Yes, it may be early, but in the NFL it is never too early to look ahead. That's why fans are already starting to think about the 2015 NFL draft.
There is still a whole season to play, and with the parity pro football tends to promote on an annual basis, the order for the first round is all but impossible to predict at this point.
What makes it even trickier is getting a figurative baseline on the prospects, simply because there's no recent frame of reference with regard to the top potential pros. When the collegiate season unfolds, it's easier to get a handle on who is standing out, and which players have made the most improvement and vaulted themselves into first-round conversation.
Still, that won't stop most fans from trying to predict what their favorite teams will do next offseason and which rookies can help continue to improve which rosters.
Here is a preliminary look at what Round 1 of the 2015 NFL draft could look like and what the prospective additions would mean to each franchise.
Note: The following 2015 NFL mock draft projects picks prior to the 2014 NFL draft. Extended analysis focuses on quarterbacks with the most upside.
1. Oakland Raiders: Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon
This projection hinges on the Raiders regime crashing and burning in 2014, as veteran quarterback Matt Schaub is unable to recover his confidence lost in Houston. It leads to the firing of general manager Reggie McKenzie and head coach Dennis Allen, whereupon a new Silver and Black era is underway.
Brent Sobleski of USA Today suggested that Mariota could have been the first quarterback off the board in this year's draft had he decided to go pro:
Mariota satisfies the new prototype for NFL quarterbacks with his combination of arm talent and fleet feet that could make him an elite signal-caller. The Ducks figure to be among the nation's best in 2014, so Mariota can solidify his spot as the top pick with another strong season.
2. Miami Dolphins: Cedric Ogbuehi, OT, Texas A&M
Following the likes of Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews as top Aggies draft picks on the offensive line, Ogbuehi can fill in at any position. He has played guard and right tackle as of this past season and figures to slide over to left tackle to replace Matthews in 2014. If Ogbuehi continues his strong play there, he should be the first lineman off the board. Miami can certainly use him as it continues to fortify its offensive line for the future.
3. Tennessee Titans: Jameis Winston, QB, Florida State
Winston enters the fold in Tennessee to replace the inept, inconsistent Jake Locker as the QB of the future, as the Titans take a slide in Ken Whisenhunt's first year roaming the sidelines.
Bleacher Report's Mike Freeman spoke with several sources who said that Winston's off-field conduct is harming his draft stock. One source was an NFL scout who said the following about Winston following his shoplifting charge:
When I heard about this, I was stunned. He was the top overall pick next year. Was. Not anymore. This latest thing shows a continuation of bad judgment. I don't trust him, and I can tell you very few teams in the NFL will trust him.
This testimony is discouraging, but Winston is coming from an extremely complex, pro-style offense under Jimbo Fisher's tutelage. That should prepare him well for the NFL, along with the scrutiny he faced as a Heisman Trophy winner and national champion as a freshman.
4. New York Giants: Randy Gregory, DE/OLB, Nebraska
According to his Huskers.com profile, Gregory is making a conscious effort to improve himself versus the run ahead of the 2014 campaign in Lincoln to add to his pass-rushing prowess. The first-team All-Big Ten selection should parlay that strong all-around play to make an immediate impact on a Giants defense in desperate need of a spark.
5. St. Louis Rams: Bryce Petty, QB, Baylor
It turns out that Sam Bradford isn't the answer under center in St. Louis, prompting the Rams to move on and look back to the Big 12 for another QB in Petty. A prolific junior year in Waco saw Petty throw for 32 touchdowns with just three picks and 4,200 yards.
Petty is also an underrated athlete who scored 14 TDs on the ground in 2013, giving his prospective suitor an added dimension against the tough defenses of the NFC West.
6. Buffalo Bills: Andrus Peat, OT, Stanford
A lack of in-game experience and the weight of expectations to improve set the Bills back a year. They prepare to enter year three of the Doug Marrone coaching era in which 2013 first-round pick EJ Manuel must prove himself. To aid his efforts, Buffalo selects a savvy, lengthy offensive tackle in Peat to help in pass protection.
7. Jacksonville Jaguars: Amari Cooper, WR, Alabama
Crimson Tide offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin should have a field day as he runs Cooper all over the field, lining him up both outside and in the slot. After what should be an excellent junior campaign, Cooper will be ready to fill in as Jacksonville's necessary playmaker.
The Jags figure to show some improvement, but they will spend their top 2014 pick on either a quarterback, Clemson product Sammy Watkins or an elite defensive prospect. That will leave a void at wideout in any event, given the indefinite suspension for Justin Blackmon and his uncertain long-term future with the team.
8. Dallas Cowboys: Leonard Williams, DL, USC
It's difficult to figure out which direction America's Team will go in the 2014 draft, but in a make-or-break season, the defense still won't be good enough to compete at a high level.
That leads to the selection of Williams in 2015, who is already 6'5" and 290 pounds as a 19-year-old and received a ringing endorsement from his coach last season in Ed Orgeron, per NFL.com's Dan Greenspan:
He is probably one of the best athletes we've had here on the defensive line as far as size-speed ratio. He is a highly unusual football player with the combination of speed and quickness at the size that he has.
Williams figures to fill a major need that owner Jerry Jones would do well to address in each of the forthcoming two drafts. Landing someone like Williams could change the course of Dallas' struggling defense, though.
9. Cleveland Browns: Eric Striker, OLB, Oklahoma
Since Paul Kruger looks to be a bit of a disappointment as a free-agent signing, Cleveland shores up its depth at outside linebacker for defensive-minded head coach Mike Pettine.
Barkevious Mingo should thrive in Pettine's system as a second-year player, but Striker's quickness off the edge and overall athleticism should allow the Browns to get even more creative on defense.
10. Minnesota Vikings: Shilique Calhoun, DE, Michigan State
Mike Zimmer is another first-year head coach who will struggle in 2014, perhaps due to a rookie quarterback as did Cleveland, and be stuck in the top 10 yet again. That leads the Vikings to turn to defense, where they grab a pass-rusher with significant upside in Calhoun to protect against the risky, lucrative re-signing of Everson Griffen.
11. Kansas City Chiefs: P.J. Williams, CB, Florida State
Projected 2014 Chiefs starter Sean Smith will be entering another contract year in the subsequent season, so Kansas City bolsters its secondary by drafting Williams. Counting on 2013 late-round draft picks Sanders Commings and Marcus Cooper (who was originally drafted by the 49ers) isn't as viable of a long-term strategy for improving the position.
12. Carolina Panthers: Stefon Diggs, WR, Maryland
In a deep 2014 draft of wide receivers, it stands to reason that the Panthers will go after a big-bodied target in the second or third round to help out QB Cam Newton.
After a lackluster season, Carolina catches Diggs, whose sophomore season was cut short by a broken fibula, leading to him to work harder than ever, improve in his final year at Maryland and become a big-play threat for the Panthers.
13. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Brandon Scherff, OT, Iowa
Scherff could have very well been a first-round pick in 2013 if he chose to forgo his senior season. With added life experience and even more polish, Tampa Bay would welcome him as its franchise left tackle.
14. Houston Texans: Benardrick McKinney, ILB, Mississippi State
The uncertainty surrounding Brian Cushing's future with regard to his health and the lack of other assets on the inside of the front seven lead Houston to selecting McKinney. Having played against great competition in the SEC, McKinney's stock should soar as the season progresses and land him in the top half of the first round in 2015.
15. New York Jets: Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, CB, Oregon
There may not be a great chance for the Jets to grab an elite cornerback prospect in 2014, so they make up for it by taking Ekpre-Olomu in 2015.
Coach Rex Ryan has depended on corners such as Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie in the past, and the All-American Ekpre-Olomu gives him a potential elite option there.
16. Arizona Cardinals: Vic Beasley, DE/OLB, Clemson
Relying on Carson Palmer under center will prove to be the Cardinals' downfall in a tough NFC West in 2014, resulting in the team dropping to the middle of the first round after a 10-win campaign in 2013.
Palmer's heir apparent should be acquired in this year's draft in the first or second round. With its top pick in the next draft, Arizona opts for Beasley, who'd make sense as a pass-rush replacement for aging veteran John Abraham.
17. Detroit Lions: Kurtis Drummond, FS, Michigan State
The senior captain is the bedrock of a Spartans secondary that lost skilled cover corner Darqueze Dennard to the 2014 NFL draft. Drummond should see his stock rise based on Michigan State's continued excellence on the back end, resulting in him staying in state as the first safety off the board in 2015.
18. Washington Redskins: Michael Bennett, DT, Ohio State
The reward in trading up for QB Robert Griffin III was an NFC East title in 2012, followed by a three-win campaign last season.
That cost Washington the No. 2 pick in a deep draft, so it will need an impact player at this juncture next year. Bennett should start right away someplace in the team's 3-4 alignment, which has very limited depth in the defensive trenches.
19. Cincinnati Bengals: Brett Hundley, QB, UCLA
There's a chance that Hundley could shoot all the way to the top of the board depending on how he plays for the Bruins this season. Against a rather tough Virginia Tech defense in the Sun Bowl, he threw for 226 yards and two touchdowns while picking up 161 yards on 10 carries and two more scores.
The Big Lead's Jason McIntyre alluded to the potential in the forthcoming QB class, but Hundley may be the biggest wild card of all:
Hundley needs to improve his mechanics, as his motion sometimes leads to the ball sailing on him, but he does have the strength to throw from different platforms. It's also encouraging that he steps up in the pocket and will deliver the ball even when contact is imminent.
Is Andy Dalton really the answer in Cincinnati? His intangibles are strong, he's a smart enough signal-caller, but he doesn't have an elite skill set at least as far as arm talent is concerned. The Bengals have a chance at the Super Bowl with their current nucleus, with Dalton serving as the X-factor and relative question mark.
It doesn't seem as though Dalton has much more room to improve, while Hundley's ceiling is through the roof. At 6'3" and 227 pounds, he has the prototypical NFL frame to go with great velocity, improving anticipation and the mobility to improvise, which is becoming a defining characteristic amongst new-age QBs.
20. Baltimore Ravens: Todd Gurley, RB, Georgia
There may not be a running back chosen in Round 1 for two consecutive years when the 2014 draft's first round expires, but that trend will be bucked if the Ravens are here at No. 20. Gurley is a beast at 6'1" and 232 pounds, with impressive speed for his size and the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield.
A more complete back in college football doesn't really come to mind, and neither Ray Rice nor Bernard Pierce was effective in 2013.
21. Philadelphia Eagles: Hroniss Grasu, C, Oregon
Former Ducks and current Eagles head coach Chip Kelly brings in Grasu for a reunion of sorts in the City of Brotherly Love. Having a center who understands Kelly's system so well will be invaluable as the Eagles' innovative offense continues to roll on, justifying Grasu's value at this early stage of the draft.
22. Green Bay Packers: Landon Collins, S, Alabama
The best safeties of the 2014 class in Calvin Pryor and Collins' former teammate in Ha Ha Clinton-Dix may be off the board by the time the Packers pick at No. 21. If that's the case, general manager Ted Thompson should add Collins to the mix to shore up the back end after investing in the front seven in Round 1 of the previous two drafts.
23. Atlanta Falcons: T.J. Yeldon, RB, Alabama
Blasphemy, right? Another running back in this day and age in the NFL. Better believe it. Atlanta is bound for a bounce-back season, but the Falcons have an aging back in Steven Jackson, and Jacquizz Rodgers isn't built for an every-down workload.
Arming QB Matt Ryan with an all-purpose back such as Yeldon would make Atlanta borderline unstoppable, presuming the front office invests more in the 2014 offensive line.
24. San Francisco 49ers: Jaelen Strong, WR, Arizona State
How much are the 49ers going to get out of Anquan Boldin, and even aging veteran Brandon Lloyd beyond this season?
Only Michael Crabtree remains as a viable target on the outside. To help keep QB Colin Kaepernick for the long term following a contract season, San Francisco selects Strong (6'4", 205 pounds) to be a stellar No. 2 complement to Crabtree.
25. San Diego Chargers: Cameron Erving, OT, Florida State
The Chargers picked up their right tackle in D.J. Fluker during the first round of last year's draft. Two years later, they will have Erving to fortify the protection once and for all for Pro Bowl QB Philip Rivers.
26. Chicago Bears: Devonte Fields, DE, TCU
Injuries cut Fields' 2013 season to just three games, so he should come back with something to prove after he was the Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year.
All-Pro Jared Allen would be an ideal mentor for Fields, and the Bears tied a league low with 31 sacks last season. Chicago thus needs all the help it can get to pressure the opposing quarterback.
27. Pittsburgh Steelers: Nick O'Leary, TE, Florida State
A lot of Seminoles are flying off the board in this mock, but it comes with merit. That program preaches pro-style schemes, from which O'Leary will continue benefiting.
Pittsburgh needs a replacement for Heath Miller at some point. O'Leary makes a lot of sense since he can be a No. 2 tight end right away thanks to his blocking ability. He can also catch the ball when asked, proving to have some explosive ability as he averaged just under 17 yards per catch on 33 receptions with seven TDs during FSU's national title run.
28. Indianapolis Colts: Jordan Richards, SS, Stanford
Ranked as the No. 1 safety in the 2015 class by NFLDraftScout.com, Indianapolis should get some valuable and encouraging intel on Richards before selecting him, given QB Andrew Luck's ties to the Cardinal.
Richards would be a huge upgrade over Corey Lynch. The Colts won't be able to address this need in 2014 absent a first-round choice. They can get by for this season, but eventually the position must be filled by a more viable long-term option.
29. Seattle Seahawks: Devin Funchess, TE, Michigan
There's no guarantee Funchess will leave Ann Arbor, but this early forecast presumes he will, based on his big leap as a sophomore. Pass-catching tight ends create matchup nightmares, as Funchess proved in snagging 49 receptions for 748 yards and six scores in his second season at Michigan.
Seattle doesn't have a consistent weapon in this spot, so Funchess is an intriguing player who may be a bit of a project but is nevertheless well worth a first-round flier.
30. Denver Broncos: Dante Fowler Jr., DE/OLB, Florida
The highly touted Gators recruit is primed for a strong season that should launch him into the first round of the 2015 NFL draft. Jeff Barlis of ESPN.com (subscription required) provided an update on Fowler on May 2, suggesting he's on the upswing:
The hybrid defensive end/linebacker altered his diet and dropped some body fat before spring. He quickly proved to be Florida's most consistent pass-rushing threat and showed flashes of dominating offensive linemen. While Fowler became an obvious team leader off the field, it appeared that many of his teammates were in awe of his talents on the field.
It seems Fowler is maturing at a rapid rate, and he's an ideal plug-in on the edge in Denver, where the Broncos already have two great players for Fowler to learn from in Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware.
31. New Orleans Saints: Jordan Jenkins, OLB, Georgia
Jenkins fell short of expectations, as he was expected to fill the edge-rushing void left by Steelers 2013 first-rounder Jarvis Jones. A lackluster work ethic was to blame, according to Jenkins himself, via Seth Emerson of the Ledger-Enquirer, and now he should be ready to make a massive impact to redeem his prior efforts. That will allow him to sneak into the latter part of the 2015 draft's first round.
32. New England Patriots: Nelson Agholor, WR, USC
Aaron Dobson didn't look equipped to handle New England's complex offense as a 2013 second-round pick. While both he and Kenbrell Thompkins can get better, legendary quarterback Tom Brady's career is winding down, so the Patriots must get him another weapon.
Enter Agholor, who will get experience with pro-style concepts under Trojans coach Steve Sarkisian and be exposed to an uptempo style, per Gary Klein of the Los Angeles Times. USC assistant Tee Martin gave rave reviews of Agholor's approach to the game in February, per NFL.com's Dan Greenspan:
Nelson is the consummate pro when you are talking about preparation, studying the game, the leader in the room. [...] Even as a true freshman with Robert Woods being there and Marqise Lee having the kind of season (he had), you could see where he was going to be special as a leader. The moment never gets too big for Nelson. He welcomes it. He wants to be the guy.
All of that bodes well for Agholor to help Brady—or any NFL quarterback, for that matter—right away as an all-around receiver who can run precise routes. Agholor is also a more dangerous threat in the open field than most, having made the conversion from high school running back to collegiate wideout.
The emphasis on the passing game in the modern NFL will create plenty of buzz around playmakers like Agholor in the 2015 draft, but the primary focus will continue to be on QBs. Mariota, Winston and Hundley have as much upside as any trio of signal-callers in recent memory, and each brings the unique athleticism that's becoming more status quo in the league—all the while possessing the faculties to beat defenses from the pocket.
Plenty can and will happen between now and next year's draft—remember the purported tanking for Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater—so perhaps all of these hyped QBs won't meet expectations. Chances are, that won't be the case, and even if teams aren't in love with them, there should still be at least three quarterbacks off the board in the top 20 in 2015.