With the start of the 2014 NFL draft exactly four weeks away, that sound you hear in the distance is the clatter of top-rated quarterbacks falling. Things have a way of changing from week to week in the pre-draft buildup, of course, but my latest mock has just one quarterback being selected in the top five, and just two in the top 10. That's a long way from the high-profile trio of Johnny Manziel, Teddy Bridgewater and Blake Bortles going 1-3-4 as many first presumed.
Top-five drafting teams Houston, Jacksonville, Cleveland and Oakland all still need quarterbacks, but I'm no longer convinced they all will pick them right off the bat. The longer teams study and scout the non-quarterback talent this spring, the more they seem to gravitate toward the best plug-and-play prospects available. Twenty-eight days can be forever in the NFL, but at the moment, it looks as if some passers are going to get passed over at the top of the round.
1. Houston -- Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina
I'll keep this simple: Everything I've heard from new Texans head coach Bill O'Brien so far this offseason seems to point to taking a quarterback, but somewhere other than the draft's first pick. When O'Brien says he doesn't see a lot of separation among the draft's top-rated six or seven quarterbacks, and goes on about how "very, very difficult'' it is for a rookie quarterback to play right away, it pushes me further and further into the Clowney at No. 1 camp. If O'Brien doesn't see a truly special talent at quarterback, odds are he and his Texans will lean toward the pass-rushing savant from South Carolina, and go shopping for a passer in the second round, or possibly by trading back into the first. If I'm reading it wrong, and Houston has every intention to take a QB at No. 1, UCF's Blake Bortles is still my best guess. I'm not convinced O'Brien longs to climb aboard the Johnny Football Express.
2. St. Louis -- Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M
I realize Auburn offensive tackle Greg Robinson is considered the better, more freakishly athletic tackle prospect, with tons of that "upside'' that NFL personnel evaluators crave. But Matthews' last name and proven bloodlines carry a lot of credibility with Rams head coach Jeff Fisher, who coached Hall of Fame offensive lineman Bruce Matthews in Houston and Tennessee. I'm sure St. Louis would love to deal out of the No. 2 pick for the second time in three years, but if the Rams stick, I think they feel very comfortable betting on Matthews, who allows the newly re-signed Rodger Saffold to shift to guard. Clemson's can't-miss receiver Sammy Watkins is the other significant temptation for St. Louis in this scenario, but either way, quarterback Sam Bradford wins.
3. Jacksonville -- Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson
They are conducting pre-draft visits with every big-time quarterback, but mark it down, the Jaguars aren't going QB. At least not at No. 3 in such a deep and talented draft, with numerous good choices to be had at the position in the second and third rounds. That means Jacksonville must choose between taking a Day 1 playmaker on defense in Buffalo outside linebacker Khalil Mack, and a Day 1 playmaker on offense in Watkins, easily the most gifted receiver in this year's draft. It's probably going to pain Gus Bradley to pass on Mack, because he knows building a quality defense is the fastest way to turn things around in the NFL, but the need for Watkins is even greater in Jacksonville. With Justin Blackmon a complete question mark due to a league suspension, and only ex-Ravens wideout Tandon Doss added in free agency, the Jaguars need a stud to throw to in the passing game.
4. Cleveland -- Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M
Of the four quarterback-needy teams that reside in this draft's top five, the Browns are the team I'm most convinced will take a first-round QB. Cleveland simply has no starting option behind the rehabilitating Brian Hoyer. But then again, Cleveland also owns the No. 26 pick, so maybe there are plenty of options from that perspective. Many mockers are linking the Browns to Fresno State's Derek Carr, either at No. 26 or possibly even No. 4. But Carr in the top five is an obvious reach, and Cleveland should not be in the mood to gamble with so much on the line in its latest rebuilding effort. Manziel may not be the first choice of new Cleveland offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, who lived through (barely) the media blitz known as the RGIII phenomena in Washington, but if I'm the Browns, I'm banking on the guy who has won most of his biggest games and plays like he isn't afraid to have all the pressure put on his shoulders.
5. Oakland -- Greg Robinson, OT, Auburn
The Raiders and No. 6 Falcons seem to be a tidy little tandem in that they both seek more pass rush and could use an upgrade at offensive tackle. So there sits Robinson, considered the draft's most gifted tackle prospect, and Buffalo's Khalil Mack, the second-most coveted pass rusher in this year's collegiate talent pool. How convenient. If the Raiders take Robinson, the Falcons will take Mack, and vice versa. Again, after listening to head coach Dennis Allen rave about the newly arrived Matt Schaub at last month's NFL owners' meeting, I'm not sensing a first-round quarterback for the need-to-win-now Raiders.
6. Atlanta -- Khalil Mack, OLB, Buffalo
Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff has all but worn a sandwich board advertising Atlanta's interest in trading up from No. 6, presumably for Clowney, who has the pass-rush-starved Falcons drooling and dreaming. But if the No. 1 Texans foil those intentions by taking Clowney themselves, Atlanta should be well-satisfied to sit tight and let either Mack or one of the two premier offensive tackles, Matthews or Robinson, fall to it. Either way the Falcons check off a major need and give up nothing in return.
7. Tampa Bay -- Mike Evans, WR, Texas A&M
C'mon now, be honest, who had two receivers going before a second quarterback came off the board when this longest-ever draft season started? Anyone? But it darn well could unfold that way, and Evans would be the impetus. With the Bucs giving up on Mike Williams thanks to his maturity issues, landing the ball-hawking Evans as a replacement playmaker in the passing game makes solid sense. If both Watkins and Mack are already gone -- and they will be -- Evans becomes a Day 1 starter and one of Josh McCown's new best friends.
8. Minnesota -- Blake Bortles, QB, Central Florida
Not a bad situation for the Vikings, to see the cards fall this way on the quarterback front. Minnesota should have its choice between Bortles, Carr and Teddy Bridgewater, and none of those choices would rate as a shocker. Carr and Bridgewater are probably the most ready to play right away, but that's why I'm going with Bortles. Vikings new head coach Mike Zimmer and offensive coordinator Norv Turner like the re-signed Matt Cassel and seem ready to ride with him in 2014. Bortles is viewed as a quarterback with great potential, but in need of some time and polishing.
9. Buffalo -- Taylor Lewan, OT, Michigan
North Carolina tight end Eric Ebron continues to get a lot of linkage to the Bills, but the top priority in Buffalo seems to be protecting second-year quarterback EJ Manuel, who was sidelined twice by knee injuries during his rookie season. Lewan just seems like a natural pick for the Bills' no-nonsense head coach Doug Marrone, a former offensive line coach. He carries a top-10 grade and would give the Bills the flexibility of either starting him at right tackle, or flopping starting left tackle Cordy Glenn to the right side.
10. Detroit -- Aaron Donald, DT, Pittsburgh
While I have been focused in previous mocks on the need in the secondary for the Lions -- at cornerback or safety -- I'm coming around to the notion that the draft's top defensive tackle may be a special enough talent to persuade Detroit to add to what is presumed to be a position of strength on its roster. With Nick Fairley having underachieved in his first three seasons, and Ndamukong Suh's salary cap number still beyond the pale, Donald gives the Lions future leverage and one of the most proven defensive playmakers in the draft.
11. Tennessee -- Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville
The reality facing Bridgewater, who once was the consensus No. 1 pick in the draft, is that if not Tennessee, then his draft-night wait might extend until the lower reaches of the first round. But I don't think the Titans, with new head coach Ken Whisenhunt, will let that scenario unfold. Whisenhunt knows the night-and-day difference quality quarterbacking can make from his Arizona head coaching experience, and Tennessee can't afford to pass on a prospect of this level with only the oft-injured Jake Locker as a legitimate starting option as he enters his make-or-break fourth season in Nashville.
12. NY Giants -- Eric Ebron, TE, North Carolina
With good fits for New York like Evans, Lewan and Donald already off this board, I'm sticking with Ebron, the Tar Heels' tight end who would add an element of explosiveness to the Giants offense. The defensive needs are many, but as the new guy, offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo probably gets the jump ball in this, his first draft with the G-Men, and that spells finding another weapon to help Eli Manning en route to a rebound season.
13. St. Louis -- Darqueze Dennard, CB, Michigan State
The Rams should have their choice here between the draft's top-rated cornerback and safety prospects, and plenty of mocks have them going for Alabama safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix in this slot. Either way, they need another piece in the secondary to help contend with the talented personnel that NFC West rivals Seattle, San Francisco and Arizona all field in that more-important-than-ever last line of defense. Dennard could be that piece.
14. Chicago -- C.J. Mosley, ILB, Alabama
Defensive tackle and safety are needs that dovetail nicely with where the Bears fall in this draft, so Florida State's Timmy Jernigan or Clinton-Dix make solid sense for Chicago. But Donald may be the prospect the Bears truly coveted, and with him gone, finding their long-term starter at the vaunted Chicago position of middle linebacker is a task that could rise to top priority. Mosley is an instinctive and athletic three-down defender who would upgrade the heart of the Bears defense.
15. Pittsburgh -- Justin Gilbert, CB, Oklahoma State
The needs are plentiful in Pittsburgh, but I'm sticking with the Steelers getting an infusion of talent at cornerback, where they've made due with chicken salad-type ingredients for a while now. Gilbert is a potential lockdown cover man joining a division that features the proven pass-catching abilities of A.J. Green, Marvin Jones, Steve Smith, Torrey Smith and Josh Gordon.
16. Dallas -- Timmy Jernigan, DT, Florida State
The Cowboys will be tempted to take a safety with cover men like Clinton-Dix and Louisville's Calvin Pryor still on the board, and a pass rusher like UCLA linebacker Anthony Barr or Missouri defensive end Kony Ealy would look just fine with a star on their helmet. But with all that said, Dallas defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli usually starts building a defense with a tackle who can wreak some havoc. With Donald gone, that points to the disruptive Jernigan for me, with some thinking Notre Dame defensive tackle Louis Nix III is in the mix as well.
17. Baltimore -- Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, S, Alabama
The Ravens are having the kind of strong offseason you'd expect them to assemble after getting the smelling salts treatment under their noses: coming off a playoff-less season for the first time since the close of the Brian Billick coaching era in 2007. And having Clinton-Dix, the top-rated safety, waiting for them at 17 makes this one of the easier draft debates conducted in the Ravens' war room.
18. NY Jets -- Marqise Lee, WR, USC
Both Lee and LSU's Odell Beckham Jr. are explosive, playmaking receivers who would be expected to walk right into the Jets' starting lineup opposite free-agent signee Eric Decker. Lee didn't have a monster 2013 season, but his tape doesn't lie. He knows how to exploit the gaps in a defense and get deep, and he would add the much-needed vertical element to New York's passing game that 2012 second-round pick Stephen Hill has been unable to provide.
19. Miami -- Zack Martin, OT, Notre Dame
Martin could either start his NFL career at right tackle, opposite free-agent signee Branden Albert, or perhaps move inside and upgrade the Dolphins' well-known need at left guard. But either way the Miami offensive line continues its near total makeover after the debacle of 2013. The Dolphins should embrace the karmic do-over that drafting another offensive lineman named Martin presents.
20. Arizona -- Anthony Barr, OLB, UCLA
The Cardinals, perpetually in search of more pass rush, would be very fortunate indeed to see Barr get to them at No. 20. The former Bruin carries a top-12 grade in the estimation of many teams, and while he isn't a polished product, having played only two years of defense, he'd upgrade an Arizona defense that is only an improved pass rush away from being first rate. If Barr is gone, a defensive end like Missouri's Kony Ealy or Auburn's Dee Ford would represent the next best pass-rush option. And if Bridgewater lingers this long, Arizona might opt for Carson Palmer's eventual successor.
21. Green Bay -- Calvin Pryor, S, Louisville
There are a lot of teams ahead of the Packers who could spoil this almost-perfect scenario for Green Bay, but Pryor would be a draft-night gift for a secondary that has lacked a consistent playmaker in the deep middle since Nick Collins' exited the lineup in early 2011 with a serious neck injury.
22. Philadelphia -- Odell Beckham Jr., WR, LSU
Beckham features both DeSean Jackson's burst and elusiveness, as well as the added element of being dangerous in the return game. There are defensive needs for a pass-rushing end or cornerback that could take precedent in Philly, but Chip Kelly is running this show, and he likes offense. What better way to turn the page on the Eagles' Jackson era than by replacing him with a younger and hopefully better version?
23. Kansas City -- Brandin Cooks, WR, Oregon State
Cooks is quick and elusive and exactly the matchup nightmare that the Chiefs need to diversify their passing game. He's a proven playmaker with good hands and the speed to challenge and disrupt a defense, creating plenty of yards after the catch. Defenses won't be able to key almost exclusively on No. 1 receiver Dwayne Bowe when Cooks is working his game in the slot.
24. Cincinnati -- Kony Ealy, DE, Missouri
The Bengals are going to be looking for defensive help in the first round, and while there's good reason to add a cornerback or maybe a defensive tackle, the departure of Michael Johnson in free agency and the knee injury to Geno Atkins should make adding pass rush the top priority. Ealy has NFL size and a solid collegiate track record for rushing the passer, and his versatility should help him adapt quickly to the pro game.
25. San Diego -- Louis Nix III, DT, Notre Dame
The Chargers can go a lot of different ways in pursuing a defensive upgrade, with top-notch cornerbacks Kyle Fuller of Virginia Tech, Bradley Roby of Ohio State and Jason Verrett of TCU still on the board, as well as an edge rusher like Auburn's Dee Ford. But the best value at No. 25 might be Nix, the draft's best pure nose tackle. Nix has a Jamal Williams-like quality to his build and game, and nose is certainly not a position of strength at the moment in San Diego. Nix would also make it two ex-Irish defenders in two drafts for the Chargers, joining linebacker Manti Te'o in sunny SoCal.
26. Cleveland -- Kyle Fuller, CB, Virginia Tech
If the Browns don't go quarterback at No. 4, as I have them doing with Manziel, many expect Carr to land in Cleveland in this slot. That would certainly cut down on the size of the first-round quarterback gamble, but I have the Browns taking another cornerback with the pick they received from Indy in the Trent Richardson trade of last year. Fuller is either the second- or third-best cornerback in the draft, depending on the analyst, and his athleticism and cover skills would supplement a secondary led by No. 1 cornerback Joe Haden.
27. New Orleans -- Dee Ford, DE, Auburn
The Saints defense came a long way last season, but still has use for another edge rusher who can play a disruptive role in the gambling, bring-the-blitz style game that coordinator Rob Ryan favors. Ford's reputation for having a non-stop motor will make him a favorite of Saints fans, much the way rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro did last year. In this stage of the first round, taking a shot on a pass rusher with upside is usually a sound approach.
28. Carolina -- Bradley Roby, CB, Ohio State
Given the depletion at receiver and offensive tackle in Carolina, those positions probably rate Def Con 1 in terms of urgency. But the best value is likely to be at cornerback, where Roby and TCU's Jason Verrett remain available. Roby has top-20 talent, but his so-so 2013 season has dropped his stock. The Panthers might be the one to benefit from it.
29. New England -- Ra'Shede Hageman, DT, Minnesota
As it turns out, the reported demise of Vince Wilfork's tenure in New England was greatly exaggerated. But that doesn't change the fact the Patriots need to prepare a succession plan for the defensive front. Hageman might require some development, but he has a great blend of size, athleticism and playmaking skills. If Notre Dame nose tackle Louis Nix gets past No. 25 San Diego, he'd have to be on New England's radar screen as well.
30. San Francisco -- Jason Verrett, CB, TCU
The 49ers don't have many holes, but their top two would have to be at cornerback and No. 3 receiver. From that standpoint, San Francisco appears well-positioned at No. 30. Verrett is a feisty, undersized slot corner who battles and finds the ball, and there are receiving options to be had as well. Florida State's Kelvin Benjamin doesn't fit the slot role at 6-foot-5, 235 pounds, but he's a big, athletic target who might be too enticing to pass up.
31. Denver -- Xavier Su'a-Filo, G, UCLA
The Broncos offensive line got exposed by Seattle's defensive front in the Super Bowl. All the great work Denver has done this offseason to get locked and loaded and chase a ring again would go to waste if Peyton Manning didn't have time, or the good health, to work the pass pocket. Su'a-Filo is ready to start from Day 1, and he's versatile enough to play at either guard or tackle. Stanford's David Yankey is the other top-rated interior offensive lineman of which to keep track.
32. Seattle -- Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Florida State
With no Golden Tate or Sidney Rice to draw some of the coverage away from Percy Harvin, the Seahawks have need for a big-body receiver who can go up and out-jump defenders for the ball. The 6-5, 235-pound Benjamin would give Seattle a potentially deadly red-zone weapon to utilize.