The first round of the 2014 NFL draft was filled with excitement, fostering numerous trades and incredible twists and turns that altered the pro football landscape in a major way.
Jadeveon Clowney went No. 1 overall to the Houston Texans, creating a defensive end tandem with J.J. Watt, the likes of which the league has seldom seen, if ever. Clowney is also athletic enough to stand up as an outside linebacker, so the rest of the AFC South in particular has to be shaking in its collective boots.
Cleveland Browns general manager Ray Farmer made huge waves with his aggressive tactics, executing three of the trades and landing top cornerback Justin Gilbert and polarizing quarterback Johnny Manziel. That brings significant buzz to Cleveland and also netted the Browns a 2015 first-round pick, as the Buffalo Bills moved up to No. 4 to snag Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins.
Those are just some of the stunning developments that took place. Even with the choice of a deep pool of prospects, though, not all teams graded out equally, with some reaching for players whose stock was inflated.
For the most part, many franchises have to be pleased, but other fanbases must be livid with their top selections and have to hope their front offices crush the rest of the draft. Here is a look at letter grades for each team, along with a breakdown of the major storylines.
|1.||Texans||Jadeveon Clowney, DE/OLB, South Carolina||A||The no-brainer pick to pair opposite J.J. Watt. Should become a terrifying combination off the edge.|
|2.||Rams (from WSH)||Greg Robinson, OT, Auburn||A||Mauler who is especially good in the running game. A dream for offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, who will pound the rock with RB Zac Stacy.|
|3.||Jaguars||Blake Bortles, QB, UCF||F||General manager Dave Caldwell will be relieved of his duties in no more than two years. One of the worst picks in recent draft history.|
|4.||Bills*||Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson||B||With such a deep receiver class, was the cost of a 2015 first-round pick really worth it?|
|5.||Raiders||Khalil Mack, OLB, Buffalo||A+||Tempting to choose Mike Evans here, but GM Reggie McKenzie makes the right call to shore up the defense.|
|6.||Falcons||Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M||A||Safe pick. Matthews can play anywhere on the line, helping both dimensions of the offense.|
|7.||Buccaneers||Mike Evans, WR, Texas A&M||A||Big, strong and fast—similar complement to Bucs WR Vincent Jackson.|
|8.||Browns*||Justin Gilbert, CB, Oklahoma State||A-||Unpolished prospect, yet most physically gifted corner came at minimal cost.|
|9.||Vikings*||Anthony Barr, OLB, UCLA||B+||Time will tell if Barr lives up to his potential. Having Mike Zimmer as coach helps.|
|10.||Lions||Eric Ebron, TE, North Carolina||A-||What a talent Ebron is. Defense should be the big priority moving forward.|
|11.||Titans||Taylor Lewan, OT, Michigan||B-||Second straight first-rounder on the offensive line. No excuses for Jake Locker.|
|12.||Giants||Odell Beckham Jr., WR, LSU||A+||Experience in Cam Cameron's offense at LSU will ease his transition to the NFL.|
|13.||Rams||Aaron Donald, DT, Pittsburgh||A||Luxury pick—bolsters Rams front seven even more.|
|14.||Bears||Kyle Fuller, CB, Virginia Tech||B+||Strong corner prospect who can provide spark in return game.|
|15.||Steelers||Ryan Shazier, OLB, Ohio State||C||Pittsburgh hasn't drafted all that well lately. Shazier has upside…a bit of a reach here.|
|16.||Cowboys||Zack Martin, OG/OT, Notre Dame||B-||Gives offensive line versatility. But what about that defense?|
|17.||Ravens||C.J. Mosley, ILB, Alabama||A-||Not an overwhelming need. A smart pick nevertheless.|
|18.||Jets||Calvin Pryor, FS, Louisville||A||Jets get a boomer on the back end. Coach Rex Ryan has to be thrilled.|
|19.||Dolphins||Ja'Wuan James, OT, Tennessee||C-||Total needs-based choice. A bit of a reach.|
|20.||Saints*||Brandin Cooks, WR, Oklahoma State||A+||Drew Brees must be ecstatic to have his best slot weapon ever.|
|21.||Packers||Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix, FS, Alabama||A||Brings attitude and a high football IQ to bolster a suddenly strong secondary.|
|22.||Browns*||Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M||A+||Ray Farmer delivers the dream scenario for Cleveland fans.|
|23.||Chiefs||Dee Ford, DE/OLB, Auburn||D+||Brings a ton of speed to pressure the QB. Chiefs have plenty of that already. What else?|
|24.||Bengals||Darqueze Dennard, CB, Michigan State||B+||Great value pick; Could be the best cover corner in the class.|
|25.||Chargers||Jason Verrett, CB, TCU||A-||Can play outside or in the slot. Verrett helps the league's 29th-ranked pass defense.|
|26.||Eagles* (from IND)||Marcus Smith, DE/OLB, Louisville||B+||Wise choice on a smart player. Invested on the proper side of the ball.|
|27.||Cardinals*||Deone Bucannon, SS, Washington State||B-||Helps the Cardinals stay physical in the NFC West. Was it too rich at No. 27?|
|28.||Panthers||Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Florida State||A-||Some don't like this pick. Back shoulder throws for days.|
|29.||Patriots||Dominique Easley, DL, Florida||C-||Injury red flags abound. Tom Brady didn't get a receiver upgrade.|
|30.||49ers||Jimmie Ward, SS, Northern Illinois||C||Time will tell if Ward can become anywhere near the player Donte Whitner was.|
|31.||Broncos||Bradley Roby, CB, Ohio State||B||Coming off a bad season. Aqib Talib not the greatest mentor, but athleticism and potential are undeniable.|
|32.||Vikings*||Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville||A||Putting a cerebral QB in a great situation to thrive.|
*Asterisk indicates trade
Clowney Joins Watt as Texans Seek to Attack QBs
In Houston, opposing offenses indeed have a problem. Watt is the ideal mentor for Clowney as a former high draft pick who has worked hard in spite of his gaudy status and developed into one of the premier stars in the game.
How are teams going to block both Watt and Clowney? As long as the ex-South Carolina star even plays a passable brand of football, he will command double-teams along with Watt at different times. A lot of max protections will be deployed, but that still many not be enough.
Bleacher Report draft expert Matt Miller alluded to the others on Houston's front seven that will help the Texans wreak havoc:
J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney, Whitney Mercilus, Brian Cushing... watch out, Andrew Luck.— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) May 9, 2014
Defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel should capitalize on Clowney's athleticism to stand him up at outside linebacker in his 3-4 alignment at times. But Clowney is also big enough to play his natural defensive end position, and expanding his skill set in this scheme from his rookie year will raise the bar for the top 2014 draft pick.
Even though he lived the dream of being the top draft choice, Clowney seems to have a drive to prove himself, per ESPNNewYork.com's Jane McManus:
"A lot of people said I wasn't going to be nothing growing up," Jadeveon Clowney. #NFLDraft— Jane McManus (@janesports) May 9, 2014
"Now I'm in the NFL, hoping to be a Hall-of-Famer one day." Jadeveon Clowney said. #NFLDraft— Jane McManus (@janesports) May 9, 2014
Clowney has a no-nonsense head coach in Bill O'Brien to help mentor him as he embarks on his journey on the NFL gridiron to become one of the biggest impact defenders.
Jaguars Make Massive Reach for Blake Bortles
Jacksonville—we're laughing at you; not with you. Bortles is a disaster at No. 3 overall. A complete joke. That is the answer general manager Dave Caldwell came up with for a choleric quarterback situation?
Bortles has size at 6'5" and 232 pounds, but that's it. He has awful mechanics, and his "underrated" athleticism is actually overrated, as evidenced by his 4.93-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine.
For him to have had a successful NFL career, pieces needed to be in place for Bortles to thrive. The Jaguars don't have a viable No. 1 wide receiver, though they could find one in the second round, and had so many other holes. This was an all-time reach of epic proportions, and Bleacher Report's Mike Freeman reflected such a sentiment as well:
Massive reach by Jags.— mike freeman (@mikefreemanNFL) May 9, 2014
ESPN personality Skip Bayless didn't like Bortles to Jacksonville, either:
Worst pick so far: Blake Bortles 3 to Jacksonville. That's why they're the Jags.— Skip Bayless (@RealSkipBayless) May 9, 2014
Apparently everyone in the organization is sold, as Caldwell explained the elaborate plan the Jags have to groom Bortles and help him reach his full potential, per MMQB.com's Greg A. Bedard:
We have a plan going forward. We talked at length with our coaching staff. Not only during the season but out of the season and how he’s going to take some extra reps after practice, get extra coaching, extra seven-on-seven and team reps and stuff like that to really have him develop. ... We’re all on the same page. Our owner, Shad Khan, our president, Mark Lamping, myself, Gus Bradley, the coaching staff, this is the plan we set in place. It’s not something we’re just springing on our coaches now, and then the Thursday before the opening game I’m not going to say he’s got to play. That’s not going to happen. We are all on the same page from ownership all the way down.
Doing that much to fix all that's wrong with a QB prospect sounds all well and good for someone selected in the second round or later with a capable veteran as a holdover in the meantime. That's not the reality in Jacksonville, though, as Chad Henne is the next best option.
The comparisons Bortles sometimes draws to Pittsburgh Steelers Super Bowl champion Ben Roethlisberger and 2012 first overall pick Andrew Luck is an insult to them. Bortles is not in the same realm—and never will be.
What sort of upside does Bortles have? He can't get much bigger, and that's his biggest asset. Caldwell totally unraveled on this decision, and the Jags will pay the price if they invest too much time in trying to groom Bortles.
Ray Farmer Justifies Jimmy Haslam's Front Office Cleanout
Farmer did not even choose new Browns coach Mike Pettine, and owner Jimmy Haslam ousted GM Mike Lombardi and CEO Joe Banner, leaving Cleveland's most vital draft ever to an unproven 39-year-old.
Well, either Farmer was not intimidated at all, or if he was, his inexperience didn't show. The Browns could have paired Watkins with the likes of Josh Gordon, but Buffalo offered a first-round pick next year, and Farmer wisely took it.
Brent Sobleski of USA Today praised Farmer for being bold:
Ray Farmer did what every GM should do. Manipulate the draft to your liking and get top value each step of the way.— Brent Sobleski (@brentsobleski) May 9, 2014
Cornerback, quarterback and wide receiver were perceived as the top three needs for Cleveland in some order. Landing Gilbert, who has the most upside of any corner in the draft and has excellent ball skills—something Cleveland corners have lacked for years—was a spectacular move.
Vic Carucci of ClevelandBrowns.com noted that Pettine wanted another player opposite Pro Bowler Joe Haden in order to executive his defense as effectively as possible:
#Browns coach Mike Pettine wanted the tallest CB w/ a 1st-rd grade & that was Justin Gilbert. Needs 2 lock-down CBs to play his D!— Vic Carucci (@viccarucci) May 9, 2014
Mission accomplished. Gilbert is 6'0" and weighed in at 202 pounds at the combine, ran a 4.37-second 40 and put up 20 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press.
All of those tools give Gilbert the ability to press and do a little bit of everything as an excellent all-around cornerback.
Then came Johnny Football. A trade up with the Philadelphia Eagles from No. 26 to 22 created several minutes of unimaginable anticipation before it was revealed that Farmer was pulling the trigger on Manziel.
Manziel has an excellent supporting cast in place in Gordon, Jordan Cameron and running back Ben Tate, and Cleveland could even take another wide receiver early in Round 2. Brian Hoyer figures to be the favorite to start, but Manziel's playmaking ability and his fit in Kyle Shanahan's offense could see him beat Hoyer out in training camp.
A piece of ominous history accompanies Manziel with the No. 22 overall pick, as ESPN Stats & Info highlights—but so does an undeniable wave of positive energy:
Johnny Manziel goes 22 overall to the Browns. Brandon Weeden and Brady Quinn went 22nd overall to the Browns as well.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) May 9, 2014
Albert Breer of NFL Network brought up a pertinent point with regard to Shanahan showing the malleability to adjust to Manziel's unique talents:
Every evaluator says you have to "have a plan" to deploy Manziel as a pro. Shanahan turned his offense upside down for RG3. Can do it again.— Albert Breer (@AlbertBreer) May 9, 2014
The previous regimes and most recent failed first-round Browns quarterbacks in Brady Quinn and Brandon Weeden had massive levels of incompetence. None had plans in place to nurture a young QB, and Quinn nor Weeden weren't ready to lead a franchise as a can't-miss prospect. That Manziel is a logical fit is an encouraging sign that the Browns may get it right at last at the most important position.
Which first-round QB will have the best NFL career?
Clowney can line up in so many different places, and by going to the Texans, he will work with former New England Patriots coaches in O'Brien and Crennel. That should help him get into an instantaneous, winning mindset. Manziel will bring the spark Cleveland needs, and imagine what the hype will be like if he starts Week 1 on the road at Pittsburgh.
But Bortles will be viewed as one of the worst picks in recent draft history. The plan in place for him, unlike the promising one in Cleveland, seems destined to fail, leaving the Jags mired in misery. Unless Caldwell knows something no one else does, he will be packing his bags by the end of the 2015 campaign.