The scouting combine is a week away, and the medical, interview and workout results (in that order) will shake up teams' player grades, just as free agency — the start of which is still four weeks away — will change teams' needs and approaches to their first-round picks.
But we'll take a crack at projecting Round 1 (and a little into Round 2) of how the NFL draft might shake up when we finally get to the weekend of May 8.
1. Houston Texans — Texas A&M QB Johnny Manziel
So many variables, so much to figure out. But I think in the end, the Texans will realize that Manziel is the best QB talent and that he possesses the work ethic to be the first pick. The Texans could try their hand at trading down, but for whom? With Manziel here, assuming he passes the team’s pre-draft tests, including some grilling from new head coach Bill O’Brien, who must determine if Manziel is gym-rat enough for him, the lightning-rod quarterback is the pick. Because he's the best playmaker in the draft.
2. St. Louis Rams (from Washington Redskins) — Clemson WR Sammy Watkins
Another they-could-trade down scenario, but why? You have the best “X” receiver in the draft, and you can pair him with an electric slot guy and a few potentially good bigger wideouts on the roster. Sounds like a win to me. Watkins will give them a terrific field tilter and help answer the question of whether Sam Bradford is the man or not. Easy peasy.
3. Jacksonville Jaguars — Buffalo pass rusher Khalil Mack
This might be a shocker now, but I suspect it won't be for long. I might be wrong here, but I think Gus Bradley and his coaches will fall in love with this Mack, if they have not already. Mack fits their “Leo” rush spot, either as a stand-up or down rusher from the weak side. Passing on a quarterback could burn the Jaguars, but they — teaser alert — might be able to get their man near the top of Round 2. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers once almost took DeMarcus Ware with the fifth pick but worried about his level of competition at Troy. Mack has some Ware-like qualities and should not escape the top five.
4. Cleveland Browns — UCF QB Blake Bortles
The Browns are in a position to help themselves in this draft, with three of the top 35 picks and plenty of needs on which to spend said picks. So why are we nervous here? Bortles has some intriguing physical gifts, and he beat Penn State, Baylor and Louisville this season, and came within a field goal of beating a very good South Carolina defense. Those are the four games I have watched of his, and there’s a lot to like. But even with questions, and with Manziel off the board, the Browns go to Plan B. Or Plan BB, as it might be.
5. Oakland Raiders — Texas A&M OT Jake Matthews
The Raiders need a quarterback and help along both lines, depending on what happens in free agency. That’s why projecting this pick right now proves to be a little tricky. But the Raiders also need sure things. They need ground-rule doubles as much as they need homers, as goofy as that sounds. Matthews fills a need, and he’s a plug-and-play Day One starter at right tackle, where Menelik Watson looks like a bust, or left tackle, if Jared Veldheer somehow gets away in free agency. Makes a lot of sense.
6. Atlanta Falcons — South Carolina DE Jadeveon Clowney
The Falcons have their dream scenario unfold here. They are aggressive, trade-up types, having done so the past two years for Julio Jones and Desmond Trufant, the players they believe were the best fits for their team. Clowney is that player, too, but if the Jaguars pass on him at three, the Falcons could get lucky and get a destructive edge player — even if Clowney is never a 15-sack kind of guy.
7. Tampa Bay Buccaneers — Auburn OT Greg Robinson
I still can’t get a great feel for this pick and matching need with talent available, especially considering the new head coach (Lovie Smith) and new general manager (Jason Licht). But with a top-five talent available, it would be hard to pass on Robinson. I considered putting fast-rising Timmy Jernigan, who fits a need and looks like he’s tailor-made to fit Smith’s scheme. That could end up being the pick.
8. Minnesota Vikings — Louisville QB Teddy Bridgewater
To me, the Vikings are lying in the weeds now and will be aggressive both in free agency and the draft. This is the projected pick for if they stay put at eight, but something tells me they are going to attempt to move up for a bigger swing at the plate. If it sounds like I am hedging on Bridgewater, I am not; I just am not sure yet if the Vikings love him or not. You also can’t rule out a defensive lineman here.
9. Buffalo Bills — UCLA LB Anthony Barr
I believe there will be bigger needs in the secondary and on the offensive line, but I also believe that Doug Whaley believes he cannot pass a specimen such as Barr here. This is a situation where talent outweighs need, and the fact that Barr would be surrounded with so much talent in the front seven and could be used in such a way to maximize his talents would be too enticing. Coordinator Jim Schwartz could have a top-five defense — seriously — with a few smart additions.
10. Detroit Lions — Oklahoma State CB Justin Gilbert
The Lions need a wide receiver and could consider one here, but with such a deep pool of them, bolstered by the influx of underclassmen, the play here might be at another need spot that is less deep. Corners are just too hard to find, and the team has either whiffed on recent picks or doesn’t know what it has with Chris Houston, Darius Slay and Bill Bentley, among others. The confident Gilbert won’t have a hard time fitting in with this crew.
11. Tennessee Titans — Michigan OT Taylor Lewan
Why not replace one nasty right tackle with another? David Stewart is a possible cap casualty, and new head coach Ken Whisenhunt saw the quick returns of a rookie in the 11th spot from a year ago (D.J. Fluker) in San Diego. Lewan is a different style of player than Fluker but possesses the edge to step in and compete immediately. He might not be everyone’s cup of tea and will have to answer some character questions, but Lewan is a first-round talent whose stock as a player remains high even after a slight letdown season.
12. New York Giants — Notre Dame OT-OG Zach Martin
Just as Justin Pugh was a surprise pick in the middle of Round 1 a year ago, seeing Martin this high could cause a few eyelid raises. But his strong week of work at the Senior Bowl could have boosted his stock to a point where he’s not only considered a Day One starter but one with versatility and upside, despite a not-ideal left-tackle physique. If you’re cutting Chris Snee, as has been rumored, you’ll need someone to step in right away.
13. St. Louis Rams — Louisville FS Calvin Prior
Jeff Fisher and Gregg Williams typically have had hard-hitting, instinctive safeties who can roam a lot of ground and wreak a lot of havoc. I haven’t had the chance to do a lot of work on Pryor yet, as he declared late for the draft, but the book on him is that he’s a complete safety who can lay the wood. The Rams were way too giving on deep passes a year ago and must help out their harried corners with a player such as Pryor.
14. Chicago Bears — Florida State DT Timmy Jernigan
The only hesitations I have with mocking Jernigan here are (a) persistent rumors that the Bears either want to morph into a 3-4 scheme, or be multiple up front; and (b) that they have a similarly molded player they could re-sign in Henry Melton, even if Melton is coming off a torn ACL. Scouts are a bit hot and lukewarm on Jernigan, but his disruptive skills could help a defense that was gashed by the run a year ago.
15. Pittsburgh Steelers — Minnesota DT-DE Ra’Shede Hageman
Hageman fits the mold of a Steelers defensive lineman, and with an overhaul up front expected and Hageman’s ability to play multiple techniques — especially over the center, or shaded to either side — it makes this a nice fit. He’s a nasty dude with very good athleticism on a defense that must start transitioning to the next generation.
16. Baltimore Ravens* — Texas A&M WR Mike Evans
You watch: Evans will run a 40-yard dash in the 4.55-4.6 range at the scouting combine, and people will claim his stock is falling. Hogwash. That’s what he is, and anyone who has watched Evans on tape will know that his length and leaping ability are what will make him stand out. This is exactly what the Ravens need. Ask them if they missed Anquan Boldin, who is maybe a 4.65-40 guy on a good day. He and Evans just know how to get open, which is all that matters.
17. Dallas Cowboys* — Pitt DT Aaron Donald
This is almost a perfect fit. The Cowboys need someone who can penetrate into the backfield and help out whomever will be left after the team repairs its awful salary-cap situation. That likely includes waving goodbye to Anthony Spencer and Jason Hatcher, who will be too pricy to keep, so adding Donald — a Senior Bowl star whom Jerry Jones witnessed dominating in person — to Rod Marinelli’s scheme would be a terrific stroke.
18. New York Jets — North Carolina TE Eric Ebron
Assuming the Jets can find a receiver (or two) in free agency, which they appear bent on doing, they can move to another offensive need — tight end. The explosive and confident Ebron is said to have added weight, and we’ll have to find out at the combine if that’s a good thing or not. This much we know: He can split safeties with his speed and be a missing link that Geno Smith will have to be happy with.
19. Miami Dolphins — Virginia OT Morgan Moses
This will be a good first test for new GM Dennis Hickey. There might not be an ideal fit at this point, based on the team’s needs. But they should not be afraid to go with the player they are most comfortable with, and the one who can contribute right away. Moses could take over immediately for Jonathan Martin at left tackle, and scouts seem to be warming up to Moses after a strong week of work at the Senior Bowl.
20. Arizona Cardinals — Michigan State CB Darqueze Dennard
My gut feeling now is that they’ll be able to bolster their left tackle need in free agency (Branden Albert would have to be a favorite) now that they have freed up salary-cap space with the Larry Fitzgerald restructuring. Next on the list of concerns? Bolstering a secondary that is loaded with talent but also questions, such as the contract status of Patrick Peterson and the ACL injury to Tyrann Mathieu. This is a big week upcoming for Dennard, whose lack of top-end speed could cause him to fall.
21. Green Bay Packers — Missouri DE Kony Ealy
Admittedly, this pick is a bit of a dart throw for me, as word of some philosophical shifts has leaked out in regard to what he Packers want defensively going forward. Dom Capers always has been a strict 3-4 proponent, but the Packers want a little more flexibility and versatility up front to allow them to switch more seamlessly between their base and nickel packages. Adding a versatile performer such as Ealy, who could play down or up, depending on the scheme, can help them do that. It’s a tough projection here right now without having a full picture of their direction.
22. Philadelphia Eagles — Notre Dame DT-DE Stephon Tuitt
I know the locals are screaming for a safety, and the highly touted Ha Ha Clinton-Dix remains on the board here. But my gut says they’ll land one safety starter via free agency and wait a little in the draft to add another one. Instead, we’ll go back to Chip Kelly’s often-quoted “bigger people beat up little people” quote from almost a year ago and project Tuitt here. Why? He’s long, strong, able to anchor against the run and also generate a solid pass rush inside. This is a good fit.
23. Kansas City Chiefs — USC WR Marqise Lee
If the Chiefs are going to let Albert walk, as reports suggest, they’ll need a left tackle. Eric Fisher is not that guy (yet?) based on his rookie performance, so it could be a quick-fix type of situation there until they get a better read on what Fisher will be, keeping him at right tackle another year it would appear. Even with that need, plus Andy Reid’s love for drafting linemen, we project Lee, a good run-after-the-catch receiver who fits the West Coast mold and need.
24. Cincinnati Bengals — Notre Dame NT Louis Nix III
The Bengals are in a position to draft the top player on their board, and taking Nix could allow them to cut Domata Peko, who was underwhelming last season, if they feel his salary is too unwieldy or keep them both and reinforce a position that could use more depth. Nix is a little quicker than he is given credit for, and he should bounce back up with some solid postseason workouts.
25. San Diego Chargers — Clemson CB Bashaud Breeland
This is a bit of a projection, and there are a few corners (Florida’s Marcus Roberson is another) who might surprise people with how high they end up going. But Breeland fits the mold of the big corner that NFL teams are in love with these days, and in a division with Demaryius Thomas, Dwayne Bowe and other tall, physical receivers, the Chargers need someone to combat that.
26. Cleveland Browns (from Indianapolis Colts) — Florida State WR Kelvin Benjamin
The Browns must add playmakers out wide, and while I might be more inclined to take a more well-rounded wideout such as LSU’s Odell Beckham or Jarvis Landry, the Browns might be fascinated with having a Chicago Bears-like duo of Josh Gordon and Benjamin, which would cause all kinds of matchup problems for many teams. It would be fascinating, for sure.
27. New Orleans Saints — Alabama LB C.J. Mosley
This would be a stunning bounty haul this late. Mosley might be one of the top 10 pure players in this draft class. And every few years, a situation like this unfolds where a combination of need and position push a talented player such as this down too far. The Saints would jump at the chance to draft an impact player who would be a natural replacement for Jonathan Vilma and an upgrade over David Hawthorne, who struggles in coverage.
28. Carolina Panthers — Alabama OT Cyrus Kouandjio
I must admit, I still have a hard time seeing Kouandjio as a dominant tackle in the NFL. I believe he’s still raw and might not ever get it. But there are enough flashes there, plus an NFL-caliber body, to entice an NFL team. Kouandjio has a little Michael Oher in him, and Oher played his best in his first two years of starting under then Ravens OL coach John Matsko … who is now the Panthers’ OL coach. The Panthers’ depth up front is very thin.
29. New England Patriots — Texas Tech TE Jace Amaro
I agree with many others who have made this projection, thinking it just makes too much sense. The question now becomes, what happens when Amaro tests through the roof? Does he get drafted higher than this? Don’t worry — Bill Belichick likely would trade down in that situation, which he certainly could do even if Amaro is on the board. There will be a few teams looking to move up for one of the second wave of quarterbacks still on the board.
30. San Francisco 49ers — Oregon State WR Brandin Cooks
Perhaps my radar is a bit off on this one, but Cooks is the kind of explosive player who can catch a short pass and do some damage or threaten a defense enough with his speed deep to help open up the power run game. He reminds me of the wideout equivalent of LaMichael James and would fit this offense beautifully, with Cooks displaying enough toughness to play for a Jim Harbaugh-coached team.
31. Denver Broncos — Ohio State LB Ryan Shazier
I thought long and hard about one of the fast-rising cornerbacks, but couldn’t quite put my finger on one of them. Instead, we’ll project them drafting a fast-flow inside linebacker who can step in immediately, upgrade over Paris Lenon and be protected by some quality defensive tackles. Shazier would add a needed boost of speed.
32. Seattle Seahawks — Tennessee OT Ja’Wuan James
What to get for the team that has most everything? James is the kind of surprise pick for which the Seahawks have made a name, and though he didn’t get to have the kind of Senior Bowl week many expected (an injured knee shut him down early), James is the type of athletic blocker the Seahawks could use at right tackle. Admittedly, there are some wideouts who also make sense here.
* order of picks determined by coin flip
And now, the first eight picks of the second round:
33. Houston Texans — Auburn OLB-DE Dee Ford
Is he an outside linebacker in a 3-4? We’ll see, but his speed really could help balance out the attention paid to J.J. Watt.
34. Washington Redskins — Alabama S Ha'Sean "Ha Ha" Clinton-Dix
Perhaps a bit lower than some expected, and Clinton-Dix would be a decent consolation prize for the team not picking until this late.
35. Cleveland Browns — Ohio State RB Carlos Hyde
The most-mocked second-round pick ever? Doesn’t mean it can’t happen for a team that needs offensive firepower and positive press badly.
36. Oakland Raiders — Fresno State QB Derek Carr
I believe either the Jaguars or Raiders could draft Carr late in Round 1 or early in Round 2, but they might have to trade up to do so.
37. Atlanta Falcons — Stanford OG David Yankey
Smart, tough masher who can help rebuild up front after they address defense in Round 1.
38. Tampa Bay Buccaneers — Washington TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins
Big red-zone target who could develop into a Martellus Bennett-like player if he improves his effort. Lovie Smith and Jeff Tedford could help coax it out of him.
39. Jacksonville Jaguars — Alabama QB A.J. McCarron
I believe Carr would be their first preference, but they likely will have to move ahead of the Raiders to get him.
40. Minnesota Vikings — Florida DT Dominique Easley
Geno Atkins clone who could be paired with his college teammate, Sharrif Floyd, in a rebuilt defensive front under Mike Zimmer (assuming Easley’s torn ACL checks out).
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