If you want to get an idea of how the first round of the 2014 draft might play out, you listen to Mike Mayock.
The NFL Network expert is one of the most respected names when it comes to analyzing the draft. He's both a skilled talent evaluator and intelligent team-builder. Mayock knows the general direction that most teams are looking heading into the first round on Thursday night.
Of course, Mayock's mock won't be perfect, but it does give fans a general picture of the landscape. He released his first 32 picks on NFL Network Wednesday night.
Below is a quick breakdown of Mayock's projections. The more surprising picks are underlined.
1. Houston Texans: Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina
Unless the Houston Texans can receive the king's ransom they want for the top pick, Jadeveon Clowney makes the most sense. Imagine staring at Andrew Luck twice a year for the next decade. The Texans might as well draft the best pass-rusher in the draft.
2. St. Louis Rams: Greg Robinson, OT, Auburn
Although Greg Robinson isn't the ready-made blocker Jake Matthews is, his ceiling is higher, thus drafting him first makes sense. Whether it's for Sam Bradford or somebody else, the St. Louis Rams need to find a player like Robinson who can anchor the offensive line.
3. Jacksonville Jaguars: Khalil Mack, OLB, Buffalo
You could see the Jacksonville Jaguars opting for a quarterback here, but with none standing out from the crowd, Khalil Mack would be the best choice. He has the makings of an elite pass-rusher who can also be used in a variety of ways. The Jags defense was a major problem last year, so Mack could come in and help right away.
4. Cleveland Browns: Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M
Fox Sports' Jay Glazer put to bed any chance the Cleveland Browns might draft Johnny Manziel:
That's thrown the perception of what were thought to be the Browns' draft plans into disarray. You get the feeling that Cleveland would like to trade out and stockpile a few more picks, but if it stays at No. 4, Jake Matthews would be a great pick.
No player is more NFL-ready than the Texas A&M star. Like Luke Joeckel last year, Matthews has had experience protecting both a pro-style QB (Ryan Tannehill) and a dual-threat QB (Manziel). He won't have any trouble adjusting to an NFL offense.
5. Oakland Raiders: Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson
For years, the Oakland Raiders were seduced by speed. If you ran a fast 40 at the combine, you immediately shot to the top of their board. In Sammy Watkins, the Raiders would be able to satiate their need for speed in addition to grabbing the best wide receiver in the draft. Watkins is talented enough to make his quarterback look miles better than he actually is.
6. Atlanta Falcons: Taylor Lewan, OT, Michigan
Mayock has the two best pass-rushers and two best offensive linemen off the board already, so the Atlanta Falcons would be in a tough position. Taylor Lewan seems like a reach at No. 6, but he would serve a need. Atlanta needs to improve in pass protection, and Lewan would be the best pass-protector left.
7. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Mike Evans, WR, Texas A&M
With Mike Williams gone, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers need to add a wide receiver between now and the start of the season. Watkins will almost certainly not fall to No. 7, but Mike Evans should. The Aggies wideout erased any doubts that he's not fast enough for the NFL with that 4.53 40-yard dash at the combine, via NFL.com. For somebody 6'5", a near-4.5-second 40 is ridiculous.
8. Minnesota Vikings: Justin Gilbert, CB, Oklahoma State
Mayock saved his next surprise for No. 8. Most experts have the Minnesota Vikings going with Blake Bortles, but the NFL Network expert has them selecting Justin Gilbert. This would be the second season in a row the Vikings will have drafted a cornerback in the first round.
The case could be made that Minnesota never really replaced Antoine Winfield, so Gilbert could solve that problem. He's the best cornerback available in the draft. Nobody else has his combination of cover skills and speed. Drafting Gilbert would also be a message from new head coach Mike Zimmer that he is taking the Vikings' defensive overhaul very seriously.
9. Buffalo Bills: Zack Martin, OT, Notre Dame
Taking Zack Martin at No. 9 would be a reach, but Mayock is really sold on the Notre Dame offensive lineman, per NFL.com's Andy Fenelon.
"I love the kid," he said. "Even though I have him fourth as a tackle, he'd be my No. 1 center or my No. 1 guard. I believe that he is the only player in this draft that could start and play at a high level at all five offensive line positions."
The Buffalo Bills could use some help on the offensive line, but Martin would be a bit of a risk with so many other talented players still left.
10. Detroit Lions: Darqueze Dennard, CB, Michigan State
The Detroit Lions have some good corners, but what they lack is an elite coverage guy. Darqueze Dennard is a physical, press corner who can fill that void. Some thought his speed may be an issue, but that no longer looks a concern:
If Dennard can be a little less physical in the secondary, he's the total package.
11. Tennessee Titans: Blake Bortles, QB, UCF
When the Tennessee Titans decided not to pick up Jake Locker's option, it was clear they're not confident with their signal-caller. It would be a bit ironic if they drafted a player in Bortles whose game is awfully similar to Locker's. Bortles is a risk, but if Tennessee is patient with him, he could turn into a steal at No. 11.
12. New York Giants: Eric Ebron, TE, North Carolina
With the two best wide receivers gone, Eric Ebron gives the New York Giants the next-best thing. He's a great athlete who's drawn comparisons to Vernon Davis. Eli Manning certainly wouldn't be complaining if he gets another weapon in the passing game.
13. St. Louis Rams: Odell Beckham, WR, LSU
Tavon Austin made some big strides toward the end of last year, but the Rams could do well to give Bradford another skilled wideout. Mayock isn't afraid to put Odell Beckham into the top 15, which is a little earlier than he's been mocked by most experts. Beckham, while possibly a reach, would give Bradford more of a go-to receiver.
14. Chicago Bears: Calvin Pryor, S, Louisville
Calvin Pryor is one of the best safeties in the draft, but some might be a bit surprised to see him placed ahead of Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. Pryor is a big hitter, which can go both ways. The Chicago Bears would love to have his intimidating presence hovering around the secondary. What they wouldn't love are the flags that are bound to come early in the season as Pryor learns to harness his aggression.
15. Pittsburgh Steelers: Kyle Fuller, CB, Virginia Tech
The Pittsburgh Steelers defense is about where the Baltimore Ravens' was a few years ago. Most of the key players—while still productive—are aging. Kyle Fuller could help start the necessary youth movement in Pittsburgh.
16. Dallas Cowboys: Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M
This is just crazy enough to happen. You wouldn't put it past Jerry Jones to draft Manziel if given the opportunity, Tony Romo be damned. Mayock admitted that the Dallas Cowboys would be ignoring what would be greater positions of need, but he thinks Jones' unpredictability will trump that:
If it's my pick, I'd upgrade this defense with Donald or Clinton-Dix. But this is Jerry's world. Tony Romo is 34 and coming off his second back surgery, and I think this team is further away from winning a championship than people think. Can Jerry Jones pass up on this kid? I don't believe so.
Seriously, if Manziel ended up in Dallas, the sports media world might collapse in on itself:
This would be the most Jerry Jones of Jerry Jones draft picks. The Cowboys owner/president/general manager would be eschewing common sense in lieu of selecting a polarizing/popular quarterback just one year after giving Romo a six-year, $108 million extension.
Why not draft Johnny Football?
17. Baltimore Ravens: C.J. Mosley, ILB, Alabama
Baltimore Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome acknowledged on the team's website that inside linebacker is an area in which the Ravens must improve. C.J. Mosley is the best on the board, so this pick makes a lot of sense.
18. New York Jets: Brandin Cooks, WR, Oregon State
Whether Geno Smith or Michael Vick is the New York Jets' starting quarterback for the 2014 season, neither would be successful if the team doesn't give him another weapon this offseason. Signing Eric Decker was a good start, but drafting Brandin Cooks would give the Jets a home run threat in the passing game.
19. Miami Dolphins: Cyrus Kouandjio, OT, Alabama
With the departures of Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin, offensive line was a clear area of need this offseason for the Miami Dolphins. They signed Branden Albert to in part solve the problem, and drafting Cyrus Kouandjio would bookend the tackle position. Albert's presence on the left would shift Kouandjio to the right, which is arguably where he projects to be a better player.
20. Arizona Cardinals: Anthony Barr, OLB, UCLA
What a fall this would be for Anthony Barr. Once thought to be a lock for the top 10, the UCLA star would drop all the way to 20. If this happens, the Arizona Cardinals could potentially be getting one of the best pass-rushers in the draft. Barr is no doubt a risk. His physical tools will only get him so far. Barr will have to improve his technique in order to avoid becoming the next Aaron Curry or Vernon Gholston.
21. Green Bay Packers: Ryan Shazier, OLB, Ohio State
Not too many linebackers can run a sub-4.4 40. Ryan Shazier can, via NFL.com. He's a great athlete whom the Green Bay Packers could use in a variety of ways should they draft him in the first round. The Packers lack a player like Shazier who can fly around the defense making plays.
22. Philadelphia Eagles: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, FS, Alabama
The Philadelphia Eagles didn't have too many problems on the offensive side of the ball. Defense was a different story. In order to become a true contender, the Eagles have to get better in the secondary, and drafting Ha Ha Clinton-Dix would help accomplish that goal. He possesses all of the attributes you look for in a safety.
23. Kansas City Chiefs: Marqise Lee, WR, USC
Although Marqise Lee's stock took a tumble this past season, he should return to his old self now that he's out of what turned into a toxic situation at USC. Lee is a good route-runner with enough speed and athleticism to beat opposing defensive backs over the top.
24. Cincinnati Bengals: Aaron Donald, DT, Pittsburgh
Imagine a defensive line with both Geno Atkins and Aaron Donald on the inside. This looks to be wishful thinking on Mayock's part. Donald has been projected as a top-10 pick by some, so for him to slide to 24th would be a major surprise. If he's actually there, though, the Cincinnati Bengals couldn't possibly pass up the chance to add an interior pass-rusher like Donald.
25. San Diego Chargers: Bradley Roby, CB, Ohio State
How the San Diego Chargers have gotten this far with their ramshackle secondary is anybody's guess. Bradley Roby is the cornerback the team desperately needs. He's not lacking physical gifts, and if he can be a bit more consistent in coverage, the Chargers would be getting a steal.
26. Cleveland Browns: Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville
Passing on Manziel would make it all worth it if the Browns can get Teddy Bridgewater with their second first-rounder. Mary Kay Cabot of The Plain Dealer reported earlier on Wednesday that Cleveland would be targeting Bridgewater at 26:
The Louisville star has definitely played the role of Geno Smith this year, going from a top pick to doubt for the first round. It's not like Bridgewater has become a terrible quarterback, either. Most of the criticisms leveled against him are off-field things without much basis in fact.
Browns fans have seen enough false dawns to last a lifetime, but they would have reason to hope if the team does make this pick.
27. New Orleans Saints: Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Florida State
If Kelvin Benjamin learns how to make the most of his 6'5" frame, he'll be a terror for opposing defensive backs. Benjamin is still a bit raw. Having a quarterback like Drew Brees throwing him the ball might help to speed up his development.
28. Oakland Raiders: Derek Carr, QB, Fresno State
Mayock has one first-round trade, and it's the Raiders moving back into the first round by way of the Carolina Panthers. If Oakland wants Derek Carr, then it would most likely have to obtain another first-rounder. While Carr likely won't be off the board too early into the first, he won't last much longer than the few couple of picks in the second round.
29. New England Patriots: Jace Amaro, TE, Texas Tech
With Rob Gronkowski's health still a question mark, adding another tight end would be a smart move for the New England Patriots. Jace Amaro isn't the same kind of athlete Eric Ebron is, but he's cut from the same mold in terms of being more of a receiver than he is a tight end.
30. San Francisco 49ers: Stephon Tuitt, DE, Notre Dame
Stephon Tuitt could play either end or tackle in the NFL. Arriving in San Francisco would mean Tuitt becoming the heir apparent to Justin Smith. His game is built perfectly for the 49ers defense.
31. Denver Broncos: Jason Verrett, CB, TCU
The Denver Broncos defense was exposed in a big way in the Super Bowl. Although Jason Verrett may not become an elite cornerback, he has the makings of a solid coverage guy who can be a nickelback right away.
32. Seattle Seahawks: Stanley Jean-Baptiste, CB, Nebraska
And the rich get richer. The Seattle Sehawks already have one of the best secondaries in the league, even after the departure of Brandon Browner. Given how they won't need him to produce right away, the Seahawks could afford to take a chance on Stanley Jean-Baptiste, banking on the fact that he follows through on his substantial potential.