With most of the high-profile signings in free agency already taken care of, most NFL organizations have now shifted their focus toward improving through the draft.
This year's class appears to be a strong one, so every team selecting in the first round will have an opportunity to get better right away. Several players have the potential to be franchise pillars, and it will be interesting to see where they ultimately land.
Here are the latest projections for how things will play out in the first round of the 2014 NFL draft on May 8.
1. Houston Texans (2-14): Blake Bortles, QB, UCF
After trading Matt Schaub to the Oakland Raiders, it seems quite clear that the Texans are in the market for a quarterback. They'll have their pick of the litter, but they will settle on the most physically gifted passer in Bortles.
2. St. Louis Rams (from 3-13 Washington Redskins): Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson
The Rams are in an enviable position as they can either execute a trade with a team looking to select defensive end Jadeveon Clowney or stand pat and fill a need. They'll choose the latter by taking Watkins and giving quarterback Sam Bradford another weapon.
3. Jacksonville Jaguars (4-12): Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina
As the top physical specimen in the draft and arguably the top overall player, tracking the status of defensive end Jadeveon Clowney will be of great interest on draft day. Perhaps Clowney would be a lock at No. 1 in most years, but with the Texans needing a quarterback and the Rams already possessing a ton of talent at defensive end, he could very well be there at No. 3.
Clowney may fall to the Jags. However, Jacksonville has already gone to great lengths to improve its defensive line this offseason. That includes the signings of Chris Clemons, Red Bryant and Ziggy Hood. Even so, Jacksonville doesn't exactly have a dominant pass-rusher.
With that in mind, NFL Network's Charles Davis simply can't see Jacksonville passing on Clowney if he's there, according to Bryan Fischer of NFL.com.
I'm not even going to hesitate on that—zero (chance Jaguars pass on Clowney). Gus Bradley, the defensive-minded head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars who came from Seattle and watched them win the Super Bowl this year? No way he lets Jadeveon Clowney slide past him at three. He'll be very creative in how he uses him, too.
Clowney is so highly touted that the Rams may even consider taking him at No. 2 despite the talent that they already have in place at defensive end, per Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:
Could Rams take DE Jadeveon Clowney at No. 2 overall? Fisher: "I've learned over the years that you never have enough pass rushers."— Jim Thomas (@jthom1) March 26, 2014
That may be a smokescreen more than anything, but it speaks to how special Clowney is as a prospect. There is no doubt that the Jaguars need a quarterback, but waiting on that for one more year in favor of Clowney is Jacksonville's best bet.
4. Cleveland Browns (4-12): Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M
Perhaps no player in this draft is more exciting than Manziel, and no team needs a boost more than the Browns. Having cut both quarterbacks Brandon Weeden and Jason Campbell, Cleveland finds its signal-caller of the present and future here.
5. Oakland Raiders (4-12): Greg Robinson, OT, Auburn
The Raiders are known for their penchant to reach for dynamic players, but with such a huge need along the offensive line, expect Oakland to make the practical pick by nabbing Robinson.
6. Atlanta Falcons (4-12): Khalil Mack, OLB, Buffalo
Atlanta is a definite candidate to move up in the draft and select Clowney, but if the Falcons ultimately decide to stay where they are, then they'll be rewarded with the best all-around linebacker in this draft, and arguably the best linebacker prospect in recent memory.
7. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-12): Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M
It can be argued that no player in the draft has a higher floor than Matthews. The odds of him busting appear to be quite low, so the Bucs will be thrilled to see him fall into their lap at No. 7.
8. Minnesota Vikings (5-10-1): Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville
The Vikings simply can't become true threats with Christian Ponder and Matt Cassel at quarterback. Although Bridgewater's draft stock has seemingly dropped since the NFL Scouting Combine, the value and fit are too good to pass up here.
9. Buffalo Bills (6-10): Mike Evans, WR, Texas A&M
Buffalo's success or lack thereof in 2014 will rely heavily upon the development of young quarterback EJ Manuel. The best way to ensure that he progresses is by surrounding him with weapons, so Evans has to be the selection if he's there.
10. Detroit Lions (7-9): Darqueze Dennard, CB, Michigan State
Detroit's secondary has been an issue for quite some time, but the Lions have an opportunity to address it this year. It comes down to a matter of preference between Dennard and Justin Gilbert, but Detroit will go with the former since he's an in-state product of whom they have presumably seen plenty.
11. Tennessee Titans (7-9): Justin Gilbert, CB, Oklahoma State
Whichever cornerback the Lions pass on should find a home in Tennessee. The Titans lost star corner Alterraun Verner to the Bucs in free agency, so they would be wise to replace him with Gilbert.
12. New York Giants (7-9): Aaron Donald, DT, Pittsburgh
The Giants had a tough go of it in free agency with depth along the defensive line now becoming an issue. Defensive tackle Linval Joseph signed with the Vikings, so look for the G-Men to select the draft's best tackle in Donald.
13. St. Louis Rams (7-9): Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, S, Alabama
After taking Watkins at No. 2, the Rams can afford to shift their focus to the defensive side of the ball at No. 13. St. Louis' front seven is excellent, but the secondary could use a boost and Clinton-Dix would definitely provide it.
14. Chicago Bears (8-8): Timmy Jernigan, DT, Florida State
The Bears' once-ferocious defense has slowly but surely been depleted in recent years, but the rebuild has already begun. Having already signed defensive end Jared Allen in free agency, the Bears should supplement that addition by grabbing a high-ceiling tackle like Jernigan.
15. Pittsburgh Steelers (8-8): Anthony Barr, OLB, UCLA
UCLA linebacker Anthony Barr is arguably a top-five talent in this year's draft, but there is a very real chance that he will slide down draft boards. If the Falcons decide that Mack is a better fit at No. 6, then don't be surprised if Barr lasts beyond the top 15. There aren't a ton of teams near the top of the draft with a need at rush linebacker, and it remains to be seen if Barr is capable of playing with his hand down.
That latter point wouldn't be an issue with the Pittsburgh Steelers, though, as they would likely love to have Barr. Even though the Steelers already have Jason Worilds and drafted Jarvis Jones in the first round last year, Barr's value is too great at this point.
Besides, the Steelers have a hole to fill from a pass-rushing perspective after releasing LaMarr Woodley, according to Alan Robinson of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review:
#Steelers officially release LaMarr Woodley only 3 years after giving him $61.5 mil contract.— Alan Robinson (@arobinson_Trib) March 11, 2014
Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau could potentially do some special things with a big-time talent like Barr, so the linebacker would almost certainly thrive in the Steel City. The secondary presents a more pressing need for Pittsburgh at this point, but why reach when a possible star like Barr is there for the taking?
16. Dallas Cowboys (8-8): Kony Ealy, DE, Missouri
The Cowboys are quite clearly heading in the wrong direction, and something needs to be done in order to stem the tide. Replacing defensive end DeMarcus Ware after releasing him isn't realistic, but perhaps Ealy can develop into a similar player over time.
17. Baltimore Ravens (8-8): Taylor Lewan, OT, Michigan
Injuries destroyed the Ravens' chances of repeating as Super Bowl champions last season, but they should rebound if fully healthy. Keeping quarterback Joe Flacco off the turf is the No. 1 priority, and a big offensive tackle like Lewan would certainly help in that regard.
18. New York Jets (8-8): Eric Ebron, TE, North Carolina
The Jets have gone to great lengths to improve their moribund offense this offseason by inking both wide receiver Eric Decker and quarterback Michael Vick. Regardless of whether Vick or Geno Smith starts under center for New York in 2014, more weapons are needed, and Ebron fits the bill.
19. Miami Dolphins (8-8): Zack Martin, OT, Notre Dame
Even in the wake of signing offensive tackle Branden Albert, the Dolphins still have holes along the offensive line. That makes Martin the perfect pick here, since he could potentially play tackle or guard at the next level.
With which overall pick will Jadeveon Clowney be selected?
20. Arizona Cardinals (10-6): Dee Ford, DE, Auburn
The Cardinals are a team on the verge of making some noise in the playoffs, but they are still a couple minor pieces away. Ford may be viewed as a slight reach here, but he has all the physical tools and gives Arizona the pass-rusher it so desperately needs.
21. Green Bay Packers (8-7-1): Calvin Pryor, S, Louisville
Green Bay's defense has suffered a precipitous decline since the Packers won the Super Bowl a few seasons ago, but selecting a do-everything safety like Pryor could help turn the tide and put Green Bay back on the ascent.
22. Philadelphia Eagles (10-6): C.J. Mosley, ILB, Alabama
There is no question that Philadelphia's offense, led by quarterback Nick Foles and running back LeSean McCoy, will be explosive and productive in 2014. The same can't necessarily be said for the Eagles defense; however, Mosley is a true leader on the field and would almost certainly make a positive impact on that side of the ball.
23. Kansas City Chiefs (11-5): Marqise Lee, WR, USC
Quarterback Alex Smith showed the ability to make some big plays down the stretch for the Chiefs last season, but he is still short on weapons in the passing game. If Kansas City selects Lee, then Smith will have a great receiving duo in Lee and Dwayne Bowe at his disposal.
24. Cincinnati Bengals (11-5): Morgan Moses, OT, Virginia
There are definite question marks regarding whether or not quarterback Andy Dalton is the right guy to lead the Bengals. With that said, he is their guy for now, and he needs to be protected. With offensive tackle Anthony Collins leaving via free agency, Moses is a possibility here.
25. San Diego Chargers (9-7): Jason Verrett, CB, TCU
It can be argued that the Chargers overachieved to some degree in 2013, but it is important to build upon the momentum that they gained. The offense is largely set, however, there are some concerns in the defensive secondary. A cornerback like Verrett would make a lot of sense.
26. Cleveland Browns (from 11-5 Indianapolis Colts): Xavier Su'a-Filo, OG, UCLA
The Browns could consider a wide receiver at this spot to pair with Josh Gordon, but they'll need a strong a versatile offensive line if they select Manziel. Su'a-Filo would almost certainly be an immediate starter on a budding Cleveland offense.
27. New Orleans Saints (11-5): Scott Crichton, DE, Oregon State
New Orleans' window of opportunity in terms of winning a second championship may not be open much longer due to salary-cap concerns and aging stars. That means the defense has to get much better in short order, and Crichton would help immensely.
28. Carolina Panthers (12-4): Odell Beckham Jr., WR, LSU
To call the Carolina Panthers' offseason approach bizarre would be an understatement.
After surprisingly winning the NFC South and earning a first-round bye in the playoffs last season, the Panthers did little to improve. That is especially true at the wide receiver position as Brandon LaFell and Ted Ginn Jr. signed elsewhere, while the organization released former face of the franchise Steve Smith.
There is now little in the way of weapons for quarterback Cam Newton aside from tight end Greg Olsen, so it's blatantly obvious that the Panthers need to take a wide receiver here. There should be some solid options on the board, but the ideal fit would be LSU's Odell Beckham Jr.
Beckham is on the smaller side, although he has a good frame and speed to burn. In many ways, he is reminiscent of a young Steve Smith. Of all the places that Beckham could potentially land in the draft, Carolina is as a good spot as any, according to Bleacher Report's Matt Miller:
49ers or Panthers RT @JJ12391: Matt, what team is the best fit for Odell Beckham Jr.?— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) March 25, 2014
While Beckham hasn't received as much hype as Watkins or Evans, he could potentially be as good or better than both at the NFL level. If he is there at No. 28, the Panthers should consider themselves very lucky.
29. New England Patriots (12-4): Stephon Tuitt, DL, Notre Dame
The Patriots' hybrid defense is dependent upon movable parts and interchangeable pieces, players who can fill a number of different roles. With that in mind, Tuitt makes perfect sense here as a big defensive end who can be kicked inside if need be.
30. San Francisco 49ers (12-4): Brandin Cooks, WR, Oregon State
It's really difficult to identify a true weakness on San Francisco's roster, but with Anquan Boldin and Michael Crabtree serving as possession receivers, finding a speed guy like Cooks at this juncture would be a major coup.
31. Denver Broncos (13-3): Kyle Fuller, CB, Virginia Tech
The Broncos improved their secondary in a big way this offseason by signing cornerback Aqib Talib away from the Patriots, but their work isn't done. Denver still needs someone across from Talib, and Fuller could very well be that guy.
32. Seattle Seahawks (13-3): Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Florida State
The Seahawks have the luxury of being the best team in football and doing whatever they please at No. 32. Filling a hole may not be necessary, but taking Benjamin here would definitely make sense after losing wide receiver Golden Tate to the Detroit Lions.
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