With the major waves of free agency largely in the rear-view mirror, the 2014 NFL draft is the last significant portion of the team-building process. While it is certainly not impossible to find important pieces after May, the draft represents the final opportunity for teams to address its most pressing concerns and unveil high-impact players.
As pro days occur, teams are beginning to finalize their evaluations of college prospects they have scouted for months. While nothing is set in stone a month ahead of the draft, there are fewer mysteries about team needs and preferences.
Using a post-free agency view, here are the updated most likely landing spots for some of this year's most dynamic playmakers.
Jadeveon Clowney, DE: Jacksonville Jaguars
One can poke and prod at Jadeveon Clowney's character all he or she wants, but the physical upside is higher than that of any other prospect in this draft class. Consequently, speculation has emerged that the South Carolina defensive end will not fall out of the top three:
The Jaguars look like a better schematic fit than the Texans, who hold the top overall pick and the first crack at Clowney. While Clowney's athleticism would likely reduce the learning curve if he needed to become a 3-4 outside linebacker, he is already proven as a deadly weapon in the 4-3.
NFL.com's Chase Goodbread reported that Gus Bradley was high on Clowney, and the Jaguars need a true defensive difference-maker. Though the ex-Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator has imported Chris Clemons and Red Bryant from his old team, Bradley still needs an impact edge-rusher.
Jason Babin is a solid veteran, but even with Babin's 7.5 sacks, Jacksonville ranked 30th in sack percentage last year, per TeamRankings.com. Although with free-agent fortifications, the Jags still do not have enough to aid their extremely young secondary.
Clowney is the type of immediate impact player who could revitalize a moribund Jaguars franchise. In terms of concerns about his motor and character, Bradley's sterling reputation as a players' coach seems like a fitting place to maximize Clowney's talents.
The Jaguars have enough needs that they could easily go in a different direction, especially if they fall in love with one of the top quarterbacks. Still, Clowney is arguably the class' top talent, and the talent-deficient Jags do not have much room to nitpick.
Sammy Watkins, WR: Oakland Raiders
With gobs of cap space to start free agency, the Raiders have largely splurged on veteran defensive leadership. While a culture change is certainly vital for an Oakland organization that has not made the postseason since 2002, the Raiders also need more talent for new quarterback Matt Schaub.
At the moment, Schaub's top target is James Jones, who was largely a secondary target in the Green Bay offense, and promising but unproven youngsters like Denarius Moore and Rod Streater. That's a far cry from the Andre Johnson-DeAndre Hopkins tandem in Houston, and at age 33, Schaub has proven he is a complementary piece rather than a quarterback who will elevate his supporting cast.
However, the Raiders could immediately infuse their passing game with a dangerous deep threat by selecting Clemson's Sammy Watkins. Watkins has separated himself as the class' top receiver and sees himself in a similar mold as one of the league's best current vertical receivers:
The Raiders do still have plenty of needs, as most of those veteran defensive free agents are merely stopgaps. Someone like Clowney or Khalil Mack would make for a nice apprentice to new additions such as Justin Tuck and LaMarr Woodley.
Nonetheless, for an organization that has famously valued speed, Watkins brings significantly more polish than most speed demons. As Football Outsiders' Matt Waldman notes in this extremely detailed scouting report, Watkins possesses excellent body control that makes him a more diverse and accomplished route-runner than mainstream perception gives him credit for.
Quite simply, Watkins is a totally different receiver than the Raiders have had in years. For an offense that has largely stagnated over the past decade, the Clemson product would represent a rejuvenating force.
Khalil Mack, DE/OLB: Atlanta Falcons
The Falcons have signed plenty of big-bodied run-stuffing defensive linemen in free agency. A common misconception is that 4-3 defenses need more defensive linemen, but in reality, 3-4 teams really need three defensive tackle types who can effectively two-gap, while the outside linebackers act as hybrids who can pass-rush and drop into coverage.
The Falcons currently do not possess a viable option for the latter requirement, especially with Kroy Biermann coming off a debilitating Achilles injury. However, there are few better fits for their new scheme than Buffalo's Khalil Mack. NFL.com's Mike Huguenin relayed Mack's belief that a 3-4 outside linebacker is his best role, and it's a connection many draftniks are making:
Mack is as physically freakish as Clowney, but unlike the polarizing Gamecock, the former is a much more polished product. As SBNation.com's Stephen White illustrates, Mack has already translated his supreme athleticism into sound coverage techniques. That advantage raises his floor significantly, even if his ceiling might be a tad below that of Clowney's.
It's unclear what changes defensive coordinator Mike Nolan will implement after receiving a two-year contract extension. The brevity means that Nolan will need to see results immediately, and Atlanta figures to provide him with the personnel needed for an immediate turnaround.
One possibility might be using Mack as a wide-alignment "LEO" type, much like the position Michael Bennett played for the Seahawks last year. Mack has proven most effective when playing in space, and while such a role would not utilize his coverage skills as frequently, it would also maximize his impact as an edge-rusher.
Multiplicity rules in the world of defensive scheming, and Mack is among the most versatile defensive players in the draft. The Falcons have done well to turn around a putrid run defense, and Mack could complement those skills to suddenly form a promising front seven.
Blake Bortles, QB: Houston Texans
Per ProFootballTalk.com's Michael David Smith, Houston Texans coach Bill O'Brien told reporters that "he is sure" his team will select a quarterback at some point in the draft. While O'Brien did not specify which round, that only adds the possibility of Central Florida's Blake Bortles going first overall.
Houston's signing of Ryan Fitzpatrick should not materially impact their draft plans. Fitzpatrick is a capable backup and smart veteran leader. But as he has demonstrated in Tennessee and Buffalo, he is a turnover-prone passer who is best used in short relief, rather than as a permanent starter.
Thus, the Texans are likely still looking for their next franchise quarterback. Bortles possesses all of the qualities necessary to succeed in such a capacity, and while his footwork and mechanics under pressure are a concern, O'Brien was largely impressed with those skills at the quarterback's pro day:
If anything, Fitzpatrick's signing theoretically improves the likelihood of Bortles ending up in Houston. Many observers, such as MMQB.com's Greg Bedard, believe Bortles is a raw product whose inconsistent delivery would lead to a disastrous turnover-filled rookie season. Fitzpatrick provides a buffer who could play regularly while Bortles learns and polishes his mechanics.
Selecting Bortles would also represent a concession from the Texans that perhaps they are not equipped for a Chiefs-esque worst-to-first rebound. Houston may have won back-to-back division titles before their disastrous 2-14 2013 season, but an aging core has finally come to roost, and there is likely not enough talent to make a postseason return in 2014.
Still, Bortles gives the Texans the best opportunity to compete with division rival Andrew Luck and the Colts, who figure to dominate the AFC South so long as Luck remains healthy. Houston (and every other team in the division) needs a prospect capable of developing into a foil for Luck, and Bortles offers the highest ceiling of any quarterback in this draft class.
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