Have you ever stopped and asked yourself what makes the NFL draft so compelling? After all, games aren't actually being played, a very small percentage of the players taken will ever become quality starters and, essentially, everyone is guessing when it comes to projecting the impact they'll eventually have.
And yet what makes the draft's popularity a bit comical at times is also the exact thing that makes it must-watch television—the possibilities. The possibility that your team might select a certain player. The possibility of huge, organization-defining trades. The possibility that any given player could become a star.
Really, the only certainties we have heading into a draft are a team's needs on the roster (not that such needs guarantee a team will address them during the draft). It's far easier to identify team needs and use them as a draft guide than trying to guess which players a team might value over others.
So below, I've made a selection for each team trying to take their major needs in mind, bearing in mind that at times the value on the board doesn't match up with a team's depth chart. But in general, need was my first consideration.
Oh, and I also embraced the possibilities.
1. Houston Texans: Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina
Is Jadeveon Clowney a better fit in a 4-3 scheme? Yes.
Is the Texans' biggest need a quarterback? Yes.
Are there questions about Jadeveon Clowney's motor or love of the game? Yes.
Is there another player in this draft more talented or capable of becoming a transcendent player? No.
And that's why the Texans should draft Clowney. You can talk about the fact that there aren't any can't-miss quarterbacks atop the draft, or that the Texans should add a player like Clowney to counteract Andrew Luck for the next 10 years, but ultimately, the fact that Clowney is the best player in the draft and has easily the most upside makes him the obvious selection.
2. St. Louis Rams (from Washington): Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson
When you consider that a Jeff Fisher coached team hasn't ever drafted an offensive lineman in the first round, this pick becomes easier to understand. Unless the Rams can trade out of the No. 2 selection (I'm not projecting trades here), Sammy Watkins should be the pick.
Sam Bradford needs a true No. 1 receiver to work with, and trying to game-plan for both Watkins and Tavon Austin would be a headache. Watkins has the ability to become one of the game's special players, and the Rams would be wise to bring him aboard.
3. Jacksonville Jaguars: Khalil Mack, DE/OLB, Buffalo
The more I think about how Clowney is a better fit for the Jags and Mack is a better fit for Jacksonville, at least schematically speaking, the more I think both teams could entertain the notion of flipping picks. But if Jacksonville stays put, I think Mack will be the selection.
Gus Bradley made strides with the Jaguars last season, so I think the organization will be patient in allowing him to rebuild the team. That means they don't need to reach for a quarterback in the first round, and Bradley likely would prefer building a strong defense first anyway. The team will have to build a hybrid role for Mack, but he's a true gamer and would be a game-changer on the edge for the Jags.
4. Cleveland Browns: Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M
Johnny Manziel is for the poker player willing to push all of his chips to the table on a a bluff. He's for the sky-diver, the base jumper, the Mount Everest climber. He's Mardi Gras and running with the bulls all wrapped into one.
In other words, if you are drafting Johnny Football, you have to allow him to be Johnny Football. Not every team is willing to do that, understandably so, but the Browns might just be the team that will. Kyle Shanahan built an offense around a similar player, Robert Griffin III, and Josh Gordon is the type of field-stretching receiver that Manziel will flourish working with.
It seems like a great fit. Let's see just how wild and crazy the Browns really are.
5. Oakland Raiders: Greg Robinson, OT, Auburn
My theory on the Raiders is this: If the team was going to draft a quarterback in the first round, they wouldn't have brought Matt Schaub aboard. In today's NFL, top-five quarterbacks start immediately, so having Schaub in the fold to presumably start makes it more likely the team will seek out a project pick at the position later in the draft.
Instead, with their choice of the top tackles on the board, the Raiders will bolster the offensive line. Greg Robinson isn't quite as polished as Jake Matthews, no, but his athletic upside makes him a comparable prospect to a player like Jason Peters. This would be the smart route for Oakland to go.
6. Atlanta Falcons: Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M
The Falcons could be major players in any potential trades atop the draft, as either Clowney or Mack would make a ton of sense for the team, but if they stay put I expect they'll take the top tackle on the board. Matthews would be one heck of a consolation prize.
7. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Mike Evans, WR, Texas A&M
A no-brainer. The Mike Williams trade virtually assured that the Buccaneers would address wide receiver at some point in the draft, and why not take a big, physical downfield threat like Mike Evans right off the bat? Pairing him with Vincent Jackson would make this passing game scary.
8. Minnesota Vikings: Blake Bortles, QB, Central Florida
Is Blake Bortles the next Christian Ponder or the next big thing? That will be the question Vikings fans torture themselves trying to answer, but Bortles looks like a more talented, prototypical option at the position.
His former coach, George O'Leary, certainly thinks he'll make a splash in the NFL, as he told The Damon Amendolara Show, “Some guys have that ‘it’ factor. (Bortles) has that. He’s sort of a gym rat. He’s always watching film. He’s a good kid. I’m looking forward to seeing what happens with him in the draft.”
And then he compared him to Ben Roethlisberger:
He has size, he has the arm strength and I think he had a great pro day. Pretty much all 32 teams were here with him. It’ll be interesting to see what happens, but Ben is probably the best comparison looking at size and what he can accomplish with the ball. They can avoid the rush, they can hold a play, delay a play and let some guys get open and make a play in bad situations. It’ll be interesting.
One thing is for certain—if he is the next Ponder, this organization will be in big trouble for the next five years, because quarterback is unquestionably their biggest need.
9. Buffalo Bills: Eric Ebron, TE, North Carolina
Buffalo could go for a player like Taylor Lewan here, but tight end is arguably the biggest need on the team's board and Eric Ebron is a special talent who would really upgrade the passing game. He'd be a mismatch for linebackers and safeties alike given his combination of size and athleticism, and he could very quickly develop into E.J. Manuel's favorite target.
10. Detroit Lions: Justin Gilbert, CB, Oklahoma State
This could easily be the corner who went to school in the state, Darqueze Dennard, but I think we all can agree that corner is the team's biggest need. I prefer Justin Gilbert's athleticism and scheme versatility—along with his ability to make plays in the return game—so he's the pick here for me.
11. Tennessee Titans: Anthony Barr, OLB/DE, UCLA
With the Titans adjusting to a hybrid 3-4 scheme, adding a player on the edge like Anthony Barr makes a ton of sense. His lack of polish could push him even further down the draft, but his athleticism and upside—remember, he started his UCLA career as a running back—will be very attractive to teams.
12. New York Giants: Taylor Lewan, OT, Michigan
There are two numbers that explain this pick: 18 and 27.
The first is the number of touchdowns Eli Manning threw last year. The second is his interceptions. Protecting Manning should be the top priority in New York, and the fact that Taylor Lewan brings with him a nasty streak is an added bonus for a team that could use a bit of a spark after a disappointing 2013 season.
13. St. Louis Rams: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, S, Alabama
This could just as easily be Calvin Pryor, but Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is a naturally rangy safety that would pair perfectly with T.J. McDonald. The Rams will be quite pleased to come out of the first round having bolstered the passing attack and pass defense.
14. Chicago Bears: Aaron Donald, DT, Pittsburgh
The top defensive tackle on the board would plug a huge need for the Bears, a team that was dreadful against the run a season ago. I could just as easily see Donald slipping into the top 10, so if he's available at No. 14, the Bears should sprint to the podium.
15. Pittsburgh Steelers: Darqueze Dennard, CB, Michigan State
Great player, great fit. Dennard's proclivity for controlling an opposing receiver with his press-man coverage and for being a physical contributor to the run game would make him a popular player in Pittsburgh very quickly. This is an aging secondary, but Dennard would start the youth movement.
16. Dallas Cowboys: Timmy Jernigan, DT, Florida State
For all we know, Jerry Jones will draft a quarterback here—trying to predict what the Cowboys will do is often a futile endeavor—but the team would be wise to continue bolstering in the trenches. Timmy Jernigan is a scheme-versatile defensive tackle and would pair nicely Henry Melton.
17. Baltimore Ravens: C.J. Mosley, LB, Alabama
Ray Lewis isn't walking through that door, so Baltimore needs to upgrade at the middle linebacker position. C.J. Mosley is a heck of a player and about as NFL-ready as they come, and looks like a great fit for Baltimore's scheme.
18. New York Jets: Odell Beckham Jr., WR, LSU
An offense with Eric Decker, Chris Johnson, Odell Beckham Jr. and Michael Vick is no longer devoid of weapons, huh? Adding Beckham would be the perfect way to conclude an offseason in which the Jets took very seriously their complete lack of playmakers last season.
19. Miami Dolphins: Zack Martin, OT, Notre Dame
Miami's woes on the offensive line are no secret, and the team would be wise to focus heavily on the unit in this year's draft. Zack Martin can potentially play either tackle or guard at the next level, a big reason why he's become the popular pick for the Dolphins at No. 19.
20. Arizona Cardinals: Derek Carr, QB, Fresno State
Carson Palmer is 34, and even he knows the Cardinals need to draft a contingency plan at quarterback this offseason. Seriously, he said as much to Darren Urban on the team's official site:
If you are in a position to draft the best player on your board, and that’s the best position to be in as an organization, and (a quarterback) is he best player on the board, you are not only making your team better by creating competition but you are helping out the future. I know I’m not going to play forever. It’s hard for us players to admit that. The older you get the harder it is to admit it. You don’t see it happening. You still feel good, you still feel confident, you still feel healthy.
But that’s the reality. That’s the business. It doesn’t matter how you feel about it, whether it irks you or you don’t care. That’s the game.
The Cardinals didn't exactly need Palmer's blessing to draft a quarterback, but it helps to calm any potential quarterback controversies that he already addressed the possibility. It also makes it seem all the more likely that Arizona could address the position sooner rather than later in the draft.
Derek Carr has been undervalued in the draft process, so the Cardinals would be getting a steal here in my opinion. His big arm would play perfectly in Bruce Arians' vertical passing attack.
21. Green Bay Packers: Calvin Pryor, S, Louisville
Nothing is sweeter than need and value coming together perfectly, but that's exactly what would happen here for the Packers. Calvin Pryor is physical enough to play strong safety, but he's athletic enough to play as a heat-seeking missile at free safety, akin to an Earl Thomas. Green Bay would surely be thrilled with this pick.
22. Philadelphia Eagles: Brandin Cooks, WR, Oregon State
This may appear to be a "cloning DeSean Jackson" pick—and the two are similar—but Brandin Cooks brings a different skill set to the table. He's a better runner after the catch, he's a bit better at high-pointing the ball and he seems better-suited to play out of the slot. Yes, his speed and quickness will allow him to beat opponents deep, but if he lives up to his potential he should be a more well-rounded receiver than Jackson.
23. Kansas City Chiefs: Marqise Lee, WR, USC
Marqise Lee isn't elite in any one category, but he seems to do everything at the position pretty well. He's a natural fit in Andy Reid's version of the West Coast offense and will provide Alex Smith with another much-needed weapon in the passing game.
24. Cincinnati Bengals: Jason Verrett, CB, TCU
Like the Steelers, the Cincinnati Bengals have become pretty darn old in the secondary. If Jason Verrett was a little bigger and stronger he would probably be a top-15 pick. He's not—and opinions vary as to where he should come off the board—but I think he would be a great fit in Cincy.
25. San Diego Chargers: Louis Nix III, DT, Notre Dame
Reaching the playoffs and beating the Bengals has probably overshadowed the fact that this was an 8-8 team last year with a lot of holes to fill. The top needs are nose tackle and cornerback—and the Chargers could go in either direction with this pick—but I think Louis Nix III is a better prospect than any of the remaining corners on the board.
26. Cleveland Browns (via Indianapolis): Xavier Su'a-Filo, G, UCLA
Outside of quarterback, Cleveland's biggest need is at guard (corner is up there too), so don't be surprised if the team goes from one of the splashiest first-round picks to one of the more boring ones. Doug Farrar of Sports Illustrated breaks down why Xavier Su'a-Filo is such a tantalizing prospect:
Put simply, the 2014 draft class at guard consists of Xavier Su'a-Filo and a few tiers of Everybody Else. There's nobody else who possesses his combination of root strength, understanding of technique and agility to the second level. He has the versatility to play left tackle—which he did for the Bruins at times— but at his heart, Su'a-Filo has the nasty streak you like in an elite guard. It all adds up to a guy who should hear his name called in the first 20 picks.
That doesn't sound quite as boring, huh?
27. New Orleans Saints: Dee Ford, OLB, Auburn
He's no Clowney, but Dee Ford is still one of the more talented pass-rushers in this class and a great fit for a New Orleans team in need of more pressure coming off the edge. Let's see who the "blind dog in a meat market" really is.
28. Carolina Panthers: Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Florida State
If you look on the Panthers depth chart, there's a giant question mark at the wide receiver position, mostly because it is entirely possible the coaching staff doesn't even know which players currently play for the team there. So yes, I'm saying the team should take the top player on their board at wide receiver. In this case, I believe that player to be Kelvin Benjamin.
29. New England Patriots: Jace Amaro, TE, Texas Tech
With Rob Gronkowski's injury history and a young receiving corps, adding weapons for Tom Brady in the passing game is key. Jace Amaro could both serve the role in New England's offense vacated by Aaron Hernandez, but he could also provide valuable insurance for Gronk. A logical selection for New England.
30. San Francisco 49ers: Allen Robinson, WR, Penn State
Colin Kaepernick needs another weapon in the passing game, namely one that can make plays down the field. Allen Robinson is a bit underrated and is better after the catch than he gets credit for. After a productive college career, he shouldn't need much of a transition period in the NFL.
31. Denver Broncos: Ryan Shazier, OLB, Ohio State
Denver made several upgrades on defense this offseason, but finding a quality outside linebacker to pair with Von Miller is still required. Ryan Shazier is an excellent athlete and a player who should be able to bring pressure off the edge if set loose on the quarterback.
32. Seattle Seahawks: Davante Adams, WR, Fresno State
The Seahawks don't have many pressing needs, but after losing Golden Tate in free agency, adding another quality body to the receiving corps would make sense. Davante Adams was insanely productive in college and could develop into an excellent red-zone threat for Russell Wilson.