Now that Super Bowl XLVIII is in the books, it's time to move on to the Silly Season -- that is, the time before the scouting combine and various Pro Days in which we analysts try to guess what teams are thinking, or what they should be thinking, just as teams are ramping up their own film work and putting their initial heavy draft boards together.
Still, there are obvious needs and great fits all over the place, and since Mock Draft Season is more popular than Wabbit Season and Duck Season put together (not to mention the fact that my colleague Chris Burke is way ahead of the game with his own mocks), it's time to get rolling with more virtual drafts than you can shake a proverbial stick at.
In this mock, we're going with overall talent as opposed to pure fit, which is why some players who may go overdrafted based on positional importance (like Fresno State quarterback Derek Carr) are out of the picture. We will, of course, come at this mockery from several different angles over the next few months.
1. Houston Texans (2-14): Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville.
The Houston Texans clearly need a franchise quarterback as they start a rebuild under new head coach Bill O'Brien. And though there are several intriguing quarterbacks in this draft class, none possess Bridgewater's combination of mobility, ability to throw on the run, capability to make every throw, and command of the game that will pay dividends at the next level. Size is a concern, but take a look at Tom Brady and Drew Brees -- NFL training programs can make quarterbacks better, faster and stronger, and Bridgewater has everything else needed to succeed.
2. St. Louis -- via Washington (3-13): Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M.
The Rams may look at a quarterback later in the draft, and it would be very tempting to take a receiver this high, but it's pretty clear that protection is the primary issue. Sam Bradford may still have a shot at franchise-level production if he can stay upright and healthy. Matthews is the premier outside lineman in this class -- the kind of player you can set and forget (in a very good sense) for the next five years.
3. Jacksonville Jaguars (4-12): Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina.
Clowney doesn't dip in this mock because of any nonsense about his motor, motivation or production -- it's simply a matter of team need, and how the draft rolls sometimes. In this case, going third will be an ideal situation for him, because head coach Gus Bradley learned a lot from Pete Carroll as Seattle's defensive coordinator from 2009 through '12, including how to use defensive linemen in variable situations and in rotational packages. In such a system, Clowney's ability to play outside and move inside at times, taking on double teams and still getting production all the while, will be featured in the best possible ways
4. Cleveland Browns (4-12): Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M.
He's not the safest pick, that's for sure -- the YOLO lifestyle and occasionally weird on-field decisions will leave some teams wondering how he'll handle things once the playbooks and defenses get a lot more complicated. Manziel has an element of randomness in his play that brings Tony Romo to mind, but the Browns desperately need something at that position -- and Manziel also possesses the ability to carry his team on his back at times.
5. Oakland Raiders (4-12): Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson.
The Raiders still have a bunch of needs as they continue their interminable post-Al Davis rebuilding process, but let's give them a sure playmaker in Watkins. Few draft prospects in recent years have possessed his combination of speed, acceleration and ability to catch the ball on the run -- and then hit a second gear. Like Percy Harvin and Cordarrelle Patterson, Watkins can line up all over the field, giving Oakland's quarterback du jour all kinds of new possibilities.
6. Atlanta Falcons (4-12): Greg Robinson, OT, Auburn.
Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff is one of the league's most respected personnel men, but his failures on both lines are coming home to roost more and more. This team lacks a consistent pass rusher, can be beaten inside in the run game, and protection is a fairly major issue. In Robinson, the Falcons will at least have a player capable of taking care of Matt Ryan's blindside and clearing the way in the run game. Robinson is a mauler who needs technical refinement, but the Falcons need to start amassing pure physical talent at the heart of their franchise.
7. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-12): Khalil Mack, OLB, Buffalo.
New Bucs head coach Lovie Smith has inherited an estimable linebacker corps, but as he built his Bears teams on the combination of linebacker acumen and pass-rush consistency, Mack would be a tremendous addition to a defense that is in for a major upgrade from a coaching perspective. He set FBS career records with 75 tackles for loss and 16 forced fumbles, and with his physical talents, Mack can do everything from drop into coverage to clog up the A-gaps in the dual-linebacker blitzes Smith loves to set up.
8. Minnesota Vikings (5-10-1): Blake Bortles, QB, UCF.
Matt Cassell will void his contract and become a free agent, and it's not like he was the long-term answer at the position, anyway. And Christian Ponder isn't really the answer to any question at this point. New head coach Mike Zimmer has a quandary at the game's most important position, and Bortles would be an intriguing pick here. He's already impressed many of those who would ordinarily dismiss him due to the small-school bias. The next step will be to take his impressive size (6-foot-5, 230 pounds) and surprising mobility and add an advanced playbook understanding. Right now, Bortles is a see-it-and-throw-it guy who will bail against pressure.
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Mosley and Kiko Alonso in the same defense? Seems unfair to the rest of the AFC East, but that's how it goes sometimes. This is high for a linebacker, but you don't see a lot of linebackers with Mosley's range, versatility and field awareness. Putting him in this defense would give the Bills one unreal base front seven, and allow the team to play nickel and dime with impunity, because the linebackers would be flying all over the place.
10. Detroit Lions (7-9): Darqueze Dennard, CB, Michigan State.
The Lions have a new head coach in Jim Caldwell, but the same old problem on defense -- a group of cornerbacks that should surely play better given the amount of pressure provided up front. Dennard, the 2013 Jim Thorpe Award winner, would provide a home-state solution with the legitimate shutdown fluidity that makes him the best cornerback in this draft class.
11. Tennessee Titans (7-9): Anthony Barr, OLB, UCLA.
If the Titans don't go quarterback here (and they very well might), perhaps an edge rusher would fit the bill. Barr still needs a bit of finishing work, but he absolutely explodes off the tape. Barr comes off the ball well inside and outside, has tremendous flexibility and strength, and he could be even scarier once he gets into an NFL training program.
12. New York Giants (7-9): Taylor Lewan, OT, Michigan.
New York's regression on offense had a great deal to do with an offensive line that just didn't step up. Eli Manning was an interception festival at times, and the formerly dominant run game was nothing special in 2013. Tom Coughlin's team can pick up interior linemen later in the draft, but adding Lewan up top gives that line an edge and flexibility. Toughness will mask certain technique issues as Lewan gets the hang of the NFL game.
13. St. Louis Rams (7-9): Marqise Lee, WR, USC.
Whoever the Rams' quarterback is in 2014 and beyond, the need for targets has been clear for years. And as this team tries to ascend in the brutally tough NFC West, Lee would go a long way toward spicing the offense right up. A star in USC's pro-style offense, Lee can beat the press coverage that is a divisional staple, understands the advanced routes and cuts that the NFL requires and can simply blast off over the top at times.
14. Chicago Bears (8-8): Aaron Donald, DT, Pitt.
Injuries marred Chicago's defensive line in 2013, but projecting Donald here is more about the future than any short-term spackle. Pitt opponents tried just about everything to slow him down, and nothing worked. Because you won't often see an interior lineman blast off and kill the gaps as he does, Donald would have the chance to become Chicago's best interior defensive lineman since Tommie Harris' glory days.
15. Pittsburgh Steelers (8-8): Louis Nix III, DT, Notre Dame.
Yes, cornerback is a sure need, and this team always seems to require more help on the offensive line. But Dick LeBeau's defenses are built on a root hog up the middle who can soak up double teams and let everyone else fly around. Not only can Nix do that at 6-2 and 345 pounds, but also he can bull through those schemes arrayed against him to add to any team's pressure concepts. Conditioning is a slight concern, but Nix would be around veterans who understand what it takes.
16. Baltimore Ravens (8-8)*: Mike Evans, WR, Texas A&M.
Baltimore's offense fell off a cliff in 2013, and while the run game was the major issue, nobody with a brain is ready to give up on Ray Rice. Instead, the Ravens should be looking at better targets for Joe Flacco, who desperately missed Anquan Boldin last season. Evans has the size at 6-5 and 225 pounds to deal with aggressive defensive backs, but he can also get free in a straight line -- something he showed over and over when he was on the receiving end of footballs from Johnny Manziel. Given Flacco's natural feel for the deep ball, Evans would have Rookie of the Year potential in this offense.
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17. Dallas Cowboys (8-8)*: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, FS, Alabama.
Because this is a mock draft, we can make a sensible pick in the Cowboys' war room. Dallas' safety play has been a problem for years, and if Jerry Jones ever wants to get back to the postseason, he either has to wait for Roger Goodell to increase the number of postseason teams, or take a hammer and nails to his deep secondary. Clinton-Dix is less a pure tackler and more a coverage specialist, but coverage is what this team needs. He reads quarterbacks very well, breaks on the ball with speed and fluidity and can take care of center field.
18. New York Jets (8-8): Eric Ebron, TE, North Carolina.
The Jets could go a few different ways on offense here, and there are some who wouldn't be surprised if they dipped back into the quarterback pool. But giving Geno Smith some reliable targets before moving on would seem to make sense.
19. Miami Dolphins (8-8): Cyrus Kouandjio, OT, Alabama.
The future of the Dolphins' offensive line is uncertain in the wake of whatever actually happened between Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin. The addition of Kouandjio would give the Dolphins a versatile, technique-sound left tackle able to man a position that was iffy even when the inconsistent Martin was in there.
20. Arizona Cardinals (10-6): Zack Martin, OT, Notre Dame.
Like the Rams, the Cardinals are trying to put the finishing touches on an excellent team that will have to become even better to challenge San Francisco and Seattle in the NFC West in future years. If the Cards took Martin or someone of his caliber in this draft, and got Jonathan Cooper back from the broken left fibula that cost him the 2013 season, they'd add two first-rounders to a front five that has been under construction for eons.
21. Green Bay Packers (8-7-1): Justin Gilbert, CB, Oklahoma State.
Ted Thompson and his staff have an innate understanding of the value of versatile cornerbacks -- the kinds who can play nickel and outside with equal skill, and even slip out to safety depth at times. Green Bay could go in other directions here, but a team facing opponents looking to play catch-up with Aaron Rodgers' passing game can always use another high-quality defensive back. Gilbert led the Big 12 in picks with six in 2013, and he's also an amazing return man.
22. Philadelphia Eagles (10-6): Jason Verrett, CB, TCU.
Similarly, as Chip Kelly's offense comes together in its second NFL season, pass coverage will be at a premium. Verrett would be a great addition to Billy Davis' aggressive defense. He can trail receivers, will undercut routes with aplomb and is tough enough to provide run support.
23. Kansas City Chiefs (11-5): Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Florida State.
The Chiefs would be wise to go with defensive reinforcements as their defense collapsed down the stretch as injuries took their toll, but there's also the need for more targets for Alex Smith in the short term -- and the quarterback of the future in Andy Reid's offense in the long term. Benjamin is a big receiver who uses his impressive wingspan to win battles on fades and other red-zone routes.
24. Cincinnati Bengals (11-5): Timmy Jernigan, DT, Florida State.
The Bengals have an elite penetrating defensive tackle in the great Geno Atkins, but when Atkins was hurt last season, there weren't any real complementary answers. Besides, rotational stability is the key to great defensive fronts these days. Jernigan is an attack tackle who needs to improve his speed and timing off the snap, but has all the elements to be a fine presence in any defensive line.
25. San Diego Chargers (9-7): Kony Ealy, DE, Missouri.
Year 2 of the Chargers' recovery from five years of A.J. Smith sees them in need of reinforcements along the defensive line. Corey Liuget has shown improved potential, but it's been hit-and-miss otherwise. Ealy shoots off the snap, and though he needs to lower his pad level consistently, he can play well in hybrid lines at multiple positions.
26. Cleveland Browns -- via Indianapolis (11-5): Odell Beckham Jr., WR, LSU.
Josh Gordon somehow had an amazing season with Cleveland's Quarterbackapalooza, but with Davone Bess' predilection for dropping everything thrown in his direction, whoever's throwing the ball for the Browns in 2014 would appreciate another consistent receiver. Beckham is a smaller, fluid receiver who would be a great complement on crosses, slants and other slot routes.
27. New Orleans Saints (11-5): Dee Ford, DE, Auburn.
Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan knows how to bring the best out of pass rushers with all different dimensions, and in Ford he could have a new pass-rush presence to add to a defense that already brings pressure from several angles. Ford could play a Von Miller or Bruce Irvin role, excelling in various Sam linebacker concepts.
28. Carolina Panthers (12-4): Calvin Pryor, FS, Louisville.
The Panthers may very well have the NFL's most dangerous front seven, and though their secondary improved as the 2013 season went on, a little star power wouldn't hurt. Pryor is a big hitter in the front half of the defense, but he also can cover slots and seams.
29. New England Patriots (12-4): Jace Amaro, TE, Texas Tech.
Clearly, Tom Brady needs more targets. And clearly, with Aaron Hernandez out of the picture and Rob Gronkowski bringing new definitions to the term "injury-prone," the Pats could use a productive and consistent presence at tight end. That's how Bill Belichick has designed New England's current offense. Amaro was a yards-after-catch monster in college, lining up in the slot most of the time and creating nightmares for linebackers and safeties. He'd be a perfect plug-in for Hernandez's old role, and could take some of the heat off of Brady should Gronk continue his recent injury trend.
30. San Francisco 49ers (12-4): Ra'Shede Hageman, DT, Minnesota.
At some point in the draft, head coach Jim Harbaugh and general manager Trent Baalke will look hard at receivers, knowing that if Michael Crabtree had been healthy all season, the NFC might have gone a different way. But there's also the matter of the defensive line over the long term -- and that's the cornerstone of Vic Fangio's defense. Hageman, with his knack for blasting opposing linemen from the nose-shade and three-technique spots, would be an exceptional complement to Justin Smith in the short term -- and Smith's ultimate replacement over time.
31. Denver Broncos (13-3): Kyle Van Noy, OLB, BYU.
The Broncos got to the Super Bowl despite losing their entire projected front four, which is a tribute to defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio. But without Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil, Denver's defense failed to bring heat at a consistent level. Van Noy has been a standout for a long time not because of his speed, but because of his sound technique and understanding of the requirements of his position.
32. Seattle Seahawks (13-3): David Yankey, OG, Stanford. Seattle's guards have been average at best since Steve Hutchinson poison-pilled his way out of the Emerald City after the Seahawks' Super Bowl appearance in February 2006, and the fact that the franchise nabbed its first Lombardi Trophy last Sunday doesn't erase that issue. Pete Carroll and John Schneider have had great success with low-drafted (Richard Sherman) and undrafted (Doug Baldwin) players from Stanford, and Yankey could fill a major hole at a patchwork position. He's a tremendously strong blocker with impressive athleticism, and an implicit understanding of NFL-level concepts.