The greatest part of the NFL offseason is the endless speculation about which free agents teams will pursue and how general managers will approach the 2014 NFL draft. Mock drafts are an enjoyable by-product of all that prognostication.
Nobody knows how the draft will unfold, but every mock draft gives you a better idea of every team's need and how the prospects stack up in the grand scheme of things. Keeping that spirit in mind, here's my take on how the first round of the upcoming draft will unfold.
1. Houston Texans: Blake Bortles, QB, Central Florida
Blake Bortles only improved his draft stock at the combine and impressed Houston management at his pro day, according to John McClain of the Ultimate Texans blog:
‘I was very impressed,’ O’Brien said. ‘He made every throw I wanted to see, and he showed good footwork.’
O’Brien and Smith met with Bortles on Tuesday night.
‘I like what he did,’ Smith said. ‘I was very impressed with him.’
The fact that Matt Schaub was traded to the Oakland Raiders removes the slim possibility that Schaub would have the chance to win his starting job back, so the Texans will definitely add a quarterback at some point in the draft.
With a new offensive-minded head coach in town, you can be sure that Bill O’Brien wants to select his own quarterback to run the offense.
2. St. Louis Rams: Greg Robinson, OT, Auburn
The Rams will have to strongly consider trading this pick—especially since there are sure to be suitors for Jadeveon Clowney if he’s still on the board, but Greg Robinson is too tantalizing to pass up.
He’s already a dominant run-blocker, and he would be able to play right or left tackle depending on when Jake Long returns from injury. This is the year for Sam Bradford, and giving him the protection he needs is the most pressing priority facing general manager Les Snead.
Drafting Robinson does that and gives the Rams a powerful tackle built for the NFC West.
3. Jacksonville Jaguars: Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina
The Jaguars definitely need a quarterback, but head coach Gus Bradley is a defensive guy, and Jacksonville won’t be able to pass up the value of the best prospect in this draft falling to them at No. 3.
While the Jaguars would be thrilled to take Clowney, concerns about his work ethic are legitimate. Fortunately, the blue-chip prospect is enamored with Gus Bradley and the rest of the coaching staff in Florida, according to Chase Goodbread of NFL.com:
I've met (coach Gus Bradley), and I like him a lot. He's a cool guy and a very good coach. I talked to that whole staff (at the NFL Scouting Combine) when I interviewed, and they were laid back and we were laughing a lot. He has to be on me hard, then, because he knows that's what I'm about.
Bradley is a passionate and energetic coach who can get the most of his players, and he would salivate at the chance to harness Clowney’s raw athletic freakishness and unleash him on the rest of the league.
4. Cleveland Browns: Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson
The Browns are another team that needs a quarterback, but there are question marks about Teddy Bridgewater and Johnny Manziel. There are none about Sammy Watkins. He’s clearly the best receiver in the class, and Cleveland will form a dangerous receiving corps with Josh Gordon, Watkins and tight end Jordan Cameron.
Cleveland will take a quarterback later in the draft, and that quarterback will be ecstatic with the weapons in front of him.
5. Oakland Raiders: Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M
The Oakland Raiders have plenty of needs, but it’s unlikely that they draft a first-round quarterback thanks to their recent acquisition of Matt Schaub to compete with Terrelle Pryor and Matt McGloin. Wide receiver is also a need, but this draft class is so deep that the drop-off in value isn’t too significant.
There would be a huge drop-off at offensive tackle, however, and that’s definitely a need for the Raiders after they inexplicably let Jared Veldheer walk out the door and their prospective left tackle, Rodger Saffold, failed his physical.
Oakland signed Donald Penn, but Matthews is capable of playing the right side very well with the upside to take over the blind side at some point in the future.
6. Atlanta Falcons: Khalil Mack, OLB, Buffalo
It’s no secret that the Falcons will be targeting a pass-rusher, and in this mock draft they have the good fortune of Khalil Mack falling right into their laps. There will be some debate about whether Mack or Anthony Barr should be the choice here, but there shouldn’t be.
Daniel Jeremiah of NFL.com points out why Mack is the clear choice for Atlanta:
I think Khalil Mack is just more of a violent football player. He's got more shock in his hands. And we talk about versatility, Khalil Mack has that interception production. I've seen him drop in zones, I've seen his instincts in coverage. I don't worry about him there.
Mack is the best pure pass-rushing prospect in this draft, and his versatility would make general manager Thomas Dimitroff giddy with joy if he got to make this pick.
7. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Taylor Lewan, OT, Michigan
Anthony Collins is a very solid starter, but Taylor Lewan has the potential to be a blue-chip left tackle and has the nastiness to thrive as a right tackle while he adjusts to the NFL game.
The recent off-field troubles don’t help his draft stock, but ultimately his body of work and his impressive pre-draft process will convince the Bucs to draft him.
Lewan blew up the combine, is very technically sound as a blocker and would be a day one starter in Tampa Bay.
8. Minnesota Vikings: Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville
Teddy Bridgewater may have had a bad pro day, but that doesn’t erase his entire body of work over the last few years at Louisville. While there are questions about his size, you can’t doubt his intelligence, accuracy or intangibles as a starting quarterback.
According to ESPN’s Todd McShay, the Vikings have Bridgewater “a little higher in their pecking order” than Johnny Manziel (h/t to Rotoworld.com), which is why he goes off the board here. The Vikings lock up their franchise quarterback, and new head coach Mike Zimmer will be very happy about that.
9. Buffalo Bills: Mike Evans, WR, Texas A&M
Buffalo has two good receivers in Stevie Johnson and Robert Woods, but both of them would thrive as secondary receivers, and getting a big-bodied playmaker who can make contested catches would be a great help for E.J. Manuel.
There is too much potential for Evans to fall out of the top 10, and Evans has the chance to develop into a safety blanket for Manuel thanks to his tight-end size.
10. Detroit Lions: Justin Gilbert, CB, Oklahoma State
The secondary has been an issue in Detroit for quite a while now, and the Lions will hope that drafting Justin Gilbert will be one step in the right direction. Adding a safety is a possibility too, but Detroit has the luxury of going with the best defensive back on the board, and that’s the former Cowboy.
Gilbert has the size (6’0” and 202 pounds) and speed to develop into one of the league’s most versatile corners. In a division with Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler, that’s a very useful (and necessary) weapon.
11. Tennessee Titans: Anthony Barr, DE/OLB, UCLA
Anthony Barr has too much upside to fall much further down the draft, and Dustin Hockensmith of PennLive.com breaks down why he might fit in the Titans’ plans:
The Titans are expected to show more 3-4 looks under first-year defensive coordinator Ray Horton, which moves Barr up a few spots on their draft board. While Buffalo’s Khalil Mack is a better overall prospect, Barr is an explosive athlete with more length (6-5, 255 pounds) and arguably more upside.
Cornerback is a need, but it’s also one of the deepest positions in the draft, and getting a fearsome pass-rusher would be the ideal situation. Only nine teams had fewer sacks than the Titans last year, and Barr demonstrated the athleticism and closing speed to get to the quarterback at UCLA.
12. New York Giants: Eric Ebron, TE, North Carolina
The Giants would ideally like to draft an offensive lineman to better protect Eli Manning, but that would be a reach with how the draft has gone to this point, so getting Manning another weapon would be the next best thing.
There are plenty of receivers who could be drafted later on, but Eric Ebron is a tight end who could give the Giants a unique weapon to attack the seams of a defense. With a deadly combination of size and speed, Ebron would be a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses.
Upgrading the pass rush is another priority for New York, but there are a number of intriguing options who will be on the clock when the Giants are picking in the second round.
13. St. Louis Rams: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, FS, Alabama
Free safety is a gigantic need for the Rams, and Clinton-Dix is the best and most pro-ready prospect in this draft. He has better instincts and coverage skills than Calvin Pryor and would instantly shore up the Rams’ last line of defense. In one of his recent articles, Bucky Brooks of NFL.com explains why Clinton-Dix is such a good pick for the Rams:
The Rams have assembled a young, athletic defense with playmakers on every level, but the unit still lacks a game-changing presence at free safety. Clinton-Dix is an instinctive center fielder with the speed and quickness to cover from numbers to numbers as a deep-middle player.
With strong safety T.J. McDonald showing promise as a first-year starter last season, the addition of Clinton-Dix could give the Rams the kind of dynamic safety tandem common among elite defenses in the NFC.
14. Chicago Bears: Timmy Jernigan, DT, Florida State
The Chicago Bears have a big hole in the middle of the defensive line, and it only makes sense for them to fill that hole in the first round. The question will come down to Aaron Donald versus Timmy Jernigan, and Jernigan’s bigger frame will win out.
There are plenty of scouting reports out there on every prospect, but here’s Jernigan’s report on himself, courtesy of ESPN’s Heather Dinich:
I can play a 3-technique, and when it’s a pass situation and you want to go to a three-man front, you can put me on the nose guard right on the zero. I can get pressure from the middle. I feel like that’s where my game changes from everyone else.
Jernigan will help out the whole defense and can be a disruptive force in the middle of the line.
15. Pittsburgh Steelers: Darqueze Dennard, CB, Michigan State
Ike Taylor’s play dropped off noticeably in 2013, and the Steelers had problems covering No. 1 receivers as a result. It is time to move on from the aging cornerback, and Darqueze Dennard is the best corner on the board.
He’d be a great fit in the Steelers defense with his ability to play physical press coverage at the line of scrimmage. At 5’11” and 199 pounds, he’s not at as big as Gilbert, but he plays with an edge and would be a nice complement to Cortez Allen in the secondary.
There’s plenty to like about the Spartan, and he’s a great value at this point:
16. Dallas Cowboys: Aaron Donald, DT, Pittsburgh
Aaron Donald has drawn comparisons to Geno Atkins because of their similar frames. Charles Davis of NFL Network elaborates on that resemblance and explains how Donald can be effective in the pros:
I think it will really come down to fit and scheme. Geno Atkins ... I think he's done a lot with his play in the NFL to boost the stock of Aaron Donald, who plays a similar type of game. Less than 300 pounds, but he gets up field and makes plays. He could work as that under tackle.
The Cowboys have a tremendous need at defensive tackle after parting ways with Jay Ratliff, and they’ll have their pick of which tackle the Bears pass up.
In this case it’s Aaron Donald, and Dallas would have to be happy with the accomplished tackle who has dominated every challenge put in his way and won every major defensive lineman award in the country at Pittsburgh last year.
17. Baltimore Ravens: Zack Martin, OT, Notre Dame
The Ravens need a pass-catcher, but that need isn’t that great with the addition of Steve Smith. Even though they re-signed Eugene Monroe, there is plenty of work to be done to rebuild an offensive line that was one of the worst in the league in 2013. Zack Martin has the versatility to start at multiple positions from day one.
NFL media analyst Charley Casserly has Martin going to the Ravens in his latest mock draft, and here’s his reasoning for the pick:
I've got Zack Martin from Notre Dame. I like him as a technician. He can slide his feet and plays the run equally well as the pass. To me, he's a better prospect than Jordan Pugh, who started for the Giants last year.
His arm length and size prompt concerns about his ability to play tackle, which is why he’s not one of the first tackles taken, but he’s so technically sound that he’s worth the risk at this point. Even if he’s not cut out for right tackle, he will immediately help Baltimore at guard or even center.
18. New York Jets: Odell Beckham Jr., WR, LSU
Odell Beckham Jr. was one of the biggest winners at the combine, and Doug Farrar of Sports Illustrated breaks down why:
After running unofficial 40-yard dashes timed anywhere from 4.31 to 4.40, Beckham went out and showed that he has many of the attributes that the NFL requires of its smaller, faster receivers.
Overall, the thing that impressed me most about Beckham in these drills was that he’s very comfortable with his speed. Not only is he track and field-fast, he also glides through routes and catches the ball with confidence. On the gauntlet drill, he ran through and caught everything, keeping his feet on the line all the way through.
The Jets have had a need for a No. 1 receiver for a couple of years now, and Beckham can be that player. With terrific speed, shiftiness in the open field and the ability to high-point the ball, he will be an instant playmaker in New York.
19. Miami Dolphins: Louis Nix III, DT, Notre Dame
The Dolphins definitely have a need along the offensive line (pick a position), but the value isn’t there with Zack Martin off the board. Miami could trade up to get some offensive line help, but in this mock draft they take the best player on the board: Louis Nix III.
Miami lost Paul Soliai in free agency and could use a big run-stuffing nose tackle, and that’s what the Notre Dame product provides. He’s enormous (6’2”, 331 pounds) but displayed surprising short-area quickness for the Fighting Irish.
As an instant starter in the middle of the D-line, the Dolphins will be happy with this pick despite not addressing the offensive line.
20. Arizona Cardinals: Calvin Pryor, S, Louisville
After signing promising left tackle Jared Veldheer, upgrading the offensive line isn’t as high on the Cardinals’ offseason priority list as it used to be. Selecting an outside linebacker is an option here, but there is depth at the position, which will allow Arizona to add one in a later round.
Calvin Pryor is a natural fit in the hard-hitting NFC West and has the athleticism and range to be the perfect antidote against the mobility of Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick. He needs to improve his coverage skills, but he’ll be a playmaker and enforcer from the get-go.
21. Green Bay Packers: C.J. Mosley, ILB, Alabama
If Pryor were still on the board, he would be the pick here for the Packers, but C.J. Mosley is staring them right in the face, and he’s an absolute steal at pick No. 21. His former head coach, Nick Saban, feels the same way, according to Jim Corbett of USA TODAY:
If people evaluate C.J. as a football player—how fast you play; how athletic you are; how instinctive you are and how many plays you make—I would challenge anybody to show me 10 better players.
He silently works hard, doesn't look for a lot of self-gratification from other people—really has fun doing what he does. He understands, though, to have fun and to be confident, you really have to invest time and earn it. He practices that way, plays that way. It is unusual today to find someone who is driven to do well in everything he aspires to.
The Packers have plenty of talent at outside linebacker, but their inside linebackers are nothing to write home about—Mosley solidifies that linebacking corps for the future.
22. Philadelphia Eagles: Jason Verrett, CB, TCU
Jason Verrett will fall to this point because teams will be wary of his size (5’9” and 189 pounds) or lack thereof. That’s a mistake of Russell Wilson proportions because Verrett does everything really well.
He’s an explosive athlete who is exceptionally fluid in coverage. On top of that, he’s a tough, physical player who steps onto the gridiron with a chip on his shoulder—as he showed at the combine:
Verrett is going to be a game-changer in the NFL and, though his size will sometimes be an issue against bigger receivers, he can more than compensate for it with the abundance of highlight plays he will make on the outside.
23. Kansas City Chiefs: Brandin Cooks, WR, Oregon State
Two things make this such a good fit for both parties. Firstly, the Kansas City Chiefs sorely need another receiver to pair with Dwayne Bowe. As a team without many other major needs, the Chiefs can be aggressive in plugging up that hole on their roster and target a top-notch receiver in the first round.
The other reason why Cooks goes off the board here is because he fits in so well to their scheme. He has the elite speed to take the top off opposing defenses, but he’s at his best when he’s running after the catch. Alex Smith rarely took shots down the field last year (Jamaal Charles was the second-most targeted receiver on the team), and Cooks will thrive in head coach Andy Reid’s West Coast offense as a Wes Welker clone:
24. Cincinnati Bengals: Kyle Fuller, CB, Virginia Tech
As we get to the end of the first round, we’re hitting the teams that don’t have many needs to address. That’s the case with Cincinnati, but they do have a glaring hole at cornerback.
Leon Hall was a stud at the position, but he’s 30 years old and has torn his Achilles twice in the last three years and may not be able to come back as a shutdown corner.
Behind him, the depth chart is littered with nickelbacks who shouldn’t be relied on as starters in the secondary. Kyle Fuller can walk into the Bengals practice facility as the starter thanks to his versatility and coverage skills.
25. San Diego Chargers: Ryan Shazier, OLB, Ohio State
Ryan Shazier is one of the wild cards of this draft because he could go as high as the middle of the first round or fall to the end of the second depending on how the board shakes out and which teams fall in love with him.
Bucky Brooks of NFL.com broke down why Shazier is starting to shoot up draft boards after an outstanding combine performance (h/t to Jim Corbett of USA TODAY):
Ryan is always the model of what you're looking for at the linebacker position. Ryan is very fast, super athletic and has that positional versatility you look for. He can cover tight ends but also rush off the edge.
For this mock, he goes to San Diego, where he’ll be an instant three-down contributor with enticing versatility in John Pagano’s defense.
26. Cleveland Browns: Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M
A lot of the hoopla surrounding Johnny Manziel had to do with things that happened off the field, but none of them were so serious that they would damage his draft stock in the eyes of a GM looking for the most important position on the field.
But his on-field decision making and risky choices are a problem, and it’s no guarantee that Manziel’s improvisational style of play will translate to the next level. For that reason, the Browns wouldn’t be interested in him with the fourth pick of the draft, but at the end of the first round? Bargain.
The Browns have the defense and offensive line to help Manziel succeed, and with Josh Gordon, Jordan Cameron and Sammy Watkins at his disposal, he couldn’t ask for a better situation.
27. New Orleans Saints: Dee Ford, OLB, Auburn
After surprising the NFL and signing safety Jairus Byrd, adding another pass-rusher is the biggest concern for the Saints. Dee Ford is the best one on the board, and defensive coordinator Rob Ryan would have a field day using his upper-level athleticism to generate pressure on the quarterback—a necessity in a division with Cam Newton and Matt Ryan.
The biggest obstacle is that he played his entire career at Auburn as a hand-in-the-dirt defensive end, and Joel A. Erickson of AL.com breaks down what Ford has to prove:
Ford's one of the fastest-rising prospects in the draft right now, a pure pass rusher who tore up Senior Bowl practices and then backed up the on-field product with an impressive physical performance at Auburn's Pro Day on Tuesday.
Now, Ford's task is to show teams in individual workouts that he's capable of playing in any scheme after lining up as a defensive end in a four-man front throughout his time at Auburn.
Nevertheless, the athleticism is there to transition to a 3-4 OLB, and he is a valuable commodity as an elite pass-rusher.
28. Carolina Panthers: Marqise Lee, WR, USC
After releasing fan favorite Steve Smith, the Panthers have a need at wide receiver. That’s not a big deal in this draft, however, as they can relax and be happy grabbing the best pass-catcher on the board at the end of the first round.
In this case, it’s Marqise Lee, and the Panthers would have to be thrilled with the upside. Lee has had an underwhelming pre-draft process, which isn’t great considering his uninspiring 2013 season.
But many—like NFL.com’s Bucky Brooks—feel that Lee is right up there with the best this draft has to offer:
I still believe a healthy Marqise Lee can rival Sammy Watkins for what he's able to do. They just flipped years. Sammy Watkins had a bad sophomore year, and Marqise Lee had a great sophomore year. Sammy Watkins had an outstanding junior year, Marqise Lee had an injury-plagued year.
With that kind of upside and a refined route tree, Lee can help Panthers fans forget about Steve Smith as he takes the torch of being Cam Newton’s go-to receiver.
29. New England Patriots: Ra’Shede Hageman, DT, Minnesota
The New England Patriots have a hole in the middle of their defense, and Ra’Shede Hageman has the talent and versatility to be a starter even with Vince Wilfork still on the team.
Rob Rang of CBSSports breaks down his unique athletic ability and versatility along the D-line:
Alternately lining up over the nose or as a three-technique, Hageman consistently pushes his counterparts deep into the backfield, demonstrating rare upfield burst for a man of his size, as well as impressive strength. A brute in the middle, combining excellent size and power to push blockers deep into the pocket.
Hageman has such tremendous upside that the Pats won’t be able to pass him up if he’s still on the board.
30. San Francisco 49ers: Bradley Roby, CB, Ohio State
NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock was watching Roby at the Ohio State pro day and was impressed, according to Daniel Kim of NFL.com:
Mayock said Roby showed teams Friday that he could be ‘smooth and athletic and show a great change of direction.’
‘He put on a show,’ Mayock said, adding that he thinks Roby and Oklahoma State's Justin Gilbert are the draft's two most-athletic corners in the draft.
With uncertainty in the secondary, it would behoove the San Francisco 49ers to select a cornerback in the first round of the draft, and Bradley Roby has so much upside given his insane athleticism that he’s not getting out of the first round.
31. Denver Broncos: Kony Ealy, DE, Missouri
The Broncos addressed so many of their needs via free agency that general manager John Elway has some flexibility with this first-round pick. Even though he added defensive end DeMarcus Ware, his age is a question mark, and upgrading the pass rush is a priority for Denver.
With that in mind, they would regret passing on defensive end Kony Ealy, who gives tremendous value this late in the game.
The Missouri product improved on his 40-yard dash at his pro day, assuaging any concerns about his athletic ability. The trio of Von Miller, Ware and Ealy would be tough for opposing O-lines to handle and would give the Broncos defense the pass rush it was lacking last year.
32. Seattle Seahawks: Xavier Su’a-Filo, OG, UCLA
The reigning Super Bowl champs are all set on the defensive side of the ball—just ask the Broncos—but they could use an upgrade at receiver or on the offensive line. The depth of this receiver class means the Seahawks would be smart to wait until the second round to target a pass-catcher, and they’ll upgrade their interior O-line with their first pick.
NFL.com’s Daniel Jeremiah illustrates why Su’a-Filo makes sense in Seattle:
Adding another versatile piece like Xavier Su'a-Filo to the offensive line certainly would keep Pro Bowl running back Marshawn Lynch happy. The former UCLA offensive lineman is smart, tough and very physical -- three traits that mesh well with Seattle's brand of football. Although he fits better as an interior lineman, the 6-foot-4, 307-pounder has the ability to slide out to the right tackle spot if needed.
That brings us to the end of Day 1, but every team would be thrilled with their picks if the draft played out this way.