The prolonging of the NFL draft calendar naturally creates more time for smoke screens and speculation. While many fans and pundits are growing fatigued with the process, the fact nevertheless remains that teams have essentially finalized their evaluations on prospects.
Still, that does not stop prospects' draft stocks from fluctuating wildly. Teams are likely sending contradictory signals to mask their true intentions, something that will only be plainly revealed when the draft actually occurs.
As the seemingly interminable predraft process nears its end, here's a look at some of the latest buzz making its way around the interweb.
Falcons All-in for Clowney?
At the moment, the Atlanta Falcons appear to have two glaring needs: an edge-rusher for their new 3-4 system and a tackle capable of protecting Matt Ryan's blindside right away.
If Atlanta remains at No. 6, they can almost certainly address the latter need without issue. With a trio of elite tackles available in Greg Robinson, Jake Matthews and Taylor Lewan, the Falcons can pick from whoever falls out of the top five. All three appear likely day-one starters at left tackle, providing safe production.
However, it appears the Falcons may not be content to see where the chips may fall. CBSSports.com's Jason La Canfora reported that Atlanta stands as the top suitor to trade for Houston's top overall pick, which they would subsequently use to select generational talent Jadeveon Clowney.
Despite reservations about Clowney's fit in a 3-4 scheme, the South Carolina product possesses such rare athleticism that it is foolhardy to suggest system limitations. Indeed, while Clowney was not a textbook edge-setter against the run in college, there is little doubt that he could become a destructive all-around weapon if properly motivated.
The questions about Clowney's motor have been so oversaturated that it is not really worth addressing any further until we start to see some tangible on-field evidence at the NFL level. The greater issue should be whether Atlanta is willing to sacrifice the cargo necessary to move up five slots, something ESPN's Vaughn McClure doubts will happen:
In trading up for Julio Jones, Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff has already demonstrated boldness when he identifies a prospect he loves. And yet, one must question the wisdom of giving away more picks after Atlanta's aging top-heavy roster fell flat on its face in 2013. Clowney is undeniably enticing for a Falcons defense largely bereft of youthful talent, but propagating the same risky roster construction is dubious at best.
With the Texans desperate to move out of the top spot, however, the Falcons do have a bit of leverage. But as flashy and exciting as a Clowney selection would be, the truth remains that Atlanta's personnel is simply ill-equipped to play another season without an infusion of youthful depth.
Manziel to Tampa Bay?
The quarterback carousel has spun rapidly, as no one is really sure where any of the Big Three will land. Blake Bortles and Johnny Manziel still appear to be safe first-rounders but are not top-10 locks. Meanwhile, poor Teddy Bridgewater has gone from the consensus top pick early in the predraft process to a falling star who may not even hear his name called on Day 1.
One team that has not been linked to a quarterback is Tampa Bay. The Bucs were among the most effective spenders in free agency, and one of their pickups was veteran signal-caller Josh McCown. After the success McCown experienced in Chicago with big receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, many have pegged Mike Evans as the most logical pick for the Bucs.
However, it appears Manziel is the object of Tampa Bay's current draft affections. The 34-year-old McCown is far from a long-term solution, and assuming new coach Lovie Smith is not sold on Mike Glennon, the Bucs could still use some quarterback depth. ESPN's Ed Werder first reported the connection:
It's curious why Manziel would attract the Bucs. Based on his Chicago track record, Lovie Smith has opted for big-armed quarterbacks like Jay Cutler and Rex Grossman rather than smaller improvisers like Manziel. McCown's two-year, $10 million deal would be an awfully expensive deal for a backup, though with no guaranteed money, they could part ways without taking on any salary-cap hits.
Still, the Bucs appear to have a glaring need at receiver. With an extremely talented young defense, Tampa Bay is closer to the postseason than their 4-12 2013 record indicates. Adding an offensive weapon like Evans would almost certainly make the Bucs a chic preseason sleeper pick.
The wide receiver crop is so deep this year that Tampa Bay could still conceivably get a solid No. 2 like Cody Latimer, Davante Adams or Jordan Matthews at No. 38. Pairing Vincent Jackson and Rookie X with Manziel seems suboptimal compared to McCown with Jackson and Evans, but it is not an untenable solution.
If Tampa Bay truly is smitten with Manziel, it might be a reflection of an internal belief that the 2014 roster is not as close to contention as the public believes. Manziel would be a selection aimed toward playoff contention in 2015 or 2016, a reverse from what the McCown signing seemed to imply.
49ers to Trade Up?
The San Francisco 49ers are in an extraordinarily enviable position. Already armed with one of the most talented rosters in the league, the Niners also possess a whopping 11 draft picks, including six in the first three rounds. Quite simply, San Francisco has flexibility no other team can match.
Therefore, one possibility could be a trade-up. ESPN's Chris Mortensen (per Rotoworld's Evan Silva) reported that the 49ers might be planning a big jump up from No. 30 to select Mike Evans:
Silva also went on to suggest that their Bay Area rivals might be the most amenable trading partners. The talent-poor Raiders only have six picks and could be looking to snatch some of San Francisco's Day 2 haul to add young depth to their roster:
The 49ers have two fairly pressing needs at cornerback and wide receiver. 2013 starters Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown are gone, leaving Eric Wright as the possible No. 1 corner (given Chris Culliver's off-field buffoonery).
Meanwhile, Colin Kaepernick struggled mightily in Michael Crabtree's absence last year. The blame was also not entirely on Kaepernick, as San Francisco's offensive personnel and play-calling was extremely stagnant without their top threat. With Anquan Boldin turning 34 in the middle of next year, now might be the time for the Niners to replenish their receiving corps.
In addition, the team cut starting center Jonathan Sullivan this offseason. Daniel Kilgore looked slated to take over, but after a public-intoxication arrest, the Niners might want to select someone like USC's Marcus Martin or Arkansas' Travis Swanson instead.
The depth at receiver, cornerback and center allows the Niners to sit back and wait if they want to, though they can acquire a true No. 1 game-changer at the former two positions with a trade up. One of the top two cornerbacks, Justin Gilbert or Darqueze Dennard, might make sense as well. And considering the Aldon Smith saga, the Niners are certainly not out of the market for an edge-rusher as well.
Savvy draft-planning has put the 49ers in position to seamlessly address all of these concerns. Solid scouting should allow San Francisco to reload and forge another clash of Goliaths with the rival Seahawks.
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