Nailing the first round of the NFL draft is key, especially for a team that has a number of holes to fill.
Nabbing an elite contributor with a top pick will almost certainly change the fortunes of a struggling organization while whiffing often leads to more losing and struggles.
Let’s take a look at how the first round of the 2014 NFL draft should shake out with an eye toward teams making the best possible selections in terms of need but also factoring in the talent level of the available prospects.
1. Houston Texans: Blake Bortles, QB, Central Florida
Houston went from a potential Super Bowl contender back to a basement-dweller in the span of one year for a variety of reasons, but none were more glaring than the regression at the quarterback position.
Bortles represents a chance for this downtrodden organization to get back on track, as the UCF signal-caller possesses immense size, a rocket arm and plenty of raw skills to develop over the next few seasons.
At 6’5” and 232 pounds, Bortles reminds many scouts of a young Ben Roethlisberger. It’s interesting to note that the Pittsburgh Steelers star has recently been showing the young prospect the ropes, per Josh Norris of NBC Sports:
Not sure if this is out there, but Blake Bortles and Ben Roethlisberger have worked together some during the pre-draft process.— Josh Norris (@JoshNorris) April 7, 2014
The Texans have a variety of options at their disposal with this top pick, but ultimately, Bortles is the one player who has the potential to carry this team to the top in the shortest amount of time.
2. St. Louis Rams (via Washington Redskins): Greg Robinson, OT, Auburn
Robinson has been dominating the pre-draft process and has clearly emerged as the premier offensive tackle in the class.
The Rams have a few holes to fill, but the best option would ultimately be adding a stalwart who can man a starting role from day one and hold that job for a decade or more. This Tigers product has the best shot at doing that and should be the pick, barring a trade, at No. 2.
3. Jacksonville Jaguars: Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina
Clowney is a no-brainer for Jacksonville here, as the Gamecocks star is a once-in-a-generation talent who could very well be remembered as the best player to come out of this draft.
While the Jags have been steadily improving their defensive line this offseason and would likely perform at or better than the league average this season without making this selection, the team has a chance to boast one of the most feared front seven’s in the game if Clowney pans out.
The South Carolina product spoke to Tania Ganguli of ESPN about how he would be motivated if he were to be passed over with the first two picks and end up in Florida:
Asked how miserable he'd make #Texans if they passed on him & the Jags drafted him, Clowney says, smiling, "I have to make them miserable."— Tania Ganguli (@taniaganguli) April 2, 2014
Considering work ethic is one of the few areas of Clowney’s game that scouts have taken umbrage with leading up to the draft, it seems like Jacksonville could do much worse than nabbing a motivated, game-changing defender with the third pick.
4. Cleveland Browns: Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M
The Browns have to bring some stability to the quarterback position if they are ever going to become a playoff contender. The team appears capable of making a postseason run and has talent all over the field, but it direly needs a franchise signal-caller to take it to the next level.
Manziel may have his detractors based on his celebrity status, smallish stature and more, but he is a proven commodity who can make throws under pressure, move around outside the pocket and win football games.
Johnny Football also said he wants to play in Cleveland if he were to land there on draft day, per Josh Katzowitz of CBS Sports:
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.
It’ll definitely be interesting to see if Manziel can deliver on that promise if he is taken at No. 4 overall.
5. Oakland Raiders: Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson
Watkins is the top receiver in a class completely loaded at the position. The Clemson product has top-flight speed, hands, work ethic and everything else the Raiders need in a young wideout.
6. Atlanta Falcons: Khalil Mack, OLB, Buffalo
Mack is competing with Clowney to be the top defender off the board and could rise above the South Carolina star when all is said and done this May. He should come off the board no later than No. 6 to the Falcons, as Mack has a rare combination of size, speed, coverage instincts, pass-rushing ability and run-stuffing skills.
7. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Anthony Barr, OLB, UCLA
Barr is one of the more intriguing prospects in the class, as he could be selected in the top 10 or outside the first round. The Bucs should be high on the UCLA product here, as his pass-rushing ability is second to none, and he can help their D-line put pressure on the opposing quarterback, an area of weakness in 2013.
8. Minnesota Vikings: Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville
Bridgewater is too talented to fall past the Vikings at No. 8, as the Cardinals signal-caller could be the answer to the team’s quarterback woes over the past few seasons.
While he needs to bulk up to take a 16-week NFL pounding, Bridgewater is able to make a ton of throws and instantly improves Minnesota at one of its worst positions.
9. Buffalo Bills: Mike Evans, WR, Texas A&M
Evans is the elite receiver that Buffalo must acquire to develop E.J. Manuel into a true star. The Aggies product has a massive frame that will make him a favorite target in short order and assist the Bills by manufacturing a ton of points down in the red zone.
10. Detroit Lions: Justin Gilbert, CB, Oklahoma State
Gilbert could be the top defensive back off the board this May, as his rare combination of size, athleticism and instincts will allow him to lock down the best receivers in the game. The Lions desperately need to address their secondary and have to consider the Oklahoma State standout with the No. 10 pick.
11. Tennessee Titans: Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M
Matthews is a steal at No. 11 for the Titans, especially considering the team’s need to improve the offensive line this offseason. With Chris Johnson out of the picture, having a stalwart line to run behind will make the transition to a new starter easier. Matthews’ presence should also help keep Jake Locker healthy in 2014.
12. New York Giants: Taylor Lewan, OT, Michigan
Lewan is a stud tackle who can bolster Big Blue’s line in a big way, putting the finishing touches on what has been a solid rebuild in that area during the offseason.
NFL Media analyst Charley Casserly is extremely high on the Michigan product, claiming he is better than Matthews (who came off the board one pick ago in this hypothetical), via Bryan Fischer of NFL.com:
This guy is a giant. You watch him play, he's consistent. Every single game he's physical. He's more physical than [Jake] Matthews and can knock you off the ball. When they worked out side-by-side in Indy, (Lewan) had the better workout than Matthews.
Don’t be surprised if the G-Men end up landing Lewan in the first round.
13. St. Louis Rams: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, FS, Alabama
Clinton-Dix is a top-tier talent at the safety spot and represents a major upgrade at one of the Rams’ worst positions. This Crimson Tide product is quick and athletic enough to keep everything in front of him, but he's also instinctual and smart enough to sniff out the run and come up to support it in a flash.
14. Chicago Bears: Aaron Donald, DT, Pittsburgh
Donald has been surging up the big boards this offseason, a result of his incredible combine performance following an amazing senior campaign. While he’s a bit undersized at 6’1”, 285 pounds, there are no concerns about work ethic or technical skills here.
Daniel Jeremiah of the NFL Network spoke with Dan Wiederer of the Chicago Tribune about Donald’s potential and more:
I don’t think he really has anything to answer. The only concern you’d have is that he’s not a 315-pound guy. But we always talk in scouting that you want a guy that makes it through the whole process and checks every box. He was dominant on tape in the fall. I’d hate to play linebacker behind him because you don’t get a chance to make any tackles. He just lives in the backfield.
The Bears were an atrocious team in terms of stopping the run and disrupting plays in the backfield last year, so this is a slam-dunk selection for the club.
15. Pittsburgh Steelers: Darqueze Dennard, CB, Michigan State
The Steelers need an injection of youth into their secondary, and Dennard is just the right type of tough, physical defender the franchise loves to develop. Dennard isn’t going to back down from anyone in the man-to-man game and should quickly emerge as one of the NFL’s top corners in that regard.
16. Dallas Cowboys: Timmy Jernigan, DT, Florida State
Jernigan is looking to capitalize on an outstanding BCS championship performance with a selection in the top half of the draft. The Cowboys are an ideal suitor for the athletic defensive tackle, as they are coming off a historically poor season on defense and need to rebuild from the inside out. Jernigan can not only plug the running lanes, but he can also knife into the backfield and put pressure on the quarterback, making him an ideal pick at No. 16.
17. Baltimore Ravens: Calvin Pryor, FS, Louisville
Pryor is a hard-hitting machine who plays with a swagger and is someone the Ravens’ defense needs in order to orchestrate a return to the playoffs. While the team drafted a safety in Matt Elam last year, this Louisville product would be an ideal free safety, and Elam could slide over to the strong side.
18. New York Jets: Eric Ebron, TE, North Carolina
The Jets need to see what they have in young quarterback Geno Smith, and the only way to properly accomplish that is to provide the signal-caller with more weapons.
Ebron is the definition of a weapon, as he has the size, speed and hands that are in line with a new breed of game-changing tight ends. His presence, along with prized free agent Eric Decker, should have the Jets flying high in 2014.
19. Miami Dolphins: Zack Martin, OT, Notre Dame
The ‘Phins are still working to rebuild an offensive line that was gutted this past season. Martin isn’t regarded in the same class as the first few tackles to come off the board, but he’s versatile and may well end up playing guard at the next level if he doesn’t pan out on the edges.
20. Arizona Cardinals: Ra'Shede Hageman, DT, Minnesota
Hageman is an ideal fit for the Cardinals’ scheme and should be quite a talented run-stuffer and disruptor for the club. With a slew of elite, mobile quarterbacks plying their trade in the NFC West, Arizona has to continue to improve its D-line.
21. Green Bay Packers: C.J. Mosley, ILB, Alabama
The Packers should be extremely intrigued by Mosley with this pick, as the ‘Bama linebacker checks all the right boxes in terms of need for the team. He’d be a perfect complement to the edge-rushers and skilled outside linebackers already on the roster, helping to mold this defense into a more complete unit.
22. Philadelphia Eagles: Odell Beckham Jr., WR, LSU
Beckham Jr. is not going to replace the released DeSean Jackson, but the LSU star will give Nick Foles more weapons going into his first full year as a starting quarterback. This kid can turn an ordinary catch into a touchdown due to his blazing speed and shifty elusiveness.
23. Kansas City Chiefs: Marqise Lee, WR, USC
Lee is the sort of receiver the Chiefs need to evolve their passing offense past checkdown to Jamaal Charles. The USC product may not be coming off his finest season, but he’s a game-changer who simply has a nose for the end zone.
24. Cincinnati Bengals: Kyle Fuller, CB, Virginia Tech
Fuller is a great cornerback who plays smart and has natural athleticism for the position. He represents a great way for the Bengals to bring some youth into the secondary, especially with Adam Jones and Terence Newman currently on the downside of their careers.
25. San Diego Chargers: Jason Verrett, CB, TCU
Verrett may be coming off a shoulder injury, but the Horned Frog has tons of tape showing just how effective he can be in coverage. The Bolts would be wise to add a talented corner like this into the fold, as their ability to stop the pass was subpar in 2013.
26. Cleveland Browns (via Indianapolis Colts): Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Florida State
Benjamin is a special player, as he possesses elite size, hands and leaping ability that can make him a game-changing playmaker in the NFL. He would be an absolute steal for the Browns at No. 26, giving the young quarterback they take at No. 4 another weapon and the offense another receiver to augment the game-breaking skills of Josh Gordon.
27. New Orleans Saints: Kony Ealy, DE, Missouri
Ealy has slid down the big board in this hypothetical situation, but the pass-rusher should not drop past the Saints. The Tigers star is one of the best talents on the board at this spot and will be able to make an impact from early on in his career—largely due to his ability to get to the quarterback.
28. Carolina Panthers: Brandin Cooks, WR, Oregon State
The Panthers clearly aren’t afraid to employ an undersized receiver, given that Steve Smith played his entire career with the organization until he joined the Ravens this offseason. Cooks may not be as great as Smith was in his prime, but the Pokes product can make highlight-reel catches and break games open with his speed.
29. New England Patriots: Jace Amaro, TE, Texas Tech
The Patriots have to once again make the tight end spot a position of strength, and drafting Amaro at No. 29 is the best way to accomplish that. The Red Raiders product is a versatile weapon who possesses great size, hands and other traits that will make him a reliable target for Tom Brady.
30. San Francisco 49ers: Bradley Roby, CB, Ohio State
The Niners lost Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers this offseason, which means corner should be atop the list of positions the club must address in the draft. Roby is a raw prospect but could get on the field for a decent amount of snaps as early as 2015, when Chris Cook’s one-year deal expires.
31. Denver Broncos: Xavier Su'a-Filo, OG, UCLA
Su’a-Filo may not play a big role for the loaded Broncos during their quest for vengeance and a Super Bowl title this coming season, but he could eventually be a regular contributor on the team’s offensive line. Considering he is a raw prospect, this is the ideal situation for the Bruins product to land.
32. Seattle Seahawks: Cyrus Kouandjio, OT, Alabama
There are numerous injury concerns about this big mauler, but the Crimson Tide star has tremendous upside and the ability to be a standout offensive lineman in this league if he can stay healthy. Expect the Seahawks, coming off a championship, to give him a chance to prove himself.