The first round of the 2014 NFL draft is on Thursday and will be broadcast live from New York City's Radio City Music Hall on both ESPN and NFL Network beginning at 8 p.m. ET. Watch ESPN will also have live stream coverage of the epic event.
Even with the new collective bargaining agreement making rookie contracts less burdensome for those selecting near the top of the order, missing on a first-round pick this year will be devastating. This 2014 class is loaded with talent and is deep at a lot of positions—but not the most important one, quarterback.
If an organization is seeking a spark under center and reaches too high for a future bust, it will likely miss out on a can't-miss prospect. Thus, it will be fascinating to see where the top QBs go and whether or not one or all of them will slide past the needy teams, who will then perhaps attempt to trade back up in Round 1 to get one of them.
There are several elite collegiate stars who should be off the board early, but the vitality of having an answer at quarterback may see their stocks drop. This conundrum teams face, combined with the plethora of talent in this class, make this one of the most exciting drafts in league history.
Let's take a look at the viewing information for the first of three draft days. As difficult as it is to make predictions for the first round, read on for some compelling inferences and shots in the dark for what might happen.
"The Houston Texans Select...Jadeveon Clowney, Defensive End, South Carolina."
The most talented player in the draft is whom Texans general manager Rick Smith decides to go with at No. 1 overall. Clowney would move into a dream situation with J.J. Watt as his mentor and form what could instantly become the best defensive end tandem in the NFL.
If we learned anything from this past Super Bowl with the Seattle Seahawks, it's that defense can still win championships, even in a modern era of pro football where rules favor the offense and touchdowns. Presuming Clowney plays to his potential, opponents are going to have to choose someone to leave one-on-one.
Now that Antonio Smith has joined the Oakland Raiders, Houston needs someone like Clowney who has the athleticism to be a force against the run and pass right away—and also the strength to move inside if need be.
Refusing to do any more private workouts ahead of the draft shouldn't harm Clowney's stock, according to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport:
Just asked an @NFL top executive if he cares that Jadeveon Clowney won’t do private workouts. “No. He did everything at his pro day.”— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) April 15, 2014
New head coach Bill O'Brien is reputed to be a QB guru, but if the Texans go with Clowney here, it should be the first domino to fall. A general trend should then emerge of signal-callers going toward the back end of the first round or early in the second.
Houston would regret passing on someone so gifted as Clowney if he winds up indeed becoming the next great defensive end—the next Watt—and that the Texans could have had him at a reasonable price for the beginning of his career. This should prove too tantalizing for the front office to pass up, especially with O'Brien's expertise in grooming quarterbacks, where value on Day 2 can be had.
Johnny Manziel Will Be 1st QB Off The Board
Among the top quarterbacks, no one has more "it" factor—or more game to back up his big talk. Manziel is the ultimate competitor, whose sixth sense to avert pressure with his legs, diminutive size and cannon arm bring to mind Seattle's Russell Wilson.
The former Heisman Trophy winner at College Station has been in the spotlight constantly, which will benefit him as he takes the reins of some fortunate franchise. Since none of his peers are surefire bets, someone near the top of the order will take a chance on Johnny Football.
It's either going to be the Jacksonville Jaguars at No. 3 overall or the Cleveland Browns at No. 4. Both teams are starving for a QB and need someone to galvanize the fanbase. No one is more capable of doing that than Manziel.
Offensive tackle Luke Joeckel was the Jaguars' top draft choice in 2013 and blocked for Manziel at Texas A&M. Joeckel recently spoke of how smart Manziel is on the field, per SiriusXM NFL Radio:
Joeckel on @JManziel2 "His football IQ is off the charts, we used to watch the film on Sunday and marvel at what he could do, making plays— SiriusXM NFL Radio (@SiriusXMNFL) April 14, 2014
New general manager Ray Farmer and the latest Browns regime didn't attend Manziel's pro day. That doesn't mean they aren't doing their homework, though, because Cleveland.com's Mary Kay Cabot reported Manziel visited Cleveland for a private workout:
Former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman knows a thing or two about succeeding in the league and gave a positive review of Manziel to CBSSports.com's Dane Brugler:
Just spoke to Troy Aikman about Johnny Manziel: "I really think he has a chance to have a special career...I'm a fan."— Dane Brugler (@dpbrugler) April 16, 2014
Here's an interesting take from NFL.com's Marc Sessler, who was the only one among four other prominent writers polled that had Manziel going somewhere other than Cleveland or Jacksonville, choosing St. Louis instead:
The Rams have the second overall pick, but could trade down and acquire more assets since they also have the 13th selection.
Neither Teddy Bridgewater nor Blake Bortles were able to show great arm talent at their pro days. Manziel certainly did, putting touch on deep balls in excess of 50 yards on the fly—on the run both to his left and right.
See if that doesn't come in handy when a play breaks down and he has to improvise. Instead of receivers coming back to him, they can continue to stretch the field, and Manziel can hit them in stride. Uniquely designed roll-out concepts can be designed off of play action with this concept as well.
Teddy Bridgewater, Blake Bortles Take Tumbles—What Will Come of Them?
A fall in the draft, at least in the case of Bridgewater, shouldn't be warranted. He is the most pro-ready QB in this class in terms of understanding of complex schematics, ability to read a defense and the fewest question marks from a football IQ standpoint.
The big concern came at Bridgewater's pro day, where he couldn't spin the ball well and didn't dismiss doubts as to whether he could make all the throws. As minimal as these workouts seem to usually mean, it's difficult to look past that in this instance.
ESPN's Colin Cowherd is not sold that Bridgewater has what it takes to thrive at the professional level:
Teddy Bridgewater, physically slight to begin with, weaker competition in coll, struggling at pro days, now a low Wunderlic score. No thx.— Colin Cowherd (@ESPN_Colin) April 12, 2014
But given his great decision-making, mechanics, fundamentals and cerebral approach to the game, Bridgewater has what it takes to overcome his slight stature and evident lack of arm strength to be worthy of a late first-round pick.
Check out this ringing endorsement from Chicago Bears star receiver Brandon Marshall below. We can agree to disagree on the arm strength, but Marshall's key observation is how well Bridgewater understands timing, per ESPN's Ed Werder:
This is what Brandon Marshall told me about Teddy Bridgewater based on working out together: "He is the real deal..." Continued— Ed Werder (@Edwerderespn) April 10, 2014
BM: "He has a big arm but has touch and the timing down like (Chad) Pennington. He can make all the throws. ..." Continued— Ed Werder (@Edwerderespn) April 10, 2014
BM: "With Teddy, I never see the ball thrown. His timing is clinic tape.''— Ed Werder (@Edwerderespn) April 10, 2014
Bortles, on the other hand, is a bust in the opinion of yours truly. It would take the absolute perfect situation for him to thrive in the NFL, making him a possibility for the Arizona Cardinals at No. 20 overall.
In that instance, Carson Palmer would be the starter, while Bortles would sit and learn under the tutelage of head coach Bruce Arians, who mentored QBs Bortles is often compared to in Andrew Luck and Ben Roethlisberger.
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The big frame is actually a detriment to Bortles, because it suggests that he can't muster much more arm strength out of it. The ball doesn't fly out of his hand, and it takes his full effort to launch it 60 yards down the field on the same trajectory with no touch.
Having run a 4.93 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine, the perceived athleticism Bortles has seems overblown, too. It's possible that Fresno State's Derek Carr—far superior in arm talent—could jump ahead of Bortles in the first round, should a team that likes him trade their way back in and choose him.
There are so many other facets to the first round that should make it must-see TV. The fates of several NFL franchises' foreseeable futures hang in the balance, and missing out on a marquee player at this stage will hurt even more than in years past.
With the possibility of last-minute trades always looming and the smokescreens put in the media by teams throughout the chaotic offseason leading up to May 8, anything can happen. It will be fascinating to see how it unfolds, but these predictions are the best guesses based on the information available from this ever-engaging process.