As the NFL regular season has concluded and the playoffs begin to dwindle, the focus will turn to free agency and the 2014 NFL draft. With quite some time left until May’s draft, this edition of my mock draft will most importantly outline potential team needs. Even though the combine has yet to arrive, lets take a dive at how the first round may play out.
1) Houston Texans: Blake Bortles, QB, UCF
Teams fall in love with upside and Bortles is the type of prospect that can dramatically improve his draft stock at the NFL combine. Teddy Bridgewater seems to be a more pro-ready prospect, but Bill O’Brien might see Bortles as a potential top tier quarterback.
The Texans have a talented roster that was decimated by injuries and can turn things around quickly, much like the Kansas City Chiefs did this past season. It all comes down to finding solid play from the quarterback position and the 6’4, 230 pound Bortles may be their guy.
2) St. Louis Rams: Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson
This is easily one of the most unpredictable picks in the entire draft. My gut feeling is that the Rams stick with Sam Bradford as their quarterback of the future. Adding Watkins to the offense would open up even more space for last year’s first round pick Tavon Austin.
Watkins has easily separated himself from every wide receiver in this draft and is worthy of a top five selection. With the Rams needing a pure number one wide receiver with sure hands, Watkins is a great fit and talent to snag here.
3) Jacksonville Jaguars: Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville
I would be shocked if the Jaguars do not select a quarterback here. If Bridgewater slides to them, I would assume they jump at landing the Florida native. Bringing in a prospect highly regarded as Bridgewater would bring long sought out continuity to their offense and team as a whole.
4) Cleveland Browns: Jadeveon Clowney, OLB/DE, South Carolina
Based on talent alone, Clowney should not even fall this far. However, two of the three teams ahead of the Browns desperately need a quarterback and the Rams front seven is already one of the best in football. I’ve seen Cleveland pegged to take a quarterback (Johnny Manziel for example) on almost every mock draft, but they are not as desperate as other teams.
Before tearing his ACL, Brian Hoyer was doing an outstanding job as the starting quarterback. More importantly, Cleveland needs to rejuvenate the franchise by implementing as much talent as possible.
Clowney is a once in a decade type pass rusher and could cause a ton of problems playing opposite Barkevious Mingo or Paul Kruger. The Browns can draft a quarterback on day two to compete with Hoyer, as this class of quarterbacks is pretty deep.
5) Oakland Raiders: Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M
Manziel is the exact type of player the late Al Davis would have fallen in love with. Either way, he is a playmaker than can turn around the losing culture the Raiders have endured over the past decade. He would energize an extremely loyal fan base and be a starting point in one of many recent rebuilds the Raiders have attempted.
6) Atlanta Falcons: Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M
For whatever reason, the Falcons FO has recently spoke out about the need to draft an offensive linemen. Showing your hand before the draft is a bizarre (and idiotic) move.While there words do not make it definite they will take a linemen sixth overall, Matthews is a steal if he falls out of the top five.
Protecting Matt Ryan and getting the run game going would go a long way after an extremely disappointing season in Atlanta.
7) Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Eric Ebron, TE, UNC
This would be a big jump for Ebron, but he is the type of player that can make the combine his own personal draft parade. He has already proven to be a top flight receiving tight end in college. The potential as an in-line blocker is there as he has room to add to his 6’4 frame.
Tampa’s defense should look much better under Lovie Smith, who may be sold on quarterback Mike Glennon. If the Bucs want to move forward with Glennon at quarterback, bringing in a potential premier tight end would be a smart move.
8) Minnesota Vikings: Derek Carr, QB, Fresno State
With Bortles, Manziel, and Bridgewater all off the board, Minnesota would have preferred Watkins or Clowney to slide to them. Unfortunately, they are in an awkward spot with the 8th overall pick. Carr was impressive at Fresno State and may work his way into being a top ten pick, due to a combination of both position and need.
9) Buffalo Bills: Darqueze Dennard, CB, Michigan State
The Bills have been relatively soft at the cornerback position the past few seasons and have also had some bad luck with injuries. Dennard is not only impressive in locking down his man, but is impressive in stepping up against the run. He has the potential to be a complete corner.
If the Bills can bring back safety Jairus Byrd and draft Dennard, their secondary goes from a soft spot to potentially dangerous to throw against.
10) Detroit Lions: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, S, Alabama
The Lions have failed to add a corner they desperately need the past few years. Even worse, they will struggle to take advantage of the excellent free agent class of corners due to cap restrictions. Louis Delmas might be shown the door due to their cap situation and bringing in Clinton-Dix would solve more than one problem (lack of secondary talent and cheap options).
11) Tennessee Titans: Anthony Barr, OLB, UCLA
The former running back turned star outside linebacker is a classic boom or bust prospect. He produced immediately when switching to defense and is one of the better pass rushers in the draft. He has top flight speed and athleticism with a good frame to work with.
On the other hand, Barr is extremely raw. One of the biggest adjustments pass rushers must make in the NFL is the use of their hands. At time, Barr can get locked up by virtual anyone (tackles, tight ends, running backs) because he does not properly use his hands to shed blocks. If the Titans are committed to developing him, he could turn into a disaster for teams to handle off of the edge.
12) New York Giants: Taylor Lewan, OT, Michigan
Many will be shocked that I have Lewan over Auburn’s Greg Robinson here, but there is a distinct reason for that. The Giants are a pass heavy team under Eli Manning and Lewan is a better pass blocker than Robinson at the moment.
Manning faced heavy pressure this year while dropping back behind an offensive line lacking healthy and more importantly talent. Adding Lewan could be a key piece for the Giants road to competing in the NFC East next year.
13) St. Louis Rams: Ra’Shede Hagemen, DT, Minnesota
The Rams will need to beef up the line, specifically at guard. However, the Rams can end up with a pretty solid guard on day two while bolstering their defensive line with Hagemen. He fits in their 4-3 defense quite nicely and could potentially make a pretty good front seven into an elite front seven.
14) Chicago Bears: Khalil Mack, OLB, Buffalo
The Bears offense burst on the scene under new head coach Mark Trestman. On the other hand, the defense was inconsistent at best. Blowout losses like the one against Philadelphia make you question if they can contain top offensive teams.
Mack is a well rounded star from Buffalo and could immediately contribute on the edge and in coverage. If he develops into a pass rusher, the Bears would end up with one of the best players from this entire draft class.
15) Pittsburgh Steelers: Cyrus Kouandjio, OT, Alabama
The Steelers line struggled to protect Ben Roethlisberger this year and should find a dominant tackle to continue the youth movement on their offensive line. Kouandjio did not look dominant in the BCS championship thanks to AJ McCarron consistently failing to step up in the pocket.
He does a pretty solid job forcing pass rushers to the outside and is a grinder when run blocking. His size, strength and athleticism will also help him in the combine.
16) Baltimore Ravens: Greg Robinson, OT, Auburn
Robinson is the best run blocking tackle in the entire draft and the Ravens were putrid in opening lanes for running back Ray Rice this season. While his pass blocking may not be up to par yet, Robinson is a mammoth that can make a difference instantly for Baltimore’s rushing attack.
17) Dallas Cowboys: Jason Verrett, CB, TCU
Verrett is undersized standing at 5’10 with a 180 pound frame, but makes up for it with his tenacity. He is an extremely scrappy corner that can immediately step in and cover the slot target. Dallas’ secondary was an absolute mess this season and should look to add the best secondary player on their big board when they pick.
18) New York Jets: Jace Amaro, TE, Texas Tech
If the board falls this way, this selection for the Jets almost makes too much sense. Amaro is far from a true tight end, as he lined up in the slot for over 60% of his snaps this past season where he accumulated over 1,300 receiving yards. The Jets have not had a wide receiver reach 1,000 yards since 2007, an extremely scary statistic.
Selecting Amaro would not fill the Jets need for an in-line, capable blocking tight end. On the other hand, it adds a versatile aerial threat to an offense lacking any capable receiver with size. The sure handed Amaro would be an excellent target over the middle for Geno Smith and would be hard to pass up with the 18th pick.
19) Miami Dolphins: Zach Martin, OT/OG, Notre Dame
Martin may have to move inside due to his body type, but he plays with a nasty edge in the trenches. He has the ability to get up field with a second gear and buries defenders. Miami needs help on the line and Martin would most likely be an upgrade wherever they decide to play him.
20) Arizona Cardinals: Kony Ealy, DE/OLB, Missouri
Ealy offers a great combination of stopping the run and getting after the passer. He played along the defensive line in college but could transition to outside linebacker. His quick first step reminds me of former Missouri defensive linemen Sheldon Richardson, the front runner for the defensive rookie of the year award.
21) Green Bay Packers: Louis Nix III, DT, Notre Dame
The Packers would love to upgrade the safety position but would be wise to do so through free agency due to their late draft pick. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, the draft’s top safety prospect, will most likely be gone when they pick. I really like Louisville’s free safety Calvin Pyror, but Nix is much better value at this point.
Nix had a down year after dominating on Notre Dame’s run to the BCS championship the previous season. He may have rushed back from injury and has the potential to command consistent double teams in the NFL.
22) Philadelphia Eagles: Vic Beasley, OLB, Clemson
Brandon Graham has not panned out the way the Eagles had hoped. They could certainly use a pass rusher to play alongside Conor Barwin and Trent Cole. I had Beasley to the Jets at 18 originally, but feel Amaro could contribute more for them immediately.
Beasley would give Philadelphia an edge rusher, which in the long term could help the back end of a secondary which had its fair share of struggles this season.
23) Cincinnati Bengals: LaMarcus Joyner, CB/S, FSU
Joyner could move all over the field for the Bengals. He is only 5’8 but he can cover a lot of ground and continue to bolster an already solid Cincinnati secondary. He would most likely start out as a nickel corner for the Bengals, but could move to safety if necessary.
Small chance, but the Bengals could look to move up for a top quarterback. There roster is in win now mode, with there only glaring need possibly being a power runner (which they can add through free agency). Unlike most teams, they can sacrifice a few early picks to move up for one of the top four gun slingers.
24) Kansas City Chiefs: Brandin Cooks, WR, Oregon State
The Biletnikoff award winner had himself a terrific season hauling in 128 passes for over 1,700 yards. He is the perfect fit for the Chiefs offense as he finds the soft spots in zone coverage and is sure handed. Alex Smith could use a short-intermediate target with sure hands and home run ability that Cooks possesses. He is also a lethal in the return game.
25) San Diego Chargers: Justin Gilbert, CB, Oklahoma State
Gilbert is the most dangerous defender available in the draft with the ball in his hands. His technique at corner needs work, but his type of talent would be a good start for the Chargers rebuilding their cornerbacks group.
26) Cleveland Browns: Mike Evans, WR, Texas A&M
Many are probably surprised I have Evans this far down the board but he certainly will not be ready to take on a number one wide receiving role right away. Playing across Josh Gordon will help him garner one on one match ups, an area he dominated at college. If Brian Hoyer returns healthy, Cleveland’s aerial attack could easily end up a top 10 unit.
27) New Orleans Saints: CJ Mosley, ILB, Alabama
Mosley is a top 10 talent in this draft, but his position is not a top 10 need for most teams. He will probably go higher than 27th overall, but this is the way my board fell. He is an excellent player with very few weaknesses and the Saints would be fortunate to land him this far in the draft.
28) New England Patriots: Troy Niklas, TE, Notre Dame
With Aaron Hernandez being a lost cause (that is being generous) and Rob Gronkowski coming off another major surgery, New England needs help at tight end. Niklas is more athletic than Washington’s Austin-Seferian Jenkins and could become a classic Tom Brady target.
Nicknamed “Hercules”, the former defensive line high school recruit stands at 6’6 and weighs 270 pounds. While he is one of the better blocking tight ends in the draft, he has the type of talent to develop his receiving game with the Patriots.
29) San Francisco 49ers: Marqise Lee, WR, USC
The 49ers could let Anquan Boldin walk in free agency this offseason and will need to add a wide receiver to play alongside Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis. Lee would add a new dimension to the offense with his elusiveness and after the catch ability.
30) Carolina Panthers: Jordan Matthews, WR, Vanderbilt
The back end of the draft continues its run on wide receivers. Cam Newton has had little to work with outside of Steve Smith throughout his career. Matthews has caught over 200 passes the past two seasons and flew under the radar for most of his career due to playing for Vanderbilt. The 6’3 wide out is an NFL ready target who runs smooth routes and has excellent hands.
31) Denver Broncos: Stephen Tuitt, DE, Notre Dame
The Broncos time frame is quickly running out as Peyton Manning is not getting any younger (although still playing at an elite level). The defense has been pretty bad this season and should force the team to take the best defensive player left on the board.
Tuitt, much like teammate Louis Nix III, had a disappointing season for his standards. His slow start could be attributed to a sports hernia injury. Tuitt registered over 20 sacks while at Notre Dame and his 300 pound frame will impress many NFL teams.
32) Seattle Seahawks: Cyril Richardson, OG, Baylor
The 340 pound mammoth is the best guard in this draft, hands down. He was a vital piece for Baylor, who as a team averaged over 600 yards per game this season. The Seahawks offensive line was underwhelming this year. Marshawn Lynch is a workhorse running back that could see even more lanes running behind a player of Richardson’s caliber.
Follow Connor Rogers on twitter: @Real_CR3