps, and they can take the best available defender and add defensive backs later.
23. Kansas City Chiefs: Brandin Cooks, WR, Oregon State
Andy Reid should make use out of the draft's fastest wideout, who ran a 4.33 40-yard dash during the combine. NFL.com's Gil Brandt described Brandin Cooks as a faster version of Wes Welker, which is a terrifying thought for opposing defenders:
Brandin Cooks working out today at @Oregon pro day. Reminds me of Wes Welker, only faster. Great kid. Going to be good NFL player.— Gil Brandt (@Gil_Brandt) March 14, 2014
Alex Smith is a quality passer on short and intermediate routes. Cooks is exactly the type of weapon to benefit Smith's skill set.
24. Cincinnati Bengals: Jason Verrett, CB, TCU
The Bengals might instead go the defensive end route after losing Michael Johnson to the Buccaneers, but another cornerback would also pay major dividends. Jason Verrett is yet another prospect whose stock would skyrocket if he were a few inches taller, but anyone who shuns him for his height will miss out on a terrific coverage back.
25. San Diego Chargers: Bradley Roby, CB, Ohio State
Philip Rivers gun-slung San Diego to an improbable playoff berth in 2013 despite the defense's leaky secondary. The Chargers must get better than 29th against the pass to duplicate their miraculous playoff appearance, so Ohio State's Bradley Roby is a prudent choice at No. 25.
26. Cleveland Browns (from Indianapolis): Kyle Fuller, CB, Virginia Tech
The Browns can supplement star receiver Josh Gordon with a No. 2 wideout or pair stud corner Joe Haden with another cornerback.
While several receivers of similar value remain available, Kyle Fuller closes out this tier of top corners. Cleveland should grab Virginia Tech's draft-climber now and pick a pass-catcher when it gets another turn early in the second round, as there is solid depth to be had in the middle rounds at the receiver position.
27. New Orleans Saints: Ra'Shede Hageman, DT, Minnesota
New Orleans' much-improved defense finished second against the pass but 19th against the run. SportsonEarth's Russ Lande is concerned about Ra'Shede Hageman's inconsistency, but he said the Minnesota lineman could morph into a major difference-maker in the pros:
What is immediately apparent when evaluating Hageman's game film is that he can defeat blocks with his strength and athleticism, but he does not impact games consistently. When he maintains good leverage/pad-level and uses hands aggressively, he makes it look easy jolting and driving the blocker backward as if he was on skates and is able to shed the block and make plays behind the line of scrimmage. However, more often he pops upright at the snap and leaves his chest open, and blockers are able to get a good fit which keeps him from impacting the play. At his best, Hageman's combination of height, long arms, playing strength and quickness reminds me of longtime NFL star defensive linemen Richard Seymour, which is what excites NFL teams so much. He could be a star as a defensive tackle in a 4-3 scheme or as a defensive end in a 3-4 defense.
With ball-hawking Jairus Byrd in the defensive backfield, Hageman could help the line up front to create turnover opportunities for the secondary.
28. Carolina Panthers: Marqise Lee, WR, USC
The Carolina Panthers are in bad shape at the wide receiver position. Fortunately, there are quality options available to them at this point in Round 1.
Marqise Lee fizzled during his junior year, but those shortcomings shouldn't erase his 118-catch, 1,721-yard sophomore campaign. If his Panthers don't draft someone for him to throw to, Cam Newton will probably let the Play 60 kid take over at quarterback.
29. New England Patriots: Jace Amaro, TE, Texas Tech
We don't want Tom Brady to get angry, so let's give him another target who can stretch the field alongside Julian Edelman and a hopefully healthy Rob Gronkowski. Jace Amaro is a superb fit for New England as an athletic tight end who impressed B/R's Matt Miller during the combine:
Jace Amaro showing off his athleticism. Ran a 4.66 at 265 lbs. Great flex tight end prospect.— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) February 22, 2014
New England's lack of depth of proven and experienced pass-catchers showed last year, but there's a lot to like about youngsters such as Aaron Dobson. Amaro would be another promising weapon for Brady to utilize.
30. San Francisco 49ers: Odell Beckham Jr., WR, LSU
The 49ers have no depth after their two starting receivers, and one of those starters will turn 34 during the 2014 season. Odell Beckham Jr. is not the most likely Rookie of the Year candidate, but San Francisco offers a great environment for him to slowly ease into being a dynamic No. 3 option.
31. Denver Broncos: David Yankey, OG, Stanford
Denver aptly realized that improving its defense was super important and signed playmakers DeMarcus Ware, T.J. Ward and Aqib Talib. With said defense improved, protecting Peyton Manning (and his eventual successor) is also super important. There are flashier players available with higher ceilings, but Stanford's David Yankey ensures the Broncos a useful player while their championship window remains open.
32. Seattle Seahawks: Kony Ealy, DE, Missouri
Seattle has no major needs, and Denver yanked a suitable option in Yankey off the board. With that being said, there are several high-risk, high-reward players worth a gamble to conclude Round 1.
Ryan Shazier and Dee Ford are alluring players who shouldn't fall far in the second round, but the Seahawks will swing for the fences with Missouri's Kony Ealy, an athletic pass-rusher with a tremendous burst and sky-high upside.