As the May 8 date approaches for the first round of the 2014 NFL draft, all 32 franchises have pivotal decisions to make, but they also have one of the best arrays of players to choose from in history.
A lot of needs were addressed in free agency by those who had the cap space to spend a little and revamp their rosters. Now that some holes have been filled and the chaos of that offseason ordeal is over, it's a bit easier to project how the draft might unfold.
In this deep pool of incoming rookie talent, misfiring near the top of the order is improbable since there are so many elite players available. Complicating matters is the uncertainty about the top quarterback prospects. The premium placed on the position could cause a team to reach too early.
Official visits are still to be made and intense evaluation in the coming weeks will take place before each front office has to pull the trigger in the opening round.
Below are some updated predictions that would be the best possible moves for each organization, with the analysis focusing on the top prospects who will have the most significant overall impact.
1. Houston Texans (2-14): Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina
As mentioned, none of the quarterbacks are slam-dunk, surefire superstars in the mold of Andrew Luck, so Houston shouldn't pass on Clowney with the first overall pick.
Speaking of Luck, ESPN draft expert Mel Kiper Jr. referred to Clowney as a similar prospect in that he's a unique player who comes around once every three decades, per the NFL on ESPN's official Twitter account:
Clowney will have the opportunity to learn from J.J. Watt, and especially with Antonio Smith's departure, the defensive line becomes a more pressing need in Houston. It's hard to fathom how opposing offenses are meant to prepare for both Clowney and Watt screaming in off the edge.
Presuming the Texans add at least a decent player to shore up the interior of the defensive line—where Clowney could also slide on occasion—they will have one of the most terrifying front sevens in the league for years to come.
2. St. Louis Rams (via Washington): Greg Robinson, OT, Auburn
Don't be surprised if the Rams trade down from here, but letting Robinson fall might be a big mistake. With his athleticism, room still to improve and prowess as a run-blocker in Auburn's prolific rushing attack, ground-and-pound minded offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer would love to welcome Robinson to St. Louis.
3. Jacksonville Jaguars (4-12): Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson
The future for suspended wideout Justin Blackmon is murky at best. With the likes of Cecil Shorts and Ace Sanders atop the projected depth chart (h/t Ourlads.com), Jacksonville should grab a playmaker on offense. No one is better than Watkins in that regard.
Watkins is the best receiver in a loaded 2014 class. Sometimes it takes a while even for the best college studs to adjust at the position, but he's as polished and explosive of a product as any in recent memory. His impact will be determined by either Chad Henne or the quarterback the Jags choose in the second round.
4. Cleveland Browns (4-12): Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M
Questions about Manziel still loom away from the field. This narrative won't go away, no matter how overblown it might be. What Johnny Football did during his pro day should dismiss concerns about his arm strength. There's plenty of it—and it's better than what Blake Bortles and Teddy Bridgewater have to offer.
Manziel is unconventional, but being able to improvise is critical at the NFL level. Since the Browns are in perpetual need of a spark, they could do no better than select Manziel at No. 4 overall.
Also bear in mind the mentality Manziel has if he does indeed land with the struggling franchise, per a report by the Houston Chronicle's John McClain:
If something happens, and it's the Cleveland Browns, I'm going to pour my heart out for the Dawg Pound and try to win a Super Bowl for Cleveland. I don't care if they've had 20 starting quarterbacks since 1999. I'm going to be the 21st and the guy that brought them the Super Bowl.
While this may be viewed as a "reach," if new general manager Ray Farmer really does believe in Manziel and the former Heisman Trophy winner starts stringing victories together in Cleveland, the city will erupt. Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan worked with a dual-threat dynamo in Robert Griffin III during his stint in Washington, yet he can build the offense around running back Ben Tate as he did with Alfred Morris.
Even if Watkins were on the board at this point, Farmer brought in both Andrew Hawkins and Nate Burleson as free agents (h/t ClevelandBrowns.com). Overloading the position makes little sense based on that activity. There aren't many other pressing needs to justify letting Manziel slide by.
5. Oakland Raiders (4-12): Mike Evans, WR, Texas A&M
Two receivers in the top five, and a second straight Aggie? Might sound crazy, but Evans is just that good. With his 4.53 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine, he proved that he has the speed to go with a 6'5", 231-pound frame.
NFL Network expert Daniel Jeremiah has said that Evans will be better than Watkins as a rookie, per NFL.com's Bryan Fischer:
I do love Sammy Watkins, but I think Year 1 we're going to be talking more about Mike Evans just because the touchdown numbers will be higher. If you come into the NFL, you're going to have to learn an NFL offense and he'll need to continue to develop as a route runner. But I think immediately he'll be a red zone presence and you will see touchdowns.
The Raiders need someone who can help them win now. Veteran signal-caller Matt Schaub needs another target, and Oakland must make a big, bold splash to sell its fans on the 2014 team. Evans can help the Silver and Black turn around their fortunes in the AFC West by becoming a lethal red-zone target and an instant, No. 1-caliber pass-catcher.
6. Atlanta Falcons (4-12): Khalil Mack, OLB, Buffalo
Bring on the defense in Atlanta. Mack is the best player available at this point, and the Falcons will be jumping for joy if he does indeed fall this far. Bleacher Report's Dan Pompei doesn't believe it'll happen:
Gil Brandt of NFL.com reported that Mack worked out in Atlanta recently:
In addition to being a premier pass-rusher, Mack can stuff the run and has sideline-to-sideline range. Given the lackluster personnel on that front seven, there is plenty of room for Mack to make a huge impact as a rookie. He's good enough for GM Thomas Dimitroff to justify a trade-up scenario, too.
7. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-12): Anthony Barr, OLB, UCLA
The new regime in Tampa Bay made so many additions that it's hard to figure what they will do come May 8. One big move came in a recent trade, which sent wide receiver Mike Williams to the Buffalo Bills.
Evans would have made sense as a replacement, but in this scenario he's no longer available.
Coach Lovie Smith is defensive minded and will seek to improve that unit as much as possible. Barr is a rare athlete at outside linebacker. He would stand to benefit from a strong supporting cast around him where he could develop in a starting role, be more aggressive, learn from his mistakes and evolve into a Pro Bowl-caliber player.
8. Minnesota Vikings (5-10-1): Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville
The pro day performance Bridgewater put together was nothing short of a debacle. Since that is such a small part of the evaluation, someone with as high of a football IQ as Bridgewater can be forgiven.
After all, he did put together an outstanding junior year, completing 71 percent of his passes for just under 4,000 yards and 31 touchdowns to just four interceptions. What's most important other than the gaudy numbers is that Bridgewater played in a pro-style offense and knows how to check into the proper play at the line of scrimmage.
Bleacher Report's Mike Freeman reports that Bridgewater is still in play for the Texans as the No. 1 overall pick:
Draft expert Matt Miller responded to this, which justified his assessment in his latest mock draft for Bleacher Report that Bridgewater is the "best and most NFL-ready quarterback" in the class:
Bridgewater isn't without his own red flags, stemming from his slender body and lack of elite arm talent. As long as he can make quick decisions and keep a defense honest, he wouldn't have to worry much in Minnesota with Adrian Peterson in the backfield.
The Vikings also have a great supporting cast featuring Greg Jennings as a solid top receiver, Cordarrelle Patterson entering his second year poised to break out and a Pro Bowler at tight end in Kyle Rudolph. There's also Jerome Simpson and even Jarius Wright in a receiving corps that doesn't get credit for its depth.
That seems like plenty of help for Bridgewater to thrive. Offensive coordinator Norv Turner is also known to be QB-friendly, and having Peterson is a big asset to be sure.
9. Buffalo Bills (6-10): Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M
Since Williams is in the fold to complement Stevie Johnson on the outside, now young 2013 first-round quarterback EJ Manuel has two viable receivers to throw to. All he needs is some solid blocking at left tackle, which Matthews will provide in Buffalo as a franchise cornerstone.
This isn't the flashiest pick, but Matthews is used to running an uptempo offense from his days in College Station blocking for Manziel. Since Manuel is also mobile, the fit is all the more logical.
10. Detroit Lions (7-9): Darqueze Dennard, CB, Michigan State
Someday the secondary can't be a secondary need for Detroit. Help should finally be arriving to the defensive backfield with a scrappy, bump-and-run, in-state product in Dennard.
Sparty had one of the elite defenses in college football last season, and Dennard's knack for playing man-to-man coverage was a big reason why. Although he isn't the most sensational athlete and doesn't have top-end speed, his instincts and technique will allow him to be the first corner chosen.
11. Tennessee Titans (7-9): Justin Gilbert, CB, Oklahoma State
More physically gifted than Dennard, Gilbert is the next domino to fall at the cornerback position, filling the void in Tennessee left by All-Pro predecessor Alterraun Verner. Gilbert wowed scouts at the combine with a 4.37-second 40 and also put up 20 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press.
That type of speed and strength combination is rare. Defensive coordinator Ray Horton should enjoy plugging Gilbert into his hybrid schemes and letting him in on some exotic blitzes he'll have in the playbook.
12. New York Giants (7-9): Eric Ebron, TE, North Carolina
A comparison to breakout Denver Broncos star Julius Thomas? Say no more. The other Manning brother, Eli, could use a dynamic game-changer like Ebron at tight end in the Big Apple.
He is the best tight-end prospect I have evaluated since Kellen Winslow Jr. Although many are projecting that teams like the Ravens and Jets will be interested in him, a number of NFL people I've spoken with recently believe he will be selected in the top 12, because he is a rare talent who could be better than Jimmy Graham.
Well, we're cutting it a little close on that top 12 projection. If there's even a chance Ebron emulates Graham, though, New York has to make this move. Adrien Robinson has appeared in just three games entering his third season, so there's a chance for Ebron to establish himself as a threat in the Giants' passing game.
13. St. Louis Rams (7-9): Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, FS, Alabama
As strong as the Rams are in the front seven, they lack a standout safety on the back end. Clinton-Dix has immense experience with complex schemes from his days under Nick Saban in Tuscaloosa, so St. Louis can cash in its second Round 1 choice here.
Jeremiah also reports that Clinton-Dix isn't likely to fall past this spot in the order:
Keeping up in the NFC West will be difficult if the Rams don't have a strong last line of defense. The football smarts, passable coverage ability and fearlessness to step up versus the run would make Clinton-Dix a great pickup.
14. Chicago Bears (8-8): Aaron Donald, DT, Pittsburgh
|Aaron Donald 2014 NFL Scouting Combine Performance|
|Height||Weight||Arm length||Hand size||40-yard dash||Bench press||Vertical jump||Broad jump||3-cone drill|
|6'1"||285 pounds||32 5/8"||9 7/8"||4.68 sec||35 reps||32"||116"||7.11 sec|
The combine numbers do Donald justice. So does his senior campaign with the Panthers, where he racked up an insane 28.5 tackles for loss, 11 sacks and four forced fumbles (h/t CFBStats.com). A difference-maker like this doesn't come along often.
Donald, who is admittedly undersized, would benefit from having bigger defensive ends Jared Allen and Lamarr Houston creating havoc off the edges. It'd help the Bears make big strides defensively and perhaps allow them to contend for a Super Bowl this season.
15. Pittsburgh Steelers (8-8): Timmy Jernigan, DT, Florida State
There are just enough pieces in Ben Roethlisberger's supporting cast to avoid a skill position in the first round. Instead, Pittsburgh turns to defense and shores up the front three by taking a nose tackle in Jernigan who can start right away.
16. Dallas Cowboys (8-8): Calvin Pryor, FS, Louisville
America's Team has had a putrid defense that has held them back more than Tony Romo has.
With the offense in fine shape, Pryor brings a hard-hitting presence and a ball hawk who can generate turnovers, shore up the total yardage the Cowboys have been yielding and help shift the balance of power in the NFC East back to Dallas.
17. Baltimore Ravens (8-8): Kony Ealy, DE, Missouri
Depth would be useful for the Ravens in the defensive trenches. The first-team All-SEC selection in Ealy is an ideal candidate to join Baltimore's 3-4 lineup as a defensive end.
Ealy is versatile enough to stand up as an edge rusher even at 273 pounds, too. That would help linebackers Elvis Dumervil and particularly Terrell Suggs stay fresh as the Ravens seek to rebound from a .500 campaign following their prior Super Bowl XLVII triumph.
18. New York Jets (8-8): Brandin Cooks, WR, Oregon State
Young signal-caller Geno Smith—or potential supplanting starter Michael Vick—could use a superior slot option to Jeremy Kerley. The reigning Biletnikoff Award winner Cooks has collegiate production (128 receptions in 2013), along with the measurable speed and quickness (4.33 40-yard dash, 3.81 20-yard shuttle at the combine) to justify this high of a selection.
A pre-draft visit has been scheduled, per ESPNNewYork.com's Rich Cimini, who also points out Kiper's best projected fits if GM John Idzik decides to take a receiver at No. 18:
Cooks can flat-out cruise, and in Marty Mornhinweg's West Coast offense, the more players who can get open on short routes underneath and be a threat after the catch, the better off the Jets will be.
19. Miami Dolphins (8-8): Taylor Lewan, OT, Michigan
Some attitude is necessary up front in Miami—something Lewan can provide in spades. The ex-Wolverine star has a great motor and is ready for the rigors of the NFL. Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald cites a Dolphins official as the source for information that Miami has interest in Lewan.
Branden Albert fills the need for a left tackle, but Lewan has the grit and toughness to play on the right side if the Dolphins decide to go in this direction.
20. Arizona Cardinals (10-6): Blake Bortles, QB, UCF
All the hype around Bortles makes little sense. Yours truly believes that yes, he does have size and has a chance to develop into a quality, but not spectacular, NFL starter. Bortles needs a lot of help around him and time to sit and learn for things to go right.
That's why Arizona is his ideal destination. Taking notes from Carson Palmer while being tutored by head coach Bruce Arians would be excellent for Bortles' NFL prospects. Arians has worked with big QBs whom Bortles often compared to in Roethlisberger and Luck—along with Peyton Manning.
21. Green Bay Packers (8-7-1): Louis Nix III, DT, Notre Dame
Nose tackle B.J. Raji is only locked in for a one-year deal, per ESPN.com's Rob Demovsky, who alludes to how Raji has been shuffled around in Green Bay. Nix has great feet for his 331-pound size and can have a trickle-down effect on a unit that was 24th against the pass and 25th versus the run in 2013.
22. Philadelphia Eagles (10-6): Dee Ford, DE, Auburn
Speed is a theme for coach Chip Kelly's Eagles. Choosing a high-motor player like Ford who is used to playing—and most importantly, practicing—against an uptempo offense at the college level should allow him to be better conditioned and avoid hitting the rookie wall as hard.
23. Kansas City Chiefs (11-5): Odell Beckham Jr., WR, LSU
Since Donnie Avery is better suited for a slot role and Dwayne Bowe is more of a physical presence than anything, Kansas City could use Beckham's acceleration to its advantage.
Although Alex Smith doesn't have a huge arm, he can throw it far enough with touch to where Beckham can get behind a defense and produce big plays for the Chiefs. Beckham was also in a diverse offense under coordinator Cam Cameron in Baton Rouge, making him as pro-ready as any receiver remaining.
24. Cincinnati Bengals (11-5): Jason Verrett, CB, TCU
This Bengals roster is built to win now, presuming QB Andy Dalton can take the next step and lead his team to a playoff win.
In that context, Cincinnati looks to the future with this pick. Acquiring a corner in Verrett is a good move, since he plays bigger than his diminutive body suggests and could get into the mix on the outside or in the slot as a rookie.
25. San Diego Chargers (9-7): Kyle Fuller, CB, Virginia Tech
There isn't as much talent at the cornerback position as some others in this draft, and if Fuller is still around at No. 25, San Diego shouldn't pass on him. CBS Sports' Pete Prisco and Doug Farrar of Sports Illustrated are two notable analysts who are enamored with Fuller:
Aaron Wilson of the Baltimore Sun didn't include the Chargers as one of the several teams Fuller will be visiting, yet that could still change. Fuller would make San Diego's 29th-ranked pass defense from a year ago substantially better.
26. Cleveland Browns (via Indianapolis): C.J. Mosley, ILB, Alabama
If head coach Mike Pettine wants to make his defense one of the league's best, he must plug in one noticeable hole: the other inside linebacker spot in the prospective 3-4 alignment. Craig Robertson isn't going to cut it. Enter Mosley, a savvy player who is familiar with nothing but winning—the precise culture the Browns are trying to create in Cleveland.
Karlos Dansby would be an invaluable mentor to Mosley, nurturing his progression and ensuring the Browns do well on that side of the ball.
27. New Orleans Saints (11-5): Ryan Shazier, OLB, Ohio State
Visualizing Shazier roaming around in defensive coordinator Rob Ryan's lineup should terrify the rest of the NFC South.
The speedy linebacker is a flat-out playmaker who makes up for his lack of bulk with acceleration and a terrific nose for the football, as he racked up 23.5 tackles for loss last season.
28. Carolina Panthers (12-4): Allen Robinson, WR, Penn State
ProFootballTalk.com tweeted the incredible numbers Robinson put up at his pro day, which were substantially improved from his showing at the combine:
Cam Newton and the Panthers' passing attack need a receiver as badly as anyone in the league. Robinson is as good as anyone in this class at catching the ball at its highest point, with the body control and ball skills to capitalize on Newton's cannon arm and stretch the field while also making the tough receptions over the middle.
29. New England Patriots (12-4): Jimmie Ward, SS, Northern Illinois
The arrival of Darrelle Revis makes the Patriots an even surer bet to be in hot pursuit of the Lombardi Trophy yet again. What New England lacks is a stellar strong safety. NBC Sports' Josh Norris has Ward ahead of Pryor in his evaluations of incoming safeties:
If Ward were to be selected here, it lines up with what some teams have the Northern Illinois product graded as, according to Kiper:
Revis and fellow cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, along with a strong linebacker corps, should allow Ward to chip in as a slot corner and start at safety next to All-Pro Devin McCourty in Week 1.
30. San Francisco 49ers (12-4): Bradley Roby, CB, Ohio State
The losses of Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers to the Raiders make cornerback a priority. Roby is no doubt a first-round talent but almost falls out of the top 32 due to a disappointing final year with the Buckeyes.
San Francisco has the stable organizational infrastructure to mold Roby into a hard worker so that he can capitalize on his huge promise.
31. Denver Broncos (13-3): Xavier Su'a-Filo, G, UCLA
Su'a-Filo, the consensus No. 1 guard prospect in the draft, falls into Denver's lap at No. 31—and it's a good thing. The Broncos made efforts to fortify the defense after getting walloped in the Super Bowl, yet let key offensive cornerstones in receiver Eric Decker, running back Knowshon Moreno and guard Zane Beadles walk.
Manning's presence can compensate for Decker, and Montee Ball figures to be the No. 1 back anyway. Su'a-Filo would take Beadles' spot at left guard, aided by the play of All-Pro left tackle Ryan Clady.
32. Seattle Seahawks (13-3): Zack Martin, OT, Notre Dame
Protection for QB Russell Wilson must be a priority. The defense is rather intact, so Martin makes a lot of sense since he projects to play either tackle or guard in the NFL. Brent Sobleski of USA Today projects Martin to have All-Pro potential if he moves inside. Lewan could easily fall this far and would make sense in Seattle as well if Martin is not available.
These are all the greatest possible moves by each franchise based on how this specific scenario unfolds. Chances are, unforeseen trade developments and a flat-out difference in opinions between yours truly and NFL executives will lead to an entirely different outcome on May 8.
As mentioned before, though, this draft is as deep as ever. The huge amount of underclassmen has created a gigantic plethora of players to choose from. More teams than usual may land their best-case scenario without any maneuvering and land a rookie who can be a short-term success and a long-term star.
The fun possibility to ponder is the caliber of former college stars that will be available even in the second and third rounds. Even if fans don't like their first-round picks, there is an enhanced chance this year for their teams to pick up at least one or two more quality contributors.
Between all the hype and potential greatness in the 2014 NFL draft, the freakishly athletic Clowney, along with two QBs in Manziel and Bridgewater, figure to stand out above the rest.