Nearly 100 underclassmen have declared for the 2014 NFL draft, which is shaping up to be a very deep crop of talent. There are still a thousand questions to answer about how the draft will look come May 8, but we have a pretty good idea how things are shaping up in the early stages.
With a focus on team needs and not projecting any trades, I tried to match up player with team more than player with draft slot, so keep that in mind when reading. But here's a look at how the draft absolutely will not look (but, boy, it's fun to speculate) come draft weekend.
1. Houston Texans — South Carolina DE Jadeveon Clowney
No, Clowney's "draft stock" isn't suddenly on the rise. If anything, there are more questions about him now, as evaluators go back and figure why why he was not as dominant in 2013 as he was the season prior. But it only takes one team, as we are fond of saying, and that team could be the Bob McNair-owned Texans, who already has gushed over Clowney's potential. Will they take him for sure? Is it a smokescreen? No one knows, of course, but grabbing him in a trade back sure seems like a possibility we can't overlook.
2. St. Louis Rams (from Washington Redskins) — Clemson WR Sammy Watkins
Could we have trades involving the first two picks? Wouldn't that be fun? The Rams appear to be in the catbird seat, and if no teams makes a proper offer, well, they can sit here and take a quality offensive tackle or a rare receiver such as Watkins. We'd love to see, for value's sake, them trade down and add another pick or two. A lot clearly depends on what happens with the first pick. But taking Watkins here would not be outrageous at all.
3. Jacksonville Jaguars — Louisville QB Teddy Bridgewater
There have been some quiet warning signals for Bridgewater sliding, as some teams are not seeing him as a top-10 talent. Hey, the same things were said of Aaron Rodgers. And Jake Locker. And Geno Smith. Get my point? It's still way early. At this point of the process 10 years ago, Philip Rivers was viewed as a late first-/early second-round pick; he vaulted his stock with a big Senior Bowl and was drafted fourth. Rodgers shockingly fell from first or second overall to 25th. But the Jaguars need a quarterback, and we're projecting them one for now until further notice.
4. Cleveland Browns — Texas A&M QB Johnny Manziel
If there's a team I had to guess right now that would land Manziel, either here or in a trade up to one or two, it's the Browns. Look at their m.o.: they have the picks (three of the top 36 selections), the positional need (need we remind you?) and the front office wanting to make a splash and find a winner. It all adds up to Manziel very possibly being a Brown. Not that other teams aren't interested; there just might not be as many that are as desperate.
5. Oakland Raiders — Central Florida QB Blake Bortles
This seems like the type of height-weight-arm prospect they like, even post-Al Davis, and Bortles fills a need at a still-uncertain position. It's painting lame-duck head coach Dennis Allen into a bit of a corner, with a first-round quarterback, but it's not as if Terrelle Pryor or Matt McGloin are likely to help save his job. Personally, as much as I like Bortles (based off the four games I have watched of him), I would not be using a top-five pick on him. But then again, I am not Reggie McKenzie.
6. Atlanta Falcons — Auburn OT Greg Robinson
Here's where it gets a little more interesting. I was not tuned into Robinson closely until the Alabama game, but watching him dominate through stretches of that game, the SEC title game and the national championship game, it was clear that Robinson and his light feet were rare indeed. Is he better than A&M's Jake Matthews? That's up to the individual coaching staff, and new OL coach Mike Tice has used a mixture of man- and zone-blocking principles in the past, but wherever he has been Tice has required his men up front to fire off the ball quickly and assertively. That would fit well with Robinson and his ability to get to the second level.
7. Tampa Bay Buccaneers — North Carolina TE Eric Ebron
I admit, I can't seem to find an exact fit here. Could they take an offensive lineman? Sure. Might they want an athletic linebacker who can rush the passer? Yes. An athletic tight end? Absolutely. And that's what I settled on. Is Ebron the seventh-best player in this draft? Not likely. Could they move down half a dozen spots and snag him? Perhaps. He's a gifted, seam-splitting racehorse who could help out Mike Glennon in a big way. My gut says Lovie Smith might have enough influence over the next GM to make this a defensive pick, but not if the right fit for his and Leslie Frazier's system isn't there.
8. Minnesota Vikings — Buffalo LB Khalil Mack
The feeling seems to be that Mack, more so than UCLA's Anthony Barr (another outstanding prospect), can take over games. And that's exactly the kind of edge player that new head coach Mike Zimmer will realize he needs. Yes, finding a quarterback is vital. And perhaps they'll feel the need to reach for Fresno State's Derek Carr here. But short of that, and assuming they did not learn their lesson with Christian Ponder a few years ago, landing Mack here might be the smartest thing they can do with an aging Jared Allen and Kevin Williams nearing the end.
9. Buffalo Bills — UCLA LB Anthony Barr
The Bills stand to lose safety Jairus Byrd, and I thought about one of the safeties here. But could they stand to pass on a prospect such as Barr who could help give them one of the better front sevens in the AFC? They'd have a relentless pass-rushing front with Barr, Mario Williams, Kyle Williams, Marcel Dareus and Jerry Hughes, and Barr could kick to end and help keep the snap counts of Williams and Williams (who are approaching their 30s) under control. This is less of a need and more of a best-player-available situation.
10. Detroit Lions — Texas A&M WR Mike Evans
I strongly considered mocking them Florida State's Kelvin Benjamin here, but it's a little too early for that; there's still more to uncover about him. Plus, Evans is younger and a little more explosive and polished. There would be a lot to like about having the physical Evans opposite Calvin Johnson, where Evans could catch 65-70 passes as a rookie and help extend Johnson's career and give Matthew Stafford another reliable target.
11. Tennessee Titans — Texas A&M OT Jake Matthews
They could go in a few directions, including taking one of the talented safeties left on the board, but we'll project them to take a rock-solid top-10 talent in Matthews, who had a very clean season and would represent a big upgrade over David Stewart (a likely cap casualty) at right tackle. Left tackle Michael Roos will be a free agent after next season, and drafting Matthews also would provide some insurance for that situation. He's as low-floor a prospect as there is in this class.
12. New York Giants — Michigan OT Taylor Lewan
David Diehl has retired, and William Beatty looks like a mistake. The Giants' offensive line is the top need, per owner John Mara, and new offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo is surely going to ask for more help up front, even with having solid 2013 rookie Justin Pugh. Lewan might not be a thrilling prospect, and some say he took a step backward this season over his junior year. But he's a safe bet who can play either tackle spot and fits the Giants' requisite toughness quotient.
13. St. Louis Rams — Louisville S Calvin Pryor
The Rams are a few players away from having a dominant defense, and the fast-rising Pryor could help make this secondary the Midwest's answer to what the Seattle Seahawks have built. Seriously, adding another impact safety really could make them that good. Pryor is a tough hitter with range, sort of halfway between Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor, if we're making Seahawks comps. And having ground-covering safeties will be important in defending Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick the next several seasons.
14. Chicago Bears — Florida State DT Timmy Jernigan
This almost seems like too good a fit, and the truth is that Jernigan could rise easily into the top 10after the strong national title game he had with strong workouts and a few questions from scouts answered. The Bears need run stoppers and penetrators, and a Jernigan-Henry Melton DT combo might help clean up one of the statistically worst defenses in recent memory against the run.
15. Pittsburgh Steelers — Oklahoma State CB Justin Gilbert
There should be a fascinating battle for top cornerback honors between OSU's Gilbert and Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard, who interestingly both dropped out of the Senior Bowl in the past few days. Gilbert carries some swagger that could appeal to Mike Tomlin and certainly fills a need as a playmaking corner on a team that plays a lot of man coverage but doesn't force a lot of turnovers. Dennard might be more appealing to some teams, but Gilbert is the pick here. He certainly won't fall too much farther.
(The 16th and 17th picks will be determined by a coin flip at a later date.)
16. Baltimore Ravens — Florida State WR Kelvin Benjamin
Where others see potential warning signs such as age and immaturity, GM Ozzie Newsome sees potential and a major need. Benjamin is raw, and he could use some refinement in his game, but the size, speed and catch radius all are on display with Benjamin and his big frame. Some scouts have compared him to Alshon Jeffery, and that's exactly the kind of raw-upside talent that Newsome has made a living on drafting.
17. Dallas Cowboys — Alabama S Ha Ha Clinton-Dix
Clearly, the Cowboys were shorthanded at safety this season. They also could use a pass rusher, and someone such as Missouri's Kony Ealy could tempt them here. But Clinton-Dix is the type of size-speed combo and big-school pedigree that Jerry Jones loves, and he'd pencil in as a Day 1 starter. Clinton-Dix is not everyone's favorite, but he has decent range, good hands and can support the run and comes from a system that produced NFL players Mark Barron and Robert Lester.
18. New York Jets — USC WR Marqise Lee
It would be a good idea to give Geno Smith more receiving weapons who can make plays on their own and earn yards after the catch. Then, they'd have an idea if Smith can play. There's some irony here, as Lee was compared by some scouts to Santonio Holmes after Lee's fantastic 2012 season, but the talk of Lee being a top-five pick in 2014 cooled after all of USC's problems, especially early in the season. That said, Lee overcame injuries and some early drops to rebound (especially in a nice bowl game against Fresno State) into first-round consideration again. This is a nice fit in the Jets' West Coast system.
19. Miami Dolphins — Notre Dame OT-OG Zach Martin
I am excited to watch Martin down at the Senior Bowl next week, and that should help kickstart his campaign to prove he's best as a tackle, and not guard, as some draft analysts are projecting him to. The reason I think Martin is a good fit for the Dolphins is that they have a need at both spots. Martin might not have idea arm length — we'll find out Monday morning — but if Pugh can play tackle for the Giants, then Martin should be able to do so in the pros, too.
20. Arizona Cardinals — Alabama OT Cyrus Kouandjio
If the Cardinals can find a left tackle, then their offensive line could be worlds better this coming season, with injured left guard Jonathan Cooper returning to the fold. There are times when Kouandjio, based on my limited scouting of him, looks painfully awkward at times. But he has the physical gifts to be a very good tackle with a patient and tough offensive line coach. Considering the job Larry Zierlein did with this group last year, with Bradley Sowell at left tackle, Kouandjio could flourish here.
21. Green Bay Packers — Alabama LB C.J. Mosley
Mosley certainly is a better football player than where we have him going. In fact, he's probably one of the 10 best pure players in this class. But positional need and positional value might slide him down into the 12-25 range, and we think the Packers would be nuts to pass on him here if he was available. Their linebacker depth is awful, and we're not sure Brad Jones should be starting next season. Mosley would be a perfect fit inside, although their needs could change depending on what happens with free-agent NT B.J. Raji.
22. Philadelphia Eagles — Michigan State CB Darqueze Dennard
Good cover men are hard to find, and Dennard has the game and the swagger to survive out on an island. The Eagles have a pretty good trio of cornerbacks in Cary Williams, Bradley Fletcher and Brandon Boykin but wouldn't pass up the chance to draft a battle-tested, playmaking corner such as Dennard. They could seek to fill some front-seven needs, and there are some able-bodied defenders who could work. But we'll mock them Dennard, a player who might deserve to go earlier in all honesty.
23. Kansas City Chiefs — Oregon State WR Brandin Cooks
Andy Reid had DeSean Jackson in Philadelphia, and despite all of Jackson's annoyances, he really was what made that offense hum, providing just enough big plays to change coverages and tilt the field. This is what Cooks could do for the Chiefs, who too often faced loaded boxes and couldn't generate big pass plays to soften up defenses. Adding another speedball to the mix really could change the complexion of Alex Smith and the passing game.
24. Cincinnati Bengals — Fresno State QB Derek Carr
Carr's stock has cooled a bit from the top-10 talk of a few months ago, and frankly he was probably knocked down too far for what was a lukewarm performance in the bowl game loss to USC. But he probably remains a first-round prospect and really could set himself apart with a fine Senior Bowl week. Are the Bengals the most likely fit? Probably not ... but why not? What do you get for the team that has almost everything else, has no pressing needs but likely will want a young QB to push Andy Dalton? It's a possibility, especially when you consider that Mike Brown has let it out that Dalton was not his pick and that that man who convinced Brown to draft Dalton (Jay Gruden) is coaching the Redskins now.
25. San Diego Chargers — Notre Dame NT Louis Nix
Yes, the Chargers could use some able bodies in the secondary, and perhaps along the offensive line, but finding a proper nose tackle could really tighten up this defense. If you want Manti Te'o not having to fight off blocks, then the Chargers must upgrade over Cam Thomas inside. He only played better when the coaches challenged him late, and it wasn't a vast improvement. The massive Nix was hurt by injuries but has some power and could be the choice if the Chargers aren't Raji players in free agency.
26. Cleveland Browns (from Indianapolis Colts) — LSU WR Jarvis Landry
We've already projected them Manziel up top, and now he gets some receiving help. The Browns have other needs, but finding a quality underneath weapon such as Landry really could give the Browns an outstanding three-tiered passing attack with Josh Gordon and Jordan Cameron that puts the whole field in play. Landry would be a major upgrade over Davone Bess, who, um, has had a bad week.
27. New Orleans Saints — Missouri OLB-DE Kony Ealy
If there's a pressing need on this defense, it's a pressure player on the edge. Ealy has seen his stock rise as more teams see a similar type of talent to the San Francisco 49ers' Aldon Smith budding. Despite having a bigger frame, Ealy is not as freakish an athlete as Smith and he needs to defend the run better, but there are some similarities. Ealy is a power player, and he'd be a perfect fit — if he can prove he stand up consistently — in this Rob Ryan scheme.
28. Carolina Panthers — Florida State CB Lamarcus Joyner
A great front seven helped mask a secondary that was occasionally a problem this season, and one that frankly came a little unglued in the playoff loss to the 49ers. Joyner might not have ideal size, but anyone watching him this season (especially in the title game) saw a heady, tough, instinctive defensive backs that's somewhere between Antoine Winfield and Bob Sanders as an NFL projection, physically speaking. Joyner isn't as sound a corner as Winfield was coming out, nor is he as reckless and destructive a hitter as Sanders. But he carries the requisite toughness and smarts to play for Ron Rivera and Sean McDermott.
*29. New England Patriots — Minnesota DT Ra'Shede Hageman
Bill Belichick and his defensive staff might be able to get the most out of this talented-but-inconsistent prospect who at least looks like Richard Seymour getting off the bus before. We've mocked Hageman to the Patriots previously, which means that it's not likely to happen; besides, we all know that Belichick will do something off the grid, like trade down and out of Round 1, or take a tight end here, like Texas Tech's Jace Amaro or Washington's Austin Seferian-Jenkins. They're different types of tight ends, and the Patriots need both types. But they also need a defensive tackle. Badly. The depth drops off soon after this.
* 30. San Francisco 49ers — Notre Dame DE Stephon Tuitt
Not sure how, but every year it seems that a team picking in the bottom five of Round 1 lands a great prospect who just inexplicably slides. Cordarrelle Patterson last year. Doug Martin the year before. Muhammad Wilkerson in 2011. The list goes on. In this scenario, the 49ers would be able to land a top-20 talent who had an inconsistent final season but projects nicely as a long-term replacement for Justin Smith and Ray McDonald. Tuitt can play multiple techniques and fits the mold of this defense well.
*31. Denver Broncos — TCU CB Jason Verrett
Their needs changed when Chris Harris suffered a torn ACL in the divisional round of the playoffs, and the timing of the injury means that Harris could go into August before he's cleared medically to return. One look at Quentin Jammer and Champ Bailey playing major snaps tells us all we need to know about the need at corner: it's legit. Verrett isn't big, and he probably needs to add a little good weight to hold up against physical receivers. But he's a playmaker who always shows up around the ball on film.
*32. Seattle Seahawks — Colorado WR Paul Richardson
We've seen GM John Schneider draft for need in previous first rounds, but he's not afraid to go a little off the grid. Richardson is a known prospect, but there are perhaps a few other more ballyhooed names at the position ahead of him. Still, Richardson offers the speed and downfield playmaking this offense could really use, especially with the injuries and questionable futures of Sidney Rice and Percy Harvin. Richardson needs some refinement, but he's a good-looking prospect who put up big numbers this season with a lot of attention paid his way.
*order determined by playoff results
(And, in keeping with tradition with our recent mock drafts this season, here are the first five bonus picks of Round 2.)
33. Houston Texans — Alabama QB A.J. McCarron
Bill O'Brien wants a football junkie who just wins to play quarterback. That appears to be McCarron, although we are still puzzled by his decision to not play at the Senior Bowl.
34. Washington Redskins — LSU WR Odell Beckham
The Redskins still lack a downfield threat, and Gruden could have a good answer here to start immediately and help alleviate the pressure on Robert Griffin III.
35. Jacksonville Jaguars — Auburn DE-OLB Dee Ford
Could Ford be Gus Bradley's Bruce Irvin? Perhaps. The Jaguars could use an edge bender to get after Andrew Luck for the next several years.
36. Cleveland Browns — Ohio State RB Carlos Hyde
This one makes too much sense, right? How much different would the Browns' offense be with Manziel, Landry and Hyde. Admit it: You'd want to watch suddenly.
37. Oakland Raiders — Pittsburgh DT Aaron Donald
The Raiders need help at multiple spots, but landing a high-motor defensive tackle to replace Vance Walker would help rebuild things up front, assuming Lamarr Houston re-signs.
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