Free agency could greatly influence how some teams approach the draft. However, my predictions are based on my evaluations of the draft-eligible players and how I think they fit with certain teams. As always the eternal need vs. best-available player debate will continue to rear its head. And, of course, there is the Manziel debate.
The Johnny Manziel conundrum is one the more interesting evaluation dilemmas to hit NFL evaluators in a long time. I don't have him being drafted in the first round. Not because I don't think he has a chance to be a good player, but because I don't think teams will be able to come to an internal consensus on him.
When a team takes a quarterback in Round 1, a lot of jobs are on the line. If that player doesn't pan out the general manger and head coach generally aren't there to choose a second one. Jacksonville, Cleveland and Minnesota all need QBs now, yet they all drafted one in the first round in the last three years. Only Vikings general manager Rick Spielman is left standing; the rest, including all three head coaches, are gone.
I do expect Manziel to be taken early in the second round, when the pressure to get a pick right is a lot less (read: your job isn't on the line).
Agree? Disagree? Hit me up on Twitter (@RealShaunKing).
For now, here is my 2014 mock draft:
1. Houston Texans
Needs: QB, OT, Safety
The pick: Teddy Bridgewater (QB, Louisville) – The most complete NFL ready QB since Andrew Luck. Unlike most teams with the first pick, the Texans are a QB away from being legit playoff contenders. Bridgewater's tape is excellent. He consistently delivers all the throws and makes his own decisions at the line of scrimmage. For those who have injury concerns, why? Show me the games he has missed due to injury.
2. St Louis Rams
Needs: OL, WR, Safety
The pick: Greg Robinson (OL, Auburn) – Not as polished as Jake Matthews but a higher upside, Robinson has a rare combination of size and athleticism, with a little more polish in his pass protection footwork. The ceiling for him: best tackle in football.
3. Jacksonville Jaguars
Needs: QB, DE, OT
The pick: Jadeveon Clowney (DE, South Carolina) – The No. 1 player on my draft board falls to the Jags, who need pass rush help. Clowney is a once-in-a-decade-type athlete, who will only get better. Gus Bradley knows you build a great defense from the inside out. Jags pass on a QB here to grab the best defensive player in this draft
4. Cleveland Browns
Needs: QB, RB, OG
The pick: Sammy Watkins (WR, Clemson) – The most electrifying playmaker in the draft, Watkins is explosive in and out of routes and a home-run threat every time he touches the ball. I think the Browns will draft a QB, just not at No. 4. The threesome of Watkins, Josh Gordon and Jordan Cameron would give the Browns the best group of young pass catchers in the league.
5. Oakland Raiders
Needs: QB, WR, OT
The pick: Aaron Donald (DT, Pittsburgh) – Donald has skyrocketed up draft boards with his postseason work (Senior Bowl and combine). He gets drafted here because his tape backs up what his workouts imply. Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie understands how difficult it is to find athletic big guys who show up on tape. If the Raiders also re-sign Lamar Houston in free agency, that defensive line that was a weakness now becomes a strength.
6. Atlanta Falcons
Needs: DE, OL, TE
The pick: Jake Matthews (OT, Texas A&M) – This is a no-brainer for the Dirty Birds. You have an elite QB that needs protection. Matthews is the most polished and NFL ready tackle in this draft. Also, his pedigree – he's the son of Hall of Famer Bruce Matthews – would lead me to believe he will be good for a long time.
7. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Needs: DE, TE, OT
The pick: Khalil Mack (LB, Buffalo) – If I'm Tampa, I'm trying to trade out of this spot and get a couple more picks. But I'm not doing trades in this mock. Lovie Smith saw first-hand the impact Derrick Brooks had in Tampa. Pairing Mack with Lavonte David would give Tampa an outstanding pair of outside backers. Mack's ability to rush the QB also fills a major need for the Bucs as well.
8. Minnesota Vikings
Needs: QB, DE, OG
The pick: Blake Bortles (QB, Central Florida) – I'm not as high on Bortles as some because he needs a lot of development and you shouldn't draft QBs in the first round unless they are plug-and-play guys. However, this is a unique situation. I love the fact that he will get tutored by Norv Turner, and Bortles has two years outside in the cold to hone his skills in preparation for Minnesota moving into their new stadium, which gives him the growth period he needs.
9. Buffalo Bills
Needs: LB, TE, RT
The pick: Eric Ebron (TE, North Carolina) – He's a dynamic matchup nightmare. Good speed, great body control and top-shelf mitts. Another weapon to put around second-year QB EJ Manuel.
10. Detroit Lions
Needs: CB, WR, Safety
The pick: Mike Evans (WR, Texas A&M) – The Lions could go corner here, but with so much emphasis on Matthew Stafford, why not add another tall, physically imposing option opposite of Calvin Johnson? Evans high-points the football better than any wide receiver I've seen enter the league in the last couple years. He really utilizes his height (6-foot-5) and has a gigantic catch radius. Bombs away in Motown!
11. Tennessee Titans
Needs: Safety, DE, QB
The pick: Kony Ealy (DE, Missouri) – Explosive edge rusher fills a major need for this Titans. Plus, he has the talent deserving of a top-15 pick. He's equally adept playing the run or rushing the passer. Ealy possesses a good first step and relentless motor.
12. New York Giants
Needs: LB, CB, OL
The pick: Darqueze Dennard (CB, Michigan State) – The most complete conerback in this draft, Dennard is capable in zone or man-to-man schemes. He does an excellent job of playing the football in the air. He's tough and physical versus the run and will come up and hit. He can eliminate the opposing team's best WR.
13. St. Louis Rams
Needs: OL, WR, Safety
The pick: Calvin Pryor (Safety, Louisville) – The Rams continue to check off boxes with talented young defenders. They secured their OT at No. 2 and now solidify the back end of their defense with the draft's most physically imposing safety – not in stature but in in-game impact. Pryor flies around and hits people. He fits in with Greg Williams' aggressive, attacking schemes.
14. Chicago Bears
Needs: DL, Safety, OL
The pick: Timmy Jernigan (DT, Florida State) – With the uncertainty surrounding Henry Melton following ACL surgery, the Bears need to replenish their defensive front that was among the worst in football last year. Jernigan is a stout, strong, physical presence that dominates with power more than speed. At his best, he's a nightmare for interior offensive lines to contain.
15. Pittsburgh Steelers
Needs: OT, Safety, CB
The pick: Taylor Lewan (OT, Michigan) – The Steelers will be sprinting to the podium if Lewan is still available. They have a major need at OT and Lewan is a top-shelf talent who's huge and has elite athleticism for a guy his size.
16. Dallas Cowboys
Needs: DE, CB, Safety
The pick: Louis Nix III (DT, Notre Dame) – In a surprise, the Cowboys go Nix here instead of safety. Rod Marinelli, who was promoted to defensive coordinator, will be banging on the table to get the big defensive tackle. Nix will instantly make the guys behind him better and force teams to alter how they currently scheme the Cowboys' front. Light on his feet and exceptionally quick for someone his size, Nix is scheme versatile and would fit perfectly in Dallas.
17. Baltimore Ravens
Needs: OT, C, WR
The pick: Odell Beckham (WR, LSU) – Explosive and fearless are just a few words that come to mind when watching Beckham's tape. Joe Flacco finally gets the missing piece to the puzzle on offense. After re-signing Dennis Pitta, the Ravens still need an elite WR opposite Torrey Smith and this fills that void. Beckham also can step in and replace Jacoby Jones in the return game.
18. New York Jets
Needs: WR, OG, CB
The pick: Marqise Lee (WR, USC) – After an inconsistent season, first-year QB Geno Smith finished up the year on a strong note. The best way for him to continue that upward tick is to get him better weapons. Lee is polished and if you go by his sophomore tape this could be a steal for the Jets. Lee is an excellent route runner good in and out of his breaks and does a lot with the ball after the catch.
19. Miami Dolphins
Needs: OT, OG, RB
The pick: Zach Martin (OT, Notre Dame) – The versatile lineman is an elite prospect at guard and solid prospect at tackle. This pick will allow Miami maximum flexibility moving forward. I will have a much better feel for this pick based on what the Dolphins do in free agency.
20. Arizona Cardinals
Needs: OT, CB, OLB
The pick: Anthony Barr (LB, UCLA) – Every year a player falls for no significant reason. I think Barr is that player this year. Luckily for him, he won't get past here because Arizona has a need for an OLB who can rush the quarterback, and he fits the bill perfectly.
21. Green Bay Packers
Needs: TE, Safety, LB
The pick: Ha Ha Clinton Dix (Safety, Alabama) – Dix has a solid all-around game, is excellent as a centerfielder but also can tackle in space. He fills a major need for Green Bay.
22. Philadelphia Eagles
Needs: OLB, Safety, CB
The pick: Justin Gilbert (CB, Oklahoma State) – Speed, speed and more speed. Gilbert is fast, and it shows on tape. He's not as aggressive in man-to-man coverage as I'd like but is still a good fit for Philly. He has decent but not elite ball skills. What puts Gilbert over the top is his return ability. He would be an instant upgrade for the Eagles' special teams.
23. Kansas City Chiefs
Needs: WR, DL, ILB
The pick: C.J. Mosley (LB, Alabama) – The Chiefs already have an elite group in their front seven. Mosley gets them over the hump. Some will say go wide receiver here, but putting Mosley next to Derrick Johnson makes them better in the long run. It's a deep draft at receiver and they can grab one later.
24. Cincinnati Bengals
Needs: CB, OLB, Safety
The pick: Kyle Fuller (CB, Virginia Tech) – For a defense that has excelled, the Bengals have not gotten above-average play from their corners (injury and performance). Fuller passed all his medicals at the combine, so now it's just about the tape, and boy is his tape good. Put on Va. Tech vs. Alabama in last year's opener if you don't believe me. An instant upgrade at corner, Fuller has elite playmaking skills, is aggressive and plays with All-Pro confidence.
25. San Diego Chargers
Needs: CB, OG, OLB
The pick: David Yankey (OG, Stanford) – A lot like Atlanta, the Chargers have an elite quarterback who needs protection to flourish. They need an upgrade along the interior of their offensive line and Yankey fills that void. This won't be an exciting selection for Chargers fans, but it makes the team better.
26. Cleveland Browns
Needs: QB, RB, OG
The pick: Bradley Roby (CB, Ohio State) – I know, I know, no QB here. I think the Browns again bypass QB and go best available. Roby gives them an outstanding tandem of corners (opposite Joe Haden) and a tremendous back end assuming they re-sign T.J. Ward. Mike Pettine is a defensive-minded head coach and will be licking his fingers drawing up ways to get to the QB with Roby and Haden covering.
27. New Orleans Saints
Needs: OT, OLB, CB
The pick: Cyrus Kouandjio (OL, Alabama) – The big 'Bama tackle has struggled a little through the postseason draft process and drops because of it. New Orleans jumps at the chance to snatch up Kouandjio and solidify their tackle positions after the impressive performance at the end of the year by Terron Armstead.
28. Carolina Panthers
Needs: WR, CB, OL
The pick: Brandin Cooks (WR, Oregon State) – Explosive and fast, Cooks has aced the postseason process and his tape validates his performances. I will follow what the Panthers do in free agency closely because Jordan Gross retiring leaves them in a bad spot regarding their o-line.
29. New England Patriots
Needs: OL, DL, CB
The pick: Dee Ford (DE, Auburn) – One of the best edge rushers in the draft. The Patriots are a perfect fit for him based on Bill Belichick's ability to mirror his defensive scheme to his personnel. What has been a weakness (pass rush) can become a strength with Ford and Chandler Jones.
30. San Francisco 49ers
Needs: WR, DL, CB
The pick: Stephon Tuitt (DE, Notre Dame) – The rich get richer. After taking Tank Carradine last year, the Niners double back and get Tuitt here. Two young, talented defensive linemen in the fold step in and make them younger at this position.
31. Denver Broncos
Needs: OT, CB, DL
The pick: Stanley Jean-Baptiste (CB, Nebraska) – One thing John Elway learned in the Super Bowl loss to Seattle was the importance of having a big corner who can take away one side of the field. Baptiste isn't Richard Sherman just yet, but he has all the skills to eventually be on that level. A great combination of size, skill and athleticism, he has excellent ball skills (which I love in a corner) and a corner's mentality (ability to move on from bad plays). A great legacy enhancer for Champ Bailey would be to impart his knowledge of the nuances of the position onto his new understudy.
32. Seattle Seahawks
Needs: WR, TE, OL
The pick: Antonio Richardson (OT, Tennessee) – I almost went tight end here because of the fit with Austin Sefarian-Jenkins. But Richardson is too talented a prospect to pass up. Also not having to defend Russ Wilson's blindside from Day 1 will allow "Tiny" the time he needs to refine his rough edges.
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