With most of the high-profile free agents signed, the focus for NFL teams and fans alike has shifted toward making improvements via the 2014 NFL draft.
Not only is this year's class stacked with talent across several different positions, but there is also a great deal of unpredictability involved. That starts with the No. 1 overall pick, which will undoubtedly have a major impact on how the rest of the first round unfolds.
Due to the uncertainty surrounding this draft, don't be surprised if quite a few talented players fall further than expected. There are gems to be had throughout the first round, and it should make for one of the most intriguing drafts in recent memory.
Here is a breakdown of what every general manager should do in the first round as he looks to improve his team for 2014 and beyond.
1. Houston Texans (2-14): Blake Bortles, QB, UCF
It is possible that the Texans will come to regret passing on Jadeveon Clowney if they decide against taking him, but quarterback is an absolutely huge need, and this is a class that looks to have a few potential franchise players at that position.
2. St. Louis Rams (from 3-13 Washington Redskins): Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson
Who will be the first QB taken in the 2014 NFL draft?
The Rams have one of the best pass-rushing duos in the league, so Clowney isn't necessarily the best fit for them either. There will be plenty of pressure to take him, but St. Louis will instead take Watkins in hopes that he will become quarterback Sam Bradford's go-to option.
3. Jacksonville Jaguars (4-12): Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina
Clowney's slight fall down the draft board is halted at No. 3 by the Jaguars. Although Jacksonville went to great lengths to improve its defensive line this offseason, there is no way that a defensive-minded coach like Gus Bradley will allow Clowney to slip away.
4. Cleveland Browns (4-12): Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M
It is no secret that the Browns desperately need a quarterback after cutting bait with Brandon Weeden and Jason Campbell, but it remains to be seen which signal-caller they prefer as well as whether or not they wait until No. 26. No quarterback is more explosive or popular than Johnny Football, though, so look for Cleveland to go in that direction.
5. Oakland Raiders (4-12): Khalil Mack, OLB, Buffalo
Although the Raiders are still a long way from contending for a playoff spot, they don't necessarily have many specific positions of need. Because of that, they can afford to go with perhaps the best all-around prospect in Mack.
6. Atlanta Falcons (4-12): Greg Robinson, OT, Auburn
As much as the Falcons would probably love to get one of Clowney or Mack, they won't shed too many tears if they are able to nab the best offensive tackle in the entire class, particularly since quarterback Matt Ryan could use better protection.
7. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-12): Mike Evans, WR, Texas A&M
After trading Mike Williams to the Buffalo Bills, the Bucs could certainly use a weapon across from Vincent Jackson. Selecting Evans would give Tampa Bay two of the NFL's biggest and most athletic wide receivers.
8. Minnesota Vikings (5-10-1): Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville
It wasn't long ago that Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater was considered to be the consensus No. 1 overall pick. Even though Bridgewater hasn't played a game since the end of the season, though, the perception regarding his NFL prospects has changed. In fact, it seems as though he has been surpassed by both Bortles and Manziel, and it is possible that even Fresno State quarterback Derek Carr is in the conversation as well.
With that said, Bridgewater showed professional tendencies in college, and he hasn't really done anything to warrant falling down draft boards. In fact, ESPN's Andrew Brandt believes that talk of Bridgewater's demise may be a smokescreen from teams who are actually interested in him:
The more I read "unnamed execs" disparaging Clowney and Bridgewater the more I'm convinced a lot of teams really like them. #games— Andrew Brandt (@adbrandt) April 15, 2014
One potential fit that would make a lot of sense is the Minnesota Vikings at No. 8. The Vikes managed to make the playoffs with Christian Ponder under center a couple years ago due to the play of running back Adrian Peterson, but they'll never truly contend with Ponder or Matt Cassel at quarterback.
It is no secret that the Vikings have been keeping an eye on Bridgewater, as they have already tracked him extensively, per NFL Network's Ian Rapoport:
Maybe Minnesota will be gun-shy about taking a quarterback here after Ponder backfired, but Bridgewater has always been a better prospect than Ponder, and he seemingly has all the tools to be a reliable starter at the next level.
9. Buffalo Bills (6-10): Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M
The Bills already have an excellent left tackle in Cordy Glenn, but they could use an upgrade on the right side, and Matthews may very well be the surest thing in the entire draft.
10. Detroit Lions (7-9): Justin Gilbert, CB, Oklahoma State
The secondary has been Detroit's biggest weakness for the past several years, and while it has been addressed here and there, nothing substantial has been done about it. That will change this year, provided the Lions select Gilbert.
11. Tennessee Titans (7-9): Darqueze Dennard, CB, Michigan State
Gilbert may be the more athletic and explosive cornerback, but perhaps Dennard is better from a technique perspective. Both corners have a very bright future ahead of them, and Tennessee will be happy with whichever one the Lions pass on.
12. New York Giants (7-9): Aaron Donald, DT, Pittsburgh
After being carried by their defensive line for so many years, the Giants suddenly find themselves in a position where they must rebuild it. Taking a big, athletic defensive tackle like Donald would be an excellent start.
13. St. Louis Rams (7-9): Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, S, Alabama
The Rams addressed their biggest need on offense at No. 2, so it certainly makes sense to do the same on defense by securing the draft's best safety at No. 13.
14. Chicago Bears (8-8): Timmy Jernigan, DT, Florida State
With defensive tackle Henry Melton deciding to leave the Windy City in favor of the Dallas Cowboys, the Bears must find a replacement. Jernigan seems to fit Chicago's defensive identity, and No. 14 is right in his wheelhouse.
15. Pittsburgh Steelers (8-8): Anthony Barr, OLB, UCLA
Barr is unquestionably talented enough to be a top-10 or even a top-five pick. Due to uncertainty surrounding his ability to translate successfully to the next level, he could very well slip to the Steelers, who know how to utilize rush linebackers.
16. Dallas Cowboys (8-8): Dee Ford, DE, Auburn
Replacing DeMarcus Ware is essentially impossible, but the Cowboys must find someone to occupy his defensive end spot after releasing him. Ford is pretty raw, but he has the talent to be an elite pass-rusher in the NFL.
17. Baltimore Ravens (8-8): Taylor Lewan, OT, Michigan
The Ravens need to keep quarterback Joe Flacco upright in order to have offensive success. That was an issue at times last year, but selecting Lewan would automatically make Baltimore's offensive line a force to be reckoned with.
18. New York Jets (8-8): Eric Ebron, TE, North Carolina
Regardless of whether the Jets decide to start Geno Smith or Michael Vick at quarterback, they need some weapons. Signing wide receiver Eric Decker was a great start, and Ebron would provide the chosen passer with an explosive field-stretcher at tight end.
19. Miami Dolphins (8-8): Zack Martin, OT, Notre Dame
Perhaps no team in the league needs more help along the offensive line than the Dolphins. Miami could benefit from either a tackle or a guard, and that makes Martin the perfect pick since he could potentially play at either spot.
20. Arizona Cardinals (10-6): Kony Ealy, DE, Missouri
While Clowney is unquestionably the top defensive end in this year's draft, there are bound to be other pass-rushers who excel at the next level. One possibility is Missouri's Kony Ealy. He is a fairly polarizing prospect in that his stock has fluctuated greatly since the end of the season, but his skill set is undeniable.
At 6'4" and 273 pounds, Ealy is big enough to play 4-3 defensive end, but he is also athletic enough to rush from a standing position in a 3-4 defense. That type of versatility is highly coveted, and that is probably why so many teams have are doing their due diligence on him, according to Terez A. Paylor of The Kansas City Star:
I’m hearing former #Mizzou DE Kony Ealy is a busy man these days. In the midst of a two-week period in which he’s meeting with seven teams.— Terez A. Paylor (@TerezPaylor) April 14, 2014
The Arizona Cardinals would certainly benefit from a pass-rusher, so there is no question that Ealy is on their radar to some degree. There is obviously plenty of risk involved with selecting Ealy, but that is the case with most prospects in the latter part of the first round.
If nothing else, he has gained the respect of some of his peers. Most notably, Texas A&M offensive tackle Jake Matthews is impressed with what he has seen out of Ealy, per Chris Brown of BuffaloBills.com.
"I thought Kony Ealy was really good at Missouri," Matthews said. "Real aggressive, big and strong. Mixed up his pass rush moves real well."
Matthews may not be a talent evaluator, but he is certainly a good judge of pass-rushers. Ealy made life miserable for offensive linemen in college, and perhaps he can do the same in the NFL for Arizona.
21. Green Bay Packers (8-7-1): Calvin Pryor, S, Louisville
Green Bay's offense isn't perfect by any means, but there is no doubt that improvements have to be made on the defensive side of the ball in order to return to a Super Bowl level. Grabbing a playmaking safety like Pryor would be a good place to start.
22. Philadelphia Eagles (10-6): C.J. Mosley, ILB, Alabama
Head coach Chip Kelly did some great things with the Eagles offense last season; however, he isn't exactly a defensive expert. He won't have to be if Philly selects Mosley since he will take the reins and be a leader from day one.
23. Kansas City Chiefs (11-5): Odell Beckham Jr., WR, LSU
Quarterback Alex Smith did some good things down the stretch last season, and he could be even better this year with a little more support. Taking a speedster like Beckham would provide a great complement to wide receiver Dwayne Bowe on the other side.
24. Cincinnati Bengals (11-5): Morgan Moses, OT, Virginia
The Bengals couldn't get anything going in the playoffs last season against the San Diego Chargers due to the fact that the Bolts generated pressure on nearly every play. A high-upside offensive tackle such as Morgan Moses would help significantly in that regard.
25. San Diego Chargers (9-7): Kyle Fuller, CB, Virginia Tech
San Diego made some big strides offensively last season, and its defense even came into its own late in the year as well. A potential shutdown cornerback like Fuller would help the Chargers build upon that improvement.
26. Cleveland Browns (from 11-5 Indianapolis Colts): Xavier Su'a-Filo, OG, UCLA
The Browns must give their new quarterback every opportunity to succeed. With weapons like Josh Gordon and Jordan Cameron already in place, a big guard would make plenty of sense in terms of improving both the pass and run-blocking.
27. New Orleans Saints (11-5): Brandin Cooks, WR, Oregon State
Offense has been the New Orleans Saints' bread and butter for the past several years with quarterback Drew Brees at the helm. That will still be the case in 2014, but there are clearly some improvements that need to be made on that side of the ball. With slot receiver Lance Moore now with the Pittsburgh Steelers, New Orleans must address that hugely important position.
Brees will rely heavily on Marques Colston and Jimmy Graham; however, they can't do it all on their own. Kenny Stills figures to come into his own after a solid rookie debut as well, but he isn't particularly proficient at moving inside. One prospect who could flourish in the Saints offense, though, is Oregon State's Brandin Cooks.
Cooks is smallish at 5'10" and 186 pounds, which is probably why he isn't being discussed as a higher pick. Size usually doesn't matter when it comes to slot receivers, and the Saints have done some special things with small players under head coach Sean Payton.
As small as Cooks is, his production with the Beavers was just the opposite. He caught 128 passes for 1,730 yards and 16 touchdowns in 2013, and he simply knows how to get open in any situation. According to ESPN's Adam Caplan, there is a lot to like about Cooks as a prospect:
Target area for Brandin Cooks: 20-32 in first. Everything checks out well with him--character, tape, speed.— Adam Caplan (@caplannfl) April 3, 2014
This class is chock-full of excellent receivers, and Cooks has the potential to be among the best, particularly if he has Brees throwing him the ball.
28. Carolina Panthers (12-4): Marqise Lee, WR, USC
The Panthers have allowed essentially all of their best receivers to walk, so it comes as no surprise that they are likely to target one in the first round. Carolina is fortunate that this is an extremely deep class for wideouts, and it will be thrilled to get Lee here.
29. New England Patriots (12-4): Stephon Tuitt, DL, Notre Dame
Few teams in the NFL value versatility as much as the Patriots do. That is particularly true on the defensive side of the ball, which makes Tuitt an obviously pick due to his ability to kick outside or inside depending upon the situation.
30. San Francisco 49ers (12-4): Allen Robinson, WR, Penn State
The 49ers have the luxury of doing pretty much whatever they want at No. 30. They could address their defensive backfield, but there is a lot of value in getting quarterback Colin Kaepernick another pass-catcher like Robinson.
31. Denver Broncos (13-3): Jason Verrett, CB, TCU
Even though the Broncos scored a major coup by signing cornerback Aqib Talib away from the Pats, they could still use another corner. It shouldn't take long for Verrett to develop into a reliable starter, which is exactly what Denver needs.
32. Seattle Seahawks (13-3): Cyrus Kouandjio, OT, Alabama
Seattle was the best team in the league this season, but it managed to win the Super Bowl without what most would classify as an elite offensive line. Right tackle is a definite position of need right now, and even though Kouandjio's stock has taken a hit, he is talented enough to be a star.
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