Jadeveon Clowney figures to be the first choice in the NFL draft. (AP)
You know the offseason has truly begun with the arrival of the first mock drafts.
This year’s draft has some intriguing quarterback options in Johnny Manziel, Blake Bortles and Teddy Bridgewater, as well as some potential defensive game-changers in players like Jadeveon Clowney and some potential game-changing skill position players in Sammy Watkins and Mike Evans. It’s important to remember that this is just the first of what will be several mocks between now and the first weekend of May — we’re still in the infant stages of the team-building process for the 2014 season, and with the combine and free agency looming between now and the draft, the needs of each one of the 32 team will no doubt change between now and when Roger Goodell takes to the podium the night of May 8 and announces that the Texans are officially on the clock. So, with that in mind, here’s a pre-combine, pre-free agency look at how we see things shaking out:
1. Texans — Jadeveon Clowney, DL, South Carolina: My prevailing attitude toward mock drafts is ‘franchise quarterback above all,’ but Clowney is a transformative defensive presence. Teamed with J.J. Watt up front, he’ll provide an instant impact for the Houston defensive front. And given Bill O’Brien‘s offensive background, he’ll be able to take a quarterback in the second or third round and still turn him into a quality starter in rapid fashion.
2. Rams — Greg Robinson, OT, Auburn: Good, safe bet for St. Louis here — Robinson gives the Rams a chance to provide bookend tackles (Robinson and Jake Long) to protect Sam Bradford.
3. Jaguars — Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M: Johnny Football heads to Jacksonville, where his mere presence will breathe life into an occasionally mundane franchise,
4. Browns — Blake Bortles, QB, Central Florida: Even though folks at UCF don’t sound all that enthused about the possibility of Bortles being able to step in and become a franchise quarterback, the feeling is that he sits for a year or so behind Brian Hoyer before taking over the full-time gig.
5. Raiders — Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville: Oakland is in need of a quarterback, and Bridgewater’s skill set is a good fit for Dennis Allen‘s passing game. If Bridgewater isn’t available, look for them to go after another signal-caller at this spot, as the top three quarterbacks all come off the board in rapid fashion.
6. Falcons — Anthony Barr, OLB, UCLA: Atlanta needs an edge rusher, and Barr certainly fits the bill. (For what it’s worth, if there’s a team in the top 10 who might push all its chips to the middle of the table and go after Clowney, history tells us it’s going to be Thomas Dimitroff and the Falcons. If they end up trading down as a result, they could target a tight end later in the first to replace Tony Gonzalez.)
7. Buccaneers — Khalil Mack, OLB, Buffalo: Tampa goes one of two directions here: One, it follows a likely directive from new head coach Lovie Smith, who made his bones as a defensive coordinator and would love to build that side of the ball. Or two, the Bucs try and find another offensive option for young quarterback Mike Glennon to join Vincent Jackson. Pre-combine and free agency, the pick here is Mack, but much of that depends on how the Bucs approach the team-building process over the next three months.
8. Vikings — Derek Carr, QB, Fresno State: This feels too high for Carr, but Minnesota is setting the reset button across the board, and so it makes sense for them to go after a guy who has the potential to be a starting quarterback in Carr. A tall, strong-armed QB who could handle the schemes presented by new offensive coordinator Norv Turner, Carr makes the most sense if Minnesota sticks at No. 7.
9. Bills — Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M: Buffalo needs some help in a few areas — some more depth at linebacker, as well as a tight end. (Jace Amaro and Eric Ebron are probably a reach here.) But Matthews is a safe pick at this spot.
10. Lions — Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson: A complementary piece in the passing game to take some of the pressure off Calvin Johnson. (Maybe it’s just me, but the idea of Detroit drafting a receiver in the first round just sparks Matt Millenesque memories.) The Lions could also go for a linebacker or corner.
11. Titans — Kony Ealy, DE, Missouri: A dependable edge presence who could step in immediately would certainly provide a jolt for the Tennessee defense. The Titans could also use a safety — or, if one of the top-level quarterbacks drops to 11, they could go after one of them here.
12. Giants — Taylor Lewan, OT, Michigan: Eli Manning really crumbled because of a lack of protection in 2013, and New York hopes a classic, big-bodied offensive lineman like Lewan can step in immediately. New York also needs help at linebacker, and could go for any number of available linebackers.
13. Rams — Mike Evans, WR, Texas A&M: St. Louis got some protection for Sam Bradford with the first pick; now, they go for one of the best pure pass catchers in the draft in Evans, a receiver who made his bones working with Manziel.
14. Bears — Darqueze Dennard, CB, Michigan State: Much of this is likely tied to what happens with veteran Peanut Tillman, but even if Tillman ends up sticking around, the Bears need to make defensive upgrades across the board this offseason.
15. Steelers — Louis Nix III, DT, Notre Dame: A big, physical, versatile body who can help restore some order to the Pittsburgh defensive front. Pittsburgh also really needs some offensive line help, and could go in that direction if they feel Nix isn’t healthy.
16. Ravens — Marqise Lee, WR, Southern Cal: The Ravens really missed Anquan Boldin last season, and while there are some questions about the future of Jacoby Jones in Baltimore (and, to a lesser extent, Dennis Pitta), the best available pure receiver makes the most sense for the Ravens at this point in the draft. If they lose Pitta in free agency, they could go after Ebron or Amaro, both considered the best available tight ends.
17. Cowboys — Timmy Jernigan, DT, Florida State: Dallas needs help up front and in the secondary, and Jernigan’s relatively late ascension (he just became a starter last year at Florida State) makes him one of the most intriguing prospects in the draft.
18. Jets — Eric Ebron, TE, North Carolina: The Jets need help across the board on the offensive side of the ball, and Ebron is the best available skill position player on the board.
19. Dolphins — Zack Martin, OT, Notre Dame: No one is quite sure how the whole Incognito-Martin mess is going to play out, but the one thing everyone can agree on is the fact that Ryan Tannehill needs better protection. They’ll go after an offensive lineman, and Martin is the best available offensive lineman on the board at this point, a versatile mauler who has drawn comparisons to Logan Mankins.
20. Cardinals — Cyrus Kouandijo, OT, Alabama: A few possibilities for a really talented young Arizona team at this point — the Cards could go with another receiver to complement Larry Fitzgerald, or some pass-rushing help. But a sturdy tackle to provide more protection for Carson Palmer is the call, at least before the combine and free agency.
21. Packers — Jace Amaro, TE, Texas Tech: That’s the sound of hearts breaking all over New England. The Packers are in need of tight end help, and Amaro could be Jermichael Finley‘s replacement.
22. Eagles — Calvin Pryor, FS, Louisville: Philly appears pretty well set on the offensive side of the ball, but could use some help on defense, particularly in the secondary — the Eagles were 30th in pass defense in 2013.
23. Chiefs — Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Florida State: The Chiefs need a deep-threat receiver, and Benjamin is the best on the board. Kansas City could also go for secondary help here.
24. Bengals — Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix, S, Alabama: Some of what they do could be tied to whether or not defensive lineman Michael Johnson sticks around — if not, they’d be more inclined to go for a defensive lineman — but Clinton-Dix would provide a boost in the secondary.
25. Chargers — Justin Gilbert, CB, Oklahoma State: San Diego needs an upgrade when it comes to pass defense — the Chargers were 29th in the league in that department — and Gilbert projects as someone who can step in and immediately contribute. San Diego also needs offensive line help.
26. Browns (from Colts) — C.J. Mosley, LB, Alabama: This feels a little low for someone of Mosley’s pedigree and talent level, but the Browns are going for the best available body at this spot.
27. Saints — Dee Ford, DE, Auburn: Another guy who might be rated a little low by us at this point in the pre-draft process. New Orleans could also try and find a corner or safety to try and improve their chances in the pass-happy NFC South.
28. Panthers — Odell Beckham, WR, LSU: Couple of different ways for Carolina can go here — it needs another pass catching option for Cam Newton, as well as some depth in the secondary. If they go receiver, the Panthers can choose from two LSU products in Beckham or Jarvis Landry, as well as Fresno State receiver Davante Adams.
29. Patriots — RaShede Hageman, DL, Minnesota: The Patriots need to start planning for life after Vince Wilfork, and Hageman’s size and versatility make him a no-doubt first-round pick. As we wrote here, the 6-foot-6, 318-pounder has played nose tackle, defensive tackle and defensive end, and has done very well wherever he’s lined up. Hageman had 34 tackles last season, including 11 for losses, as well as one interception, and eight pass deflections
30. Niners — Jarvis Landry, WR, LSU – One of the two LSU receivers should be available at this spot for San Francisco. which needs another dependable target for Colin Kaepernick.
31. Broncos — Bradley Roby, CB, Ohio State: Denver had issues with cornerback depth all season, and while they need some more stability when it comes to protecting Peyton Manning, they really need to prioritize here, and find the best available corner. (One thought? They could take a page out of the Seattle playbook and try and supersize the secondary. If that’s the case, they might be inclined to reach for 6-foot-3 Stanley Jean-Baptiste, a corner out of Nebraska.)
32. Seahawks — Aaron Donald, DT, Pitt: A couple of different things at play here: One, the Seahawks could lose defensive lineman Michael Bennett in free agency, and if that happens, they’d be more inclined to go after a defensive lineman here. If Bennett sticks around, they might look to beef up their offensive line, or try and chase another option in the passing game for Russell Wilson.