2014 NFL Mock Draft: Projecting the Smartest Picks in the First Round

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2014 NFL Mock Draft: Projecting the Smartest Picks in the First Round
Patric Schneider/Associated Press

With every high-profile free agent having already chosen his destination, the NFL draft is the final piece of the offseason player-movement cycle.

Some teams' needs have changed based on the successes or failures of the free-agent signing period. In any case, 31 teams have their sites set firmly on dethroning the Seattle Seahawks. The first round of May's draft will play a huge role.

Here's a look at my latest first-round mock draft. These picks represent the smartest selections for each team.

 

1. Houston Texans: Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M  

Patric Schneider/Associated Press

Almost everyone seems to be down on Manziel nowadays. The chances Johnny Football goes No. 1 are getting slimmer everyday, but that doesn't mean that it's not the best selection for the Texans to make.

With every veteran quarterback off the board and Matt Schaub traded to the Oakland Raiders, who will the Texans put under center?

In a transitional year, the Texans may as well draft a QB with great upside and even greater marketability.


2. St. Louis Rams: Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson 

Safety, cornerback and offensive tackle are both needs for the Rams, but not as much as a true No. 1 wide receiver.

With a chance to get an explosive talent like Watkins to pair with Tavon Austin, St. Louis would be crazy to pass—especially since it has another pick later in the first round to fill one of its other needs.

 

3. Jacksonville Jaguars: Khalil Mack, DE/OLB, Buffalo 

Chris Clemons was signed, but at 32 years old and with an ACL injury in his past, the Jags can't consider themselves set at defensive end. Mack's edge-rushing skills and motor would be a great addition in Jacksonville.

The Jags better make a move for him. If not, the Cleveland Browns might snatch him up with the very next pick. Per ESPN.com's Scott Brown, here's what Browns head coach Mike Pettine said about Mack: “Explosive athlete. He’s a guy that the tape backs it up. He can play on the ball, he can play off the ball, he plays violently, and he’s played some of his better games against better competition."

 

4. Cleveland Browns: Blake Bortles, QB, Central Florida

With Mack gone, the temptation to go away from the team's need at quarterback will be gone—unless the Browns believes in South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney.

Taking Bortles is a smarter choice because the current state at quarterback for the Browns is depressing. The team must finally find its signal-caller before taking another step toward respectability.

 

5. Oakland Raiders: Greg Robinson, LT, Auburn  

Oakland has a plethora of needs of both sides of the ball. It could go for Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater, but Terrelle Pryor deserves another chance to be the team's starting quarterback. Plus, there's always the newly acquired Schaub as an option.

That said, the best move for Oakland is to draft a stud left tackle like Robinson to protect Pryor and help the running game.

 

6. Atlanta Falcons: Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina  

Atlanta may have to trade up if it wants Clowney. That all depends on if the teams ahead of it are enamored with his ability to rush the passer and are convinced he'll show great work ethic.

Atlanta needs pass rushing terribly. Over the last two seasons combined, the Falcons have just 61 sacks as a team. In comparison, Atlanta's division rival Carolina Panthers had 60 in 2013 alone.

 

7. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M  

There's a temptation to take Matthews' college teammate Mike Evans here to pair with Vincent Jackson. The two would make a dynamic and large wide receiver tandem.

A more pressing need is on the offensive line. Tampa Bay gave up 47 sacks in 2013.

Matthews could be a bookend tackle for the next 10 years, and the Bucs would be wise to call his name here.

 

8. Minnesota Vikings: Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville  

Timothy D. Easley/Associated Press

So Bridgewater didn't light it up at his pro day. That doesn't erase a stellar college career and the great list of intangibles he possesses.

At least it better not as far as the Vikings are concerned.

Minnesota did bring Matt Cassel back, but he's obviously not a long-term answer at quarterback. Bridgewater is, even if it takes a little longer than expected.

 

9. Buffalo Bills: Mike Evans, WR, Texas A&M  

Finding EJ Manuel weapons in the passing game that he can gel with should be the Bills' top priority. Evans is the type of receiver that can be a big-play threat and a safety valve for a young quarterback.

If Buffalo wants to give Manuel every chance to succeed, it will use this pick to get him someone to throw to. With so many top prospects emerging from Texas A&M, it's easy for Evans to get overlooked.

Bleacher Report's draft guru Matt Miller takes exception to that in this tweet:

 

10. Detroit Lions: Justin Gilbert, CB, Oklahoma State  

The Lions have adequate players at corner, but if the team really wants to have the secondary catch up with its talented front four, it needs a top corner prospect like Gilbert.

The 22-year-old is big (6'0", 202 lbs), fast (4.37-second 40-yard dash) and confident. He told Kyle Meinke of MLive.com: "I think I'm the best corner in the draft. I worked hard to be in the position I'm in, and I'm not going to let anyone take that from me." 

11. Tennessee Titans: Anthony Barr, DE/OLB, UCLA

Speed, explosiveness and play-making ability is what the Titans' defense needs most of all.

Barr is one of the best athletes in the draft and would flourish as a rush linebacker in Tennessee. His ability to get into the backfield and chase down outside run attempts could change the Titans defense.

 

12. New York Giants: Aaron Donald, DT, Pittsburgh  

There will be a bevy of teams upset that Donald is off the board. He looks like a Geno Atkins clone, which is high praise.

The Giants need to rebuild their pass rush, and adding a player who can collapse the pocket would make the entire defensive line better. Unless a team leapfrogs the G-Men to take Donald, this is the best selection.

 

13. St. Louis Rams: Darqueze Dennard, CB, Michigan State  

With Watkins in place in this mock draft, the Rams can look at addressing holes in their secondary. With Cortland Finnegan gone, the Rams can take another physical—but younger—cornerback to step in and play opposite Janoris Jenkins.

Dennard and Gilbert are almost equal as cornerback prospects go in this draft. Getting him here is a win for St. Louis.  

14. Chicago Bears: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, S, Alabama

Phil Emery has done well this offseason. The aggressive move to sign Jared Allen has made the Bears a legit contender in the NFC. There is still a need for depth at defensive tackle, but that can be addressed in the second or third round.

The one lone glaring weakness is at free safety. The incumbent Chris Conte was horrendous in 2013, and the recently signed M.D. Jennings is not going to cause anyone to forget Gary Fencik anytime soon.

The Bears need an impact safety who can make plays. Clinton-Dix comes from a winning program and a strong overall defensive unit. With so many capable veterans on the roster, this is a perfect landing spot for him and the Bears. 

 

15. Pittsburgh Steelers: Eric Ebron, TE, North Carolina  

Easily the top receiver tight end in the draft is Ebron. He can stretch the field up the seams for the Steelers and take pressure off Antonio Brown as the primary target for Ben Roethlisberger.

It's time the Steelers got back in the business of adding formidable offensive weapons.

 

16. Dallas Cowboys: Kony Ealy, DE, Missouri  

Dallas' defense was so bad in 2013, it just needs to take the best defensive player on the board—no matter his position.

At this point, that would be Ealy.

He's a big at 6'4", 273 pounds, but exceptionally mobile. Matthew Fairburn of SB Nation talked about how Ealy's speed makes him more versatile:

For a team in need of difference-makers on defense, Ealy shouldn't slip by Dallas.

 

17. Baltimore Ravens: Calvin Pryor, S, Louisville  

Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Baltimore misses the presence of an elite safety on its defense. Pryor is physical and intimidating against the pass, which is different from the game Ed Reed played brilliantly for the franchise.

That said, there is an unquestioned hole there that Pryor could fill for the team.

 

18. New York Jets: Brandin Cooks, WR, Oregon State  

No matter if Michael Vick or Geno Smith is the quarterback for the Jets, the team needs weapons in the passing game. With speed to burn and the ability to make an impact as a kick and punt returner, Cooks is too good of a prospect to pass up.

His game reminds me a bit of current Ravens receiver Steve Smith. If Cooks can be nearly as good, the Jets would have quite the player.

 

19. Miami Dolphins: Taylor Lewan, OT, Michigan 

Because Ryan Tannehill was sacked 48 times last year, the Fins have to draft an offensive lineman. Lewan is a big, nasty offensive tackle who can not only keep Tannehill a little cleaner, but also help improve the team's outside running game.

 

20. Arizona Cardinals: Ra'Shede Hageman, DE/DT, Minnesota  

The Cardinals defense was one of the best parts of the team, but to ensure this stays a strength, the team has to add depth behind its aging stars.

Darnell Dockett will be 33 in May. His position will need to be upgraded soon.

Hageman is a 6'6" freakish athlete with awesome upside. On a defense that has already established itself as one of the better units in the NFL, Hageman should blossom just in time to replace Dockett.

 

21. Green Bay Packers: C.J. Mosley, ILB, Alabama  

As long as Aaron Rodgers is under center, the Packers offense will be respectable.

The defense must improve if Rodgers is ever going to get another opportunity to win a Super Bowl. The inside linebackers aren't fearsome in Green Bay right now, and in this scenario, the Packers have a chance to nab a player who could make an instant impact.

Mosley is a smart leader with a high motor. Adding him would help to guide the Green Bay defense in the right direction in the near future.

 

22. Philadelphia Eagles: Marqise Lee, WR, USC  

Ethan Miller/Getty Images

If the Eagles trade DeSean Jackson—as has been discussed by Mike Reiss of ESPN.com and others—Lee would be a solid replacement. He has speed that is comparable to Jackson's, so it would give Philly back the deep threat to the offense.

Lee is a bigger target at six feet and has more overall upside.

 

23. Kansas City Chiefs: David Yankey, G/OT, Stanford  

Kansas City's offense is built around the run game and short passes. Thus, this team needs to ensure it wins the battle on the interior line most weeks.

The right guard spot is a bit weak for the team. Though the position is traditionally undervalued, the Chiefs can feel good about selecting a stud like Yankey this late in the first round.

 

24. Cincinnati Bengals: Jason Verrett, CB, TCU  

The Bengals don't have a ton of glaring weaknesses on their roster, but they could stand to get younger in the secondary. Specifically speaking, the cornerbacks Terence Newman (35) and Adam Jones (30) are long in the tooth.

Verrett is fast and he plays with a chip on his shoulder. That swagger is needed at the cornerback position, and it'll be necessary if he's going to earn any playing time amongst a crew of veterans.

 

25. San Diego Chargers: Bradley Roby, CB, Ohio State  

San Diego's cornerbacks aren't very good. Safety Eric Weddle made the unit look better than it was at times because of the ground he covers and due to his instincts.

An upgrade is necessary, especially considering the Chargers share a division with Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos. Roby is bigger than Verrett, and some might even have him rated a shade ahead of the TCU product.

In any case, the Chargers would have addressed a position of need with this pick.

During an Q&A with Bleacher Report's Ryan Riddle and Penn State's prolific receiver Allen Robinson, the latter said this about Roby:

 

26. Cleveland Browns: Zack Martin, OT/G, Notre Dame  

Martin's versatility has to jump out at teams—especially for a late first-round pick. With the Browns presumably having drafted their quarterback of the future in Bortles earlier in the round, it seems safe to take a player like Martin here.

His ability to be a force in the running game as a guard and to play in a pinch as a tackle makes him valuable.

 

27. New Orleans Saints: Cyrus Kouandjio, OT, Alabama  

Without Jermon Bushrod, the Saints' sacks allowed increased from 26 to 37. Drew Brees didn't look all that comfortable in the pocket throughout much of the season.

Kouandjio is a project, but taking him here at least represents a selection at a position of need.

 

28. Carolina Panthers: Odell Beckham, WR, LSU  

The Panthers released Steve Smith and didn't sign another player capable of replacing him as the team's go-to receiver. It seems obvious that Carolina has to make receiver its top priority in the draft.

Beckham Jr. is a great athlete and could provide yards after the catch for Cam Newton. He's not going to be a valid replacement for Smith, but it's a start.

It wouldn't be shocking to see the Panthers try to move up to take a shot at Evans or Lee.

 

29. New England Patriots: Louis Nix, NT, Notre Dame  

Whether the Patriots can keep the disgruntled Vince Wilfork or not, the team still needs to be thinking about his replacement. New England's defense needs a big, physical presence in the middle from a run-stuffing defensive tackle.

Nix could play that same role.

At 6'2", 331 pounds, he has the beef and strength to potentially hold his ground in the middle, much like Wilfork has done for the last 10 years.

 

30. San Francisco 49ers: Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Florida State  

Even though Anquan Boldin was re-signed, the Niners still have to look into acquiring younger receivers. It's funny the word "young" would be used as an endorsement for drafting Benjamin.

He just turned 23, which is not the ideal age for a rookie.

Nonetheless, Benjamin is still an intriguing talent at 6'5", 240 pounds. His ability to go up high in the red zone would be a great asset to the offense.

 

31. Denver Broncos: Ryan Shazier, LB, Ohio State 

Michael Conroy/Associated Press

The Broncos need a presence at middle linebacker. With Mosley off the board, the next best player is Shazier.

At his pro day, Shazier made himself some serious money when he ran a 4.36 40-yard dash.

Putting an explosive player like Shazier in the middle of the Broncos defense could help get them over the hump.

 

32. Seattle Seahawks: Dee Ford, DE/OLB, Auburn  

The Seahawks understand that the strength of their team is their defense. Though it still appears as though the unit will be tight again in 2014, it never hurts to proactively address positions of need.

Cliff Avril is headed for free agency after 2014, and the team failed to lure Allen in free agency. Because of that, adding another young edge-rusher like Ford could ensure the Seahawks defense stays nasty.

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