The 2014 NFL draft has immense depth, but the most important picks to get right are always at the top of the order. These are the best chances all 32 teams have to get franchise-changing players based on their upside or the polish they've already displayed as prospects.
But since this is such a loaded crop of incoming rookies, this statistic by ClevelandBrowns.com's Kevin Jones should be even more pertinent in the coming years:
The last three seasons, 37% of Pro Bowl players were drafted in the third round or later http://t.co/fO8t9dumMW— Kevin Jones (@Mr_KevinJones) April 15, 2014
Below is a look at an updated mock for the first round. We're less than a month away from May 8, when the real thing will unfold at Radio City Music Hall in New York City. The analysis focuses on the players who will have the biggest impacts on their respective organizations should they ultimately be drafted there.
1. Houston Texans (2-14): Blake Bortles, QB, UCF
The true dilemma here lies in the notion that new head coach Bill O'Brien can work magic at the quarterback position. If O'Brien feels he can mold anyone into a Pro Bowler, perhaps general manager Rick Smith will take a flier on the QB with the most upside and tools to succeed. Many believe that's Bortles.
Then again, Houston could take a flier on another QB in the second round. But with the importance placed on the position, the Texans go with the UCF product at No. 1 overall.
Having seen Bortles' pro day, which allegedly boosted his draft stock, I'm not impressed. Bortles doesn't get enough zip on his throws for his size, isn't as athletic as advertised and can't go through his progressions on a consistent basis. His mechanics are flawed. This is the ultimate project and one O'Brien may regret taking on.
2. St. Louis Rams (via Washington): Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina
Offensive tackle is a need here, but the Rams could truly terrify opponents with the likes of Chris Long, Robert Quinn and Clowney in the trenches. St. Louis would control the line of scrimmage with Clowney in the fold, catering to its offense's preference for grounding and pounding with Zac Stacy.
This is an ideal opportunity for the Rams to become more competitive in the NFC West. Although they could wind up swapping with Atlanta in a trade (more on that below), Clowney may be too good to give up. It just would be interesting to see how much of an impact he could have with Long and Quinn already established as starters.
3. Jacksonville Jaguars (4-12): Khalil Mack, OLB, Buffalo
Head coach Gus Bradley was Seattle's defensive coordinator, and he fortified depth in the trenches by signing ex-Seahawks Chris Clemons and Red Bryant.
To continue building on that side of the ball, he collaborates with GM Dave Caldwell and encourages Mack's selection. Mack is the best defensive player other than Clowney, and the Jags still have a chance to trade back into the first round for a quarterback if they so desire.
Bleacher Report draft expert Matt Miller feels Mack is a great fit in Jacksonville:
Good fit in JAX if STL keeps their pick. RT @PSchrags: The Khalil Mack "hype" is real. I've heard he won't fall past no. 3.— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) April 11, 2014
The Jags need to improve against both the run and the pass, and picking up Mack helps both areas. He can rush the passer off the edge in a hybrid front and has the instincts to blow up running plays behind the line of scrimmage.
Letting such a talented, all-around great player slide by in favor of reaching for a quarterback would be a mistake for the Jaguars, who don't have the skill-position firepower in place to groom a young signal-caller. If the Jags are going to let a QB sit and learn for a year, they might as well take Mack and add someone who can help them win immediately.
4. Cleveland Browns (4-12): Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M
The savvy moves GM Ray Farmer has made in the offseason have rebuilt the offense. Brian Hoyer is still on the roster, but with just four NFL starts under his belt, he can't be counted on as the Browns' savior under center.
There is plenty of risk in taking Manziel with the fourth pick. But it's a risk the Browns must take in the event they once again pass on a great quarterback and Johnny Football takes the NFL by storm.
ESPN Cleveland's Tony Grossi noted that the Browns are running out of reasons not to select Manziel if he's on the board at No. 4:
Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan should have learned something about how to manage a mobile dual-threat dynamo from his time in Washington with Robert Griffin III. Cleveland has Ben Tate to star as a feature back and take pressure off Manziel as he makes his prospective transition too.
It's a deep draft, and the Browns also have the No. 26 overall pick and an early second-round choice. This is as good an opportunity as ever to make the ultimate bold selection and see if Manziel pans out. If he does, Farmer will be lauded as the best GM the franchise has had since returning to the league in 1999.
5. Oakland Raiders (4-12): Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson
The adjustment for wide receivers from college to the NFL can be difficult. Look no further than the Rams' Tavon Austin, who struggled to touch the ball for much of his rookie season after being the first wideout off the board in 2013.
Watkins is a different case, though. The Clemson product is the best receiver in a class that could see perhaps as many as six or seven go in Round 1. Given Watkins' electricity in the open field and precise route running, veteran Raiders QB Matt Schaub will be happy to see this pick. What will determine Watkins' effect in Oakland is how well Schaub himself plays, which is still very much up for debate.
6. Atlanta Falcons (4-12): Greg Robinson, OT, Auburn
General manager Thomas Dimitroff enhances his chances of acquiring Clowney if he picks Robinson here. Clowney is a luxury, best-available-player pick for St. Louis at No. 2, and he is just what Atlanta needs on defense. But if the Falcons hold on to Robinson, they would give signal-caller Matt Ryan some insurance to protect his blind side.
7. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-12): Mike Evans, WR, Texas A&M
Vincent Jackson and Evans lining up opposite each other would give the Bucs a spectacular, sizable duo for opponents to deal with. New starting QB Josh McCown could use a legitimate No. 2 wideout to go with versatile running back Doug Martin, helping the Bucs contend in the NFC South.
8. Minnesota Vikings (5-10-1): Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville
Bridgewater's stock has fallen since the college football season ended. Even though offseason workouts shouldn't mean all that much in the grand scheme of things, he has been criticized for his poor throwing ability—particularly at his pro day.
But the fact remains that Bridgewater is the most pro-ready, cerebral signal-caller in the 2014 class. With a limited receiving corps at Louisville, he still managed to produce great numbers, throwing for 31 touchdowns and just four interceptions in his last season.
Vikings offensive coordinator Norv Turner was one of the few who didn't rush to judgment about Bridgewater's pro day, per NFL.com's Gil Brandt:
Not as down on Bridgewater workout as some. Only saw 1 bad throw. Norv Turner told me he thought it was pretty good.— Gil Brandt (@Gil_Brandt) March 17, 2014
Having Adrian Peterson in the backfield, along with the stacked supporting cast of Greg Jennings, Cordarrelle Patterson, Kyle Rudolph and Jerome Simpson, would make Bridgewater's job easier in Minnesota. That sounds like an ideal situation for Bridgewater to succeed and become a franchise-changing force.
9. Buffalo Bills (6-10): Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M
Quarterback E.J. Manuel has weapons in Stevie Johnson, Mike Williams, Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin but not a surefire left tackle.
Matthews should be a franchise-caliber player at the position for years to come. He blocked for mobile quarterback Manziel at College Station, so it makes even more sense for Matthews to go to Buffalo here.
10. Detroit Lions (7-9): Eric Ebron, TE, North Carolina
The best, most athletic tight end in this draft adds to the intriguing supporting cast for Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford.
Detroit could easily try to address its secondary here, but it's all about scoring touchdowns. Stafford will have even fewer excuses when red-zone target Ebron joins Calvin Johnson in what should be a high-octane passing game yet again.
11. Tennessee Titans (7-9): Justin Gilbert, CB, Oklahoma State
Gilbert is the best combination of talent and production (seven interceptions in 2013) at the cornerback position, so he'll be the first player of his kind off the board. Tennessee must replace All-Pro Alterraun Verner, and Gilbert is the man to do it. Gilbert's athleticism should translate well in defensive coordinator Ray Horton's exotic schemes.
12. New York Giants (7-9): Anthony Barr, OLB, UCLA
Since Ebron is gone at No. 10, New York loses out on a chance to help compensate for the loss of Hakeem Nicks in the passing attack. No matter, because the Giants need to improve their defense in a bid to reassert their might in a wide-open NFC East.
Although Barr is a bit raw—he used to play running back at UCLA—veteran middle linebacker Jon Beason will help him develop and will compensate for any mistakes Barr makes in his first year as a pro. That should lead to a successful career in the Big Apple for Barr, who's used to the big market as it is.
13. St. Louis Rams (7-9): Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, FS, Alabama
All the defense lacks—beyond perhaps depth at linebacker—is an impact safety. Clinton-Dix should aid St. Louis' quest to become a truly elite defense. With his strong coverage capabilities, knack for diagnosing plays and lack of fear to make a tackle against the run, there isn't a much better pick at this juncture for GM Les Snead.
14. Chicago Bears (8-8): Aaron Donald, DT, Pittsburgh
Depth is still an issue at defensive tackle in the Windy City, so Donald makes a lot of sense. Mind-boggling quickness off the ball and outstanding collegiate production (28.5 tackles for loss in 2013, per CFBStats.com) should vault Donald into the top 14.
The Bears ranked last in the NFL against the run in 2013, and if they can improve there, they could be positioned for a Super Bowl run. Donald gives them an interior pass-rusher in addition to someone quick enough to blow up plays between the tackles.
15. Pittsburgh Steelers (8-8): Odell Beckham Jr., WR, LSU
The Steelers don't often let special players slide by, so without a great No. 2 wide receiver on the roster, they take a chance on Beckham.
Although Pittsburgh might have more pressing needs, Beckham has superior speed and size to the team's likely second option at the moment (Lance Moore). The team's 2013 third-round pick, Markus Wheaton, is more of a slot receiver and only had six catches as a rookie. Beckham fills in as a big-play threat on the outside with whom Ben Roethlisberger can frequently take shots deep.
16. Dallas Cowboys (8-8): Calvin Pryor, FS, Louisville
In the numerous mocks conducted by yours truly, this pick has stayed the same. It is too logical not to happen. America's Team needs a hard hitter and someone with a winning attitude in the defensive backfield. Pryor will bring instant improvement to a horrendous defense.
17. Baltimore Ravens (8-8): Taylor Lewan, OT, Michigan
What the Ravens need to get back to their Super Bowl form from 2012 is attitude and physicality, both of which Lewan brings to the table. The ex-Wolverine would move to right tackle due to Eugene Monroe's presence and would help Baltimore's rushing attack improve after it finished 30th last season.
18. New York Jets (8-8): Darqueze Dennard, CB, Michigan State
GM John Idzik should find another playmaker to help the Jets offense excel. With Dennard still on the board and the cornerback position so vital to the success of coach Rex Ryan's defense, New York would be crazy not to take the former Spartan here.
19. Miami Dolphins (8-8): Zack Martin, OT, Notre Dame
Branden Albert was signed in the offseason to fortify left tackle, but Martin has the versatility to fill in at guard. That has to be a strong consideration for Miami in the wake of Richie Incognito's absence. QB Ryan Tannehill needs all the protection he can get to prove he's the long-term answer for the Dolphins.
20. Arizona Cardinals (10-6): Derek Carr, QB, Fresno State
Carson Palmer may only be the quarterback for the next season or two. Since Carr has the most arm talent of the top QBs in this class, Arizona invests in the future and chooses him here.
21. Green Bay Packers (8-7-1): Louis Nix III, DT, Notre Dame
Drafting defense hasn't worked all that well as of late for Green Bay, but GM Ted Thompson knows improvement is a must for that unit.
Nix commands a double-team with his massive frame and can form a symbiotic relationship with B.J. Raji in the rotation right away. They could spell each other, wear opponents out between the tackles, and free up Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers to scream in off the edge.
22. Philadelphia Eagles (10-6): Brandin Cooks, WR, Oregon State
Saying goodbye to DeSean Jackson won't be so bad if the Eagles are able to get their hands on Cooks, whose experience in a spread system, phenomenal lateral quickness and raw speed are all assets in coach Chip Kelly's offense. Cooks had 128 receptions in 2013 and has many of the talents Tavon Austin brings to the gridiron, but he also plays bigger than his frame and creates well after the catch.
23. Kansas City Chiefs (11-5): Allen Robinson, WR, Penn State
Robinson would give QB Alex Smith a big threat on the outside along with Dwayne Bowe, allowing Donnie Avery to flex inside to the slot. Under coach Bill O'Brien at Penn State, Robinson got exposure to pro concepts, and he can make the tough catches underneath that will make him a great fit in the Chiefs' West Coast offense.
24. Cincinnati Bengals (11-5): Kyle Fuller, CB, Virginia Tech
Until the Bengals really figure out what they have in Andy Dalton, they can't budge at that position. There aren't many holes across the board, but with an aging back end of the defense, Fuller makes a lot of sense here.
Fuller can learn from Cincinnati's numerous veterans and perhaps form a dangerous duo with Dre Kirkpatrick in the future if Leon Hall continues to have health issues.
25. San Diego Chargers (9-7): Jason Verrett, CB, TCU
What held the Chargers back from being a truly elite team last season was a lackluster defense. Verrett has the versatility to play outside or inside and would bolster San Diego's secondary. That is necessary when facing the likes of Denver, Kansas City and Oakland in the AFC West, especially if the latter two go with receivers in Round 1.
26. Cleveland Browns (from Indianapolis Colts): C.J. Mosley, ILB, Alabama
Mosley would be a big upgrade over Craig Robertson and could learn a lot from newly acquired veteran Karlos Dansby. Coach Nick Saban taught Mosley plenty of pro concepts in Tuscaloosa, so defensive-minded Browns head coach Mike Pettine would love this pick.
27. New Orleans Saints (11-5): Ryan Shazier, OLB, Ohio State
Undersized as he might be, Shazier makes up for any lack of bulk with elite speed. In defensive coordinator Rob Ryan's defense—especially with Jairus Byrd and Kenny Vaccaro forming an elite safety tandem—Shazier will have free rein to wreak havoc.
28. Carolina Panthers (12-4): Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Florida State
Cam Newton needs someone—anyone—to help him at the receiver spot, with Steve Smith, Brandon LaFell and Ted Ginn Jr. all departed. Benjamin is huge (6'5", 240 pounds), and he caught 15 touchdowns as a sophomore on just 54 receptions.
That is the type of end-zone-seeking star Newton needs—an ideal back-shoulder-throw candidate who can capitalize on Newton's big arm and generate huge plays down the field.
29. New England Patriots (12-4): Dee Ford, DE, Auburn
Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones are the only strong defensive ends the Patriots have, and they could always use more speed along the front seven. At this point in the first round, Ford presents great value and is conditioned well enough to be a dangerous third-down pass-rusher at minimum.
30. San Francisco 49ers (12-4): Bradley Roby, CB, Ohio State
Roby's poor final season in Columbus caused him to slide down draft boards, where San Francisco gladly picks him up. The Niners desperately need a corner, and now that they've added Brandon Lloyd to the receiving corps, Roby is an even more logical pick thanks to his upside and physical gifts.
31. Denver Broncos (13-3): Xavier Su'a Filo, G, UCLA
Zane Beadles departed this offseason for Jacksonville, leaving a void on the offensive line that must be filled. Su'a Filo brings a mauling edge, which the Broncos need after being roughed up by Seattle in Super Bowl XLVIII. He will help ensure the Manning-led offense retains its strong balance.
32. Seattle Seahawks (13-3): Cyrus Kouandjio, OT, Alabama
Who should be the first QB drafted?
There is still the possibility that a team could trade up and seek to grab a QB at the end of Round 1, so even the end of the action on May 8 could get mighty interesting. Regardless of how the start of the draft plays out, most teams should be happy to land an elite prospect who can hopefully start in Week 1.
But of course, the biggest wild cards are at QB. Since the three going in the top eight of this mock are going to predictions that seem wide open at the moment, they could make or break their franchises for the next five years or more depending on how they perform.
Put your money on Manziel galvanizing the Browns and Bridgewater tearing it up in the Twin Cities, while Bortles, if he goes No. 1, will be among the biggest busts in NFL draft history.