Some NFL draft decisions are difficult. Others, not so much.
It's always easy to look retrospectively on a draft and sound smart. How could anybody think that Ryan Leaf would be a better quarterback than Peyton Manning?
With so much time ahead of the 2014 draft, though, fans have had enough time to consider which moves are the easiest to predict and which ones will provide the biggest impact. The prospects considered for the first-round have been nitpicked constantly over the last few months.
Looking ahead to Thursday night's first round, here's how I see it all playing out. The players who are underlined should be no-brainers for NFL general managers, because they're sure to succeed in the NFL.
1. Houston Texans: Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina
It's always been you, Jadeveon.
There isn't any reason for the Houston Texans to look beyond Jadeveon Clowney. This draft class doesn't have a John Elway-, Peyton Manning- or Andrew Luck-type prospect who is a can't-miss quarterback. Houston would be better off getting one of the best pass-rushers to come along in years and then address the quarterback position in the second or third round.
Forget about whatever possible concerns hang around Clowney based on his poor junior season. He watched former teammate Marcus Lattimore's draft stock fall off a cliff after suffering a knee injury last year, so you could forgive Clowney if he chose to weigh his NFL future a little more heavily than he did his South Carolina career.
Players like this don't come around very often. If Houston passes up the chance to take Clowney, it will regret it for years.
2. St. Louis Rams: Greg Robinson, OT, Auburn
Playing at Auburn, Greg Robinson didn't have the best possible experience when it comes to preparing for an NFL offense. With that said, there's no reason to think he won't become an anchor of his future team's offensive line for years to come. He's big (6'5", 332 lbs), strong and, more importantly, mobile enough to handle opposing pass-rushers off the edge.
3. Jacksonville Jaguars: Khalil Mack, DE/OLB, Buffalo
Take it straight from the horse's mouth: the Jacksonville Jaguars know how well Khalil Mack will adapt to the NFL. Speaking to NFL.com's Adam Schein on "Schein on Sports" on Sirius XM Radio, Jags head coach Gus Bradley said this about Mack (h/t NFL.com's Mike Huguenin):
He's one of those guys you feel like that's going to play for a long time; just extremely talented. And I think if you're a 3-4 team, you look at him and you say, 'God, the guy can rush. He can drop.' There's so many different positions that you can put him in. ... I know that each team probably looks and says, 'We have a place for him, and he would fit in very nicely.'
For a while, it seemed like Jacksonville was headed in the quarterback direction, as the Jaguars haven't had a bona fide franchise signal-caller in years.
But much like Clowney, Mack's talent is too good to ignore. He's the second best pass-rusher in the draft, yet he possesses a versatile enough skill set that he can be deployed in a number of roles.
4. Cleveland Browns: Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M
The Cleveland Browns have played things very close to the vest so far. They could go in any number of directions with their first of two first-rounders.
The Browns appear to be favoring Manziel at this stage, having worked him out in College Station, Texas, and then inviting him up to Cleveland for an interview as well, per ESPN's Adam Schefter:
Manziel grew by leaps and bounds as a passer in his sophomore season. Combine that with his freakish elusiveness, and he's more than worth the gamble at No. 4.
5. Oakland Raiders: Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson
Few franchises have been as obsessed with speed as the Oakland Raiders. Fabian Washington and Darrius Heyward-Bey are two of the most recent examples of the organization being seduced by a player's combine numbers and looking past the fact that they didn't possess first-round talent.
With Sammy Watkins, the Raiders would get the best of both worlds. While Watkins isn't the most speedy wideout available, he's still pretty darn fast, and he's capable of running the shorter to mid-range routes. The Clemson star can lift the play of his quarterback, much like Josh Gordon and Calvin Johnson have done for their respective teams.
Not even Oakland could screw this up.
6. Atlanta Falcons: Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M
Offensive line is a major area of need for the Atlanta Falcons. Although Robinson is already off the board, the Falcons would be thrilled to get Jake Matthews. The Texas A&M star is the much more NFL-ready player, so he'd fit in well with a team that played way under expectations in 2013 and should be due for a reversal of fortunes in 2014.
7. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Mike Evans, WR, Texas A&M
With Mike Williams gone, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers need to add another wideout, as Vincent Jackson alone won't cut it for 2014.
Mike Evans is a freak of nature. Guys who are 6'5" aren't supposed to run as fast he does. There's no question that Evans will have an adjustment period, but once he gets the lay of the land, the former Texas A&M star should flourish.
8. Minnesota Vikings: Blake Bortles, QB, UCF
Blake Bortles has some red flags such as his somewhat poor footwork and throwing mechanics under pressure. The UCF star will undoubtedly need to take his lumps in the NFL. If the Minnesota Vikings are patient with Bortles, though, they could have a franchise quarterback on their hands.
9. Buffalo Bills: Eric Ebron, TE, North Carolina
With the addition of Mike Williams, the Buffalo Bills don't need to draft a wide receiver this early in the first round. Instead, they can opt for Eric Ebron, who can fit in at tight end and would serve as yet another weapon to help further the development of EJ Manuel.
10. Detroit Lions: Justin Gilbert, CB, Oklahoma State
The Detroit Lions' secondary isn't terrible, but what it lacks is one true lockdown corner who can nullify an opponent's best wideout.
No cornerback in this draft has a higher ceiling than Justin Gilbert. He ran a blinding 4.37-second 40-yard dash at the combine. If Gilbert can harness his physical gifts and improve his technique, he could become the premier cornerback the Lions need.
11. Tennessee Titans: Anthony Barr, DE/OLB, UCLA
It is fair to wonder if Anthony Barr will become merely another athletically-gifted pass-rusher who flames out because he doesn't improve as an all-around football player a la Vernon Gholston and Aaron Curry. At No. 11, however, the Tennessee Titans can afford to take the gamble on him.
12. New York Giants: Taylor Lewan, OT, Michigan
In some years, Taylor Lewan might be the first offensive lineman taken. While he doesn't offer the potential of either Robinson or Matthews, he is more than prepared to hit the NFL running. Lewan just needs to be a little more consistent. He's got the physical tools to become a Pro Bowl-caliber offensive tackle once he puts it all together.
13. St. Louis Rams: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, S, Alabama
Ha Ha Clinton-Dix has everything you look for in a safety. He has the range to cover the entire secondary, tackles well and is capable of stepping up in run support. Safety was one of the biggest areas of need for the Rams heading into the offseason, so obtaining Clinton-Dix would be huge here.
14. Chicago Bears: Aaron Donald, DT, Pittsburgh
The only question here is whether Aaron Donald will still be around for the Chicago Bears at No. 14, as there's a good chance the Pittsburgh defensive tackle doesn't make it out of the top 10. If he does fall to the Bears, it should be an easy decision.
Donald is such a force on the interior of the line. With a player like him, you don't have to blitz that extra man in order to get pressure on the quarterback. That's an invaluable asset when you need every man you can get in pass coverage.
With Henry Melton off to the Dallas Cowboys, Donald could step onto the field in the Week 1 and make an immediate impact.
15. Pittsburgh Steelers: Darqueze Dennard, CB, Michigan State
Because Darqueze Dennard doesn't have blinding speed, some argue that he's going to be an average cornerback in the league. Sports Illustrated's Chris Burke doesn't think it'll be a major issue, however:
Dennard doesn't have the ceiling of Gilbert, but he's still a talented defender who would serve as the first piece of a much-needed youth movement on the defensive side of the ball in Pittsburgh.
16. Dallas Cowboys: Timmy Jernigan, DT, Florida State
Although Timmy Jernigan tips the scales at 299 pounds, he's far from a one-dimensional run-stuffer; the Florida State defensive tackle can handle double-teams just as well as he can pressure the quarterback. Jernigan comes with some concerns, namely his technique, but if he figures that out, he'd be a steady presence on the Cowboys defensive line.
17. Baltimore Ravens: Jimmie Ward, SS, Northern Illinois
The Baltimore Ravens addressed free safety last year with the selection of Matt Elam in the first round. Burke believes that Jimmie Ward would be a great complement to Elam in the Baltimore secondary. "At just 5-foot-11, Ward would give the Ravens two safeties on the smaller side (Matt Elam is 5-10)," he wrote. "His rangy game also would pair perfectly with Elam, who would be freer to drop down into the box."
18. New York Jets: Odell Beckham, WR, LSU
Geno Smith needs something—anything—to throw to in order to become a reliable quarterback. Odell Beckham isn't one of the top wide receivers in the draft, but he's the best one available at this point. Beckham's improvements over his last season at LSU are encouraging for his NFL prospects.
19. Miami Dolphins: Zack Martin, OG/OT, Notre Dame
Although Zack Martin would likely transition to offensive guard in the NFL, that would work just fine for the Miami Dolphins, who need to replace both Jonathan Martin and Richie Incognito. A move inside would play well to Martin's strengths, and it would mean that he wouldn't have to move laterally as much, which is one thing he has a problem with.
20. Arizona Cardinals: Ryan Shazier, OLB, Ohio State
After Karlos Dansby's departure, the Arizona Cardinals could use an inside linebacker and/or a linebacker who can rush off the edge. Luckily, Ryan Shazier can do both of those things.
This isn't an optimal pick for the Cardinals, who could use secondary help or an offensive tackle, but Shazier undoubtedly fills a need.
21. Green Bay Packers: C.J. Mosley, ILB, Alabama
Like Shazier, C.J. Mosley can be used in a variety of ways, except he fits more of the traditional inside linebacker mold. The former Alabama star would thrive in the Green Bay Packers defense, which needs somebody to fly around the field making tackles.
22. Philadelphia Eagles: Bradley Roby, CB, Ohio State
The Philadelphia Eagles weren't as bad defensively last season as some believe. Their quick offense is bound to bloat the other team's stats somewhat. There's no question, though, that the secondary could be upgraded.
Bradley Roby has some question marks about his consistency, but his 4.39 40-time at the combine is impressive enough that taking him here wouldn't be a crazy decision.
23. Kansas City Chiefs: Calvin Pryor, FS, Louisville
Calvin Pryor is great against the run, but he hasn't had a ton of experience dropping back in pass coverage. As a result, Pryor still struggles to react when a receiver changes directions. Thatt's not a red flag, though; it is yellow, at best.
24. Cincinnati Bengals: Kyle Fuller, CB, Virginia Tech
Leon Hall can't stay healthy, and the Cincinnati Bengals' next best options at cornerback are Terence Newman, Dre Kirkpatrick and Adam Jones. Cincy can't expect to grab a perennial Pro Bowler this late into the first round. Kyle Fuller has the look of an NFL starter, though, which is all the Bengals really need.
25. San Diego Chargers: Louis Nix, DT, Notre Dame
After Cam Thomas signed with the Pittsburgh Steelers this offseason, the San Diego Chargers have a massive hole in their defensive line. Louis Nix is the best nose tackle on the board and could slot right into the San Diego defense from Day 1.
26. Cleveland Browns: Jason Verrett, CB, TCU
The presence of Joe Haden means that Jason Verrett wouldn't have to be the No. 1 corner in Cleveland. Verrett's height (5'9") limits his NFL potential, but with Haden on the other side, Verrett could line up more against slot receivers, which would eliminate any potential size mismatch.
27. New Orleans Saints: Kony Ealy, DE, Missouri
Kony Ealy is still pretty raw heading into the draft. However, his upside is through the roof. Ealy is a ridiculous athlete, so if he improves his technique, he could become a double-digit sack guy, year in and year out. The New Orleans Saints could be getting a bargain with this pick.
28. Carolina Panthers: Cyrus Kouandjio, OT, Alabama
Jordan Gross' retirement has left the Carolina Panthers scrambling a bit. They can't go into the 2014 season without a new offensive tackle.
Cyrus Kouandjio is as good as it's gonna get at No. 28. According to Dr. James Andrews (h/t Jason LaCanfora of CBS Sports), Kouandjio's knee doesn't appear to be a major issue, which is good news. Kouandjio is a talented blocker, and if he stays healthy, the Panthers will have their their replacement at left tackle.
29. New England Patriots: Ra'Shede Hageman, DT/DE, Minnesota
Ra'Shede Hageman is your classic high-risk, high-reward player. Bill Belichick has to feel confident that he can get the best out of Hageman. The former Minnesota defensive tackle went cold a little too often in college, but if he stays hot for most of the time, he'll become a force.
30. San Francisco 49ers: Brandin Cooks, WR, Oregon State
The San Francisco 49ers might be a bit wary of drafting a slot receiver in the first round after A.J. Jenkins, their 2012 first-round draft pick, was a complete bust.
They shouldn't hesitate to pull the trigger on Brandin Cooks, though. Cooks is a little more polished than Jenkins was coming out of college, and his speed would make him a good complement to Anquan Boldin and Michael Crabtree.
31. Denver Broncos: Dee Ford, DE/OLB, Auburn
The signing of DeMarcus Ware was a bold move for the Denver Broncos, and it no doubt helped their pass rush. They're in a position where they don't have any major issues to address, so by drafting Dee Ford, they can strengthen themselves defensively and have a major playmaker for the future.
32. Seattle Seahawks: Xavier Su'a-Filo, OG, UCLA
The way that Xavier Su'a-Filo's stock has risen recently, he may not be available at No. 32. If he is, the Seattle Seahawks should pounce on him. Su'a-Filo is such a powerful blocker. It also says a lot about his ability that he could walk into the locker room right now and became an immediate starter for the reigning Super Bowl champions.
All height/weight information and combine statistics courtesy of NFL.com's results tracker.
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