Some writers and broadcasters may demean the scouting combine as the "underwear Olympics," insisting that you can't tell much from watching a bunch of guys run around against no competition on a quiet field in Indianapolis. It's a cute conceit, but it's not true at all -- to a greater or lesser degree, every NFL franchise takes the combine very seriously. It's a place to get a good bead on how that prospect you love will show up in a one-on-one interview, or how he's recovered from that injury, or how he'll try to explain away that mysterious escapade with the law.
Most importantly, it's a place and time where players can show that there are aspects to their games that aren't quite so evident on tape, for a multitude of reasons. And because of the combine's true importance, mock drafts generally take on a different look once it's done. And with the 2014 combine in the books, here's how things have changed for the 32 prospects I think the NFL will take in the first round of the upcoming draft.
1. Houston Texans (2-14): Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina
As far as I'm concerned, Clowney's alleged effort issues aren't the key to his reduced sack rate in 2013. He uses his ridiculous speed to penetrate through gaps to the backfield far more than he's given credit for, and it's his relatively rudimentary technique that gets in the way. Often, Clowney will look to shoot gaps like a running back would, he doesn't use hand moves at an NFL level, and he gets negated from the side when he's going after the quarterback. But he also makes a large amount of splash plays in the backfield given the number of blockers he faces, and I see a fairly consistent level of effort -- not a lot of "loafs" here. It's interesting how narratives go forward when the tape shows something else, but I'm thinking that the Texans, and new defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel, won't be fooled. They'll recognize Clowney as a unique talent and select him as such. (GALLERY: Jadeveon Clowney's Greatest Hits)
2. St. Louis Rams -- via Washington (3-13): Greg Robinson, OT, Auburn
Robinson isn't quite as developed as Jake Matthews as a pure pass-blocker, but his athleticism and power make him a legitimate second-overall prospect, and the rest will come in time. Jeff Fisher wants a prototypical mauler in his offense to protect the blind side of his quarterback, and Robinson provides that and absolutely buries people in the run game. Moreover, as he proved at the scouting combine by running a sub-5.0 40 at 6-foot-5 and 332 pounds, Robinson has the speed and burst to hit the second level with authority. The Rams have had line issues for years based on iffy drafts. Taking Robinson would go a long way to reversing that process.
3. Jacksonville Jaguars (4-12): Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville
There isn't a single transcendent quarterback prospect in this draft, but Bridgewater is the closest you'll find to an Andrew Luck or Robert Griffin in 2014. With his mobility, field vision, accuracy to all areas and game intelligence, Bridgewater has everything it takes to succeed in the NFL. And enough about his slight frame -- he measured in at 6-2 and 214 pounds at the combine, and an NFL strength program will add to his functional muscle. The Jags are rebuilding slowly but intelligently, and Bridgewater could well be the chip that takes them out of mediocrity for the first time in eons.
4. Cleveland Browns (4-12): Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M
Ron Jaworski might not take Manziel in the first three rounds, but the Cleveland brain trust will have no such issues. Manziel still needs to get the hang of pocket passing on a consistent basis, but he's a human highlight film with great mobility, escapability and improvisation. It will take Manziel a while to become fully integrated into an NFL offense, but he'll become the face of a franchise that hasn't had one in a good, long time.
5. Oakland Raiders (4-12): Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson
With more than $65 million in cap space, and positions to fill all over the roster, the Raiders are in desperate need of true playmakers. And there are few more obvious playmakers in this draft class than Watkins, with his explosive speed and agility. Oakland might take a quarterback if Bridgewater or Manziel fall to the fifth pick, but putting a receiver of this caliber in place for whoever their quarterback might be would be a smart move for this team.
6. Atlanta Falcons (4-12): Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M
Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff is one of the league's brighter minds, but he's been paying for his misses on both sides of the line. Last season, Lamar Holmes and Sam Baker failed to protect Matt Ryan's blind side and create openings for the run game. Matthews, as the 2014 draft's most practiced and polished lineman, should be a plug-and-play option for the next few years.
7. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-12): Khalil Mack, OLB, Buffalo
New Bucs head coach Lovie Smith isn't quite the rigid Tampa-Two disciple some would have you believe -- the Bears ran a lot of Cover-One and Cover-Three concepts in Smith's last few years there. But there's one thing Smith always wants in his defenses, and that's linebackers who can cover a lot of ground and do multiple things. With Lavonte David already in the fold, and a lot of pieces in place on his defense, Smith would be wise to add Mack to the mix. Mack has proven that he can do everything from coverage to rushing the passer, and he'd be a huge factor in the double A-gap blitzes Smith will bring to Tampa.
8. Minnesota Vikings (5-10-1): Blake Bortles, QB, UCF
Yes, this is a bit of an overdraft, but Vikings general manager Rick Spielman has never been shy about pulling the trigger a bit early for a perceived need -- and there's nothing perceived about Minnesota's need for a franchise quarterback. Bortles is still learning multiple-read concepts, and he'll be befuddled at times by NFL defenses. But with offensive coordinator Norv Turner in tow, Bortles does have the innate ability to become a great NFL signal-caller over time.
9. Buffalo Bills (6-10): Calvin Pryor, FS, Louisville
Let's assume that the Bills will not be able to re-sign safety Jairus Byrd, one of the best and most underrated players in the league. If that's the case, new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz will have a serious problem on his hands, as Byrd's ability in deep coverage allowed his predecessors to throw certain schemes at opposing offenses with impunity. Pryor is the quickest and flashiest safety in this class, and he'd be a great replacement for Byrd over time.
10. Detroit Lions (7-9): Justin Gilbert, CB, Oklahoma State
Schwartz's old team never really got over a lack of elite cornerback play during his time there, and in Gilbert, new head coach Jim Caldwell would have an impressive building block. Gilbert led the Big 12 with seven picks in 2013, and he really blew everyone away at the combine by running a 4.37 40 and looking very agile in drills. The tape matches up, and though Gilbert is prone to occasional lapses in consistency, he's the most physically impressive cornerback in this class.
11. Tennessee Titans (7-9): Aaron Donald, DT, Pittsburgh
It wouldn't be a surprise to most if Donald went in the top 10, but if he lasts this long, Titans defensive coordinator Ray Horton -- one of the NFL's most aggressive and diverse play-callers -- would have a field day given Donald's power, playmaking skills and versatility. At 6-1 and 285 pounds, Donald added a transcendent combine performance to a very strong week at the Senior Bowl, and reams of Pitt tape show that he's the real deal. Few interior linemen possess his speed off the snap.
12. New York Giants (7-9): Anthony Barr, OLB/DE, UCLA
Most mocks have the G-Men taking an offensive tackle with the 12th pick, and there's no question that head coach Tom Coughlin and new offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo have a lot to address when it comes to pass protection. But let's turn our attention to the other side of the ball, where New York's formerly impressive defense ranked 28th in Football Outsiders' Adjusted Sack Rate metric in 2013. Barr is still developing as a total defender, but he could change the Giants defense right away as a pure pass-rusher, with his explosion off the snap and impressive speed around the edge.
13. St. Louis Rams (7-9): Mike Evans, WR, Texas A&M
The Rams started to address their need for targets by taking Tavon Austin in 2013. To compliment Austin's speed underneath and down the seam, head coach Jeff Fisher and general manager Les Snead would be smart to look at Evans, who is an estimable red-zone target and can get open in free spaces downfield. Evans is a very physical receiver when he needs to be, gets up to speed impressively for his size and could have a Demaryius Thomas-like impact with the right team.
14. Chicago Bears (8-8): Louis Nix, NT, Notre Dame
Chicago clearly has issues along its defensive line, and taking Nix would help a lot. Some think of him as more of a 3-4 hole-plugging nose tackle, but Nix has the agility and short-area speed to make plays as well. He would also allow Marc Trestman's defensive staff to be more versatile and variable in their line concepts, not unlike Dontari Poe did for the Chiefs last season.
15. Pittsburgh Steelers (8-8): Darqueze Dennard, CB, Michigan State
After a few rocky drafts, Steelers GM Kevin Colbert has a plethora of positional holes to consider. A primary issue is at cornerback, where William Gay was the only pass defender to log an opponent passer rating under 88.1 -- Ike Taylor, who had the most passing snaps of any Steelers' cornerback, allowed a 110.6 passer rating and six touchdowns with no picks. Dennard may have a few holes in his game, but he's got the athleticism and ball skills to be a considerable improvement right off the bat.
16. Dallas Cowboys (8-8): Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, FS, Alabama
And speaking of coverage disasters ... the Cowboys have tried and failed to address the gaping holes in their pass defense left by their safeties. Like most Nick Saban-trained defenders, Clinton-Dix will get too aggressive at times and bite on play fakes, and his backpedal is nothing to write home about. But those issues can be cleared up in time, and the Cowboys desperately need an enforcer in their secondary who can contend with an NFC East that has become more and more about the aerial game in recent years.
17. Baltimore Ravens (8-8): Taylor Lewan, OT, Michigan
Clearly the Ravens need help in their receiver corps. But one hidden part of their disappointing finish in 2013 was the fact that the Ravens line allowed 48 sacks. With tackles Eugene Monroe and Michael Oher potentially on the open market, things could get worse before they get better, which is why it shouldn't be a big surprise if Ozzie Newsome dropped the hammer on a pick such as Lewan. Lewan will occasionally go over the line and grab penalties as a result, but Lewan is athletic and powerful enough to ease Joe Flacco's mind regarding who's charging from his blind side.
18. New York Jets (8-8): Marqise Lee, WR, USC
The Jets have built up an estimable young defense under Rex Ryan, especially up front. But through Ryan's tenure, the offense has always been limited. That was never more true than in 2013, when rookie quarterback Geno Smith struggled through most of the season, and tight end Jeff Cumberland led the team with four touchdown receptions. That's why it's time to give Smith, or Michael Vick, or whoever, a receiver of Lee's caliber. Most everything Lee does seems to be underrated, but with his route awareness and smooth, gliding speed, he brings Reggie Wayne to mind.
19. Miami Dolphins (8-8): Zack Martin, OT, Notre Dame
No NFL team has more offensive line issues than the Dolphins, and with Richie Incognito -- and likely Jonathan Martin -- out of the picture, it's time to replenish. It would make just as much sense to go with one of the better guard prospects here, but if Martin's available, he'd fit this particular offensive structure. Martin's not particularly athletic, and some project him as a guard at the next level, but the Dolphins generally have no issue with such tweeners, and Martin has a good fundamental understanding of his position.
20. Arizona Cardinals (10-6): Dee Ford, DE, Auburn
First-year coordinator Todd Bowles put one of the NFL's best defenses on the field in 2013, and John Abraham's 11.5 sacks added a lot to that picture. But Abraham will be 36 in time for the 2014 season, and the Cards will need an up-and-coming outside pass rusher in the NFL's most brutal division. Ford has proven that he can set the edge with great speed, and Bowles has the interior talent to put Ford in an endbacker role, where he can avoid strength issues against better blockers and just pin his ears back.
The Packers could use help at several defensive positions, but Mosley would provide an excellent -- and consistent -- presence right in the middle of things. Inside linebackers aren't generally sexy on tape, but it's hard to watch Mosley and not get caught up in his command of so many little things. From crashing down into the right gap, to correctly covering the slant and short seam route, Mosley is a true 360-degree player who will improve any defense in need of a play-to-play leader.
22. Philadelphia Eagles (10-6): Kony Ealy, DE, Missouri
Philly relied on Trent Cole and Connor Barwin for its pass rush in 2013, but defensive coordinator Bill Davis could use a physically imposing player who works well in Davis' preferred hybrid fronts. The 6-4, 273-pound Ealy disappears at times, but he has enough quickness and overall awareness to get better, and he's also built up a nice résumé as a deflector of passes at the line.
23. Kansas City Chiefs (11-5): Odell Beckham Jr., WR, LSU
Though Andy Reid has always preferred West Coast concepts as the driving force behind his offenses, he also wants a deep vertical threat to take the top off of coverage. And from start to finish, there's no better and more versatile speed receiver in this class than Beckham. He tore it up at the scouting combine, running a 4.43 40 and nailing it in all the drills. Add in his value as a return man, and Beckham could redefine Reid's offense sooner than later.
24. Cincinnati Bengals (11-5): Jason Verrett, CB, TCU
The Bengals could still get a valuable pass-rusher in this draft later on, but if you want a high-quality corner (and Marvin Lewis should), the first round is where to get that guy. And when you're dealing late in the first round, it's time to look at value picks. Verrett will probably be underrated by some teams because his 5-9 frame doesn't fit the way things are trending, but he's proven that he plays bigger than he is. Verrett is an aggressive defender who can jump routes with consistency and has a knack for making plays even when the ball goes away from the man he's covering.
25. San Diego Chargers (9-7): Ra'Shede Hageman, DT, Minnesota
The Chargers need help at defensive tackle and in the pass rush, and while it's not easy to fill both needs with one player, Hageman just might fit the bill. He can certainly disrupt inside at 6-6 and 310 pounds, but he's also athletic enough to make plays in the backfield as a pure three-technique tackle. And with the right team, he might even get a few snaps as a king-sized run-stuffing end.
26. Cleveland Browns — via Indianapolis (11-5): Xavier Su'a-Filo, OL, UCLA
John Greco and Shawn Lauvao, Cleveland's primary guards in 2013, allowed a total of 10 sacks between then, and didn't present much as run-blockers. Any re-do of Cleveland's offense must include a re-examination of the guard position, and it's tough to argue with what Su'a-Filo's put on tape. He's a big, nasty earthmover with enough agility to play right tackle at the NFL level, and he'll establish a sense of intelligent aggression from his first day in the locker room. Few players in this class are more fun to watch.
27. New Orleans Saints (11-5): Kyle Fuller, CB, Virginia Tech
The Saints clearly showed that when their primary cornerbacks were out of the game for any reason, the backups didn't have what it takes to match up. They spent a pretty penny on Keenan Lewis in free agency last year and got good results, but when Jabari Greer went on injured reserve and was recently released, a clear opening was established. Fuller dealt with a sports hernia through his senior campaign, but clearly displayed at the combine that he's recovered and ready to make any defense better.
28. Carolina Panthers (12-4): Cyrus Kouandjio, OT, Alabama
Losing Jordan Gross to retirement will be a big blow to Carolina's offense, as the big man clearly still had a lot left in the tank. Kouandjio, who is surprisingly nimble for a 6-7, 322-pound player, could fill that left tackle spot nicely over time. He won't set any land speed records (he ran a 5.59 40 at the combine), but he's quicker than that on tape, and he covers everything well -- from mauling run-blocking to estimable pass protection.
29. New England Patriots (12-4): Eric Ebron, TE, North Carolina
The fact that New England won 12 games and took the AFC East crown is a testament to its improved defense and Bill Belichick's overall acumen ... because Tom Brady was seriously lacking in targets for most of the year. Belichick has built his offense around the two-tight end concept in recent years, and with Aaron Hernandez's um ... departure and Rob Gronkowski's injury history, help is needed. Ebron is the most complete tight end in this class, providing an excellent mix of blocking prowess and playmaking ability from inline or in the slot.
30. San Francisco 49ers (12-4): Brandin Cooks, WR, Oregon State
Yes, the Seahawks won the Super Bowl to end the 2013 season, but the 49ers and their fans will always wonder if the story of the NFC West would have turned out differently had Michael Crabtree been on the field for the entire season. Colin Kaepernick may have Crabtree, Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis together in 2014, but let's give this offense a good backup plan at the bottom of the first round. Cooks is a smaller, tough receiver with impressive speed, and the Niners could use someone to split deep coverage and allow Kaepernick to unleash his deep ball more often.
31. Denver Broncos (13-3): Timmy Jernigan, DT, Florida State
The addition of Terrance "Pot Roast" Knighton was huge for the Broncos in 2013 -- literally and figuratively. And it was impressive that Denver made the Super Bowl with several defensive starters affected by various injuries. Of course, that has a lot to do with Peyton Manning, but if Manning can't repeat his historic season in 2014, more will be expected of the defense. Jernigan would be a great addition, providing pressure ability inside and strength against the run.
32. Seattle Seahawks (13-3): David Yankey, OG, Stanford Seahawks line coach Tom Cable has been spackling guard prospects together over the last few years, and at some point it's going to catch up to Russell Wilson. Wilson was pressured over 40 percent of the time in the regular season, and more than half the time in the postseason. In addition, there were times when Marshawn Lynch couldn't even take a handoff before defenders were past Seattle's guards and on him in the backfield. It's time for Seattle to take this position more seriously. Yankey is a tough, athletic blocker with experience in different blocking schemes and the right kind of attitude for Seattle's power-based offense.