2014 NFL Mock Draft: Who Is on the Rise in the First Round?
Although no college football games have been played in more than three months, the stock of many NFL draft prospects is seemingly still fluctuating in the final weeks leading up to this year’s selection meeting.
For some players, that’s a good thing. Buffalo outside linebacker Khalil Mack, Texas A&M wide receiver Mike Evans and Virginia Tech cornerback Kyle Fuller are just a few of the players who have been consistently rising in draft projections.
Yet despite the consistent flow of draft rumors and speculation this time of year, it’s still largely unknown as to which players will end up where in the first round of the NFL draft on May 8. As even the No. 1 overall pick remains undetermined, the entire first round is full of uncertainty.
Which players belong in, or at least seem to be headed for, a top draft spot? The following 32 team-player combinations could all be possibilities.
1. Atlanta Falcons (from Houston Texans): Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina
Projected Trade: The Atlanta Falcons trade the No. 6 overall pick, No. 37 overall pick and their 2015 first-round selection to the Houston Texans in exchange for the No. 1 overall pick.
While there are other players who have risen and fallen on the draft board throughout the past year, the one prospect who has been a constant at or near the top of virtually all draft projections has been South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney.
There’s little question that Clowney will be one of the first few selections in this year’s draft; the bigger question is with which team will he land. That might at least partially depend on whether the Houston Texans, who are “trying hard to deal the first pick in the draft,” according to Bleacher Report’s Dan Pompei, are successful in dealing down.
The most likely team to move up, among those with a realistically high enough selection that the Texans might consider moving down to, would seemingly be the Atlanta Falcons. ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported in March that the Falcons, who traded five picks to move up to No. 6 overall and select Julio Jones in the 2011 draft, are considering a move up.
The price would likely be hefty to land Clowney, but the Falcons might deem the trade worth it. Atlanta has a major need for a premier pass-rushing threat; Clowney would give it an impact player up front from day one.
There’s no player in this draft with more potential than Clowney. A 6’6”, 266-pound defensive end with remarkable athleticism for his size, he can physically overwhelm his opponents and could line up in many different spots on Atlanta’s hybrid defensive front.
2. St. Louis Rams (from Washington Redskins): Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M
The St. Louis Rams received a second-round pick and three first-round picks, including this year’s No. 2 overall selection, when they traded down from the second slot in the 2012 draft. It’s likely they’ll look to do so again, but it’s less likely they’ll have any suitors if the Texans trade down and Clowney is off the board.
Assuming they stay put, the Rams’ best selection would be Texas A&M’s Jake Matthews.
Matthews’ draft stock seemingly hasn’t been on the rise. Many draft prognosticators are now predicting that Auburn’s Greg Robinson, a relative unknown going into his redshirt sophomore season, will be picked ahead of Matthews, who has been considered by many to be a top prospect all year.
What hasn’t changed is that Matthews is the most complete offensive tackle, and perhaps the most complete prospect at any position, in this year’s draft. Robinson’s remarkable combination of size and athleticism gives him higher upside, but Matthews’ four years of starting experience and nearly flawless fundamentals make him an NFL-ready starter for either side of the offensive line.
By selecting Matthews, the Rams could immediately upgrade at right tackle while also solidifying their guard lineup by kicking Joe Barksdale and Rodger Saffold inside. Matthews would also give the Rams insurance at left tackle, where Jake Long’s status for the start of the 2014 season is uncertain after he suffered a torn ACL and MCL in December.
3. Jacksonville Jaguars: Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville
Going into his junior season, Teddy Bridgewater’s stock for the 2014 NFL draft had nowhere to go but down. That’s certainly what has happened at least in the past few months, in which Bridgewater has gone from being a projected No. 1 overall pick to some, including former NFL scout and 95.7 The Game radio host John Middlekauff, to some now thinking he will be a second-rounder.
That said, it’s not as though any other quarterback in this year’s draft has risen to the point of being a clear-cut top selection. If the Jacksonville Jaguars want to leave the first round with the most polished, skilled and NFL-ready quarterback in this year’s draft, they’ll select Bridgewater with the No. 3 overall pick.
His consistent mechanics, clean footwork and ability to read defenses stand out in comparison to the other top quarterback prospects in this year’s draft. Unlike most young quarterbacks, Bridgewater retains his accuracy and composure when he is under pressure and/or on the move.
Bridgewater doesn’t have the most outstanding physical tools in this year’s quarterback class. Some have expressed concerns with his thin frame, while others have criticized his ability to throw deep balls.
Yet while all the recent focus has seemingly been on Bridgewater’s weaknesses, he still does more things well than any other quarterback on the draft board. If the Jaguars think they can contend immediately, they need to upgrade at quarterback, and Bridgewater gives them the best shot.
4. Cleveland Browns: Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M
Quarterback draft stock is always among the most difficult to determine, and that seems especially true for Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel. While his uncanny ability to extend plays and improvise gives him huge upside, he is an enigmatic prospect who might not project as a good fit for all NFL offenses.
One team whose draft plan is difficult to figure out is that of the Cleveland Browns. There’s no obvious selection for them at the No. 4 overall pick, but there is an obvious need for a quarterback. Taking a chance on one still seems like the most logical plan of action with this pick, and Manziel could be the guy.
The Browns opted not to attend Manziel’s pro day, according to Eric Edholm of Yahoo! Sports, but that’s just as likely to be a smokescreen as it is a legitimate indicator of non-interest. According to ESPN’s Chris Mortensen, the Browns will conduct a private workout with Manziel later this month.
Manziel still needs to develop significantly as a pocket passer, but he has a strong arm and has consistently demonstrated improvement in his downfield accuracy. A dual-threat QB who will make opposing NFL defenses immediately account for his big-play ability, “Johnny Football” could be the playmaker Cleveland needs to finally end its long string of disappointments at the quarterback position.
5. Oakland Raiders: Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson
If the Oakland Raiders don’t draft a quarterback or trade down, their decision with the No. 5 overall pick could come down to two of the draft’s most consistently rising prospects: Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins and Buffalo outside linebacker Khalil Mack.
Both players would make a great deal of sense for the Raiders, but the team’s reported interest in DeSean Jackson prior to his signing with the Redskins, per NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport, is an indicator that Oakland is looking to add a playmaker at the wide receiver position.
There’s no offensive weapon in this year’s draft with more playmaking potential than Watkins. His combination of explosive speed, open-field agility and route-running skill make it possible that he could immediately emerge as a star in an NFL offense.
Oakland’s current stable of receivers deserves more respect than it gets, but the group is still lacking a star. All around, the Raiders offense is thin on playmakers and, more specifically, speed.
Watkins is a triple threat who has demonstrated playmaking ability not only as a receiver, but also as a returner and on running plays. His ability to line up all over the field and be a constant big-play threat would give the Oakland offense a dynamic it doesn’t currently have.
6. Houston Texans (from Atlanta Falcons): Khalil Mack, OLB, Buffalo
After he visited both the St. Louis Rams and Jacksonville Jaguars last week, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, it's possible that Khalil Mack could be a top-three overall selection. If the Houston Texans traded down and landed the Buffalo edge-defender, they’d be getting great value.
The prospect of drafting Clowney at No. 1 should be enticing for the Texans, but Mack is actually a more natural fit for their 3-4 defense.
A very well-rounded player who is both an explosive pass-rusher and a strong run defender, Mack would be an immediate upgrade at outside linebacker. He is a terrific athlete who can make plays all over the field, but he also has the length and strength to remain disruptive at the line of scrimmage.
While the Texans’ greatest need is at quarterback, a trade down from the top spot would be an indicator that they’re not fully sold on any of this year’s top signal-callers.
If that is the case, Houston is likely to turn to drafting Mack, the best player available who can also address a need for more talent on its defensive front seven.
7. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Mike Evans, WR, Texas A&M
Mike Evans might not be an ideal complement to Vincent Jackson, given that his game has been compared to Jackson by CBSSports.com’s Rob Rang and others. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, however, likely wouldn’t mind having a pair of big, physical wideouts opposite one another as their starting receiving duo.
Tampa Bay’s new head coach, Lovie Smith, and new starting quarterback, Josh McCown, both come from the Chicago Bears, where they (Smith in 2012 and McCown in 2013) worked with a highly productive combination of starting receivers in Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery.
Like Jackson and Evans, Marshall and Jeffery are both wideouts known more for their length and ability to make plays on the ball in the air than they are for their speed. A combination with so much size and strength can consistently create mismatches against defenses that have smaller cornerbacks.
At 6’5” and 231 pounds with 35.125” arms and great leaping ability, Evans is known best for his catch radius and ability to make plays over defensive backs. That said, he is an impressive all-around athlete for his size.
Sammy Watkins would likely be the ideal selection for the Buccaneers, but Evans would seemingly fit them well. Either way, Tampa Bay should have its sights set on drafting a top receiver after trading Mike Williams to the Buffalo Bills earlier this month.
8. Minnesota Vikings: Blake Bortles, QB, Central Florida
It’s easy to believe that the Minnesota Vikings’ top target actually is Khalil Mack, as TFY Draft Insider’s Tony Pauline has reported, but it’s looking less likely that he’ll still be on the board at the No. 8 overall pick. In that scenario, Minnesota’s best move might be to draft the top quarterback available.
If the Vikings offense is going to thrive as it could under new offensive coordinator Norv Turner, it needs a better quarterback than Matt Cassel or Christian Ponder. Specifically, the Vikings should be looking for a quarterback who excels as a pocket passer and has the arm strength to consistently make plays downfield.
UCF’s Blake Bortles might not be an immediate answer. He has issues with his touch on downfield passes and footwork in the pocket. That said, he has been projected to go as high as the No. 1 overall pick in some mock drafts and would be considered the best quarterback value at this slot.
He has the best all-around set of physical tools among the top quarterback prospects in this year’s draft. If he can continue to improve upon his fundamentals and take full advantage of his impressive traits, he could develop into a great NFL signal-caller.
Fresno State’s Derek Carr would also be a quarterback option here. If the Vikings aren’t sold on either of those quarterbacks, other options could include Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley or Oklahoma State cornerback Justin Gilbert. But given its need at the position, Minnesota might be hard-pressed to pass up Bortles’ upside.
9. Buffalo Bills: Greg Robinson, OT, Auburn
Valued as a top-five pick by many, it would come as a surprise if Auburn’s Greg Robinson fell any further than the No. 9 overall selection, where the Buffalo Bills have a need to upgrade at right tackle.
A behemoth with a rare combination of size (6’5”, 322 lbs), athleticism and power, Robinson has much potential as any prospect in this year’s draft. While he isn’t where he needs to be yet as a pass protector, he could immediately bring nastiness and force to the right side of Buffalo’s offensive line.
The success of Buffalo’s offense might ultimately be rooted in the development of second-year quarterback EJ Manuel, but one of its most important steps this offseason is to replace Erik Pears in the starting lineup.
By pairing Robinson with left tackle Cordy Glenn, Buffalo would have an outstanding pair of young bookends who are both massive and powerful, yet surprisingly fluid, athletes. He’d be the best player available in this scenario and a pick the Bills shouldn’t pass up.
10. Detroit Lions: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, FS, Alabama
A good number of teams come into this year’s draft with major needs at safety, which could lead to a rise up the board for the top prospects at that position. The first safety to move up, potentially as high as the top 10, should be Alabama’s Ha Ha Clinton-Dix.
The Detroit Lions have a need for talent in their secondary, specifically at safety, where they could very much benefit from adding a rangy playmaker such as Clinton-Dix.
Clinton-Dix is both a skilled cover safety who can handle deep and single-high coverage responsibilities, and he's also a strong in-the-box tackler. His well-rounded skill set gives him the ability to play both safety spots and thrive in a variety of roles.
A well-known proponent of drafting the best player available, the Lions could favor another defensive back, Oklahoma State’s Justin Gilbert, with this selection. Clinton-Dix could make a more immediate difference, however, on that defense at a greater position of need.
11. Tennessee Titans: Anthony Barr, OLB, UCLA
Even with the recent signing of Shaun Phillips, the Tennessee Titans should still be in the market for another playmaking edge-defender. As they shift to a hybrid, pressure-heavy scheme under new head coach Ken Whisenhunt and defensive coordinator Ray Horton, they need more players who can line up on the edge as an outside linebacker and bring heat into the backfield.
That’s exactly what they could get from UCLA’s Anthony Barr. He must continue to develop as a run defender and in coverage to be an every-down player, but he could make an immediate impact as a pass-rusher.
A natural fit to play OLB in 3-4 defensive fronts, Barr is raw but has huge upside. Having played just two years on defense at UCLA after starting his Bruins career on offense, he might only be scratching the surface of how good he could be.
Barr’s explosive athleticism and size (6’5”, 255 lbs) give him the potential to play various positions between multiple fronts.
12. New York Giants: Eric Ebron, TE, North Carolina
The New York Giants’ current tight end roster consists of Adrien Robinson, Kellen Davis, Larry Donnell and Daniel Fells. If they have a chance to draft North Carolina’s Eric Ebron, they shouldn’t pass it up.
Having lost wide receiver Hakeem Nicks and tight end Brandon Myers as free agents this offseason, the Giants offense is short on playmakers. In Ebron, they could land the draft’s top tight end and one of its most dynamic offensive skill-position players.
Ebron combines the size of a tight end (6’4”, 250 lbs) with the athleticism of a wide receiver. He is an elevating leaper who has a huge catch radius, yet he can also create plays in the open field with his speed and strength to run through contact.
He isn’t much of a blocker, but Ebron would add another go-to receiver to an offense that suddenly needs one. He’d be one of the best players available in this scenario and would give the Giants a mismatch creator who can line up both inside and outside.
13. St. Louis Rams: Justin Gilbert, CB, Oklahoma State
After following up an outstanding senior season with an exceptional display of athleticism at the NFL Scouting Combine, Justin Gilbert solidified himself as a projected top-15 pick and the top cornerback in this year’s draft class. He shouldn’t get past the St. Louis Rams at No. 13 overall.
St. Louis has a major need for talent in its secondary, especially for a starter to line up opposite Janoris Jenkins. They could get that player in Gilbert, who builds upon his great size (6’0", 202 lbs) and athleticism—including a 4.37-second 40-yard dash—with instinctive, physical play and tremendous ball skills.
In drafting Gilbert at this spot, the Rams would reel in the best player available and address one of their greatest positions of need. He’d add a playmaker to the secondary and also give the team another explosive option for kickoff returns.
14. Chicago Bears: Aaron Donald, DT, Pittsburgh
No player has done more to elevate his stock since the start of the 2013 college football season than Pittsburgh defensive tackle Aaron Donald.
On the heels of a senior season in which he posted 28.5 tackles for loss, Donald solidified himself as a projected top-20 draft pick by dominating his competition at the Senior Bowl, then turning in the most outstanding performance of this year’s NFL Scouting Combine.
Donald would be one of the best players available in this scenario, and he would also address a massive need for the Chicago Bears at defensive tackle. Needing a new 3-technique interior penetrator to replace Henry Melton, they could get that from Donald, who combines explosive quickness with terrific hand skills and very good strength and power.
He is an undersized defensive tackle at 6’1” and 285 pounds, but Donald has more than enough attributes to make up for that shortcoming. The Bears have too great of a need on their interior defensive line to pass him up.
15. San Francisco 49ers (from Pittsburgh Steelers): Darqueze Dennard, CB, MSU
Projected Trade: The San Francisco 49ers trade the No. 30 and No. 61 overall selections to the Pittsburgh Steelers in exchange for the No. 15 overall pick.
One of the teams expected to move up at some point in this year’s draft is the San Francisco 49ers, who have 11 total picks but not a great deal of needs. Should they do so in the first round, a likely target would be Michigan State cornerback Darqueze Dennard.
The 49ers lost their No. 1 cornerback from last season, Tarell Brown, to the Oakland Raiders in free agency. There might not be a better fit in this draft to replace him than Dennard, who is skilled in both man and zone coverage, but especially at using his physicality in press coverage.
Dennard lacks top-end physical tools, but he makes up for that with his instincts, footwork and ball skills. San Francisco would likely have to move up to get him, but with six picks in the top 100, the 49ers could easily afford to part with one of their two second-rounders.
The Pittsburgh Steelers, on the other hand, could have incentive to move down. Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert, who has lauded the depth of this year’s draft, told reporters at the NFL Annual Meeting, according to Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, that “it makes more sense” to trade down than up in this year’s draft.
In last year’s first round, the 49ers gave up the No. 74 overall selection to move up 13 spots, from No. 31 to No. 18, to select safety Eric Reid. To move up 15 places to a slightly higher slot, one of their two late second-round picks would likely be seen as fair value both ways.
16. Dallas Cowboys: Kony Ealy, DE, Missouri
The Dallas Cowboys signed defensive tackle Henry Melton earlier this offseason and could still retain defensive end Anthony Spencer, who has yet to be signed as a free agent. Even so, they would still have a need after losing DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher from what was already one of the NFL’s worst defensive lines last season.
In this scenario, there would be few players available with more potential than Missouri’s Kony Ealy. With the physical attributes to wreak havoc and bring pressure from both outside and inside, he’d add a versatile, disruptive difference-maker to the Cowboys defensive line.
Ealy’s an incomplete player who must continue to develop technically, but he’d add an impact player to a unit that has few of them. At the very least, he should be able to contribute right away as a situational pass-rusher either on the edge, or possibly as a penetrating defensive tackle.
17. Denver Broncos (from Baltimore Ravens): C.J. Mosley, ILB, Alabama
Projected Trade: The Baltimore Ravens trade the 17th overall pick to the Denver Broncos in exchange for the Nos. 31 and 131 overall selections and a 2015 second-round pick.
The Denver Broncos made it clear with their big-ticket free-agent signings that they are all in toward making another Super Bowl run in 2014. That could entice the Broncos to trade up, potentially at the cost of future assets, in order to land an impact player they target.
Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley is a player who would be worth moving up for if available in the second half of the first round. A tremendous all-around playmaker who excels at tackling in space and in dropping back to cover, Mosley would be an immediate upgrade for Denver at middle linebacker.
Upgrading in the middle, where the Broncos currently project to have a battle between Jamar Chaney and Nate Irving for the starting job, could be the missing piece to making Denver’s defensive front seven one of the NFL’s best. Mosley is one of the most NFL-ready players in this year’s draft, but he also has plenty of long-term value.
On the other end of the spectrum, there are no clear-cut choices available on the board for the Baltimore Ravens. They could take a chance on one of the top offensive tackles available in Notre Dame’s Zack Martin or Michigan’s Taylor Lewan, but they might be best suited in trading down, especially if they can get a pick in the first two rounds of next year’s draft.
18. New York Jets: Odell Beckham Jr., WR, LSU
Another big riser leading up to this year’s draft has been LSU wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr., who could parlay an outstanding junior season into a top-20 draft selection. A dynamic athlete who runs crisp routes, has great hands and is dangerous in the open field, he’d give the New York Jets exactly what they need at the No. 18 overall pick.
The Jets made one big upgrade at wide receiver already by signing Eric Decker in free agency, but they still need more talent at the position. Specifically, they should be looking for speed and quickness to complement Decker, making Beckham a stronger choice here than USC’s Marqise Lee.
Beckham isn’t as big as the other top receivers in this year’s draft, but he can line up both outside and in the slot and would also be an upgrade at kickoff returner.
The Jets should be looking to surround second-year quarterback Geno Smith with as much talent as possible. He’d have a far better tandem at wide receiver than he did as a rookie if New York pairs Decker with Beckham.
19. Miami Dolphins: Zack Martin, OT, Notre Dame
Notre Dame’s Zack Martin has been a mock draft fixture for the Miami Dolphins’ No. 19 overall pick, and with good reason.
The Dolphins need to continue reinforcing their offensive line, which is replacing four starters from last season. Martin is a fundamentally sound lineman who has the versatility to be a starter as either a tackle or a guard.
A four-year starter at Notre Dame, Martin plays with tremendous hand placement and footwork. He doesn’t have the ideal physical measurables of an offensive tackle, but his technical prowess should enable him to succeed wherever he lines up.
As the Dolphins offensive line currently stands, Martin could end up at right tackle or either guard spot. Perhaps most importantly after its offensive line-centered scandal last season, Miami would add a player with no known character concerns.
Michigan’s Taylor Lewan would also be an option for the Dolphins at this slot, but his off-field issues—including three assault charges he will be arraigned for in May—could deter Miami from drafting him.
20. Arizona Cardinals: Taylor Lewan, OT, Michigan
Taylor Lewan’s character concerns could send his draft stock in the wrong direction, but he’s a top talent in this year’s draft who will, at some point, be deemed too good to pass up. A logical landing spot for the Michigan offensive tackle would be the Arizona Cardinals, who could land the best talent available and fill a need by selecting him.
The Cardinals finally fixed their revolving door at left tackle by signing free agent Jared Veldheer earlier this offseason, but they could still be in the market for an upgrade over Bobby Massie at right tackle.
That’s what they could get from Lewan. While his pass blocking needs some technical improvement, he has an ideal combination of size (6’7”, 309 lbs), athleticism and power for an offensive tackle. He consistently creates movement as a run-blocker and has the foot skills to make plays against speed-rushers outside.
Arizona’s offensive line has been a team weakness for years, but it could finally become a strength by adding Lewan to a unit that will also newly feature Veldheer and 2013 first-round pick Jonathan Cooper, who is set to see his first action in 2014 after missing his rookie year with a leg break.
Fresno State quarterback Derek Carr could also be a tempting pick here with long-term interest in mind, but Lewan could be an immediate upgrade for a team with serious playoff hopes.
21. Green Bay Packers: Jimmie Ward, FS, Northern Illinois
Khalil Mack hasn’t been the only prospect from the Mid-American Conference to steadily rise in this year’s draft projections. Another has been Northern Illinois safety Jimmie Ward, an athletic playmaker who combines deep coverage ability and ball skills with strong tackling.
Ward has the skill set to play either safety position, but he’d fill a glaring need for the Green Bay Packers at free safety. While he’s undersized for a safety at 5’11” and 193 pounds, he takes advantage of his athleticism and toughness to play like he’s bigger.
Louisville’s Calvin Pryor has often been projected ahead of Ward, in large part because of his size and hard-hitting style of play, but he’s not as ready as Ward to step in and take on center-field coverage responsibilities as he would be expected to in Green Bay.
Ward’s quick feet and coverage ability give him additional versatility to play slot cornerback, but he’d be able to play an important role in shoring up the middle of Green Bay’s secondary should he be drafted by the Packers.
22. Philadelphia Eagles: Marqise Lee, WR, USC
Releasing DeSean Jackson made wide receiver a major need once again for the Philadelphia Eagles. They could address that need at the No. 22 overall pick by selecting USC’s Marqise Lee.
Perhaps the most well-rounded wide receiver in this year’s draft class, Lee is a terrific route-runner who glides in the open field and has great hands.
He doesn’t wow with his size or speed, but he accelerates well and could play both outside and in the slot. He’s ready to make an immediate impact in an NFL offense and would form a strong receiving trio with Riley Cooper and Jeremy Maclin.
Drafting Lee could pay immediate dividends for the Eagles, who should be well aware of his skill set. In two collegiate games against Oregon when they were still led by current Eagles head coach Chip Kelly, Lee caught 20 passes for 344 yards and three touchdowns. He would also be reunited with his former quarterback at USC, Matt Barkley, who is currently a backup quarterback in Philadelphia.
23. Kansas City Chiefs: Calvin Pryor, FS, Louisville
The Kansas City Chiefs have a major need for a free safety, so they probably shouldn’t pass up Louisville’s Calvin Pryor if they have the chance to select him.
By pairing Pryor with Eric Berry, the Chiefs could give themselves a tandem of big, explosive, hard-hitting ballhawks who can be used interchangeably between the free- and strong-safety positions.
Pryor isn’t quite where he needs to be yet as a center-fielder in coverage, but he has very good playmaking range. His upside makes him worth a first-round pick, and the demand for safeties can push him up the draft board.
Two rising prospects who could also tempt the Chiefs at this spot would be UCLA guard Xavier Su’a-Filo and Oregon State wide receiver Brandin Cooks, but Pryor would be tough for Kansas City to pass up.
24. Cincinnati Bengals: Kyle Van Noy, OLB, BYU
Having released James Harrison earlier this offseason, the Cincinnati Bengals should be looking for a strong-side linebacker in this year’s draft. In BYU’s Kyle Van Noy, they could get an upgrade.
A fantastic all-around player with tremendous versatility, Van Noy could quickly emerge as a three-down player on the Cincinnati defense. He is a terrific player in space who makes tackles all over the field and is skilled in coverage while also being used as a pass-rusher off the edge.
Van Noy hasn’t been a riser in many draft projections, but he’s started to get some of the attention he deserves since ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. (subscription required) moved him into the top 25 of his “Big Board.” Nonetheless, he’d be one of the best available players on the board in this scenario and could be an immediate asset to Cincinnati’s defense.
25. San Diego Chargers: Bradley Roby, CB, Ohio State
The San Diego Chargers might not have one starting-caliber cornerback on their roster. They should strongly consider drafting one at the No. 25 overall pick, as they would have a few good options on the board in this scenario.
Virginia Tech’s Kyle Fuller and TCU’s Jason Verrett have both potentially risen into the first round and would be great choices here, but Ohio State’s Bradley Roby has playmaking potential that would be tough to pass up.
While Roby is a more risky selection as a roller-coaster junior year, he’s still arguably the most talented cornerback in this year’s draft. From tremendous ball skills to explosive athleticism and playing with physicality, Roby has all the tools needed to be a No. 1 NFL cornerback; he just needs to learn to play with more discipline.
Roby’s big-play mindset could make him a star playmaker, or it could lead him to being a bust. If the Chargers feel their coaching staff can mold him into the player he has the upside to be, his skill set could be of great value to the San Diego secondary.
26. Cleveland Browns (from Indianapolis Colts): Xavier Su’a-Filo, G, UCLA
The Cleveland Browns made an important move last week when they matched a Jacksonville Jaguars offer sheet and retained Pro Bowl center Alex Mack, whom Cleveland used its transition tag on this offseason. They still have a major need on their interior offensive line, however, to upgrade at right guard.
They could fill that need with UCLA’s Xavier Su’a-Filo, a rising prospect who should be a solid first-round pick and the first interior offensive lineman selected in this year’s draft. Su’a-Filo has a combination of agility, strength and technical skills that give him the potential to be an excellent NFL guard for many years to come.
Given a scenario in which the Browns drafted Manziel, it’s imperative that they continue to improve their offensive line and add athleticism up front. His improvisational, movement-heavy style of quarterback play is reliant upon an offensive line that can move with him and provide effective pass protection.
By solidifying the weak link on their offensive line with Su’a-Filo, the Browns would be in much better position to not only have high-level pass protection but also open more holes for their running backs. He would be one of the best players in this scenario, and he would allow the Browns to get out of Round 1 having addressed their two biggest needs.
27. New Orleans Saints: Dee Ford, OLB, Auburn
The New Orleans Saints have bigger needs than adding another pass-rusher, but the edge remains an area where they will likely look to add another prime talent. As defensive coordinator Rob Ryan looks to maximize his hybrid scheme in his second year in New Orleans, the Saints would benefit from adding an explosive edge-defender who can line up as either a 4-3 defensive end or 3-4 outside linebacker.
Considering that, the Saints could be hard-pressed to pass upon Auburn’s Dee Ford if he is available at the No. 27 overall pick. Combining a brisk first step with a strong variety of pass-rushing moves, Ford is a speed-rusher who can wreak havoc off the edge.
He’s undersized for a defensive end at 6’2” and 252 pounds, but he’s a great fit for a hybrid scheme, as he should be able to transition to playing outside linebacker, at least situationally. He could rotate in with defensive ends Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette in four-man fronts, while he’d be an upgrade over Parys Haralson and Victor Butler as an OLB in 3-4 looks.
The Saints have a strong young core of defensive talent that they should look to continue building upon in this year’s draft. Ford would be the most valuable defensive player available in this scenario, and he would make their developing defensive front more dynamic.
28. Carolina Panthers: Brandin Cooks, WR, Oregon State
After losing all four of their wide receivers who caught passes in 2013, the Carolina Panthers are in the midst of a complete rebuild at the position. Despite signing free agents Jerricho Cotchery, Jason Avant and Tiquan Underwood, finding receiving talent should still be a draft priority.
Oregon State’s Brandin Cooks, meanwhile, has been a riser in draft projections ever since he ran a 4.33-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine. If the Panthers are in position to draft him with the No. 28 overall pick, they should take advantage of the opportunity.
Carolina’s free-agent additions are solid pass-catchers, but none of them are explosive playmakers. That’s what the Panthers would get in Cooks, who is not only fast but also has exceptional lateral agility.
Cooks can turn any play into a big play in the open field, which is an ability no one else on the Panthers offense has. He is an undersized receiver at just 5’10” and 189 pounds, but he is a skilled route-runner who would excel in the slot, but he also holds up well enough against contact to play on the outside.
29. Oakland Raiders (from New England Patriots): Derek Carr, QB, Fresno State
Projected Trade: The Oakland Raiders trade the Nos. 36 and 67 overall picks to the New England Patriots for the Nos. 29 and 93 overall selections.
Should Derek Carr still be available late in the first round, it’s likely that a quarterback-needy team will make a move back up into Round 1, especially with the Houston Texans holding the first pick of Round 2. That team could be the Oakland Raiders, who reportedly have a “massive crush” on Carr, according to David White of The Fresno Bee.
The New England Patriots, meanwhile, have made a trade in every first round since the 2007 draft, so it should absolutely not surprise anyone if they end up trading down from the No. 29 pick and out of Round 1 altogether. If they could make a significant move up in the third round to drop just seven spots between the first and second rounds, it’s a trade the Patriots would likely make in a deep draft.
If the Raiders really are infatuated with Carr’s ability, they’re not going to sit and wait and hope he falls to them at the 36th pick. Despite trading its sixth-round pick to the Houston Texans for veteran Matt Schaub, Oakland still be in the market for a franchise quarterback, and Carr would stand out as the top quarterback prospect available—and good value—at this point.
Carr wouldn’t necessarily be a first-year starter, as Raiders coach Dennis Allen said in a March conference call Schaub is the team’s starting quarterback, but the Fresno State prospect has high upside. Carr needs to become significantly better at maintaining his accuracy and composure under pressure, but he has all the physical tools to develop into a great NFL pocket passer.
30. Pittsburgh Steelers (from San Fran. 49ers): Kyle Fuller, CB, Virginia Tech
While some might say the Pittsburgh Steelers should stay put at No. 15 overall and draft Darqueze Dennard themselves, they could end up with a player who is arguably just as good if Virginia Tech’s Kyle Fuller was still available at the 30th pick.
Quietly projected by the masses as a second-rounder prior to the NFL Scouting Combine, he has been quickly rising up projections as a potential first-round pick since a strong performance in Indianapolis. A physical, instinctive, 6’0” and 190-pound cornerback who plays the ball well, he’d be a good fit for the Steelers defense.
At 33 years old, veteran Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor is a shell of the player he once was. Pittsburgh would be smart to replace him in the starting lineup—and add a cornerback who can be a legitimate No. 1—by drafting Fuller should he be available after a trade down.
Minnesota’s Ra’Shede Hageman would also make a lot of sense at this slot, as he is a versatile defensive lineman who projects well to playing 3-4 defensive end and he has huge upside. Fuller just might be too good of a fit for Pittsburgh to pass up in this scenario.
31. Baltimore Ravens (from Denver Broncos): Ra’Shede Hageman, DE/DT, Minnesota
Baltimore Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome has long been considered a proponent of drafting for value over need, and in this scenario, Minnesota’s Ra’Shede Hageman would have the most value of any prospect available.
The Ravens have bigger needs than their defensive line, but they should look to add another defensive end to their rotation after losing Arthur Jones in free agency.
Hageman, a 6’6”, 310-pounder with 34.25” arms, explosive athleticism and great strength, projects as a great fit to play as a 5-technique defensive end in a 3-4 defense such as Baltimore’s. A penetrator with burst who also holds his ground well at the point of attack, Hageman could quickly emerge as a disruptive force as either a starter or a key piece off the bench.
The Minnesota product has some technical flaws in his game and was an inconsistent performer throughout his Golden Gophers career, but his potential is huge. He would enter a good situation in Baltimore, where he would not necessarily have to start right away, but he could bolster a rotation in a situational role that plays to his strengths.
32. Seattle Seahawks: Scott Crichton, DE, Oregon State
The Seattle Seahawks are likely to be in the market for a defensive end after falling short in their free-agent pursuit of Jared Allen. Oregon State’s Scott Crichton would be a great fit and great value as the final pick of Round 1.
Crichton might not be the flashy or explosive pass-rusher in this year’s draft, but he can win off the edge with athleticism, hand skills and strength. He holds his ground well at the line of scrimmage, makes plays outside in pursuit and has a seemingly constant motor.
With a skill set ready to play on every down, Crichton could form a strong defensive-end rotation with Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril. He’s ready for the considerable playing time he would likely be thrust into on a Seattle defense that released Chris Clemons and Red Bryant from last season’s Super Bowl unit.
All measurables courtesy of NFL.com.
Dan Hope is an NFL/NFL draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.
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