The 2014 NFL draft is rapidly approaching, which means scouts, general managers, fans and analysts are soon going to be drawing up their big boards ahead of the marquee event.
The first round is obviously the most important for teams, as it represents the best chance for clubs to land bona fide game-changers. There are plenty in this class, so it will be hard for even the most inept front offices to mess up this year.
Let’s take a look at the latest first-round mock with an eye toward each franchise attempting to hit a home run and get the most bang for its buck during the upcoming 2014 NFL draft.
1. Houston Texans: Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina
The Texans have a number of options to choose from with the No. 1 pick this year, as the club bottomed out in a bad way this past season. Houston needs help all over the field, meaning this decision will likely come down to which player the team’s brain trust feels has the best overall skill set and highest chance to become a franchise talent.
That honor undoubtedly goes to Clowney in 2014, as the Gamecocks pass-rusher is a physical freak with the capability of becoming a once-in-a-generation star. He has the tools to completely dominate NFL-caliber blockers and wreak absolute havoc in the backfield.
Don’t be surprised if the Texans pull the trigger on this defensive stalwart, as Clowney’s upside is too much to pass up on.
2. St. Louis Rams: Greg Robinson, OT, Auburn
Robinson is a safe pick to go No. 2, even after the Rams brought Rodger Saffold back into the fold following a bizarre experience with the Oakland Raiders.
With the quarterback position solidified due to Sam Bradford’s presence, Robinson represents a chance for this club to lock up a franchise left tackle who can contribute for the next decade at a high level.
3. Jacksonville Jaguars: Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville
The Jags have been quietly overhauling their roster this offseason and appear to have made enough changes to the defense, especially in terms of the front seven, to avoid having to spend the No. 3 pick to address the issue.
It is as clear as day that the most pressing need in Jacksonville is quarterback, as the team mercifully ended the Blaine Gabbert experiment and brought Chad Henne back on a reasonable contract as a backup after the 2013 campaign.
Bridgewater is still the most NFL-ready of the signal-callers found in this crop of talent, even after he bombed his pro day workout.
With owner Shad Khan flat-out admitting that his team would be drafting up to two quarterbacks this spring, it’s easy to see the team overlooking the poor workout and bringing Bridgewater aboard on May 8.
4. Cleveland Browns: Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M
The Browns have been churning through quarterbacks at a steady rate for a long time now, but the team finally has a chance to lock down a franchise-caliber signal-caller in the upcoming draft.
There is more than likely going to be at least two legit options for this club to pick from when it is on the clock, with Blake Bortles, Johnny Manziel and Teddy Bridgewater all potentially still available.
In this scenario, Manziel makes the most sense for this downtrodden franchise. The former Heisman Trophy winner may be a bit polarizing, but there is no denying his natural talent. He can simply make plays and did so during his time with the Aggies.
While some aren’t sold on Johnny Football at the next level, such as ESPN’s Merrill Hoge (as per ESPN’s Adam Schefter), others believe this kid can be a star.
ESPN’s Skip Bayless is one of those who believe it would be a major mistake if Manziel fell down the board on draft day:
It is currently unknown where Manziel will end up, but it is certain that Cleveland would be wise to stop his fall at No. 4.
5. Oakland Raiders: Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson
Watkins is a next-level athlete who can turn the Raiders receiving corps from a mediocre unit into a respectable one by himself.
The Clemson star is simply a game-breaker who has a nose for the end zone. He’s going to make plays, and he’s going to make them often, so that will help whomever the Silver and Black wind up employing under center.
6. Atlanta Falcons: Khalil Mack, DE/OLB, Buffalo
Mack could go as early as No. 1 to the Texans, as he is gaining traction as the most complete player in this class.
It’s more likely, however, that he lands in Atlanta. The Falcons need to restock their defense after an atrocious 2013 campaign, and Mack allows them to upgrade the front seven significantly.
Whether he is rushing the passer, dropping back into coverage or coming up to smash the runner, there isn’t much that this Bulls product cannot do at a high level.
7. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M
The Bucs lost a reliable left tackle in Donald Penn during free agency, so it makes sense for this club to unearth a replacement in the draft.
Matthews may not be the most attractive player on the board at this point, but the Aggies product will be a fixture among Tampa Bay's line for the foreseeable future. He should be taking over the left tackle spot from Anthony Collins sooner than later, perhaps even winning the job in training camp.
8. Minnesota Vikings: Blake Bortles, QB, Central Florida
The Vikings lucked out in this scenario, landing a top-three quarterback with the No. 8 pick. Bortles may have some question marks surrounding him, but he has legit size and has proved his ability to make all the throws.
That alone should have this team sprinting to the podium to select the UCF signal-caller come draft day.
9. Buffalo Bills: Mike Evans, WR, Texas A&M
Evans is the massive receiver Buffalo needs to augment quarterback EJ Manuel’s development.
This Texas A&M star can be a major weapon in the red zone and all over the field, using his strength, leaping ability and sheer size to bring in anything thrown in his vicinity.
10. Detroit Lions: Justin Gilbert, CB, Oklahoma State
Gilbert likely jumped to the top of Detroit’s big board after the team signed Golden Tate to address the lack of a skilled receiver next to Calvin Johnson.
The Pokes corner is the top defensive back in this class, as he projects to be capable of completely shutting down receivers at the next level. Factor in his elite athleticism and return skills, and you are looking at a solid pick for the Lions at No. 10.
11. Tennessee Titans: Anthony Barr, OLB/DE, UCLA
Barr is the type of versatile talent the Titans will want under contract during a defensive transition. He can play standing up as a linebacker or in a stance as an edge-rusher, making him the perfect weapon for this transforming Tennessee franchise.
12. New York Giants: Taylor Lewan, OT, Michigan
The Giants could use some more production along the offensive line, and Lewan is a great fit.
The Wolverines product can slide in at left tackle, allowing Will Beatty to move to right and Justin Pugh to assume his natural guard spot. That improves the line significantly with just one single draft pick, one that the G-Men would be wise to make.
13. St. Louis Rams: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, S, Alabama
Clinton-Dix is an elite safety who will help the Rams fend off big plays, as this 'Bama star is adept at keeping everything in front of him.
He has top-tier athleticism and ball-hawking skills, assets that just might allow this kid to become the next great player at the safety position.
14. Chicago Bears: Aaron Donald, DT, Pittsburgh
The Bears could not stop anyone from running all over them in 2013, so the team must address the teeth of its defensive line. Donald has been completely dominating the pre-draft process, lighting up the combine after a stellar senior season.
Chicago cannot afford to pass up a promising talent like this, even if there are some concerns about his size. If Donald pans out, the Bears' run defense will be immensely improved by the start of this coming season.
15. Pittsburgh Steelers: Darqueze Dennard, CB, Michigan State
Dennard is the type of young, physical corner who loves challenging himself against the opposition’s top receivers. That type of swagger and talent is exactly what the aging Steelers secondary needs an injection of.
16. Dallas Cowboys: Timmy Jernigan, DT, Florida State
Jernigan is a high-upside prospect who completely dominated the most important game of his career and should parlay that into a selection in the top half of this draft.
The Cowboys defense was historically bad in 2013, meaning the team needs all the help it can get on that side of the ball. Jernigan’s combination of upside, size and skill makes him a great pick, as he will aid the defense’s rebuild from the inside out.
17. Baltimore Ravens: Eric Ebron, TE, North Carolina
The Ravens brought in a star wideout in Steve Smith during free agency, and they now have a chance to add another offensive stud in Ebron.
While the club re-signed Dennis Pitta and may keep Ed Dickson, Ebron is a game-changer at the position and will be useful even if he is a third TE in his rookie season.
This kid has too much talent not to find a way onto the field and can make great things happen when he gets the ball, which should aid Baltimore in returning to the postseason and possibly making a Super Bowl run.
18. New York Jets: Marqise Lee, WR, USC
Gang Green has to continue surrounding Geno Smith with better wideouts and tight ends in order to aid his development into a franchise signal-caller.
Eric Decker’s signing was a great start, which should be followed up by drafting a talented wideout in the first round. Lee is the best available here, as the USC star has a nose for the end zone and coming up with tough catches.
19. Miami Dolphins: Zack Martin, OT, Notre Dame
The 'Phins need to bolster their offensive line after losing a number of contributors during the 2013 campaign. Martin has all the right tools that allow him to play a handful of positions on a line, including tackle and guard.
20. Arizona Cardinals: Dee Ford, OLB, Auburn
The Cardinals' once-abysmal offensive line is now resembling something respectable, so expect the club to look at pass-rushers with its first-round pick this May.
Ford can get to the quarterback at will, but he has to work on improving his other skills. Regardless, in a division with Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick, having quick, powerful rushers is pertinent.
21. Green Bay Packers: Calvin Pryor, S, Louisville
The Packers cannot ignore the hole at the safety position any longer and must draft a premier talent in this upcoming draft.
Pryor is the best value at No. 21, as he is a hard-hitting athlete who can protect against the big play.
22. Philadelphia Eagles: Kony Ealy, DE, Missouri
The Eagles offense was flying high in 2013, but the team ultimately needs to improve its defense before it can become a real contender.
Ealy is one of the better players left on the board at this point, as the Tigers defensive end is a capable pass-rusher and run-stopping force.
23. Kansas City Chiefs: Odell Beckham, WR, LSU
Beckham is the type of speedy receiver the Chiefs are looking for, as his presence will open up the field and allow signal-caller Alex Smith to spread the ball around more.
Even if the team doesn’t go with Beckham, it should consider other receivers here in order to prevent more predictable Jamaal Charles checkdowns.
24. Cincinnati Bengals: Jason Verrett, CB, TCU
Verrett may not be as great as the top corners in this draft class, but he is a decent talent who will have no problem carving out a solid career in the NFL.
The Bengals have a handful of defensive backs nearing the ends of their tenures in the league, with this TCU product representing an ideal replacement to draft and have waiting in the wings.
25. San Diego Chargers: Louis Nix III, DT, Notre Dame
The Bolts are going to need more defensive contributors if they are to make another run to the postseason in 2014. Nix is a sturdy tackle who can plug up the running lanes and absorb blockers for the team’s pass rush.
If he is still on the board at No. 25, don’t be surprised if San Diego scoops the Fighting Irish product up in a hurry.
26. Cleveland Browns: Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Florida State
This big wideout is the perfect receiver to put next to Josh Gordon. Whether Manziel or another quarterback is throwing the ball, Benjamin’s height will make for an easy target in the end zone and any time the chains need to be moved.
27. New Orleans Saints: Bradley Roby, CB, Ohio State
The Saints defense made significant strides under Rob Ryan this past season, and it should only get better this offseason with Jairus Byrd lining up at safety. If New Orleans decides to bring in Roby, it would boast one of the most feared and athletic secondary units in the league.
28. Carolina Panthers: Allen Robinson, WR, Penn State
The Panthers' offseason has been absolutely miserable, and the team needs more than just one first-round pick to start recouping all the talent it lost.
Expect the Panthers to address the major hole at wide receiver first and foremost, as Steve Smith will be tough to replace. Robinson represents the best chance, with the Penn State standout giving Cam Newton a large, quick target.
29. New England Patriots: C.J. Mosley, LB, Alabama
The Pats lost Brandon Spikes in free agency and now have a chance to easily replace him with another stud SEC linebacker in Mosley.
This Alabama product is a game-changer in the middle of a defense, completely crushing the run. He should rack up well over 100 tackles in his first year and allow the Pats to stay competent against opposing running backs.
30. San Francisco 49ers: Ryan Shazier, OLB, Ohio State
The Niners are always looking to get tougher on defense, which is exactly what Shazier brings to the table. This Buckeyes product is one of the best on the board at this juncture and should be able to immediately come in and start getting after the quarterback.
31. Denver Broncos: Brandin Cooks, WR, Oregon State
The Broncos have tons of talent and are primed for another run to the Super Bowl, but they have to start thinking about the future.
Cooks is the sort of receiver who could play a smaller role for the next year or two while he bulks up and learns the system, then come in as a top wideout during the Brock Osweiler era.
32. Seattle Seahawks: Jace Amaro, TE, Texas Tech
The Seahawks don’t have an elite tight end on the roster and lost a major playmaker when Tate signed in Detroit. They can address both of those issues by signing Amaro, a big, sure-handed tight end out of Texas Tech.
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