Thursday marks the beginning of the 2014 NFL draft, where the first round's 32 selections will be revealed at Radio City Music Hall in New York following months of hype and buildup.
This has all the makings of one of the most epic drafts in history, featuring an exceptional collection of elite talent at the top and perhaps unprecedented depth at several positions. The most important one in quarterback, though, is filled with uncertainty, and thus will only add to the theater bound to unfold from the Big Apple.
To give an idea of how prominent the passing game is in the modern league, three top QB prospects will be in attendance among the record 30 Thursday evening in New York. That means Johnny Manziel, Blake Bortles and Teddy Bridgewater are all anticipating to be selected in Round 1. Seven receivers are going to be on hand, too, with at least one likely to end the night without his name being called.
Here is a last-minute mock of the first round ahead of the real selections that will be revealed soon, with the in-depth analysis focusing on the most buzzworthy players.
1. Houston Texans (2-14): Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina
Clowney is the overwhelming favorite to go with the Texans' top choice, and pairing him with another defensive end in J.J. Watt would stir serious fear in opposing offenses. Ian Rapoport of NFL Network confirmed other reports about what Houston is asking for from teams to move up to No. 1:
The Houston Chronicle's John McClain then reported that the asking price had lowered a bit, yet it was still somewhat of a king's ransom:
That means no one is going to touch Clowney. For another sign that he's headed to Houston, check out this quote from Brian T. Smith of the Houston Chronicle:
The AFC South seems rather wide open entering the 2014 campaign, even with the defending champion Indianapolis Colts on the ascent. A lot of that has been thanks to QB Andrew Luck, but Clowney was unafraid to call him out, per Yahoo Sports' Dan Wetzel:
It certainly sounds like Clowney is destined to don a Texans uniform on draft day. General manager Rick Smith has an easy pick to make based on Clowney's raw physicality, athleticism and upside to improve.
2. St. Louis Rams (via Washington): Greg Robinson, OT, Auburn
Offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer is going to do his best to take pressure off Sam Bradford, who's entering a pivotal year to prove himself as the long-term answer in St. Louis. Schottenheimer likes to pound the ball on the ground, and has a great runner in Zac Stacy to drive that attack.
Robinson comes into the equation as a mauler who ran a 4.92-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine at 6'5" and 332 pounds. At Auburn, he faced NFL-caliber, SEC competition and demolished defenders on a regular basis in a run-heavy offense. That sounds about as perfect of a fit for the Rams and the bruising NFC West as any.
3. Jacksonville Jaguars (4-12): Khalil Mack, OLB, Buffalo
Head coach Gus Bradley was defensive coordinator in Seattle before taking the head job in Jacksonville, and part of his defense relies on a "Leo" position. It's a hybrid defensive end, pass-rusher and linebacker.
Few can boast better skills to play that spot than Mack, whose relentless motor should excite Bradley and the Jaguars as they get a franchise cornerstone to plug into a defense needing improvement in both dimensions.
4. Cleveland Browns (4-12): Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson
The last time Cleveland was in position to take this special of a receiver, it traded out of the spot with Atlanta, as the Falcons went on to select Julio Jones. That turned out pretty well for them, and the Browns, well...not so much.
Instead of opting to change the franchise by selecting Manziel, GM Ray Farmer plays it rather safe while still bolstering the offense in a big way, choosing Watkins at No. 4 overall.
Fox Sports' Jay Glazer—who is rarely if ever wrong on his scoops—has dismissed all hope of Johnny Football heading to the Dawg Pound:
Among this deep receiver class, Watkins is the consensus No. 1 prospect. His skills after the catch are rare in that he likes to not only fake defenders out of their shoes, but also embraces contact. Pairing Watkins opposite Josh Gordon, to go along with Pro Bowl tight end Jordan Cameron and slot dynamo Andrew Hawkins, gives likely starting QB Brian Hoyer plenty of weapons to work with.
5. Oakland Raiders (4-12): Mike Evans, WR, Texas A&M
A run of three straight Aggies commences here with Evans. Veteran signal-caller Matt Schaub needs a big target on the outside to lift his confidence after a bad 2013 stint in Houston, and Evans has the catch radius and even the speed to make the biggest impact among the incoming rookie wideouts.
The current receiving corps in Oakland consists of Denarius Moore and Rod Streater as the top options. With Mack off the board as a potential help to the defense, Evans makes the most sense in this scenario.
6. Atlanta Falcons (4-12): Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M
The offensive line needs help anywhere it can get it in Atlanta—something Matthews can provide in spades.
QB Matt Ryan must have improved protection and the running game has to be more complementary after ranking last in the league in 2013. Matthews can play anywhere on the line, plugging in as a Week 1 starter from the jump.
7. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-12): Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M
The Johnny Football show comes to Tampa Bay, which has a veteran presence for him to learn from in Josh McCown and a promising supporting cast in place. Vincent Jackson is similar to Evans in build and skills, only he's gotten it done at the pro level, and running back Doug Martin is an all-purpose threat who can take pressure off.
Ed Werder of ESPN reported in April that the Buccaneers seem to like the idea of Manziel if he falls to them:
Based on all the hype that comes with Manziel on and off the field, he will slide to this spot on draft day. But his wait in the green room won't be as long as the other top QB prospects, as he'll be the only one to crack the top 10.
Manziel is just too exciting for the Bucs to pass up. They have been aggressive in upgrading the roster in free agency this offseason, so GM Jason Licht has the room to fire away at this high-risk, high-reward proposition.
8. Minnesota Vikings (5-10-1): Anthony Barr, OLB, UCLA
New head coach Mike Zimmer brings a defensive philosophy from his days as coordinator in Cincinnati. He should take pride in molding a converted running back in Barr whose elite speed can make him an effective blitzer and allow the Vikings to deploy hybrid fronts.
The linebacker corps in Minnesota is also thin, and Barr's potential will intrigue Rick Spielman to make the pick. Spielman took fliers on three first-rounders in 2013 with questionable polish but undeniable physical tools in Sharrif Floyd, Xavier Rhodes and Cordarrelle Patterson.
9. Buffalo Bills (6-10): Taylor Lewan, OT, Michigan
The uptempo Bills offense could use some meanness to it—precisely what Lewan brings to the gridiron. During his time in Ann Arbor, Lewan grew accustomed to blocking for mobile quarterbacks and is also familiar with both pro-style and spread concepts.
Buffalo coach Doug Marrone deploys elements of both in his innovative scheme, so Lewan makes a lot of sense to come in and help protect second-year QB EJ Manuel.
10. Detroit Lions (7-9): Justin Gilbert, CB, Oklahoma State
Passing up on a talent like Gilbert to bolster a perpetual need in the secondary seems unwise for Detroit. The offense has plenty of firepower, and what's hurt the Lions more than anything in recent years is a lack of discipline.
The fact that Gilbert can run a 4.37 40-yard dash at 6'0" and 202 pounds to go with his ball and kickoff return skills makes him an easy top-10 choice.
11. Tennessee Titans (7-9): Darqueze Dennard, CB, Michigan State
All-Pro Alterraun Verner is not an easy man to replace, but the Titans will look to Dennard as a physical, bump-and-run option on the outside who could develop into one of the premier lockdown corners in the game.
Depth on the defensive line should become the priority in later rounds. Now is not the time to crush Jake Locker's confidence by bringing in another quarterback with this pick.
12. New York Giants (7-9): Eric Ebron, TE, North Carolina
Eli Manning needs to bounce back in 2014 after throwing 27 interceptions last season. Having a friendly red-zone target and an X-factor in Ebron will help that cause a ton. Ebron figures to be a huge upgrade over projected Ourlads.com starter Adrien Robinson.
As long as the Giants could develop him into a respectable blocker over time, the future would be bright for Ebron in the Big Apple with a two-time Super Bowl MVP throwing him the pigskin.
13. St. Louis Rams (7-9): Calvin Pryor, FS, Louisville
Hard hitting, natural instincts and a passion for the game are all characteristics that define Pryor on the field. The Rams lack an impact safety, and coach Jeff Fisher is a former defensive back in the league who can coach the position as well as anyone. Coordinator Gregg Williams would love a presence like Pryor on the back end.
14. Chicago Bears (8-8): Aaron Donald, DT, Pittsburgh
The front seven still doesn't have enough depth or youth, particularly in the defensive trenches, so Donald is the clear choice here. In his final season at Pitt, Donald racked up 28.5 tackles for loss (h/t CFBStats.com), including 11 sacks and four forced fumbles.
Concerns about his lack of size should be quelled by Donald's quickness off the ball and his stupendous combine performance. Chicago badly needs someone like Donald after finishing last in the NFL versus the run and matching Jacksonville for the league's lowest sack total.
15. Pittsburgh Steelers (8-8): Odell Beckham Jr., WR, LSU
Ben Roethlisberger needs a viable No. 2 option to throw to. There are holes on the defense, yet Dick LeBeau seems to have an elite unit regardless of personnel. Beckham brings brilliant speed and experience in Cam Cameron's pro-style offense in Baton Rouge with him to the NFL.
Roethlisberger would love to have ODB and Antonio Brown at his disposal as the Steelers seek to get back on top of the AFC North. Big Ben, Beckham and Brown has a nice ring to it, no?
16. Dallas Cowboys (8-8): Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, FS, Alabama
Clinton-Dix's experience with complex schematics in Tuscaloosa prompts Dallas to take him. America's Team has an awful defense and has suffered from suspect safety play over the years. That is a problem Jerry Jones can no longer overlook if the Cowboys are meant to be a Super Bowl contender.
17. Baltimore Ravens (8-8): C.J. Mosley, ILB, Alabama
Last year's second-round choice Arthur Brown figures to be one of the inside linebackers of the future, but Daryl Smith isn't a long-term answer at age 32. That leaves Mosley to fill the void as an experienced 3-4 linebacker who should be coveted by savvy GM Ozzy Newsome.
18. New York Jets (8-8): Brandin Cooks, WR, Oregon State
As reported by Brian Costello of the New York Post, Cooks feels that the Jets are "pushing" for him. Glazer tweeted this about Cooks' apparent high character:
Cooks caught 128 passes in his final collegiate season, and the Jets already have big targets on the outside in Eric Decker and Stephen Hill.
Play-caller Marty Mornhinweg runs a West Coast scheme, so providing apparent QB of the future Geno Smith with an underneath option in Cooks who knows how to get open would be ideal. Cooks can also stretch the field with his excellent acceleration and is a nightmare to tackle in space.
19. Miami Dolphins (8-8): Zack Martin, OL, Notre Dame
Capable of filling in at either guard or tackle, Martin is a versatile piece to the Dolphins' puzzle up front as they try to put third-year QB Ryan Tannehill in the best position to succeed.
This is a safe, needs-based pick, but MMQB.com's Peter King was told by NFL Network expert Mike Mayock that Martin could go between ninth and 13th overall. If that's at least the perception, Miami's drafting of Martin may also be a case of taking the best player available.
20. Arizona Cardinals (10-6): Derek Carr, QB, Fresno State
The fit is too strong to avoid. Carr has one of the biggest arms in the draft, which is an ideal fit for coach Bruce Arians' penchant to throw the ball deep downfield. Carson Palmer is the incumbent starter, yet is by no means an option beyond 2014.
Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd provide nice targets on the outside, and the speedy Ted Ginn Jr. figures to contribute as an additional threat to stretch the enemy secondary. It sounds like a great all-around match for Carr's skill set.
21. Green Bay Packers (8-7-1): Jimmie Ward, SS, Northern Illinois
Small-school concerns aside, this would be a great pickup for the Pack. The front office has spent the past two first-round choices on defense without much return on its investment. That should change with Ward, who can plug a big need and team with Morgan Burnett as a strong safety tandem.
22. Philadelphia Eagles (10-6): Allen Robinson, WR, Penn State
A Penn State pro day that saw Robinson run a 4.47-second 40 and register a 40" vertical leap with coach Chip Kelly in attendance should be enough to sway the NFC East champions to take the ex-Nittany Lion standout. Robinson is a big body with great awareness and the functional strength to thrive in the pros.
23. Kansas City Chiefs (11-5): Cody Latimer, WR, Indiana
NFL.com's Nolan Nawrocki alludes to Latimer's strengths, which fit perfectly in coach Andy Reid's pass-heavy offense: "A prep basketball standout, Latimer is a well-built, sure-handed, West Coast possession receiver whose hardwood background is evident in his leaping ability, body control and hand-eye coordination."
One of the premier rising prospects, Latimer was invited to attend the draft, so it stands to reason at least one team loves him. That club could be Kansas City, which could use a 6'2", 215-pounder with good burst and upside still to explore.
24. Cincinnati Bengals (11-5): Jason Verrett, CB, TCU
Instead of taking a quarterback to dent Andy Dalton's ego entering a make-or-break campaign, Cincinnati looks to the future with this choice. Verrett is diminutive in stature but plays with a chip on his shoulder and can hold his own on the outside and especially in the slot.
25. San Diego Chargers (9-7): Kyle Fuller, CB, Virginia Tech
Coach Mike McCoy helped Pro Bowl QB Philip Rivers get back on track in his first year at the helm in San Diego. What held the Chargers back from a legitimate shot at the Lombardi Trophy was a lackluster defense, and Fuller is a great solution to help last year's unit that was 29th against the pass.
26. Cleveland Browns (via Indianapolis): Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville
The long wait ends for the Cleveland faithful as to what Farmer does with his second Round 1 selection. Cleveland.com's Mary Kay Cabot reported this on Wednesday, which suggests the team is targeting the former Louisville program leader:
Bridgewater is a cerebral and pro-ready field general who should be livid at seeing his stock slide and eventually become a star for the Browns.
27. New Orleans Saints (11-5): Ryan Shazier, OLB, Ohio State
Speed tends to kill in the NFL, along with the versatility that often comes with it. Shazier can flex to the inside as a pro and can also be deployed as an edge 3-4 rusher. Both would be assets in Rob Ryan's defense, now featuring one of the best young safety tandems in Jairus Byrd and Kenny Vaccaro.
28. Carolina Panthers (12-4): Ja'Wuan James, OT, Tennessee
Receiver is a glaring need in order for Cam Newton to continue his momentum from leading the Panthers to the NFC South title. Also critical is keeping him upright, and with the aforementioned depth of this lot of wideouts, offensive tackle becomes the priority.
Jordan Gross' retirement this offseason prompts Carolina to take James as a ready-made option to fill in as Newton's blindside anchor.
29. New England Patriots (12-4): Dee Ford, DE, Auburn
Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones are two viable pass-rushing threats off the edge, and Ford would only add to that.
Practicing against Tom Brady and the Pats' quick offense is something Ford will have been used to from his college days. Ford figures to bring significant energy as a third-down specialist at the very least thanks to his stamina developed at Auburn.
30. San Francisco 49ers (12-4): Bradley Roby, CB, Ohio State
Cornerback is the top need in San Francisco, and Roby is also the best talent on the board at this point who makes sense for the 49ers. The organization has had a consistently elite defense in recent years, providing the perfect environment for Roby to get the most out of his raw but tantalizing abilities.
31. Denver Broncos (13-3): Xavier Su'a-Filo, G, UCLA
Zane Beadles' departure for Jacksonville leaves a void at guard that the Broncos must fill. Denver spent plenty of resources acquiring defensive help, so that opens up the chance to snag Su'a-Filo, the best guard in this year's draft class.
32. Seattle Seahawks (13-3): Morgan Moses, OT, Virginia
A big-bodied playmaker either at tight end or wide receiver would be smart for the Super Bowl XLVIII champions to prioritize—just not in the first round. Moses can slide over to right tackle if need be, or eventually fill in on the left side if Russell Okung can't stay healthier or isn't offered a contract extension after 2015.
This 2014 draft will see plenty of starting-caliber players acquired on Day 3, yet there's something about the first round that is always so special. Clowney, Watkins and Manziel are sure to be talk of the evening, along with Bridgewater if he indeed falls to the 20s, since he was once regarded as the unquestioned No. 1 QB.
The mock here doesn't account for trades, but with St. Louis and Cleveland each holding two first-round selections and the Browns' rumored interest to move up for Bridgewater, there should be plenty of action.
Look for UCF's Bortles to have the wait that never ends among the QBs, as he sinks to the second round. Perhaps that could lead to him becoming the best QB in the class, but despite his prototypical size at 6'5" and 232 pounds, his underwhelming career should justify his draft-day slide.