As the 2014 NFL Draft approaches with free agency already underway, 32 front offices are shuffling their boards around as they scramble to fill their most pressing needs.
Franchises differ in their approach to team building. Some teams elect to fill voids in free agency—choosing to spend lavishly on outside options—while others save their money and look to retain their own talent.
But no matter which strategy they employ, the best way to fill needs is via the draft. And this year’s class is possibly the deepest in the last decade.
This time of year the rumor mill is running at full steam, with pro days, private workouts and interviews. Draft evaluations are being finalized, so it’s time for us to get this mock draft underway and predict how it’ll all shake out.
1.) Houston Texans: Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville
The talk of the offseason might be Blake Bortles and Johnny Manziel, but Bridgewater is clearly the best quarterback prospect of them all. He doesn’t possess the rare-arm strength like Derek Carr or speed of Manziel, but his accuracy, decision-making, pocket presence, maturity and eye movement are superior to that of anyone in this class.
This decision should come down to Bridgewater and Jadeveon Clowney for the Texans, and if they would rather have a franchise quarterback or a fearsome defense. The ruling should be easy for new coach Bill O’Brien—they must take the franchise quarterback and build their offense around him.
2.) St. Louis Rams: Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson
The Rams will face a difficult decision when Roger Goodell puts them on the clock. In all likelihood, they will be presented with the opportunity to draft either Jadeveon Clowney, Sammy Watkins or potentially trade down with a team like the Atlanta Falcons.
Clowney will be very tempting especially with the possibility to pair him with Robert Quinn and Michael Brockers, but the best option is to take Watkins. After committing to Sam Bradford for another season and trading up to take Tavon Austin with the eighth overall pick last year, the Rams are still in need of a great wide receiver. Watkins is near the Julio Jones-level of prospect, the ability to start right away and post 50-plus receptions. With a healthy offensive line, Austin, Jared Cook and Watkins, Bradford is out of excuses, and must now quickly step up and show he has the skill set to be a reliable starting quarterback.
3.) Jacksonville Jaguars: Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina
Jacksonville would love to have Bridgewater fall right into their laps, but with the top quarterback off the board they take a once-in-a-decade defensive prospect in Clowney. Even after spending millions on the defensive line this offseason, Clowney is too good of a talent to pass up.
Bradley could easily use a rotation involving Chris Clemons, Jason Babin, Red Bryant and Andre Branch. Clowney is a great athlete but needs to develop some pass-rush moves and is better off beginning his rookie season as a pass rusher. It would keep everyone on the defensive line fresh, and provide the Jaguars with one of the best defensive lines in football.
4.) Cleveland Browns: Khalil Mack, OLB, Buffalo
Cleveland has a lot of options in May, and one of the most popular ideas is trading up with the Rams to land Bridgewater or hope Watkins falls to them. But with both options off the table, the Browns should sit back and let Mack fall to them.
Browns head coach Mike Pettine spent time at Mack’s pro day on March 4, despite the fact that the team doesn’t have a real need for an edge rusher. But Mack’s versatility to play almost any linebacker position can make him a fit for the Browns and a fit for Pettine’s defense. He’d be the best player available on the board and wouldmake this Browns’ defense even better.
5.) Oakland Raiders: Blake Bortles, QB, Central Florida
The Raiders’ offseason got off to a turbulent start by overpaying Rodger Saffold, then ownership voided the deal over medical concerns. But things have started to turn for the better with quality signings on both sides of the ball. Now, the team needs to find its quarterback.
Bortles is not ready to start as a rookie, but that’s just fine for a Raiders’ franchise that is still building the offensive line and defensive unit. As Reggie McKenzie continues to build this team, Dennis Allen can help groom Bortles until he is ready to start. It’d be a smart move for a young team that needs a new face of the franchise.
6.) Atlanta Falcons: Greg Robinson, OT, Auburn
After focusing their efforts on improving their defense in free agency, the Falcons can now turn their attention to the other side of the ball in May. Atlanta already has great skill position players in Julio Jones and Roddy White. They also have their franchise quarterback in Matt Ryan. But this team needs to upgrade the offensive line to get the running game going and protect its QB.
Robinson is not only the best offensive tackle prospect this year, he is also arguably better than 2013 high-draft-picks Eric Fisher and Luke Joeckel. Robinson dominates as a run blocker but continued to show improvement throughout the season in pass protection. Not only do the Falcons get great value here, they fill a major need as well.
7.) Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Eric Ebron, TE, North Carolina
This would be a worst-case situation for Tampa Bay. With Watkins and the top two defensive players off the board. Lovie Smith would love to go defensive but instead brings in another weapon for his new starting quarterback.
Ebron needs to develop his blocking skills and will need to hold on to the ball more consistently, but he is incredibly similar to Vernon Davis coming out of Maryland. Having a tight end that isn’t only a nightmare match up for secondaries, but also can help as a blocker. That kind of versatility is hard to find at the position and is worth taking with the seventh pick.
8.) Minnesota Vikings: Derek Carr, QB, Fresno State
Minnesota has had one of the best offseason’s so far. First, they hit a home run by hiring Mike Zimmer as their new head coach. Then, they brought in talent for their defense with Linval Joseph and Captain Munnerlyn. Zimmer is a defensive-minded coach and is starting to build his masterpiece, but offensive coordinator Norv Turner needs a quarterback.
When Turner was still the Browns’ offensive coordinator, the big rumor was that Derek Carr was destined to be in Turner’s system. The same idea applies in Minnesota. Turner likes strong-armed quarterbacks and Carr fits the perfect mold. He would also walk into a situation with an outstanding running game and reliable wide receivers. It’s a pick that makes too much sense, and would push the Vikings back into surprise contenders for the NFC North crown.
9.) Buffalo Bills: Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M
It was a surprise for many when the Bills reached for EJ Manuel with the 16th overall pick last season, and Manuel was largely a disappointment as a rookie. But what killed Manuel were the hits he took that kept adding up as he continued to get hurt, missing six games last season. Manuel needs a top offensive tackle to help protect him and keep him healthy.
Matthews started the year as the top offensive tackle in this class but has slipped a bit down towards the bottom of the top 10. Even with that slide we are still talking about a top-tier tackle that excels in pass protection and technique. Having Matthews and Cordy Glenn on each side would be an excellent foundation for the Bills offense.
10.) Detroit Lions: Justin Gilbert, Cornerback, Oklahoma State
The Lions entered the new league year with big needs in the secondary and at wide receiver. They went out and signed Golden Tate to give them a perfect complement to Calvin Johnson and make their offense even more dynamic. So the focus turns to the secondary where they could use help at cornerback and safety.
In this situation, Detroit goes with upside and few defensive players offer the upside that Gilbert brings to the table. Gilbert was phenomenal last season for Oklahoma State but relied largely off athleticism. But he still needs to improve his technique, discipline and knowledge of the game. If he can accept coaching and learn how to become a smart cornerback, Gilbert could be one of the top corners in the league.
11.) Tennessee Titans: Ha’Sean Clinton-Dix, FS, Alabama
The Titans badly need a safety that can sit back in coverage but also has the willingness to come up and stop the run. Ray Horton has been putting the pieces together, and Clinton-Dix is the missing piece for his defense. Clinton-Dix’s all-around ability is what the Titans’ defense has been missing and as the need for a top safety grows across the league, this is the right move for Tennessee.
12.) New York Giants: Taylor Lewan, OT, Michigan
After addressing the offensive line in the first round last year, New York continued to focus their efforts on protect Eli Manning this year. The team signed Geoff Schwartz who can play right tackle but is perfectly suited to play either guard spot. Now they bring in another piece to the offensive line with Lewan, who saw his stock plummet during the year but has climbed back up into the top 20 conversation.
13.) St. Louis Rams: Darqueze Dennard, CB, Michigan State
While releasing Cortland Finnegan was a smart move, the Rams are still in need of a physical cornerback to pair with Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson. Dennard was known for his physicality in college and paired with Jenkins and Johnson, would give St. Louis a bright future at cornerback.
14.) Chicago Bears: Aaron Donald, DT, Pittsburgh
Phil Emery has done an exceptional job this season improving the defensive line, but more specifically at defensive end. But with Henry Melton likely departing, the Bears need a dominant defensive tackle and that’s Donald. While size might be a concern for some, he has all the tools to be a Pro Bowl-caliber player.
15.) Pittsburgh Steelers: Mike Evans, WR, Texas A&M
Pittsburgh has relied upon speed from their wide receivers with Antonio Brown, Mike Wallace and Emmanuel Sanders. Brown is the only one left, but this offense needs a physical wide receiver that can fight for the football and dominate inside the red zone. That is exactly what Evans brings to the table and why the Steelers won’t hesitate to take him at 15.
16.) Dallas Cowboys: Timmy Jernigan, DT, Florida State
The Cowboys’ defensive line has taken a big hit during the offseason with DeMarcus Ware being cut and Jason Hatcher leaving for big money. But, fortunately Timmy Jernigan should be available. Jernigan could start right away for Dallas, being a disruptive presence on the inside just like he was for the Seminoles in the BCS National Championship game.
17.) Baltimore Ravens: Zack Martin, OG, Notre Dame
The Ravens could have gone wide receiver or tight end here. But with Ebron off the board, and Steve Smith, Jacoby Jones and Torrey Smith as its WR corps, maybe the pick is better used elsewhere. So Baltimore should opt to improve the offensive line with Zack Martin, who can play tackle or guard, giving the Ravens more flexibility to move around their options and protect Joe Flacco.
18.) New York Jets: Brandin Cooks, WR, Oregon State
Even after signing Eric Decker, the Jets need as many weapons as possible for Geno Smith. Cooks had a breakout year in 2013 and can dominate in the slot, impressing with his speed and route running. Decker is a very good number two wide receiver, but adding a Randall Cobb-type player to their offense is the perfect move in the first round.
19.) Miami Dolphins: C.J. Mosley, MLB, Alabama
While there has been a lot of talk about how the Dolphins have to improve their offensive line, they need help at linebacker as well. Miami also brought in a great left tackle with Branden Albert, and they can’t pass up on stealing Mosley right here. Mosley plugs in perfectly to this defense and is a top-10 talent in this class.
20.) Arizona Cardinals: Anthony Barr, OLB, UCLA
Barr is another example of a player whose stock was insanely high to start the season, but after a full season of games and more evaluations he has slipped down the board. Barr has great straight-line speed, but he is a work in progress. Putting him in Arizona where he can work with a guy like John Abraham and capitalize on the potential that convinced some people he was a top-five pick makes complete sense.
21.) Green Bay Packers: Jimmie Ward, S, Northern Illinois
Green Bay is set on offense Aaron Rodgers enters the year with the best offensive line he has had in several years and still has enough options at wide receiver. So the attention is turned to the defense where the Packers need a lot of help and really can take the best talent available. Green Bay has spent free agency improving the defensive line and now need a top safety. Ward is the perfect coverage safety with great ball-hawk skills and an ideal fit for what Dom Capers’ defense has been missing.
22.) Philadelphia Eagles: Calvin Pryor, S, Louisville
After patiently waiting out the free agent market and not dumping out money for a safety, Chip Kelly can get his man in the first round. There is a lot to like about Pryor. He delivers bone-crushing hits, can blow up the running game and has shown improving coverage skills. He would join a big, fast Eagles’ defense and can really give them that hard-nosed, fearsome player in the secondary they desperately need.
23.) Kansas City Chiefs: Odell Beckham, WR, LSU
There is no questioning the Chiefs defense. We saw what they could do last season when everyone was healthy. Now the offense remains the big aspect that needs to be addressed, but the best option is grabbing another wide receiver for Alex Smith. Beckham has been one of the fastest risers in the offseason, going from a potential late-second round pick to a projected top-20 selection. And his stock should only improve from here.
24.) Cincinnati Bengals: Kony Ealy, DE, Missouri
Cincinnati is in a position where they can explore the draft board when they are on the clock and grab a player who is a great value pick. The Bengals can fill a need and get great value with the selection of Ealy. He’s someone who could play significant snaps but has the luxury of not having to start right away. Cincinnati let Michael Johnson walk in free agency, so they should grab another pass rusher for their defense.
25.) San Diego Chargers: Jason Verrett, CB, TCU
San Diego had a breakout year in 2013, making it to the divisional round of the playoffs. But they could not advance any further and were forced to watch the Denver Broncos move on. But if they want to get back there again, they need to address a secondary that ranked 29th in the NFL last season versus the pass. Verrett is another player with questionable size but everything outside of height puts him ahead of any cornerback in this class, and an excellent pick for San Diego at 25.
26.) Cleveland Browns: Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M
The Browns patience pays off as Manziel could fall to them at 26, giving them a marquee player who can bring an exciting dimension to their offense and draw a lot of attention. Manziel would already have two great weapons in Josh Gordon and Jordan Cameron to help ease his way into the NFL, along with an outstanding defense to keep the score close and put the Browns in position to win games.
27.) New Orleans Saints: Dee Ford, OLB, Auburn
New Orleans used to be known entirely for their record-breaking offense but now we are starting to see a balancing act with the help of defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. After signing Jairus Byrd just a few days ago, the Saints are making a commitment to defense and that trend should continue in the draft. Just turn on Ford’s tape against Texas A&M and Florida State and you will see a dynamic pass rusher who would fit perfectly in Ryan’s 3-4 defense.
28.) Carolina Panthers: Marqise Lee, WR, USC
Carolina was already in need of a wide receiver before they cut Steve Smith and let Brandon LaFell and Ted Ginn walk in free agency. Now, it’s such a pressing need that the Panthers have no choice but to grab the best available wide receiver in the first round. Lee saw his stock drop after a disappointing 2013 season. But if he can stay healthy, he still has the potential to be a great No. 2 wide receiver.
29.) New England Patriots: Louis Nix III, NT, Notre Dame
The Patriots made headlines when they signed Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner, but had to be a little disappointed when Vince Wilfork asked for his release. New England was going to be in the hunt for a big defensive tackle anyway. Now, they can just make it their top priority and grab Nix, who actually compares to Wilfork quite well.
30.) San Francisco 49ers: Ra’Shede Hageman, DT, Minnesota
With a plethora of picks, the 49ers have the option to move up, move down or stay put and still walk away with a great draft. They have needs at cornerback and wide receiver, both deep positions in this class which allows them to wait. Hageman needs to be with a coach who can get the most out of him and keep him motivated. 49ers defensive line coach Jim Tomsula is perfect for him and would make the 49ers’ front-seven even better.
31.) Denver Broncos: Ryan Shazier, OLB, Ohio State
After focusing their efforts on improving the defensive line and secondary through free agency, the Broncos can go with a developmental linebacker with their first pick. Shazier is more of an athlete than a football player but being in an environment where he can learn from Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware and Nate Irving is a great situation for him to develop until he is ready to be a key contributor for the Super Bowl contenders.
32.) Seattle Seahawks: Jace Amaro, TE, Texas Tech
Seattle has a defense that is ready to win another championship. Now, they just need to start bringing in more weapons for Russell Wilson. Amaro fits perfectly as a tight end that can dominate in the slot, beating defensive backs with his size and linebackers with his speed. It would add a top weapon to an improving Seahawks’ offense and make the defending Super Bowl champions an even better team heading into the 2014 season.