It's always the height of conceit to churn out a mock draft before the NFL scouting combine has unfolded, with free agency still to come and weeks and weeks of pro days still well in the future. Teams are in the early stages of their draft prep, and the first real eyeball test will take place in Indianapolis over the course of the next six days.
But the game of matching up team needs with players who fit those holes is everyone's favorite offseason pastime. With all the underclassmen who have jumped into the talent pool, this is a particularly deep draft, which makes for even more than the usual amount of intrigue.
At least in contrast to last year's tepid quarterback class, we have plenty to chew on this time around. Johnny Manziel, Teddy Bridgewater and Blake Bortles all go in my top five, with Fresno State's Derek Carr likely to wind up cracking the first round as well.
There's still more than two and a half months to go before the picking starts at Radio City Music Hall, but here's a first attempt at predicting how the proceedings will go on May 8:
1. Houston -- Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M
This much is certainly true in mid-February: We don't know yet whether new Texans head coach Bill O'Brien is sold on Manziel's improvisational approach to quarterbacking, with its live-on-the-edge style of playmaking. But we also don't know for certain that O'Brien has to have a traditional pocket passer to run his offense and that he wouldn't come to appreciate Manziel's ability to keep plays alive with his legs, forcing teams to defend him from sideline to sideline. I would think that the dual-threat success of Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick and Cam Newton in recent years has done nothing but help endorse Manziel's unconventional game. Perhaps, as the scouting season wears on, Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, UCF quarterback Blake Bortles or South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney will emerge as talents too great to pass up, or Manziel's maturity issues will scare away owner Bob McNair and a Houston organization that isn't known for risk-taking. But the homestate hero Manziel has that "it'' factor, and the Texans have tried the more mechanical-type quarterback (Matt Schaub) without Super Bowl success. For now, Manziel and the Texans are a marriage too intriguing to ignore.
2. St. Louis -- Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M
The Rams obviously will be willing to trade away this slot to a quarterback-needy team, which is fitting since it's the last bit of draft capital St. Louis wrung out of Washington in the blockbuster Robert Griffin III deal two years ago. But if the Rams stick to this spot, offensive tackle is the obvious need, with Jake Long having suffered a late-season ACL in 2013, and both Rodger Saffold and Chris Williams eligible for free agency. Many mocks have Auburn's freakishly gifted Greg Robinson in this slot, but Matthews is clearly the most pro-ready tackle in the draft, and Jeff Fisher's decades-long history with Jake Matthews' famous father -- Hall of Fame Oilers/Titans offensive lineman/assistant coach Bruce Matthews -- has to be factored into the equation. But Matthews isn't just the safest choice, he's a top-five talent who will give the Rams exactly what they need from Day 1, whether he starts at right or left tackle.
3. Jacksonville -- Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina
Passing on a quarterback such as Teddy Bridgewater or Blake Bortles (or Manziel if he's still on the board) may not help the Jaguars maximize their 2014 potential, but if Clowney fulfills his potential to become the league's dominant pass rusher, the pick will look shrewd in hindsight and help address a glaring need that Jacksonville has been trying to fill for years now. Clowney could be the centerpiece for the defensive upgrade that Jaguars head coach Gus Bradley seeks, in much the same way that his former team, the Seahawks, built on that side of the ball before turning their focus to offense.
4. Cleveland -- Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville
The Browns could finally experience some first-round good fortune at quarterback, should they find Bridgewater waiting for them. The Cardinals' star is the most accurate and accomplished passer in this draft, and he is seen as the cleanest pro prospect among all the QB hopefuls. After Brandon Weeden and all those who came before him in Cleveland, accuracy in the passing game is something Browns fans could get used to. In this scenario, Cleveland will have its choice between Bridgewater's superb touch and command of a pro-style passing game, or the sturdier size and pocket-style quarterbacking of UCF's Bortles, who some scouts think has the most NFL upside.
5. Oakland -- Blake Bortles, QB, Central Florida
With head coach Dennis Allen and general manager Reggie McKenzie both entering a prove-it year, the Raiders aren't going to sign up for another season of just Terrelle Pryor and Matt McGloin at quarterback. Bortles may not be polished enough to become the instant starter in Oakland, but his prototypical NFL size combined with his mobility make him the quarterback who has gathered the most draft momentum in recent months.
6. Atlanta -- Greg Robinson, OT, Auburn
Everyone from owner Arthur Blank on down in Atlanta has conceded that the offensive line's struggles were a big component of the Falcons' downfall in 2013. After watching quarterback Matt Ryan take a pounding last season, Atlanta should be in position to sit back and let either the gifted Robinson or Texas A&M's ultra-solid Jake Matthews help them upgrade the offensive tackle situation at No. 6. Robinson is an athletic freak at 6-foot-5, 320 pounds, with both the power to clear holes for the running game and the agility to handle speed rushers in pass protection.
7. Tampa Bay -- Khalil Mack, OLB, Buffalo
The small-school label might make some teams wary, but Mack has three-down potential at outside linebacker, with the ability to bring pass rush off the edge, stand up against the run and drop seamlessly into coverage. He would be a cornerstone defensive cog for new Bucs head coach Lovie Smith, who always builds his defenses around playmaking linebackers who can multi-task and make their presence felt in a variety of ways. UCLA outside linebacker Anthony Barr will be the other name in the debate for Tampa Bay, but Mack's instant-impact quotient should be higher for a talented Bucs defense that's ready to win now.
8. Minnesota -- C.J. Mosley, LB, Alabama
The Vikings likely will face a scenario in which the top three highest-rated quarterbacks are off the board, and their decision will come down to rolling the dice on Fresno State's Derek Carr or spending the pick on a defender or receiver with a solid top-10 grade. After Minnesota reached for quarterback Christian Ponder at No. 12 in 2011, I'm not convinced general manager Rick Spielman will go that route once again. In Mosley, the Vikings would have a pro-ready talent with strong leadership skills, a proven record of production and the ability to supply some pass rush in the event Jared Allen leaves via free agency.
9. Buffalo -- Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson
The Bills hit on both Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin in last year's draft, so receiver isn't a top priority in any scenario. But the way this board breaks, with the draft's two best offensive tackles and two best linebackers already gone, Buffalo's best choices in terms of need might be Michigan tackle Taylor Lewan, North Carolina tight end Eric Ebron or a top-rated safety like Ha Ha Clinton-Dix of Alabama. But either the explosive Watkins or the big-bodied Texas A&M receiver Mike Evans would be another weapon in second-year quarterback E.J. Manuel's arsenal, and there's no such thing as overkill in that regard.
10. Detroit -- Darqueze Dennard, CB, Michigan State
Taking a receiver like Texas A&M's Mike Evans or Clemson's Sammy Watkins to draw some attention away from Calvin Johnson will be tempting in Detroit, but the need in the secondary will probably win out. Dennard is aggressive and instinctive in coverage, and he plays a physical style of ball despite not having great size by NFL cornerback standards. Both he and Oklahoma State cornerback Justin Gilbert have to be on the Lions' radar screens at No. 10.
11. Tennessee -- Anthony Barr, OLB-DE, UCLA
The Titans have needs that fit nicely with their spot atop the draft's second 10, and in our scenario they can choose between an offensive tackle such as Michigan's Taylor Lewan, a safety such as Alabama's Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, or pro-ready receivers like Mike Evans of Texas A&M and USC's Marqise Lee. But Barr offers impact edge rush ability, and those guys remain at a premium in the NFL. Given that Tennessee has been seeking to generate more heat on the opposing passer for a while now, Barr's potential value should be greater than that of the alternatives.
12. NY Giants -- Taylor Lewan, OT, Michigan
Lewan is the draft's third-highest rated tackle and could crack the top 10 in some first-round scenarios. New York's offensive problems last season started with Eli Manning's taking 39 sacks, which had plenty to do with his league-worst 27 interceptions. Veteran left tackle Will Beatty broke a leg last year, so Lewan could be a Day 1 replacement for him, or the rookie could take over at right tackle, with 2013 first-round pick Justin Pugh sliding inside to guard and upgrading the strength of the entire New York offensive line.
13. St. Louis -- Mike Evans, WR, Texas A&M
With the quality and aggressiveness of the cornerbacks in the NFC West, the Rams should be in the market for a tall, strong receiver who can fight for the ball and make the catch in traffic. Evans at 6-5, 225 is ideal for the job, and he also has enough ability to separate to be a dangerous deep threat for St. Louis quarterback Sam Bradford. With the smallish receivers already on the Rams roster, Evans would be a superb fit as the team's No. 1 pass-catcher.
14. Chicago -- Timmy Jernigan, DT, Florida State
The Bears' safety position is a glaring need, and with Alabama's top-rated Ha Ha Clinton-Dix still available, his selection at No. 14 would be understandable in every way. But Chicago's interior defensive line needs help, too, and the Bears should have quality options to choose from there as well. The explosive Jernigan is a handful in the middle, and he was a penetrating, playmaking force for the 2013 national champion Seminoles. He has the power and speed to beat blockers, and the knack for reading running plays as they are developing. Other possibilities for the Bears defensive line include Pitt defensive tackle Aaron Donald, who was a Senior Bowl week standout, Notre Dame defensive tackle Louis Nix III, and Missouri defensive end Kony Ealy.
15. Pittsburgh -- Louis Nix III, DT, Notre Dame
The late-season knee injury Nix suffered could serve to drop him out of the first round's first half, but, at 6-3, 345 pounds, he certainly looks like the next run-stuffing Steelers nose tackle. Despite his massive girth, Nix moves pretty well, and he's cut from the same cloth as the gap-eating former Steeler Casey Hampton. Cornerback, safety and offensive tackle are other needs that fit Pittsburgh's mid-first-round draft slot, but given what Dick LeBeau's defense lacked last season, Nix seems like a prospect who's destined to be a Steeler.
16. Dallas -- Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, S, Alabama
The only thing that makes sense for Dallas in the first round is defense, with the Cowboys in prime position to address either their long-standing need at safety, or to buttress the middle of their defensive line. Pitt defensive tackle Aaron Donald might be just the disruptive playmaker Rod Marinelli is looking for, but it's hard to overstate how much shoddy coverage in the secondary has cost Dallas in recent seasons. Besides acquiring one of the great names in NFL history, the Cowboys would be getting a safety prospect who can help shut down the deep third of the field, while also showing the ability to come up and contribute on run defense. The best NFL teams all seem to have quality safeties who can handle a multitude of tasks in today's game, and Dallas desperately needs to join those ranks.
17. Baltimore -- Eric Ebron, TE, North Carolina
Come May, once his game gets completely dissected in the long slog that is the draft scouting season, it might be laughable to think that the draft's best tight end was ever going to last all the way to the Ravens at No. 17. But Ebron is exactly the type of downfield target Baltimore needs, with Dennis Pitta headed for free agency unless he's franchised, and neither Ed Dickson (also set for free agency) nor veteran Dallas Clark capable of handling the starting tight end role. USC receiver Marqise Lee is the other obvious available first-round upgrade for the Ravens passing game, and you can't rule out the selection of an offensive tackle, such as Alabama's Cyrus Kouandjio, with both Michael Oher and Eugene Monroe eligible for free agency.
18. NY Jets -- Marqise Lee, WR, USC
From the vantage point of pre-free agency, the Jets landing a pass-catcher of some sort appears to be one of the few locks of this year's first round. Right up there with an offensive lineman for Miami. A weapon like North Carolina tight end Eric Ebron probably doesn't get to the Jets, but if Lee lingers on the board until No. 18, New York will pounce. The Jets are devoid of the kind of explosive, yards-after-the-catch threat that Lee poses, and he has the speed and vertical game to make Geno Smith a better quarterback in Year 2. An added benefit of taking Lee, the draft's third-rated receiver behind Clemson's Sammy Watkins and Mike Evans of Texas A&M, is that he can also contribute on New York's return teams.
19. Miami -- Zack Martin, OT, Notre Dame
Sure, why not? Drafting another offensive tackle named Martin might just be one way to turn the page in Miami after the Dolphins' offensive line became front-page news for all the wrong reasons in 2013. Martin played tackle for the Irish, but he's versatile enough to handle any of the five offensive line positions, according to NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock. That kind of adaptability might come in handy in Miami, given that the Dolphins O-line could conceivably feature four or even five new starters if center Mike Pouncey is suspended by the league in the fallout of the Jonathan Martin-Richie Incognito investigation.
20. Arizona -- Cyrus Kouandjio, OT, Alabama
Is this the Derek Carr slot, with the Cardinals either putting the pick up for auction to a team in the quarterback market, or (the longer shot) taking him themselves to sit and develop behind Carson Palmer for another year or so? I don't think so. Arizona is in the highly competitive NFC West and can't afford such luxuries, especially when Bruce Arians' team badly needs an upgrade at left offensive tackle, where starter Bradley Sowell didn't fare ... wait for it ... so well. Kouandjio is big enough to block out the sun (6-5, 310) in the desert, and while he's still a bit raw, his potential is sizable.
21. Green Bay -- Calvin Pryor, S, Louisville
With free agency potentially decimating the Packers' defensive line, Green Bay could prioritize that position and head in the direction of a prospect like Minnesota defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman, an explosive and disruptive force in the middle. But Green Bay's safety depth chart cries out for help, and Pryor is a dynamic hitter who has been described by Mayock as a "bigger, stronger Bob Sanders.'' The Packers could use an enforcer in their secondary if they're going to compete with the likes of Seattle, San Francisco and New Orleans in the NFC.
22. Philadelphia -- Justin Gilbert, CB, Oklahoma State
The Eagles could lose receivers Riley Cooper and Jeremy Maclin in free agency, but this is a deep draft for receivers, and the sense is that Philly's defense will get the attention in the first round. At No. 22, the Eagles are picking right around where a late-round run on cornerbacks might begin, and that's not a bad development since Chip Kelly's club could use some cover help. Unless there's an edge rusher the Eagles are sold on (Auburn defensive end Dee Ford is a name to keep track of), Gilbert would add to the overall depth of the secondary and give the Eagles one of the top two cover men in the draft. If a safety like Louisville's Calvin Pryor gets past Green Bay at No. 21, he'd be an even more attractive option.
23. Kansas City -- Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Florida State
As much as the Chiefs' defense badly leaked oil down the backstretch and into the postseason (see the Colts' second-half comeback in the first round of the playoffs), finding more reliable receiving options for quarterback Alex Smith looks like job one in the draft. Benjamin showed flashes of inconsistency, but he's another big-body receiver entering a league that has fallen in love with the breed. LSU's Odell Beckham Jr. is probably a more polished receiver at this point, but he lacks Benjamin's complete package of size, speed and ability to win the contested catch.
24. Cincinnati -- LaMarcus Joyner, CB, Florida State
With Leon Hall coming off a season-ending Achilles tear, and both Terence Newman and Adam Jones showing signs of age, cornerback looks like the obvious front-burner need for the Bengals. Dennard and Gilbert, the draft's top two cover men, are gone, but Joyner is an intriguing prospect who makes up for his lack of ideal size (5-8, 187) with good instincts and a knack for finding the football. He has drawn comparisons to Arizona's Tyrann Mathieu in that regard, and -- very similar to the onetime Honey Badger -- his role in the NFL is projected as a hybrid slot corner or safety. If the Bengals pass on a defensive back in favor of another need at defensive end, Missouri's Kony Ealy could be their target.
25. San Diego -- Jason Verrett, CB, TCU
The Chargers are yet another team that could be in the market for some cornerback help late in the first round, having made the playoffs despite finishing last in the AFC, and 29th overall, in pass defense. It may be a case of picking their favorite flavor at the position, with Verrett, Florida's Marcus Roberson and Loucheiz Purifoy, and Ohio State's Bradley Roby all bunched together in terms of their projected draft spots. Verrett is viewed as an ideal slot corner, being a little undersized at 5-9, 185, but playing with a sense of toughness and physicality, in addition to having quick feet and polished cover skills.
26. Cleveland -- Odell Beckham Jr., WR, LSU
The thinking is that, if the Browns nab their next franchise quarterback at No. 4 (and we gave them Bridgewater), they'll try to get him a quality receiving target late in the round, someone who can take some pressure off No. 1 receiver Josh Gordon and tight end Jordan Cameron. Beckham and Fresno State receiver Davante Adams should come off the board in this range, but Beckham is the choice because he's a versatile and explosive pass-catcher who can do damage in either the slot or outside. He has dependable hands, separates easily and is adept at gaining yards after the catch, and might also have a role in the NFL in the return game.
27. New Orleans -- Morgan Moses, OT, Virginia
Unless the Saints are zeroing in on a defensive lineman they love, getting another option at offensive tackle seems like the smart play. Right tackle Zach Strief is eligible for free agency, and rookie left tackle Terron Armstead didn't remove the doubts regarding his future at the position in 2013. Moses has the athleticism and size to handle left tackle, and is thought pro-ready enough for the assignment of protecting Drew Brees' blindside. Tennessee offensive tackle Antonio Richardson could move into the late-round discussion with a strong showing at the combine.
28. Carolina -- Marcus Roberson, CB, Florida
A first-round receiver wouldn't surprise anyone, but this draft is loaded at that position, and the Panthers would be better served to address their shallow depth at cornerback. Carolina's defensive front seven did all the heavy lifting in 2013, and an upgrade in the secondary is the key to the Panthers slugging it out with the NFC heavyweights in Seattle and San Francisco. Roberson, Roby and Purifoy should all be in the mix, but we're giving the nod to Roberson based on his speed and natural athleticism in coverage.
29. New England -- Jace Amaro, TE, Texas Tech
There's almost a pre-combine consensus that has formed: Amaro is virtually a clone of Aaron Hernandez and would fit perfectly in New England's two-tight-end sets (providing Rob Gronkowski can get healthy and stay on the field). He's a big, productive target in the middle of the field and knows how to use his body to create separation from defenders. But if he doesn't last until the Patriots' pick, New England could address its need at defensive tackle, opting for Minnesota's Ra'Shede Hageman. He's an explosive, disruptive playmaker who can play almost anywhere on the defensive line, which is exactly what Bill Belichick prefers of his guys up front.
30. San Francisco -- Ra'Shede Hageman, DT, Minnesota
Receiver and cornerback are the short-term needs in San Francisco, but Hageman's potential to be a long-term force on the defensive line might change the 49ers' thinking. With Justin Smith nearing the end of his career, San Francisco would view Hageman as his eventual replacement, while hoping it can get some early production from him as he rounds off the rough edges of his game. Hageman's talent and ability aren't in question. The former high school basketball player has freakish athletic ability and might post impressive numbers in Indy and come out of the combine as one of the first round's risers. But he needs to improve his technique and show more consistent effort, and the team that takes him may have to show some first-year patience with him.
31. Denver -- Bradley Roby, CB, Ohio State
The Broncos could use a boost in their edge rush capability, with Auburn defensive end Dee Ford looking like a late-round fit. But the secondary in Denver is even more of a pressing need, and there's still plenty of talent to choose from at cornerback. Roby's game had some holes last season, but he's got the speed and fluid stride that teams are always willing to take a chance on, and he's big and physical enough to handle press coverage.
32. Seattle -- Davante Adams, WR, Fresno State
The Seahawks are deep enough that they won't be desperate for any particular position in the first round, but guard, defensive line and tight end are some of the more likely areas to target. But you can't rule out receiver either. Golden Tate is a free agent, Sidney Rice looks likely to be cut, and it would be nice to get another passing game weapon for quarterback Russell Wilson. Adams has NFL size and is adept at catching the ball in a crowd, with very dependable hands and a strong track record of collegiate production.