Draft season is upon us once again and with the Super Bowl over, the draft order is finally set. For teams like Houston, Jacksonville and Cleveland, it’s a chance to add a franchise player to turn around their fortunes. For teams in the middle of the draft, it’s a chance to add a player that will put them over the top for playoff contention. Here’s the first version of our mock draft:
1. Houston Texans - Louisville QB Teddy Bridgewater
The Texans have floated the idea of trading this pick and could pair a talent like Jadaveon Clowney with JJ Watt to build a terrifying defensive front for new coach Bill O’Brien. However, when it comes down to it, it’s hard to project anything but the best quarterback in the draft to Houston. Bridgewater is the clear-cut No. 1 passer in this draft, and although he isn’t as polished as 2012 No. 1 pick Andrew Luck, he has all the tools to be a perennial Pro Bowler under a quarterback guru like O’Brien.
2. St. Louis Rams (via Washington) - Auburn OT Greg Robinson
Although the Rams will more than likely trade out of this pick, Robinson would be a great addition to a St. Louis offensive line potentially missing both tackles at the start of next season, as 2013 free agent addition Jake Long tore his ACL late in the season and right tackle Rodger Saffold is headed to free agency. Although Texas A&M offensive tackle Jake Matthews is a more heralded prospect, Robinson has a mean streak and has a higher ceiling, setting the stage for a meteoric draft board rise like Eric Fisher last season.
3. Jacksonville Jaguars - UCF QB Blake Bortles
The Blaine Gabbert experiment has been a disaster for the Jaguars, and Chad Henne isn’t much better. It’s time to pull the trigger on a new franchise face, making Bortles an ideal pick at this spot. He’s far less polished than Bridgewater, but he’s big-bodied and has skills similar to Ben Roethlisberger. After Bortles led the Knights to an upset over Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl, don’t be surprised if he’s a top-five pick.
4. Cleveland Browns - Texas A&M QB Johnny Manziel
There are few players more polarizing in college football than Johnny Manziel, but there are also few players as talented. The 2012 Heisman Trophy winner has had a blistering two seasons in College Station, tossing 63 touchdown passes and rushing for 30 more. The Browns are in desperate need of an infusion of talent, confidence and a franchise passer after Brandon Weeden didn’t work out.
5. Oakland Raiders - South Carolina DE Jadaveon Clowney
Clowney is the best player in the draft, talent-wise, but struggled to stay motivated at points last season at South Carolina. However, he’s an all-world talent and drew consistent double- and triple-teams for the Gamecocks, and teams above could one day regret passing over him. Although the Raiders’ defense wasn’t horrible, Oakland finished with only 38 sacks last season and Clowney would provide an instant boost.
6. Atlanta Falcons - Texas A&M OT Jake Matthews
Matthews is another player that likely should go higher, but Atlanta would be ecstatic to grab him at six. Atlanta’s pass protection was ugly last season, resulting in franchise passer Matt Ryan being sacked 44 times and hit 100 times, tied for fifth-worst in the NFL. Matthews has NFL blood lines and was a beast on Manziel’s blindside this season.
7. Tampa Bay Buccaneers - Buffalo OLB Khalil Mack
New head coach Lovie Smith is a defensive guy, and few players in the draft have as much upside as Mack. At 6-foot-3 and nearly 250 pounds, Mack is a quick-twitch athlete and would add to the established stars in Tampa like Lavonte David. The Bucs would also add another piece to put pressure on opposing division passers Drew Brees, Cam Newton and Matt Ryan.
8. Minnesota Vikings - Fresno State QB Derek Carr
The Vikings may be a candidate to trade up to St. Louis’ spot if they covet a different quarterback, but if they stay in this spot, Carr would be a great fit. He has a cannon for an arm and led the No. 1 passing game in the collegiate ranks last season with nearly 395 yards passing per game and 50 touchdowns. He’d also stop the quarterback merry-go-round in Minnesota frequented last season by Christian Ponder, Josh Freeman and Matt Cassel.
9. Buffalo Bills - North Carolina TE Eric Ebron
The Bills need a passing target and security blanket besides Stevie Johnson to pair with second year quarterback EJ Manuel. Look no further than Ebron, who is a Jimmy Graham-like receiving threat. The stigma of taking tight ends early is long gone after the success of Graham, Rob Gronkowski and Vernon Davis.
10. Detroit Lions - Clemson WR Sammy Watkins
Watkins is considered the best wide receiver in this draft and had a ridiculous season at Clemson, catching 101 balls for 1,464 yards and 12 touchdowns. Watkins could finally fill the role opposite Calvin Johnson and give Matt Stafford a huge upgrade over guys like Nate Burleson, who may become a cap casualty for Detroit.
11. Tennessee Titans - Oklahoma State CB Justin Gilbert
Tennessee could go in a few directions, like offensive tackle or linebacker, but corner could be a huge need after free agency. Alterraun Verner is a free agent and more than likely will get one of the biggest contracts on the market, making it tough for the Titans to retain him. Gilbert was a shut-down corner all season for Oklahoma State, grabbing seven interceptions and matching up with the opposing team’s best receiver.
12. New York Giants - Michigan OT Taylor Lewan
Eli Manning was sacked 40 times last season and was hit 83 times. Starting left tackle Will Beatty is trying to return from a broken leg. Both factors add up to the Giants selecting Lewan, who was considered one of the top tackle prospects last season before returning to Ann Arbor.
13. St. Louis Rams - Michigan State CB Darqueze Dennard
St. Louis’ pass defense was tenuous last season, and the Rams could use this pick on a safety. However, Cortland Finnegan is a likely cap casualty after an abysmal start to last season and Dennard would fit right into his spot. This would also allow St. Louis to move Janoris Jenkins to the slot with Trumaine Johnson starting opposite the Michigan State product.
14. Chicago Bears - Minnesota DT RaShede Hageman
The Bears were horrendous at stopping the run last season, ranking dead last in the NFL in run defense while surrendering 161 yards on the ground per game and 22 rushing touchdowns. After starter Henry Melton got hurt, the Bears’ defense was abysmal all-around, and Hageman would be a great fit. He’s a mountain of a man at 6-foot-6 and 318 pounds, and would be an asset to slow down division rushers like Eddie Lacy and Adrian Peterson.
15. Pittsburgh Steelers - Alabama Safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix
An era of enforcers in the Steelers’ defensive backfield is ending as both Ryan Clark and Troy Polamalu enter the twilight of their careers. Clinton-Dix is the best safety in the draft and can slot in beside Clark if Pittsburgh moves on from Polamalu, possessing the range to cover sideline-to-sideline and the attitude to be an enforcer at the line of scrimmage.
16. Baltimore Ravens - Texas A&M WR Mike Evans
Joe Flacco’s play suffered last season after the Ravens traded Anquan Boldin and Baltimore could use a physical receiver in the AFC North. Evans has strong hands and has one of the best size and speed combinations in the draft at 6-foot-5 and 225 pounds. The former Aggie would be a great fit across from burner Torrey Smith, and would add a new dimension to Baltimore’s offense.
17. Dallas Cowboys - UCLA OLB Anthony Barr
The Cowboys have the worst salary cap situation in the NFL and may be forced to make some tough decisions, including the possibility of releasing DeMarcus Ware. Ware is still productive and would be a tough cut, but he’d save Dallas some serious cash. Barr would fit into Ware’s vacated spot perfectly, with the ability to rush the passer and drop into coverage if needed. He’d be a steal at this spot.
18. New York Jets - Texas Tech TE Jace Amaro
The Jets are in a similar situation to the Bills: developing a young quarterback who needs weapons. Geno Smith had an up-and-down year at least partly because of his lack of weapons in the passing game. Amaro is another player in the mold of “new age” tight ends and could step in as a matchup nightmare and safety blanket for Smith immediately.
19. Miami Dolphins - Notre Dame OT Zack Martin
Miami struggled massively with pass protection last season, allowing Ryan Tannehill to be sacked a ridiculous 58 times. Martin was a standout for the Fighting Irish last season and was arguably the best player at the Senior Bowl. He’s also versatile, with the ability to play either tackle or guard, increasing his value for the Dolphins.
20. Arizona Cardinals - Alabama OT Cyrus Kouandjio
The Cardinals were just shy of a playoff berth in the NFC West, and beefing up the team’s offensive line may be the final piece to the postseason puzzle. Kouandjio anchored the Alabama offensive line in 2013 and would be an upgrade at either tackle spot for Arizona.
21. Green Bay Packers - Notre Dame DT Louis Nix III
The Packers will likely lose B.J. Raji to free agency and will need a replacement to limit division rushers like Adrian Peterson and Matt Forte. Nix is the type of space-eating nose tackle that will thrive in the Packers’ scheme and will free up Green Bay’s linebackers and down lineman to make more plays.
22. Philadelphia Eagles - Louisville Safety Calvin Pryor
Philadelphia finished dead last in the NFL in passing yardage surrendered per game with 290, and desperately needs a physical presence in the secondary. Pryor is skyrocketing up draft boards and would have been the best player on Louisville’s roster if not for Bridgewater. He has the range to be effective as a center fielder, but could also be an enforcer in the box.
23. Kansas City Chiefs - USC WR Marqise Lee
The Chiefs need to find a more consistent weapon opposite Dwayne Bowe than players like Donnie Avery, and Lee would be a great addition to Kansas City’s passing game. He struggled with nagging injuries last season, but is still regarded as a top receiving prospect after posting more than 2,800 receiving yards and 25 touchdowns in the last two seasons.
24. Cincinnati Bengals - Missouri DE Kony Ealy
The Bengals need reinforcements on the defensive line with Geno Atkins coming off a torn ACL and Michael Johnson likely leaving in free agency. It would be a major coup for Ealy to last this long, and the Bengals would snatch him up immediately. Ealy had nine sacks last season and would be best used in a slowly increasing role as a pass rusher until he can better develop other defensive lineman skills.
25. San Diego Chargers - TCU CB Jason Verrett
San Diego’s pass defense was among the worst in the NFL last season after giving up 259 yards passing per game. The Chargers could use another offensive lineman, but Verrett gets the nod here as a chance to add talent around Eric Weddle. He’s a little undersized compared to some of the other corners getting first-round attention, but he makes up for it in coverage skills.
26. Cleveland Browns - Alabama LB C.J. Mosley
Mosley is another prospect that could go much earlier, but he falls to Cleveland in this mock. New head coach Mike Pettine knows the value of a talented inside linebacker after coaching Kiko Alonso last season, and Mosley could be even better. Although Alabama defenders usually have low ceilings in the NFL simply because they’re so well-coached in Tuscaloosa, Mosley is an exception and would complement last year’s first rounder, Barkevious Mingo, well.
27. New Orleans Saints - Auburn DE Dee Ford
New Orleans could use another pass rusher outside of Junior Gallette, and Ford, despite being undersized, could be a great addition to the Saints as a moveable piece in Rob Ryan’s defensive scheme. He flashed at the Senior Bowl and showed off in the National Championship game with two sacks.
28. Carolina Panthers - Penn State WR Allen Robinson
There are few teams in the NFL in need of a new pass catcher more than the Panthers. Steve Smith is getting older and older, while Brandon LaFell and Ted Ginn are nothing more than third or fourth receivers. Robinson is one of the smoothest receivers in the draft and has ideal size at 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds. He would finally give Cam Newton a legitimate weapon outside of Smith and tight end Greg Olsen.
29. New England Patriots - LSU WR Odell Beckham Jr.
The Patriots have a crying need for weapons as well to pair with the only legitimate offensive threat in Julian Edelman. Rob Gronkowski is injured too often, Danny Amendola has been a free agency bust so far and Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson need more time to develop. Beckham Jr. isn’t huge, at only 6-feet, 190 pounds, but he’s smooth, quick and fast, with the potential to contribute right away to help Tom Brady.
30. San Francisco 49ers - Florida CB Marcus Roberson
San Francisco doesn’t have a lot of needs, but corner is near the top of the list. He has good size at 6-feet, 195 pounds, and would be an upgrade over the aging Carlos Rogers to pair with Tramaine Brock. He’d also be a good complement to last year’s first-rounder, Eric Reid, and would make San Francisco’s defense even more formidable.
31. Denver Broncos - Pitt DT Aaron Donald
Donald is small compared to current free-agent-to-be defensive tackle Terrance Knighton, but the Pitt product’s Senior Bowl performance put him in the conversation for the back end of the first round. Donald is only 6-feet, 285 pounds, but could add more mass at the NFL level and is already a polished interior pass rusher. If the Broncos keep Knighton or find a complementary big-bodied tackle next to him, Donald could be a contributor right away.
32. Seattle Seahawks - FSU WR Kelvin Benjamin
Benjamin is a raw and will be 23 years old by the time the draft rolls around, but he’s arguably the best jump-ball receiver in the draft along with Mike Evans. Benjamin was a monster in 2013, catching 15 touchdown passes from Jameis Winston and has a size-speed combination that scouts drool over, at 6-foot-5 and 234 pounds. He’d provide another dimension for Russell Wilson and would be a great replacement if the team cuts Sidney Rice and loses Golden Tate to free agency.