After three months of buildup following the Super Bowl, the NFL's annual draft extravaganza is finally here. The last two weeks have been agonizing, but the wait will be worth it because there's so much unpredictability this year.
The 2014 draft class has been touted as one of the deepest in recent memory, with potential starters able to be found in the second and third rounds. That's getting a little too far ahead of ourselves, as we don't even know who the first pick will be.
There are a lot of players worthy of the top overall selection, but team needs and desires don't always match up with the consensus scouting reports. That also causes players to drop further than they should.
In anticipation of Thursday's first round, here is our latest mock draft with a special look at the biggest steals in the top 32 picks.
*Steals are in italics
1. Houston Texans: Khalil Mack, OLB, Buffalo
The whispers are getting louder that the Texans prefer Khalil Mack to Jadeveon Clowney since he fits their 3-4 defensive scheme better. Sports Illustrated's Peter King reported Houston general manager Rick Smith likes Mack over the South Carolina standout.
It could be the usual posturing you get from a GM prior to the draft in order to facilitate a trade, but Mack is also a standout athlete who shows the ability to be a dominant pass-rusher or drop back into coverage. This isn't a reach by any means.
2. St. Louis Rams (via Washington Redskins): Greg Robinson, OT, Auburn
No surprise here. The Rams aren't far away from being a contender and need to get Sam Bradford the necessary help to see if he can be a consistent starting quarterback in the NFL. Greg Robinson will be a star from day one.
3. Jacksonville Jaguars: Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina
It's not often we get to say this, but how great a position are the Jaguars in on draft day? They have the third pick in a class that has four elite players, three of them fill a massive need and two of them fit Gus Bradley's defensive style beautifully.
With Mack off the board, Jacksonville "settles" for Clowney. It's rare to call a player taken No. 3 overall a steal, but everywhere you look the South Carolina star is listed as the best player available.
ESPN's Todd McShay (Insider subscription required) has called Clowney "the most talented defensive lineman" he's ever evaluated. Raw skills don't always translate into NFL performance, but the only thing that can stop Clowney from being a star is Clowney.
4. Cleveland Browns: Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson
The fourth of the elite draft prospects to be taken, Sammy Watkins gives Cleveland another star wide receiver to build around. He's slightly undersized at 6'0" and isn't a polished route-runner, but makes up for it with tremendous hands and separation skills down the field.
5. Oakland Raiders: Mike Evans, WR, Texas A&M
The Raiders have so many needs that they can go completely off the board here without sacrificing their draft. They have Matt Schaub to play quarterback, now they need to get him a big-play weapon to take advantage of his arm. Mike Evans isn't a polished football player yet, but you can't teach 6'5", 231 pounds and a 37-inch vertical jump.
6. Atlanta Falcons: Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M
Jake Matthews is going to become Matt Ryan's best friend in a hurry. He's very wide with good arm length (33.38") to prevent power- and speed-rushers from getting past him. Ryan was sacked 44 times, tied for third-most in the NFL last season.
7. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Taylor Lewan, OT, Michigan
Tampa Bay is hoping one of the two big wide receivers falls into its lap, but in this scenario the next option available is filling a need on the offensive line. If Josh McCown is going to be the starting quarterback, protection is vital so he can have time to get Vincent Jackson the ball.
8. Minnesota Vikings: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, FS, Alabama
A safety in the top 10 may be a reach, but the Vikings need an enforcer in the secondary after allowing the second-most passing yards in the NFL last year. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is a star cover safety in the making, showing excellent recognition and feel for the field.
9. Buffalo Bills: Eric Ebron, TE, North Carolina
E.J. Manuel is going to need help developing into a consistent starting quarterback. There's no better friend to the position than a big tight end who can catch balls in traffic and line up outside getting jump balls. Eric Ebron's got to show better hands at the NFL level, but when he makes catches, big plays happen.
10. Detroit Lions: Darqueze Dennard, CB, Michigan State
The Lions need an attitude in the secondary. Darqueze Dennard is small, at least by this generation's cornerbacks, at 5'11", yet there is no cornerback in this class who can play as physical with a high level of instincts like the Michigan State star.
11. Tennessee Titans: Justin Gilbert, CB, Oklahoma State
For a long time, Justin Gilbert seemed like a lock to be the first cornerback taken. His game has been picked apart recently, with Dane Brugler of NFLDraftScout.com noting he wouldn't take Gilbert in the first round:
CB Justin Gilbert might be that prospect this year that some would draft top-10, but I wouldn't even consider him in the 1st round— Dane Brugler (@dpbrugler) May 6, 2014
The biggest knock is Gilbert doesn't like to tackle and isn't physical off the line. He wants to wait back and let his ball skills and instincts take over. That can leave him vulnerable, but he's also a shade under 6'1", 202 pounds, ran a 4.37 40 and knows when to attack.
Tennessee is desperate to land a starting cornerback, especially after losing Alterraun Verner in free agency, so whichever one of Dennard and Gilbert is available will be the pick.
12. New York Giants: Aaron Donald, DT, Pittsburgh
After having the best and most physical defensive line in the NFL for most of the 2000s, New York's front four has lost its edge in recent years. Aaron Donald can help bring it back in a hurry. The Pittsburgh stud gets off the line as well as any defensive tackle and has the speed of an edge-rusher.
13. St. Louis Rams: Odell Beckham Jr., WR, LSU
The Rams got Bradford the protection he needed, now they get him the receiver he needs. Odell Beckham Jr. will allow Tavon Austin to play more in the slot, where he belongs, while opening the field. He has excellent hands and underrated speed that doesn't show up in workouts but was very obvious at the college level.
14. Chicago Bears: Calvin Pryor, S, Louisville
Who will be the biggest first-round steal?
The additions of Lamarr Houston and Jared Allen give the Bears options to play with in the draft. They can go after another pass-rusher or defensive tackle, but the secondary is also a problem area.
Calvin Pryor lacks the polish of Clinton-Dix, but has a similar ceiling because of his ability to cover and come down in the box to defend the run. The latter area was also a major problem for Chicago, allowing 5.3 yards per carry and 161.4 yards per game.
15. Pittsburgh Steelers: Brandin Cooks, WR, Oregon State
Even though Pittsburgh's aging defense needs to be addressed, the value at this spot will be filling the void at wide receiver left by the departures of Mike Wallace and Emmanuel Sanders in the last two years.
Brandin Cooks is a better version of Tavon Austin, though the latter is slightly faster in the 40 (4.25 to Cooks' 4.33). The Oregon State star has one inch and 15 pounds on St. Louis' top pick from 2013. He can line up in the slot or stretch a defense on the outside.
16. Dallas Cowboys: Timmy Jernigan, DT, Florida State
The best thing Jerry Jones can do in this draft is avoid the headlines. Dallas doesn't need to do anything fancy or sexy with its first pick. Addressing the gaping holes on the defensive line will help the Cowboys immensely.
Timmy Jernigan is a tremendous athlete at 299 pounds, showing natural quickness and strength to run around or outmuscle NFL offensive linemen.
17. Baltimore Ravens: Morgan Moses, OT, Virginia
Any discussion of Joe Flacco and Ray Rice falling off last year can be easily attributed to a porous offensive line that couldn't stop anyone. Flacco was sacked 48 times, second-most in the NFL.
There's been some discussion from NFL people about Morgan Moses' work ethic, according to ESPN's Todd McShay (via Omar Kelly of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel):
Todd McShay mentions that there are some concerns in NFL circles about Virginia OT Morgan Moses' work ethic.— Omar Kelly (@OmarKelly) April 30, 2014
Bleacher Report NFL draft Lead Writer Matt Miller cited sources saying those claims are ridiculous.
The upside for Moses is huge and the Ravens can't afford to go into a season without a future tackle.
18. New York Jets: Marqise Lee, WR, USC
The Jets added a nice slot receiver in Eric Decker but still need to find a true outside threat. Marqise Lee took a step back in 2013, dropping too many catchable balls. He's still got a high ceiling as a big-play threat with speed that plays much better between the lines than in shorts.
19. Miami Dolphins: Zack Martin, OT, Notre Dame
As much as Ryan and Flacco got hit last year, Ryan Tannehill got beat up more than any other quarterback in football. The Dolphins' second-year starter was sacked 58 times in 2013, yet still managed to throw for 3,913 yards and 24 touchdowns.
Imagine what Tannehill can do with an offensive line that gives him time. Branden Albert was signed in free agency. Zack Martin should join him in the trenches as a versatile 308-pound tackle who has solid quickness and power in pass protection.
20. Arizona Cardinals: Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M
Some team is going to pop Johnny Manziel because of his name and upside, ignoring the fact that he's got the highest boom-or-bust potential of any player in this class. Carson Palmer is 34 years old and still struggles with turnovers (22 interceptions last season).
The good news is Palmer's presence does afford head coach Bruce Arians the opportunity to sit Manziel for a season while he learns the NFL game from a veteran before taking over in 2015.
21. Green Bay Packers: C.J. Mosley, ILB, Alabama
The Packers have an outstanding edge-rusher in Clay Matthews, but lack depth at the linebacker position and need to upgrade the second level of the defense. C.J. Mosley is a playmaker extraordinaire with excellent range and disciplined tackling skills.
22. Philadelphia Eagles: Cody Latimer, WR, Indiana
A late-rising prospect, Cody Latimer will be an excellent addition to Chip Kelly's offense. The Eagles need wide receivers, especially after releasing DeSean Jackson. Latimer is a different kind of receiver with a big body (6'2", 215 pounds) and the best hands in the class.
23. Kansas City Chiefs: Kyle Fuller, CB, Virginia Tech
Conventional wisdom says the Chiefs will take a wide receiver, but keep in mind that Andy Reid's secondary allowed 20 touchdown passes in the last eight games including the playoff loss to Indianapolis.
Kyle Fuller has come on strong late in the draft process. ESPN's Todd McShay loves the Virginia Tech cornerback (via Omar Kelly of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel):
Todd McShay said he gives Kyle Fuller an identical draft grade as Justin Gilbert, and both CBs are behind Darqueze Dennard in his opinion.— Omar Kelly (@OmarKelly) April 30, 2014
This draft is loaded with quality receivers that the Chiefs can get in the later rounds, but the top cornerbacks are going to go off the board in a hurry. The value at this spot is in the secondary.
24. Cincinnati Bengals: Ryan Shazier, OLB, Ohio State
Cornerback is a bigger need for the Bengals, but Ryan Shazier is an excellent value pick. He's not the best athlete, but as far as football skills and instincts, there isn't a more NFL-ready linebacker.
Shazier moves all over the field, has great wrap-up ability and can play against the run or pass. He will be a 10-year starter.
25. San Diego Chargers: Anthony Barr, OLB, UCLA
It's amazing to think where Anthony Barr would be if he had played on defense his entire college career. His two-year stint as a pass-rusher at UCLA resulted in 41.5 tackles for loss and 23.5 sacks.
The Chargers desperately need to find an outside edge-rusher who can disrupt the quarterback, especially in a division with Peyton Manning. Barr will need time to develop his football skills since he's a novice at the position, but the ceiling is huge.
26. Cleveland Browns (via Indianapolis Colts): Blake Bortles, QB, Central Florida
In a draft where every quarterback has serious questions to answer, Blake Bortles falls into Cleveland's lap because other teams in the top 10 don't want to risk missing on a player at a different position with a higher ceiling.
Mary Kay Cabot of the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported that Bortles met with Browns owner Jimmy Haslam during his visit:
Also working in Bortles' favor is not coming with any baggage. Manziel is a trendy pick for the Browns, but he's such a volatile personality and player that things could go wrong in a hurry.
Playing at Central Florida allowed Bortles to stay under the radar. He's got the best combination of size (6'5", 232 pounds), accuracy and polish. He doesn't have the strongest arm, but with Josh Gordon and No. 4 overall pick Watkins to throw to, it won't take much for a quarterback to look good.
27. New Orleans Saints: Kony Ealy, DE, Missouri
New Orleans' defense improved last season thanks to Rob Ryan's aggressive blitzing style that pressured quarterbacks and forced them to get rid of the ball quickly. The Saints need to add depth on the line, making edge-rush specialist Kony Ealy the perfect fit.
28. Carolina Panthers: Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Florida State
Kelvin Benjamin doesn't have much polish on the outside and needs to improve the way he runs routes to be a star in the NFL. If there's one thing he has that will push him into the first round, it's size and strength.
Built like a tight end at 6'5", 240 pounds, Benjamin will be able to beat defenders because he can jump over them to make plays. At the very least he should be an effective red-zone weapon for Cam Newton.
29. New England Patriots: Ra'Shede Hageman, DT, Minnesota
Trying to predict what the Patriots are going to do in the NFL draft is impossible. They go off the board so often, they should just come out before the commissioner announces the pick to say we've never heard of this player.
For this mock, the Patriots will take a player fans are familiar with. Ra'Shede Hageman is a big-body defensive tackle who excels against the run and pass, though he's more effective against the former.
Vince Wilfork is getting older and his injury last season left the Patriots in a lurch on the defensive line. Hageman provides a nice insurance policy this season with the potential to start full-time in 2015.
30. San Francisco 49ers: Jason Verrett, CB, TCU
With the top receivers off the board, San Francisco's attention turns to a secondary that lost Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers. There's also the lingering question of what will happen with Chris Culliver coming off ACL surgery and a March arrest for a hit-and-run and weapons possession.
Jason Verrett is the kind of defensive player Jim Harbaugh loves. He's not a big cornerback at 5'9", 189 pounds, which is why he's still on the board, but plays so physical and with such great instincts that the stature doesn't matter.
31. Denver Broncos: Xavier Su'a-Filo, OG, UCLA
There's not much to say about drafting a guard in the first round other than Xavier Su'a-Filo fills a need and gives the Broncos someone they can plug in right away to protect Peyton Manning and be effective in the running game.
32. Seattle Seahawks: Stephon Tuitt, DE, Notre Dame
A disappointing 2013 season has lowered Tuitt's stock, but the Seahawks have a knack for taking talented players who struggled in college and turning them at least into effective NFL players.
Tuitt lacks the speed to get around offensive linemen, so his power has to carry him at the next level. He's got massive arms, just under 35", and the ability to keep tackles off his body as a result.
Height, weight and speed information courtesy of NFL.com.
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