A great draft can transform a moribund franchise or put a middle-of-the-pack contender over the top, but a poor draft can set a team back for years. With the first round of the 2014 draft loaded as usual and certain positions saturated with talent, navigating the picks is as much about mitigating risk as anything else.
With that in mind, these are the biggest risks and safest bets in the first round of the NFL draft.
Biggest Risk: Drafting a QB Too Early
With Blake Bortles, Johnny Manziel and Teddy Bridgewater all in the mix for the top 10, each team with a high pick has to weigh the need for a quarterback against the gamble of passing on a more surefire player.
As the merits of one guy's pro day versus another's are dissected ad infinitum, it's important to remember that QB is the toughest position to transition from college to the pros. No other position is less of a sure thing.
Teams such as the Cleveland Browns, the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Minnesota Vikings would do well to remember that there will be talented quarterbacks available in the second and third rounds and that rolling the dice on a QB in the top 10 will let the top talents at other positions go elsewhere.
Russell Wilson has a Super Bowl title tucked in his back pocket after a pair of Pro Bowl seasons. He was picked in the third round of the 2012 draft at 75th overall. Wilson was selected 18 picks after the Denver Broncos took Brock Osweiler.
The Browns selected Brandon Weeden 22nd overall in that draft. Now, they're looking for another QB and considering spending the fourth pick to get Weeden's replacement.
Colin Kaepernick was drafted early in the second round in 2011, and Andy Dalton produced nice value for the Cincinnati Bengals with the pick directly prior to Kaepernick at No. 35.
That year, after Cam Newton went first overall, Blaine Gabbert was the 10th pick to Jacksonville before the Vikings took Christian Ponder at No. 12. Now, both teams are looking for a franchise QB again, and they may be willing to spend a top-eight pick to get one.
With the top of the 2014 draft so rich with talent at several positions, especially offensive tackle and wide receiver, teams in the top 10 would be wise to save their QB picks until at least Round 2. There will be a bevy of talented signal-callers waiting, including Derek Carr, Jimmy Garoppolo, AJ McCarron, Logan Thomas, Zach Mettenberger and Aaron Murray.
Safest Bet: Drafting an Offensive Tackle
If you're looking for sexy, this isn't it, but tackle is another position that has three guys likely to go in the first 10 picks. They do not possess blinding downfield speed and cannot throw the deep ball, but solid play on the offensive line is integral to the success of any attack.
Greg Robinson, an offensive tackle from Auburn, is the safest bet in the draft. Tigers running back Tre Mason ran wild last season, and Robinson was a part of the line that opened enough holes for Mason to rumble for 1,816 yards, 5.7 yards per carry and 23 TDs. Mason will be a second-rounder, but Robinson is likely a top-five pick.
Overall, it's been a fantastic day for the top 3 OTs (Jake Matthews, Greg Robinson and Taylor Lewan). Shouldn't praise one w/o the other two— Dan Hope (@Dan_Hope) February 22, 2014
Jake Matthews of Texas A&M, son of Hall of Famer Bruce Matthews, and Michigan's Taylor Lewan join Robinson in the trio of top tackles. All three guys can come in and start immediately at left tackle to protect the blind side and bolster the run-blocking.
Unlike drafting a QB in the top 10, drafting one of these three guys won't potentially set your franchise back a half-decade by being a bust.
Second-Biggest Risk: Drafting Darqueze Dennard
The Michigan State cornerback is grabbier than Pepe Le Pew, but he projects as the top cornerback on many draft boards. His value is largely tied to that of his toughest competition at the position, Justin Gilbert from Oklahoma State.
Dennard ran a 4.51 in the 40-yard dash, per NFL.com, 13th among cornerbacks and significantly slower than Gilbert's time of 4.37. Though Dennard is far from slow, his tendency to grab receivers is a factor in that slight sluggishness.
.@Steeldabest214 Gilbert > Dennard. Smoother, more athletic, more of an NFL-style cover man. Dennard's speed and grabby tendencies scare me— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) February 19, 2014
5. Dennard: Looked a step slow to me. Is put in positions where he has to grab receivers too much. Mirrors WRs rather than being physical.— Cian Fahey (@Cianaf) February 12, 2014
Of the five experts who did parallel mock drafts on CBSSports.com, two rated Dennard higher than Gilbert and one had them going with consecutive picks. Four of the five pundits projected that Dennard and Gilbert would be taken in the first 15 selections.
Moreover, there is depth in the draft beyond those two highly touted corners. Kyle Fuller (Virginia Tech), Bradley Roby (Ohio State) and Jason Verrett (TCU) are first-round talents, and it's possible that one or two from that group will slip into the second round, so there's really no need to reach for Dennard unless some team is in need of copious pass interference and holding penalties.
Second-Safest Bet: Drafting Khalil Mack
Mack is the top linebacker in the draft, and he actually made it to the No. 1 pick in Mel Kiper's NFL Mock Draft 3.0 on ESPN.com (subscription required). Based on the praise from Mack's coach with the Buffalo Bulls, Jeff Quinn, it's easy to understand why he's near the top of almost every draft board.
Quinn said the following about Mack on The Damon Amendolara Show, via CBSSports.com:
He’s a very dynamic player. As he takes on blocks, he hits and sheds, he pursues and tackles. And when he tackles, he arrives there in a bad mood. It’s hard to game plan when you have a player of that caliber. I always get a kick out of what teams try to do to block Khalil...If you run away from him, he’s going to track you down from behind. If you run to him, he’s going to stuff you from the point of attack.
With Mack's raw ability as both a pass-rusher and a run-stopper, plus the versatility afforded by his athleticism, he can be an elite multi-tool on any defense.
The Cleveland Browns have three selections in the first 35 picks, and they could be in play for Mack at No. 4 overall, especially after new coach Mike Pettine offered glowing praise for the linebacker at the NFL owners meeting, per ESPN.com's Scott Brown. Then again, Pettine has been praising everybody, so it's hard to tell what's genuine and what is merely interference.