The 2014 NFL Draft is approaching a record number of underclassmen, and the influx of young talent has strengthened a class that needed some top-end talent.
Just look at the quarterback position. Without Teddy Bridgewater, Johnny Manziel and Blake Bortles declaring that they would enter the 2014 NFL Draft, the top 10 would look a whole lot different. As it stands, those three quarterbacks will be the prospects who dictate the top 10. Which teams will take a chance at quarterback, and which teams will sit back and watch?
Here's our latest guess at the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft.
1. Houston Texans - Teddy Bridgewater, Quarterback, Louisville: At this point, it's tough to imagine the Houston Texans doing anything but taking the best quarterback available with the first pick. UCF's Blake Bortles and Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel are generating plenty of buzz right now after strong bowl performances, but Bridgewater is still the leading candidate to be the first quarterback off the board.
Just about the only thing missing from Bridgewater's game is the ability to consistently hit on vertical throws. Some criticize his size, and while he certainly has room to bulk up, his ability to operate in a muddled pocket and deliver intermediate throws with anticipation and timing should be what teams are focusing on. A few pounds shouldn't be enough to keep Bridgewater from being the No. 1 overall pick. Will the Texans trade the pick or talk themselves into a different quarterback by May? That's guesswork at this point, but Houston would be doing itself a major disservice by passing on Bridgewater.
2. St. Louis Rams (via Washington Redskins) - Jadeveon Clowney, Defensive End, South Carolina: The St. Louis Rams are in a curious spot. They didn't play themselves into this pick, so they don't have too many glaring needs that fit the positional value of this pick. Quarterback is a sore spot for St. Louis, but the Rams haven't yet given any indication that Sam Bradford's time is up. Until they do, this pick is complicated.
St. Louis shelled out a lot of money for Jake Long last offseason, but he went down with an injury at the end of the year. Joe Barksdale also played well at times in 2013. Is offensive tackle really a big enough need to justify passing up on a once-in-a-generation pass rusher? Robert Quinn and Chris Long are both outstanding ends for St. Louis, and the interior of the defensive line is in good shape. But Jadeveon Clowney is so versatile that it's tough for any team to argue it doesn't "need" him. This is a best-player-available selection.
3. Jacksonville Jaguars - Khalil Mack, Linebacker/Defensive End, Buffalo: The top two players on the Jaguars' wish list are off the board. Quarterback and pass rusher are their two biggest needs, and with the No. 3 pick it's possible they will have to settle for the second-best at one of those positions. Will general manager David Caldwell feel comfortable enough with any of the quarterbacks available to pull the trigger at No. 3? My early guess is that he will not. Unless Bridgewater falls to this pick or Jacksonville is able to move up to get him, the Jaguars may end up waiting to address the need at quarterback.
Instead, they get our highest-rated edge rusher besides Clowney. Buffalo's Khalil Mack was dominant as a senior, and a strong showing at the Senior Bowl could push him toward the top five. He would fit perfectly on Jacksonville's defense as an LEO.
4. Cleveland Browns - Johnny Manziel, Quarterback, Texas A&M: Pressure is building in the Cleveland Browns front office. After firing Rob Chudzinski, the Browns now have to find both a head coach and a new quarterback. Without a coaching staff in place, it's tough to know which type of quarterback Cleveland will be looking for come May. It's still early, but Manziel looks like the No. 2 quarterback in this class. He's improved as a pocket passer and has proved he can push the ball vertically. He's also a ridiculous playmaker because of his ability to evade pass rushers and anticipate plays.
He'll be the most polarizing prospect between now and May, but someone is going to take a chance on Manziel in the top 10. If not, Johnny Football will be about as happy as he was on the sideline during the first half of the Chick-fil-A Bowl.
5. Oakland Raiders - Jake Matthews, Offensive Tackle, Texas A&M: The Raiders struggled to pass protect and run block in 2013. Jared Veldheer is a quality tackle, but he spent most of the season injured, and Oakland's lack of depth was exposed. Jake Matthews is the best player left on the board and has experience at both tackle spots. He would come in and shore up the Raiders' offensive line from day one.
6. Atlanta Falcons - Kony Ealy, Defensive End, Missouri: Kony Ealy has been slowly climbing in these mock drafts since the beginning of the season. This may seem high for the Missouri defensive end, and admittedly it's likely his ceiling, but consider what Ealy is likely to do at the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine. He's 6'5 and 275 pounds, but don't be surprised if he shows off his burst and short-area quickness in Indianapolis. He was productive down the stretch and would be an ideal fit in Atlanta's 4-3. In a class light on pure 4-3 defensive ends, Ealy could rise.
7. Tampa Bay Buccaneers - Vic Beasley, Defensive End, Clemson: Vic Beasley is still undecided about his NFL future. There are legitimate concerns over whether or not he can add enough weight to be an effective edge rusher in a 4-3 scheme, but after he shows out at the combine, he's likely to rise into the top half of the first round. Tampa Bay may be desperate enough for defensive end help to take a shot on developing Beasley into a star.
8. Minnesota Vikings - Blake Bortles, Quarterback, Central Florida: The Minnesota Vikings are in the midst of another rebuild of sorts. A new coach will be in place and a new quarterback is likely on the way as well. After the disaster the Vikings endured at the position in 2013, they won't hesitate to take a chance with the No. 8 pick. Blake Bortles played well to close out the season and declared for the NFL Draft on a high note. He has the ideal build for an NFL quarterback and can make plays with his feet. He has the arm to make plenty of throws but has some issues with anticipation and mechanics that could hold him back. While he may not grade out as a top 10 player, Bortles has a shot to win someone over.
9. Buffalo Bills - Greg Robinson, Offensive Tackle, Auburn: Left tackle Cordy Glenn has been even better than the Bills could have hoped early in his career, but right tackle has been a sore spot for Buffalo. Auburn offensive tackle Greg Robinson has decided to enter the draft, and there might not be a better run blocker available. Considering Buffalo struggled mightily in that area, Robinson is a natural fit. Just take a look at what he did to Missouri in the SEC Championship Game:
10. Detroit Lions - Sammy Watkins, Wide Receiver, Clemson: Sammy Watkins is the clear-cut top wide receiver in this class. The Lions don't shy away from taking the best available player, and given the lack of talent across from Calvin Johnson, Watkins would be tempting for them at this spot. Matthew Stafford wouldn't have many excuses with both Johnson and Watkins to throw to.
11. Tennessee Titans - Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix, Safety, Alabama: The Titans' defense is still a bit of a work in progress. A safety like Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix would fill one of Tennessee's biggest needs and add a playmaker to an already aggressive group.
12. New York Giants - C.J. Mosley, Linebacker, Alabama: C.J. Mosley didn't look like an elite prospect at times this season, but he's still the top non-edge-rushing linebacker in this class. The Giants have needs at just about every linebacker spot, and Mosley makes a lot of sense for the 4-3 defense given his ability to play multiple positions.
13. St. Louis Rams - Xavier Su'a-Filo, Guard, UCLA: Much has been made about the Rams' offensive line. While many are dead set on offensive tackle help for St. Louis, it's the interior of the offensive line that may need work after free agency hits. Depending on who the Rams let walk, the front office may have to completely revamp the interior of the offensive line. UCLA guard Xavier Su'a-Filo has the type of movement skills to climb boards throughout the pre-draft process. His versatility will be welcome in St. Louis, where injuries seem to be a given on the offensive line.
14. Chicago Bears - Ra'Shede Hageman, Defensive Tackle, Minnesota: Ra'Shede Hageman has the talent to go in the top 10 come May. At this point, it was tough to find a spot for him given the lack of need at defensive tackle. Hageman makes a ton of sense for the Bears, though. Injuries played a role in the decline of Chicago's run defense this season, but a lack of depth was exposed. Hageman would help fix that.
15. Pittsburgh Steelers - Taylor Lewan, Offensive Tackle, Michigan: Even with the draft capital the Steelers have spent on the offensive tackle position in recent years, it's still a huge weakness. After Matthews and Robinson, it will be interesting to see which offensive tackle emerges as the No. 3 player off the board. Taylor Lewan has the mean streak and physicality to fit in with Pittsburgh.
16 Baltimore Ravens - Mike Evans, Wide Receiver, Texas A&M: The Baltimore Ravens sorely missed Anquan Boldin this season. Torrey Smith has developed into a legitimate No. 1 wide receiver and a dangerous deep threat. However, with Joe Flacco's tendency to throw a lot of 50-50 passes, a physical wide receiver who can win at the catch point is needed. Mike Evans fits the bill. He may not be a burner, but he's tough to beat in one-on-one battles and could open things up for Smith on the outside.
17. Dallas Cowboys - Stephon Tuitt, Defensive end/tackle, Notre Dame: Stephon Tuitt was far from dominant for Notre Dame this season, but his length is going to be tough for a team like the Cowboys to pass up. The defensive line is a big issue for the Cowboys, and having a player like Tuitt who can play multiple positions would be a big bonus for them.
18. New York Jets - Eric Ebron, Tight End, North Carolina: The debate over whether to take Jace Amaro or Eric Ebron will be an interesting one this draft season. Amaro may be the more polished, all-around tight end, but Ebron has unique physical traits for the position. The Jets need to inject some life into their passing attack, and Ebron could do just that. He would have the ability to line up as a slot receiver and help Geno Smith make a jump forward in year two.
19. Miami Dolphins - Cyrus Kouandjio, Offensive Tackle, Alabama: The Miami Dolphins have ignored their hole at offensive tackle long enough. If Ryan Tannehill is going to develop into the quarterback the Dolphins hope he will be, Miami has to give him better protection. Cyrus Kouandjio has dropped off a bit, but his upside will warrant a top-20 pick, especially considering the Dolphins' need at the position.
20. Arizona Cardinals - Derek Carr, Quarterback, Fresno State: Derek Carr is garnering the attention he is because he has the best arm talent in the draft. His deep ball is enough to tempt any team, but his work in a crowded pocket should scare a few teams away. Thinking about a talent like Carr in Bruce Arians' offense is an exciting image, though. Larry Fitzgerald only has so many of these catches left in him, so the Cardinals need to find a quarterback to get him the ball.
21. Green Bay Packers - Ryan Shazier, Linebacker, Ohio State: A.J. Hawk isn't a bust by any means; he's just been an ordinary player over the last few years, and Green Bay's run defense has struggled because of it. Some might not think Ryan Shazier can play inside in a 3-4, but if he puts on a bit of weight, his speed will be a weapon for a defense that could use all the speed it can get at inside linebacker.
22. Philadelphia Eagles - Anthony Barr, Linebacker, UCLA: Anthony Barr is not quite as impressive as his stats indicated. Despite his first step and length, he still lacks some of the natural movement skills required to be a dominant player on the edge. He struggles to make tackles in space and lacks secondary pass rush moves. If anyone will appreciate Barr's speed and fit for the 3-4 defense, however, it could be Chip Kelly. He could use Barr similarly to how he used Dion Jordan at Oregon.
23. Kansas City Chiefs - Marqise Lee, Wide Receiver, USC: The Chiefs could use more speed on the outside. Dwayne Bowe is a physical wide receiver who can stretch the defense at times, but Marqise Lee would provide the ability to make plays after the catch and really test defenses over the top. Some have forgotten about Lee due to his injury-riddled junior season at USC, but his talent is still there.
24. Cincinnati Bengals - Justin Gilbert, Cornerback, Oklahoma State: It's about time for the first cornerback to come off the board. Justin Gilbert improved a ton during his senior season. He's best when asked to press receivers at the line of scrimmage, given his size and ability to turn and run with receivers. Cornerback is an area where Cincinnati can continue to get deeper this offseason.
25. San Diego Chargers - Jason Verrett, Cornerback, TCU: The Chargers don't have an issue with smaller cornerbacks, so they wouldn't hesitate to take the best cornerback in the draft off the board here. While Verrett struggles a bit close to the line of scrimmage, he has outstanding ball skills and tremendous short-area quickness to close on the football. The Chargers' secondary got beat up at times this season, so Verrett would be a starter from day one.
26. Cleveland Browns (via Indianapolis Colts) - Jordan Matthews, Wide Receiver, Vanderbilt: The Browns have clearly become disenchanted with wide receiver Greg Little, so it's possible the team will look to add a wide receiver early in the draft. Jordan Matthews is the best wideout available at this point, and after the Browns took Manziel off the board earlier, adding big wide receivers around him should be a priority. Johnny Football would be in a position to succeed early with Josh Gordon and Matthews to throw to.
27. New Orleans Saints - Brandin Cooks, Wide Receiver, Oregon State: Few players in college football were as productive as Oregon State wide receiver Brandin Cooks. The Saints' offense tends to live and die by Jimmy Graham, as we saw in the playoff loss to the Seahawks. Marques Colston isn't getting any younger, so keeping the wide receiver depth chart stocked with young talent should be a priority in New Orleans.
28. Carolina Panthers - Allen Robinson, Wide Receiver, Penn State: The run on wide receivers is in full swing. This is a sweet spot for value at the position, and while the Panthers missed out on some of the top wide receivers, they don't have much of a choice but to take the next guy on the board. Cam Newton needs more weapons around him, and Steve Smith won't be around forever.
29. New England Patriots - Jace Amaro, Tight End, Texas Tech: The Patriots luck out in this version of the draft. Arguably the best tight end of the class is still available at pick No. 29, and with the struggles New England has had at the position over the last 12 months, adding some depth there will be explored this offseason. They just can't afford to have Amaro pull anything like this again.
30. San Francisco 49ers - Darqueze Dennard, Cornerback, Michigan State: Eric Reid had a great rookie season with the 49ers, but the secondary is still a sore spot for San Francisco, mostly due to the play at cornerback. Darqueze Dennard is aggressive and physical, two things the Niners lack at corner. He's still refining his game, but he would be a nice addition to the back end of San Francisco's defense.
31. Denver Broncos - Lamarcus Joyner, Cornerback, Florida State: The Broncos are thin in the secondary, and that's shown late in the season. Lamarcus Joyner is a versatile option who could make an early impact for the Broncos. Given his size, he may make sense as a nickel corner, but he's physical enough to hold up on the edge if needed. He's a riser to look out for this spring.
32. Seattle Seahawks - Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Tight End, Washington: Austin Seferian-Jenkins was once considered the top tight end in this draft class, but his play as a junior did not live up to the hype. He's still an intriguing prospect because of his size and ability to high-point the football, though. Russell Wilson could use a weapon at tight end, so Seferian-Jenkins makes sense. He wouldn't have to move far, either.