Not only will the NFL draft fall later than ever this year when it finally commences on the night of May 8, but also it will apparently pass the threshold of the calendar's fifth month while retaining its sense of utter mystery at the top. There are plenty of mocks giving South Carolina pass rusher Jadeveon Clowney to the No. 1 Texans -- including this one -- but no true consensus has formed because the question seemingly remains open in Houston with 16 days to go before the picking starts.
It very well could be Clowney, but some observers are still of the mindset that Houston will opt for a quarterback to lead things off, either Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel or Central Florida's Blake Bortles. And let's not forget Peter King's recent report in The MMQB that Texans general manager Rick Smith likes Buffalo outside linebacker Khalil Mack's prospects more than Clowney's. Other media reports cite rumblings of the Texans seeking to trade down and out of the No. 1 slot, perhaps insufficiently impressed by the talent at the top of the draft.
There hasn't been quite this much legitimate intrigue at the top of a draft in a while. It was hard to get too excited over the Eric Fisher versus Luke Joeckel offensive tackle debate of last year, and the previous four years we had a quarterback like Andrew Luck, Cam Newton, Sam Bradford and Matthew Stafford who eventually rose to the top in the eyes of most who were paying attention.
But this time around, the anticipation is building. We're waiting longer for the draft, and for any sense of closure at No. 1. It might be a win-win for the NFL. In terms of drama, the first all-May draft since 1984 might be better late, and better than ever.
1. Houston -- Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina
The Texans still have two-plus weeks to really fall in love with one of the top-rated quarterbacks, but if it hasn't happened yet -- and we don't believe it has -- why force the issue? It seems much easier to swoon over Clowney's difference-making pass-rush potential and then figure out the quarterback pick at a later point. It could mean Houston trades back into the lower third of the first round, or sits and waits for its guy at No. 33 to start things off with a bang on Friday night. You know the names: Garoppolo, Savage, Murray, etc. ...
2. St. Louis -- Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson
If Clowney somehow gets to No. 2, the Rams will put the pick up for auction and wait for Atlanta, Jacksonville or someone else to call and make an offer they'd be wise to not refuse. And while I like my SI.com colleague Chris Burke's mock scenario of the receiver-needy Bucs trading up to No. 2 to nab Watkins, I'm not sure Lovie Smith will get quite that daring in a top 10 that's pretty flush with quality options. St. Louis could still play it safe with either Jake Matthews or Greg Robinson at offensive tackle, but given the talented secondaries in the NFC West, a weapon like Watkins added to the Rams' passing game might give them their best shot to get over the seven-win hump.
3. Jacksonville -- Khalil Mack, OLB, Buffalo
Don't get the idea this will feel like a consolation prize for the Jaguars, even if they miss out on the draft's best pass rusher and receiver with Clowney and Watkins gone. Mack is the kind of disruptive, playmaking force Gus Bradley's defense can make great use of, and he has the non-stop motor to chase the ballcarrier all over the field, with the versatility to play all three downs. Jacksonville will find its quarterback in the second or third round; it won't roll the dice on a passer at the expense of the draft's second-best defensive prospect.
4. Cleveland -- Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M
Well, whaddya know, the Browns reportedly are finally getting around to showing interest in Manziel, working him out in College Station over the weekend and scheduling a visit with him this week in Cleveland. I rest my case. Workouts and visits don't guarantee anything, of course, but it does seem like the Browns are getting serious about the former Heisman winner as April winds down. Cleveland could wait until No. 26 to find its quarterback, but how'd that strategy work out in 2007 (Brady Quinn, No. 22) and '12 (Brandon Weeden, No. 22)? The Browns are the most QB-desperate team in the league, so why not pick your guy when you have every possible choice at your disposal?
5. Oakland -- Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M
The way this board falls, I would think the Raiders' selection comes down to either making a top-five pick out of reliable Texas A&M receiver Mike Evans, or going with one of the draft's highest-rated offensive tackles in Matthews. The Matt Schaub trade takes a first-round quarterback off the radar screen, because the Raiders are in obvious win-now mode. Matthews is considered more NFL-ready than Auburn offensive tackle Greg Robinson and that should carry some weight for a team facing Oakland's sense of urgency this season. Robinson's upside is considerable and he might be All-Pro material in time, but Matthews is the smartest and safest pick for the Raiders' situation.
6. Atlanta -- Greg Robinson, OT, Auburn
With Clowney, Mack and Matthews already selected, the Falcons will still find one of their most coveted targets waiting for them in Robinson. Protecting Matt Ryan better than last season is the highest priority in Atlanta, and there's nothing wrong with eschewing the sexier strategy of trying to trade up for Clowney or Mack if your fallback option meets this kind of need.
7. Tampa Bay -- Mike Evans, WR, Texas A&M
The vision of quarterback Josh McCown's success last season in Chicago throwing to the twin towers known as Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery should be on Tampa Bay's mind in the first round. Evans knows how to make the contested catch, and paired with veteran receiver Vincent Jackson, he'd instantly upgrade the thinnest position on the Bucs' depth chart.
8. Minnesota -- Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville
How low will Teddy go? That's the popular question that seems to be sparking wide-ranging debate as this year's longer-than-usual draft season unfolds. While some mocks have him even falling out of the first round these days, I can't see how that worst-case scenario unfolds, and I'm pushing back against the anti-Bridgewater movement. The Vikings seem like a nice fit, with offensive coordinator Norv Turner's experience with young quarterbacks and Matt Cassel re-signed to be the franchise's 2014 starter. UCF's Blake Bortles is Minnesota's other option, but there's a chance he needs even more patience and polish than Bridgewater.
9. Buffalo -- Eric Ebron, TE, North Carolina
As much sense as Michigan offensive tackle Taylor Lewan continues to make for the Bills, who need to improve their protection of second-year quarterback EJ Manuel, finding an explosive receiving weapon to exploit the middle of the field should also upgrade Manuel's game. The draft's top tight end prospect could pose matchup problems for defenses and give Buffalo a potent one-two punch at the position in tandem with the reliable Scott Chandler.
10. Detroit -- Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, S, Alabama
I had Detroit going for Pitt defensive tackle Aaron Donald in my last mock, but the Lions' need in the secondary is probably too great to ignore in the first round, even with Donald's talent, Nick Fairley's inconsistency and Ndamukong Suh carrying that massive salary cap number. Clinton-Dix is a rangy free safety who can cover up for a lot of mistakes as Detroit's center fielder, and given the ever-increasing importance of safeties in today's NFL, his value is probably higher than the two- or three-most highly regarded cornerbacks.
11. Tennessee -- Blake Bortles, QB, Central Florida
The Titans might be tempted to help their cause in 2014 and avoid a first-round quarterback who figures to need a redshirt-like experience this season. But with the injury-prone Jake Locker playing for his future this year as a still-unproven fourth-year veteran, the Titans would do well to take advantage of this lofty draft slot and secure a starting option for 2015 and beyond. Bortles may not fall out of the top 10, but if he does, Tennessee's first-year head coach Ken Whisenhunt could be the long-term benefactor.
12. NY Giants -- Aaron Donald, DT, Pitt
The Giants require help at left offensive tackle and Michigan's rough and ready Taylor Lewan is still on the board. But so is Donald, the draft's most disruptive and instinctive defensive tackle, and he's known for living in an opponent's backfield. New York's biggest loss this offseason was seeing a young and productive defensive tackle like Linval Joseph sign with Minnesota, but Donald's arrival would ease the pain of that free-agent departure.
13. St. Louis -- Darqueze Dennard, CB, Michigan State
Having greatly boosted their passing game with the pick of Watkins at No. 2, the Rams turn their attention to the pass defense at No. 13. Dennard's calling card is his superb man-to-man cover skills, and he plays with impressive physicality and a sense of fearlessness. Dennard would ideally provide the kind of tone-setting coverage the Rams were hoping to get from former Titans cornerback Cortland Finnegan when they signed him as a 2012 free agent.
14. Chicago -- Calvin Pryor, S, Louisville
The Bears are going to get help for their aging defense in the first round and there are some very good options at positions of need even if Pitt defensive tackle Aaron Donald doesn't make it to No. 14. Oklahoma State cornerback Justin Gilbert, Alabama inside linebacker C.J. Mosley or Florida State defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan all would be solid additions for the Bears, but the void at free safety is the most pressing piece of business in Chicago, and Pryor fills the bill nicely. At the moment, the Bears would have to rely on fourth-year safety Chris Conte, who is rehabbing from shoulder surgery. Pryor is known for his hard-hitting style of play, and both he and fellow first-round safety prospect Clinton-Dix are seeing their stock rise as the draft nears.
15. Pittsburgh -- Justin Gilbert, CB, Oklahoma State
The Steelers could turn in the card for a receiver like LSU's Odell Beckham Jr. or Southern Cal's Marqise Lee, but that wouldn't be very Pittsburgh-like. The Steelers usually find their receivers after the first round. I presume the run on defensive backs continues with Pittsburgh getting a prospect who could immediately upgrade the secondary, and lend a hand as a dangerous kick return man. Gilbert has strong ball skills and he plays physically enough to fit into coordinator Dick LeBeau's scheme.
16. Dallas -- Timmy Jernigan, DT, Florida State
The Cowboys have looked locked in on first-round defensive tackles for obvious reasons, but with Aaron Donald long gone, you wonder if the presence of Michigan's Taylor Lewan or Notre Dame's Zack Martin could prompt Dallas to address its weakness at right offensive tackle. The Cowboys love to move around in the first round, but for now, we're sticking with Jernigan at No. 16 given the need for bodies on the defensive line. The addition of ex-Bears defensive tackle Henry Melton didn't solve all the problems up front.
17. Baltimore -- Taylor Lewan, OT, Michigan
With both consensus first-round safeties already selected (Clinton-Dix and Pryor), the Ravens would rebound nicely by finding Lewan still available. He'd shore up the right offensive tackle slot that Michael Oher vacated and help Baltimore get back to running the ball consistently in the rough and tumble AFC North. If Lewan and the safeties are all gone, Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley makes sense as a mid-round pick with proven playmaking ability.
18. NY Jets -- Bradley Roby, CB, Ohio State
Let's switch it up and go defense for the Jets in the first round, because Rex Ryan is still Rex Ryan, and there are more quality options to be had at receiver in Rounds 2 and 3 than there are at cornerback. Roby had an underwhelming season in 2013, but he's a first-round talent who has the size, speed and playing style that will cut it in the pro game. He can excel in the press coverage that Ryan prefers and should have a fairly smooth transition to the starting lineup.
19. Miami -- Zack Martin, OT, Notre Dame
The Dolphins still continue to find the player many have had them zeroed in on for months now: Martin, the ex-Irish offensive lineman whose versatility at tackle or guard should make him very attractive to a Dolphins team with some rather well-known needs at those positions. If there's a defensive player that is beginning to be linked to Miami, it's Alabama inside linebacker C.J. Mosley, whose health seems to be his biggest question mark.
20. Arizona -- Anthony Barr, OLB, UCLA
The Cardinals could put this pick on the block and see if anyone has the conviction to come after a quarterback via trade. Arizona might even consider taking a passer itself in this slot if Bridgewater should fall. Otherwise, pass-rush help continues to be the logical target, and Barr, while inexperienced on defense, figures to carry the highest grade among the available prospects who can generate heat on the quarterback.
21. Green Bay -- C.J. Mosley, ILB, Alabama
This time around we don't foresee the Packers getting the safety they covet, because the highly regarded Clinton-Dix and Pryor went in the upper half of the round. But Mosley is a talented and productive three-down linebacker that Green Bay defensive coordinator Dom Capers could make good use of. With Mosley and Julius Peppers both joining forces with Clay Matthews, the Packers' linebacking unit would look significantly improved in 2014.
22. Philadelphia -- Brandin Cooks, WR, Oregon State
For those predicting Chip Kelly will live to regret the Eagles' divorce from DeSean Jackson, perhaps you hasd best wait to see who he replaces him with in the draft. If it's Cooks, Philly might be in for close to the same type of big-play production. Like Jackson, Cooks is a quick and elusive threat with the ball in his hands, and he's capable of stretching the field vertically and creating consistent matchup problems for a defense.
23. Kansas City -- Odell Beckham Jr., WR, LSU
It's interesting that both Andy Reid and the current Eagles coach, Chip Kelly, are likely looking for the same kind of explosive receiving help at No. 22 and 23 in this year's draft. I have flopped Beckham and Cooks since my 3.0 mock, but it's obvious the Chiefs and Eagles are shopping in the same aisle in this particular market. Beckham should provide yards after the catch and his skills in the return game are a bonus.
24. Cincinnati -- Ryan Shazier, OLB, Ohio State
Given the age the Bengals are showing at cornerback, that need might trump all and lead to either Virginia Tech's Kyle Fuller or TCU's Jason Verrett being Cincy's choice. But we're making a spot for the athletically gifted Shazier in the first round because his prospects are on the rise and he would provide the Bengals with three-down potential and some of the pass-rush production they lost when defensive end Michael Johnson jumped to Tampa Bay in free agency.
25. San Diego -- Kyle Fuller, CB, Virginia Tech
If the Chargers are going to close the gap on the Broncos in the AFC West, they're going to need reinforcements at cornerback, and Fuller and TCU's Jason Verrett are likely to come off the board right in this mid-20s portion of the round. Fuller had an injury-plagued 2013 season, but he has the athleticism of a starting NFL cover man, and if San Diego passes on him, both No. 26 Cleveland and No. 27 New Orleans likely have him on their short list.
26. Cleveland -- Marqise Lee, WR, USC
With four first-round cornerbacks already taken, it may be smarter for Cleveland to take a dip in the deeper receiver pool and find a pass-catching weapon to grow with new franchise quarterback Johnny Manziel. Lee and Josh Gordon could make for a nice starting tandem, with tight end Jordan Cameron and third receiver Andrew Hawkins contributing to a much-improved Browns' air attack. Lee was once expected to go in the draft's top 10, but injuries and a sub-par 2013 derailed that hope. At the bottom of the first round, however, he represents great value and brings a solid and versatile skillset to Cleveland.
27. New Orleans -- Jason Verrett, CB, TCU
Verrett is undersized at 5-9, but he battles, competes and stays in a receiver's face, and that sounds like Rob Ryan's kind of defender. With Jarius Byrd joining standout 2013 rookie Kenny Vaccaro at safety, and Champ Bailey now on hand to join Kennan Lewis at cornerback, the addition of Verrett would complete the transformation of a Saints secondary from abysmal in 2012 to a potential force this season.
28. Carolina -- Morgan Moses, OT, Virginia
Unfortunately for the Panthers, the first-round cornerback market has been picked clean at this point, and while wide receiver is a need, there are several quality wideouts who can be had in the second and third rounds. Carolina's best move is to find a starting offensive tackle at the bottom of the first round, and Moses' stock has been steadily on the rise thanks to an impressive 2013 and solid pre-draft work.
29. New England -- Louis Nix III, DT, Notre Dame
We all know about the Patriots' penchant for bailing out of the bottom of the first round, so a team that has a quarterback in its sights and wants to get the jump on the competition could well wind up owning this slot. But if they stick, the Pats might be able to choose defensive tackle Vince Wilfork's heir apparent in the space-eating Nix.
30. San Francisco -- Cody Latimer, WR, Indiana
If the 49ers believe they're going to be without the troubled Aldon Smith for the majority of the season due to an impending league suspension, it could alter their first-round focus in favor of an edge pass rusher like Auburn's Dee Ford or Missouri's Kony Ealy. But San Francisco did go 5-0 while Smith was absent and undergoing substance abuse rehab last season, so maybe there won't be a major course correction even if Smith can't be counted on for all of 2014. Latimer is a name on the rise and there are teams in the lower-third of the first round said to be enamored with his blend of size, speed and ability to consistently find the seams in a defense. Perhaps the 49ers will at last find a reliable No. 3 receiver.
31. Denver -- Xavier Su'a-Filo, G, UCLA
How could the Broncos not address an offensive line that got abused in the Super Bowl and lost guards Zane Beadles and Chris Kuper this offseason? Especially when that depleted line is all that stands between Peyton Manning and catastrophe, a scenario that would render moot all of Denver's Super Bowl dreams? The defense got its sizable upgrade in free agency, and now it's time for the Broncos to invest in some much-needed offensive line infrastructure.
32. Seattle -- Jace Amaro, TE, Texas Tech
The Seahawks are in the enviable position of being able to sit back and make a desperation-free pick, knowing they have some needs at receiver, defensive line, offensive line and tight end that jive well with the names that remain on the board. While the re-signing of Sidney Rice helps offset the loss of Golden Tate to some degree, Seattle clearly needs more firepower in its passing game given Percy Harvin's injury history. At 6-5, with a skillset that's more receiver than tight end, Amaro could develop into a nightmare matchup for defenses in the NFC West, especially in the red zone. Russell Wilson and a target of that size and athleticism should be able to make beautiful music together.