The main goal of mock drafts several months in advance of the real deal is to get a strong sense for what each team may look for when it is on the clock. In turn, that helps paint a picture for which prospects may land where, and which positions will be in demand early.
The landscape for this latest mock, 4.0 on Audibles, hints that there are going to be a few swing players in Round 1 -- guys who could land with a wide-ranging number of teams, with their fates really dictating how the first day plays out.
Johnny Manziel is one such player. So are his quarterback counterparts, UCF's Blake Bortles and Fresno State's Derek Carr. Of those three, Carr may be in the most precarious spot. Of the teams in the top 10 (for now, pending any trades), seven could justify drafting a quarterback.
Of course, not all seven will do so in Round 1. With players like Jadeveon Clowney, Jake Matthews, Khalil Mack, Anthony Barr and a boatload of wide receivers available, the urge may be to pass in favor of Day 2/3 QB prospects such as Zach Mettenberger, Aaron Murray or A.J. McCarron.
Manziel's knack for making plays (not to mention his overall abilities) could lock him in as a top-10 spot. Bortles, whose outlook is soaring in NFL circles, may be up there on potential alone.
Carr appears to have the most questions: about his throwing motion, the type of offense he played in, his shaky bowl-game showing. Once we get to about the No. 12 pick, there just are not a ton of teams -- barring a surprise pick or trade up -- that look like they'll need a quarterback.
There may not be enough room for all these quarterbacks early, even if the need is there league-wide.
1. Houston Texans (2-14): Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville.
The pre-draft process can feel rather interminable, so most prominent prospects trek through ebbs and flows in their hype. Right now, Bridgewater's in a bit of a lull. Blame it on Louisville playing an early bowl game or focus falling on Blake Bortles and Johnny Manziel. Whatever the reason, Bridgewater has slipped out of the spotlight a bit.
So, here's your reminder: This is the best quarterback in the 2014 class. Bridgewater has shown time and again what he is capable of on the field, and The MMQB's Greg Bedard recently highlighted what a sharp football mind he has: "You’d be hard-pressed to find many, if any, college quarterbacks that are asked to do [as much as Bridgewater is]," Bedard wrote, "especially at 21 years old and in a completely full-field read progression system."
There's no use picking through the remaining prospects to figure out who should go No. 1 when the answer is staring us in the face.
2. St. Louis -- via Washington (3-13): Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina.
It is a very rare occurrence that a pretty good team -- the Rams were 7-9 this season -- gets a chance to draft up here. And in my view, there are three ways to take advantage: 1. Take a quarterback, signaling a virtual end to Sam Bradford's days as the No. 1 guy; 2. Trade down again, a scenario that may be likely should another team fall in love with a player; or 3. Draft Clowney.
All season long, skeptics have looked at Clowney's stats and his occasional choice to sit out a play or game and tabbed him a future bust. Look deeper, at his impact on how the opposition schemed. He's special ... and only going to get better. St. Louis will find a way to use him, even with Robert Quinn and Chris Long on the field. Oh, and Jeff Fisher loves having a stockpile of pass-rushers.
3. Jacksonville Jaguars (4-12): Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M.
An admission: I was all over the place with Manziel before settling on him here, bumping out Khalil Mack. I do not think it's out of the question that the Jaguars aim for someone like Mack or Anthony Barr to give Gus Bradley a dynamic defender. But doing so would likely force them to settle on a second-tier QB later, dragging out the rebuilding project.
Manziel will make mistakes (possibly off the field as well as on). He'll also make the Jaguars a far more dangerous team from Day 1.
4. Cleveland Browns (4-12): Blake Bortles, QB, UCF.
Bortles is the man of the hour in draft circles, with his Fiesta Bowl win putting the capper on a brilliant season. He has a chance to be great at the next level. Right now? I'd say he could be pretty good as a rookie as he undergoes some growing pains. For the Browns, the notion of finally nabbing a franchise quarterback will outweigh any concerns.
5. Oakland Raiders (4-12): Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M.
Is this another spot for a quarterback? How about a wide receiver? Should their choice truly boil down to QB or WR at No. 5, the guess here is that they'd lean receiver -- partially because any quarterback will struggle in Oakland until the rest of the depth chart improves. The line, in particular, must be strong for the offense to have a chance. Oakland needs to get Jared Veldheer re-signed this offseason. Pairing him with Matthews, who has extensive experience at right tackle, would set the Raiders on the right path.
6. Atlanta Falcons (4-12): Khalil Mack, OLB, Buffalo.
The Falcons' pass rush (like its offensive line) was a complete mess in 2013 -- it generated just 32 sacks all season, third-worst in the league. Atlanta needs to adjust, both in scheme and in personnel. Mack would upgrade the latter while driving changes to the former. The Seahawks have popularized the "Leo" linebacker position, which combines elements of the DE and OLB positions. Mack could play that role for the Falcons.
7. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-12): Anthony Barr, OLB, UCLA.
Expect there to be a lot of Mack versus Barr discussion in the four months between now and the draft. Mack is further developed as a pro-ready prospect; Barr may have the higher upside. A lot of the comments for Atlanta's pick hold true here, too: Barr would provide a jolt to an undermanned pass rush, even if the Buccaneers had to be a little creative in utilizing him.
Lovie Smith will want defensive playmakers -- and not only Tampa-2 guys. Barr would be a welcome addition.
8. Minnesota Vikings (5-10-1): Derek Carr, QB, Fresno State.
That Vikings fans would be skittish over this pick is understandable. The last time they attempted to draft a franchise QB, with Christian Ponder in 2011, they flopped miserably. Carr has issues with his mechanics to work out and played in a very QB-friendly offense. This is not a slam dunk.
But the Vikings need a quarterback, and Carr's skill level makes him worth the risk. Minnesota has the O-line Carr needs in front of him, plus catch-and-go weapons like Cordarrelle Patterson. Carr could erase the Ponder mistake.
9. Buffalo Bills (6-10): Eric Ebron, TE, North Carolina.
I'll throw out two names here: Ebron and Mike Evans. The biggest variable they have in common? Size. Ebron runs 6-foot-4, 245 pounds; Evans 6-5, 225. If the Bills look to bolster their offense here, they will want to find a tall, red-zone target to complement a relatively average-sized group.
10. Detroit Lions (7-9): Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson.
Watkins could climb higher than this (especially after that dominant bowl-game showing). He most likely will not fall much lower. Outside of Houston and Atlanta, pretty much any team above Detroit could justify nabbing the explosive Clemson wide receiver -- and the Lions might be sick for years if Minnesota rolls the dice by pairing Watkins with Patterson.
If the Lions get their choice between Watkins, Evans and Marqise Lee, they'd be ecstatic. Watkins fits every need Detroit has across from Megatron.
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There is a prevailing belief out there -- with some evidence to back it up -- that Alabama players hit their ceilings before arriving in the NFL. Here's the thing with Mosley, however: If he's already at his ceiling, he still can slot in and be an impact defender.
Offensive tackle is another option here. The Titans also have two huge wild cards in safety Bernard Pollard and CB Alterraun Verner, both pending free agents. Losing either could bump that vacated position to the top of their draft board.
12. New York Giants (7-9): Greg Robinson, OT, Auburn.
Would the Giants be tempted here by Darqueze Dennard? He's the top CB in this class, could be a steal at No. 12 and would give New York a duo of Dennard and Prince Amukamara for the foreseeable future.
They might be. Robinson (or Taylor Lewan) is the safer pick. Eli Manning was sacked 39 times last season and starting LT Will Beatty is coming off a broken leg. With Robinson and 2013 first-rounder Justin Pugh on the edges, New York could get back to scoring points in bunches.
13. St. Louis Rams (7-9): Mike Evans, WR, Texas A&M.
As mentioned during the Rams' first pick, we're working off the assumption here that Sam Bradford will get at least one more season at the helm. Under that scenario, the Rams could nab a QB on Day 2 or 3 to develop ... while looking for another weapon early.
St. Louis finally figured out how to use Tavon Austin in its offense during the second half, but he is not a true No. 1-type. Evans could be, and at the very least would bulk up the Rams' red-zone offense.
14. Chicago Bears (8-8): Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix, S, Alabama.
The Bears have some work to do in their secondary. At cornerback, Charles Tillman's headed to free agency and, at some point in the next draft or two, they'll need a fallback plan for Tim Jennings (currently 30 years old, with a new contract that allows Chicago to boot him easily after 2015.)
15. Pittsburgh Steelers (8-8): Darqueze Dennard, CB, Michigan State.
Imagine Troy Polamalu as a cornerback. That's not an across-the-board comparison, but Dennard brings a lot of those Polamalu traits to the field. Namely, he plays with an edge, a trait highlighted in how aggressively he dives down to pitch in against the run. Pittsburgh's corners were putrid at times in 2013, so the value of finding Dennard all the way down at 15 would be a godsend.
16. Baltimore Ravens (8-8)*: Marqise Lee, WR, USC.
The Ravens cannot go through another season with their receiving corps in the shape it was in for 2013. Nabbing a potential game-breaker in the middle of Round 1 would do wonders for Joe Flacco, the run game and the offense as a whole. Lee bounced back from an injury-plagued season to star in USC's bowl win. He has home-run potential whenever he catches the football, plus advanced capabilities as a route-runner.
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17. Dallas Cowboys (8-8)*: Louis Nix III, DT, Notre Dame.
With or without Monte Kiffin running the defense, the Cowboys would be wise to add someone like Nix. The massive 340-pound tackle simply plugs up the middle, be it from the 1-tech or directly over the center. Impending free agent Jason Hatcher may be on his way out, so finding Nix here could be even more of a boon.
18. New York Jets (8-8): Jace Amaro, TE, Texas Tech.
The Jets would love to nab one of the top three receivers in this draft -- on paper, Watkins, Evans or Lee. Short of that, they could turn their focus to one of the two new-breed tight ends: Ebron or Amaro. With Ebron off the board, the Jets here nab Texas Tech's standout. Amaro bamboozled defenses as a matchup problem all season, and Geno Smith would learn quickly to love him as a target.
19. Miami Dolphins (8-8): Taylor Lewan, OT, Michigan.
This is the lowest I've had Lewan in any of the mocks thus far, but all those QBs, WRs and TEs in the top 18 (plus Greg Robinson's decision to turn pro) forced an adjustment. That's probably just fine with the Dolphins, who are in dire need of reliable bodies up front along a disheveled line. Lewan is a strong pass blocker and a better run blocker than the rest of Michigan's line allowed him to show in 2013.
20. Arizona Cardinals (10-6): Vic Beasley, OLB, Clemson.
In Clemson's recent bowl game, Beasley drew a matchup with Ohio State tackle and likely 2014 draft pick Jack Mewhort. He dominated. Whether teamed up with John Abraham on passing downs or groomed to replace the talented but aging veteran, Beasley would provide another piece to what's a pretty impressive defensive puzzle in the desert.
21. Green Bay Packers (8-7-1): Calvin Pryor, S, Louisville.
Clinton-Dix would be the ideal choice here. Since he's headed elsewhere in the NFC North in this mock, the Packers turn to door No. 2. Or possibly door No. 3, depending on where you stand on Florida State's 5-8 product, Lamarcus Joyner.
There's no question that Green Bay has to improve at the safety position. Pryor, who recently announced he was entering the draft, will be a player you'll hear more and more about as May approaches. He brings the hammer from the defensive backfield.
22. Philadelphia Eagles (10-6): Jason Verrett, CB, TCU.
The Eagles defense improved greatly as the year progressed, but it still finished dead last in the league against the pass. Dennard's the only corner off the board so far, leaving Philadelphia its choice of impact players. Verrett is not far behind Dennard -- and some might argue he's actually the best CB in this class.
23. Kansas City Chiefs (11-5): Allen Robinson, WR, Penn State.
A glance around the ol' internet shows that I might be higher on Robinson than others -- I've got him as my No. 4 WR for 2014, behind the three already taken above. He's similar in size to Keenan Allen, the Chargers' star rookie. He will arrive in the NFL having a well-progressed skillset, as Allen did. The Chiefs need another trustworthy weapon for Alex Smith, and Robinson has a knack for finding room off screens and short passes, which makes him a terrific candidate to fill that role.
24. Cincinnati Bengals (11-5): LaMarcus Joyner, CB/S, Florida State.
Joyner is on the smaller side at 5-8, 190, so he may wind up as a slot corner (and he'd do a great job there). But he has shown the ability to play -- and play well -- at safety. Cincinnati has a nice mix of youth and experience in its secondary, so bringing a player of Joyner's ilk would provide valuable depth and cover the Bengals at multiple spots.
25. San Diego Chargers (9-7): Cyril Richardson, G, Baylor.
Dabbled with the idea of doubling down on Alabama linemen with Cyrus Kouandjio here. Ultimately, opted against it because the Chargers have more of a need along the interior of their line. The 340-pound Richardson would help San Diego forget losing Louis Vasquez prior to this season. He's an absolute load for defensive linemen to handle and plays with a nasty streak.
26. Cleveland Browns -- via Indianapolis (11-5): Jordan Matthews, WR, Vanderbilt.
The Browns nabbed their QB earlier in this mock. Now, they add a terrific receiver for him. Cleveland already boasts one of the league's budding offensive stars in Josh Gordon, and he'd welcome the arrival of Matthews, a polished prospect with a productive college career behind him. Matthews will be capable of starting from the get-go next season.
27. New Orleans Saints (11-5): Cyrus Kouandjio, OT, Alabama.
Kouandjio has the potential and the pedigree -- he was a multi-year starter at Alabama -- to be a top-15 pick. This is just the way the board fell. (Arizona, at 20, was a rather clear possible landing spot for Kouandjio as well.)
The Saints benefit from the first 26 picks. Their 2013 third-round pick, Terron Armstead, still has some maturing to do at left tackle; Zach Strief's set to become a free agent. Kouandjio may be a better fit, at first glance, for a team wanting to really grind the ball down the field. But New Orleans runs more than enough to take advantage of him there, while his strength as a pass-blocker would aid Drew Brees. The downside we've seen -- Kouandjio slipping into unbalanced position to allow rushers to beat him -- would be negated some by Brees' ability to set and fire quickly.
28. San Francisco 49ers (12-4): Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Florida State.
NFL scouts will not love seeing the moments of inconsistency from Benjamin. What they will love is how he uses his 6-5 frame to box out defenders, as he did on the game-winning catch in the BCS title game. The 49ers obviously coveted that sort of ability in trading for Anquan Boldin, one of the best at winning contested balls. Benjamin would add another option.
29. New England Patriots (12-4): Ra'Shede Hageman, DT, Minnesota.
True to Patriots form, they're actually getting a lot of miles this season out of players like Joe Vellano and Chris Jones, relative unknowns. Hageman has shown dominant effort up front at times for the Gophers, and he just needs an NFL coaching staff that can max out his abilities. Playing on the Patriots front would give him a wonderful shot to do just that, while providing New England with another talented body in the trenches.
30. Carolina Panthers (12-4): Justin Gilbert, CB, Oklahoma State.
The Panthers have to find a wide receiver at some point in this draft. With a number of talented WRs already gone, however, they'd be better served to wait on a deep group than reach for one here. Instead, they can continue to bulk up in the secondary, with their choice at this point between Gilbert and boom-or-bust prospect Bradley Roby.
31. Denver Broncos (13-3): Ryan Shazier, LB, Ohio State.
Shazier could be a very productive OLB in a 4-3. He also could really outproduce his expectations as an inside guy in a 3-4, with the occasional shot at rushing the passer. That second scenario should be music to the Broncos' ears, as they prepare to possibly lose Wesley Woodyard to free agency. Shazier would be a more-than-capable replacement.
32. Seattle Seahawks (13-3): Kony Ealy, DE, Missouri.