The 2014 NFL draft begins in less than a week, so it’s a great idea to start brushing up on the top prospects and where they might land starting Thursday.
Every single team will be swinging for the fences when it is its turn to make a pick at the podium, but only some will hit a home run. Others will have to settle for role players, and some inevitably will get saddled with so-called busts.
With that said, let’s take a look at the entire first round with an eye toward each franchise making the smartest selection possible and putting its rookie in the best position to succeed.
1. Houston Texans: Blake Bortles, QB, Central Florida
The Texans have a lot of different options here, but it's most likely they decide to address their gaping hole under center with the player who has the most upside at the quarterback position. Bortles oozes potential, as the UCF star can make all the throws, is mobile enough to maneuver around and outside the pocket and has the physical traits desired from a franchise signal-caller.
2. St. Louis Rams (from Washington Redskins): Greg Robinson, OT, Auburn
Robinson has proved to be the premier offensive tackle in a loaded class during the pre-draft process. He’s the ideal player for St. Louis to draft, immediately plug into the starting lineup and watch him protect the quarterback’s blind side for the next decade or more.
3. Jacksonville Jaguars: Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina
Clowney may be remembered as the best pick in this draft and a once-in-a-generation-type superstar. He’s a physical freak who is capable of single-handedly changing a game with his pass-rushing skills. His work ethic leaves something to be desired, but the Gamecocks stud claims he will be extremely motivated if the Texans pass on him at No. 1 overall, as per Tania Ganguli of ESPN:
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
Jacksonville would be downright foolish to pass up Clowney here at No. 3, even if the team addressed its defensive line with a number of sound signings in the offseason.
4. Cleveland Browns: Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M
Johnny Football represents a chance for the Browns to finally add some stability to the quarterback position and bring in a real star to take this franchise to the next level. Manziel actually wants to play in Cleveland too, as he told 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.
That sort of attitude is exactly what the Browns have been lacking and will help the franchise get back into playoff contention coming out of the wide-open AFC North.
5. Oakland Raiders: Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson
Watkins is the most talented receiver in a class absolutely stacked with elite players at the position. The Clemson product is the ideal weapon for the rebuilding Raiders, especially considering his world-class work ethic and desire to consistently beat the man lining up across from him.
6. Atlanta Falcons: Khalil Mack, OLB, Buffalo
Mack is a great value pick for the Falcons at No. 6 and makes perfect sense for the team considering its needs on the defensive side of the ball. Not only can he fix the club’s lackluster pass rush, but also he’s excellent in coverage and run support due to his solid size and extreme athleticism.
7. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Anthony Barr, OLB, UCLA
Barr is an intriguing prospect who could go anywhere from as high as No. 7 to Tampa Bay or fall into the second day. It would be foolish for him to drop that far, as he can impact games with his premier pass-rushing abilities. He would certainly add a dimension to a Bucs defensive line that was lacking last year.
8. Minnesota Vikings: Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville
The Vikings are going to continue to wallow in mediocrity until they unearth a franchise signal-caller. Their best way to do that is to use the No. 8 pick in this draft on Bridgewater, a rock-solid quarterback who may not have the ideal size or bulk, but who proved himself to be an immensely accurate and strong passer at Louisville.
9. Buffalo Bills: Mike Evans, WR, Texas A&M
Evans is a massive wideout who will foster the development of second-year quarterback EJ Manuel. Not only is he a real weapon when it comes time to score in the red area or move the chains, but he possesses the athleticism and speed to burn his man and create home run plays from anywhere on the field.
10. Detroit Lions: Justin Gilbert, CB, Oklahoma State
Gilbert is one of the premier defensive backs in this draft, as he is a world-class athlete with the speed to make up for any of the mistakes he makes. While he must become more technically sound to lock down the top receivers in the NFL, he is a perfect prospect for Detroit to develop.
11. Tennessee Titans: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, FS, Alabama
The Titans would be wise to explore the option of adding a safety at this spot considering it is one of their weakest positions. Clinton-Dix is a star in the making, as he rarely gives up the big play, can snag interceptions out of the air and can also make great reads and instinctively come up to support the run.
12. New York Giants: Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M
The G-Men would love to shore up their offensive line with a player like Matthews at No. 12. He’s an immense value and would allow the team to return its patchwork line to an area of strength in 2014.
13. St. Louis Rams: Calvin Pryor, FS, Louisville
The Rams are in dire need of an upgrade in their secondary at the safety position, and they won’t find better on the board than Pryor. The Louisville product is a bone-crushing tackler who knocked out multiple players during his final season with the Cardinals. That sort of power will make opposing wideouts think twice about crossing paths with him.
14. Chicago Bears: Aaron Donald, DT, Pittsburgh
Donald may not have ideal size for a defensive tackle, but he has simply produced during his senior campaign and the pre-draft process. Chicago was absolutely terrible against the run last year and must continue to overhaul the line in order to improve in that area.
Daniel Jeremiah of the NFL Network spoke with Dan Wiederer of The Chicago Tribune about Donald’s skills:
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.
It would be puzzling if the Bears passed up this kid’s talents at No. 14.
15. Pittsburgh Steelers: Darqueze Dennard, CB, Michigan State
Dennard will aid an aging Steelers secondary that sometimes struggled to get stops in key situations and ran out of gas during long drives. He’s a man-to-man star and prides himself on locking down the opposition’s top wideout.
16. Dallas Cowboys: Timmy Jernigan, DT, Florida State
Jernigan is an athletic behemoth who will allow the Cowboys to rebuild their defense from the inside out after a historically awful campaign on that side of the ball in 2013. Jernigan is coming off a monster national championship game showing and has plenty of upside as he enters the league.
17. Baltimore Ravens: Taylor Lewan, OT, Michigan
Lewan is a nice pick for the Ravens here, as the Wolverines product proved to be an immense athlete at the combine, and that supports his great production in college. Baltimore needs to jump-start its poor running offense and increase Joe Flacco’s protection after giving up 48 sacks in 2013.
18. New York Jets: Eric Ebron, TE, North Carolina
Ebron is a nice weapon for the Jets, and he will either aid Geno Smith’s development during a critical second season or ease Michael Vick’s transition into the starting role. The UNC star is a superb athlete who appears to be the next big thing at the tight end position.
19. Miami Dolphins: Zack Martin, OT, Notre Dame
The ‘Phins must add more bodies to their offensive line after losing a number of players during the 2013 season. Martin is the best available at No. 19 and should be a Day 1 starter somewhere along the line.
20. Arizona Cardinals: Dee Ford, Auburn, DE
The Cardinals play in football’s toughest division and definitely need to find more ways to get after the passer if they are going to make the playoffs in 2014. Ford is extremely explosive and will be able to bring down the division’s elusive quarterbacks like Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks and Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49ers.
21. Green Bay Packers: C.J. Mosley, ILB, Alabama
The Packers are brimming with pass-rushers, but they need a stalwart in the middle who can shore up the running defense. Mosley will make sure no ball-carriers get past, and he can even play all three downs due to his coverage ability and athleticism.
22. Philadelphia Eagles: Odell Beckham, WR, LSU
Beckham won't be able to replace DeSean Jackson’s production, but the speedy wideout will give Nick Foles a similar weapon to his top receiver last year and help ease the loss of the superstar. Philly’s high-powered offense can remain just as explosive under Chip Kelly as it was last year if the club makes this pick.
23. Kansas City Chiefs: Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Florida State
Benjamin is the humongous, athletic wide receiver the Chiefs need to develop their passing game beyond checkdown dump-offs to Jamaal Charles. He has the jumping ability and box-out skills to go up and get the ball at its highest point, leaping up to snatch it at heights most defensive backs simply can’t reach. He put this talent on display during the national championship, and it should have the Chiefs intrigued enough to bring him into the fold May 8.
24. Cincinnati Bengals: Kony Ealy, DE, Missouri
Ealy is a top-notch pass-rusher who is an extreme value pick for the Bengals at No. 24. This club excels at getting the most from its defensive lineman, and Ealy’s presence should help make up for the loss of Michael Johnson in free agency. While cornerback may be a bigger need, Ealy is best on the board by a decent margin here.
25. San Diego Chargers: Louis Nix III, DT, Notre Dame
Nix may be a bit of a reach, but San Diego desperately needs to improve the interior of the defensive line. The Fighting Irish product will fill the gaping hole at nose tackle and would ideally swallow up blockers to stuff the run and allow the pass-rushers to put pressure on the quarterback.
26. Cleveland Browns (from Indianapolis Colts): Deone Bucannon, S, Washington State
The loss of T.J. Ward was a big blow for the Browns, and it should be an area the team looks to shore up with one of its top picks in the draft. While the top two safeties are off the board, Bucannon is an intriguing prospect here. He’s extremely versatile as both a tackler and ball hawk, but he may need a year of development before he’s ready to see the field full time.
27. New Orleans Saints: Ryan Shazier, OLB, Ohio State
Shazier is the perfect pick for the Saints at No. 27. The Buckeyes star is capable of doing a bit of everything and would be able to wear a number of hats in defensive coordinator Rob Ryan’s system.
28. Carolina Panthers: Marqise Lee, WR, USC
The Panthers had a rough offseason, highlighted by the loss of Steve Smith to the Ravens. They’ll need to fill his shoes if they are going to return to the postseason, and Lee is the best player on the board at the position right now. The USC product is a home run threat every time he touches the ball, and it should be extremely exciting to watch him connect with quarterback Cam Newton.
29. New England Patriots: Jace Amaro, TE, Texas Tech
Amaro is the versatile tight end that the Patriots need to replace Aaron Hernandez. If Rob Gronkowski can return and stay healthy in 2014, tight end will once again become an area of strength for a team that relied so heavily on production from the position in years past.
30. San Francisco 49ers: Brandin Cooks, WR, Oregon State
The Niners could go in a number of directions May 8 but ultimately should look to take the best available talent on the board. Cooks is a star in the making, as the only thing he lacks is prototypical height. He can create separation, has great hands and does just about everything else at a high level.
31. Denver Broncos: Ra'Shede Hageman, DT, Minnesota
The Broncos had an incredible offseason and look poised to make a strong push back to the Super Bowl in the AFC. This team is loaded with stars all over the field, but it boasts little in the way of developmental prospects for after the Peyton Manning era. Hageman is a solid player who may be a fixture in the teeth of the defense for years to come.
32. Seattle Seahawks: Stephon Tuitt, DE, Notre Dame
The Seahawks could always use more pass-rushers to bolster their world-class defense, and Tuitt is the best still available. While he may not see the field that much in 2014, he could eventually develop into a star for this club.
*Stats via NFL.com.