As Thursday’s NFL Draft approaches, there is still rampant uncertainty throughout the first round, with the biggest question mark at first overall.
The Houston Texans could go in several different directions with their No. 1 pick, either by taking South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney — the consensus top player in the draft — or dealing the pick to any number of quarterback-hungry teams.
NFL Draft first round
P Thursday, 6 p.m., ESPN
The problem? The draft’s top QBs have been all over the map in mock drafts. Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel, Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater and Central Florida’s Blake Bortles all have their detractors, yet it is almost certain that at least one of them will go early.
And that top quarterback pick could be Manziel. After all the negative reports about the Aggue’s size, mechanics and party-hardy lifestyle, Manziel seems to be on the rise once again.
Offensive and defensive linemen, and cornerbacks are also expected to be in great demand when NFL commissioner Roger Goodell walks out to the podium to announce the first pick Thursday night. Not expected to be in great demand: running backs, who may get shut out of the first round entirely.
The Salt Lake Tribune’s NFL mock draft:
1. Houston Texans
South Carolina DE Jadeveon Clowney, 6-foot-5, 266 pounds.
The final two came down to Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel and Clowney for me, but the Texans go with the freakish defensive end to kick off the draft. Clowney was phenomenal in 2012, but a down year in 2013 made some question his work ethic and desire at the next level. However, after putting on a show at the combine and at his Pro Day, those doubts were put to rest on the merit of his athletic gifts alone. Clowney can start across from J.J. Watt and stand up in Houston’s defensive sub packages, arguably giving the team the top pass rushing pair in the NFL.
2. St. Louis Rams
Auburn OT Greg Robinson, 6-5, 332 pounds.
The Rams continue to be committed to quarterback Sam Bradford, who is coming off a torn ACL, for better or worse and grab him some protection with this pick. St. Louis was most successful after going to a more rush-centric offense in the middle of the season, spearheaded by bruising rookie Zac Stacy. Robinson is an absolute mauler in the run game and although his pass protection needs work, he’d instantly boost a unit banking on left tackle Jake Long to return from a torn ACL. He can step in at left guard for a season if Long comes back healthy and be the latter’s eventual successor, giving the Rams a solid unit of Long, Robinson, Scott Wells, Rodger Saffold and Joe Barksdale to protect Bradford.
3. Jacksonville Jaguars
Buffalo OLB Khalil Mack, 6-3, 251 pounds.
Mack is right there with Clowney in terms of explosiveness and potential for disruption, making him a natural choice for defensive minded head coach Gus Bradley. Mack could step into the Jaguars defense and wreak havoc as a hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker and boost a unit that finished dead last in sacks in 2013. Although he played mostly inferior competition in the MAC, a 2.5 sack and interception outing against Ohio State, as well as 10.5 sacks and three interceptions overall in 2013, show he can step in seamlessly at the next level.
4. Cleveland Browns
Texas A&M QB Johnny Manziel, 5-11, 207 pounds.
Manziel doesn’t have to wait long after the Texans pass on him, falling into the lap of the quarterback- and excitement-starved Browns. Cleveland recently added Vince Young and Tyler Thigpen to go with holdover Brian Hoyer, but none of those guys have the upside and potential to change a game like Manziel. The 2012 Heisman Trophy winner isn’t as tall as most franchise quarterbacks, but after tossing 37 touchdowns and rushing for nine more in 2013, Cleveland would get a playmaker and a legitimate passer to pair with emerging star Josh Gordon.
5. Trade — Detroit Lions
Clemson WR Sammy Watkins, 6-1, 211 pounds.
The Lions make a trade with the Oakland Raiders, moving up five spots for the top wide receiver in this draft. Watkins rounds out the five elite players in this draft for Detroit, giving Matthew Stafford another weapon to throw to alongside Calvin Johnson and free agent signee Golden Tate. Watkins dominated the NFL Combine, caught 101 balls for 1,464 yards and 12 touchdowns last year at Clemson and brings huge amounts of game-breaking speed and ability. Stafford can get caught going to Johnson too many times during games and Watkins would force defenses to leave "Megatron" in one-on-one situations more often.
6. Atlanta Falcons
Michigan OT Taylor Lewan, 6-7, 309 pounds.
The Falcons could move up for either Clowney or Mack, but the cost may be too prohibitive. Even though polished Texas A&M tackle Jake Matthews is still on the board, I think the Falcons may prefer Lewan here because of his higher ceiling of potential. Lewan started 48 of 50 games at Michigan and was in the running for the top tackle taken if he had declared for the draft last year. Assuming the Falcons miss out on both top defensive prospects, Lewan would go a long way in upgrading from Sam Baker and protecting Matt Ryan, who was sacked 44 times last season.
7. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Texas A&M WR Mike Evans, 6-5, 231 pounds.
Evans could be preferred over Watkins by several teams as the top receiver in this draft and would be a great addition to the Bucs. Troubled receiver Mike Williams was traded to Buffalo, leaving Vincent Jackson as the only real receiving threat in Tampa Bay. Enter Evans, who regularly dominated the top competition in the SEC and will win jump balls regularly for Josh McCown or a quarterback taken later in the draft. McCown’s success with dual tall receivers in Chicago last year was well documented and the duo of Jackson and Evans would allow Tampa Bay to replicate it.
8. Minnesota Vikings
Central Florida QB Blake Bortles, 6-5, 232 pounds.
Although Manziel goes higher in this mock, Bortles could easily become the top quarterback drafted. He has prototypical size, strength and touch on the ball, reminiscent of Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and would be an instant upgrade in Minnesota. However, Bortles is also raw and could use at least a few games of learning time behind incumbent starter Matt Cassel. The Christian Ponder experiment is dead in the water and with Bortles, the Vikings would have a legitimate threat to pair with Adrian Peterson and to get the ball to Cordarelle Patterson.
9. Buffalo Bills
Texas A&M OT Jake Matthews, 6-5, 308 pounds.
The Bills secure the cleanest prospect in this draft in Matthews, who has NFL bloodlines and is a technician at left tackle. Although he falls in this mock, he could easily be the first tackle selected because of his pass protection skills and experience starting 46 of 49 games at Texas A&M. The Bills struggled to protect their passers last season, surrendering the fourth highest amount of sacks at 48. If the Bills hope to continue developing EJ Manuel, they need to protect him with a guy like Matthews.
10. Oakland Raiders
Pittsburgh DT Aaron Donald, 6-1, 285 pounds.
The Raiders moved back with the Lions, securing some desperately needed mid-round draft capital and still end up with one of the top defensive players in the draft. Donald is on the smaller side, but his impact as a pass rushing defensive tackle is unmatched after he racked up 11 sacks and a ridiculous 63 tackles for loss in the last three seasons. At this point, the Raiders need both picks and talent at any position they can get their hands on, making Donald a no-brainer at this spot.
11. Tennessee Titans
TCU CB Jason Verrett, 5-9, 189 pounds.
This may be viewed as a reach for the Titans, but I’m high on Verrett’s potential and if he was a few inches taller, he’d be the top corner in this class. The Titans lost Alterraun Verner to Tampa Bay during free agency and need an upgrade at this position. Verrett provides great instincts, athleticism and playmaking ability. Plus, the Titans had success with Verner (5 feet 10 inches) and Cortland Finnegan (5 feet 10 inches) allowing them to feel comfortable taking Verrett here.
12. Trade — Miami Dolphins
Notre Dame OG/OT Zack Martin, 6-4, 308 pounds.
Martin seems to be a popular candidate for rising in the draft lately and with most of the top tackle talent gone, the Dolphins move up seven spots to nab Martin. Miami’s offensive line was abysmal last season, surrendering an ugly 58 sacks and suffering from the bullying saga between Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin. After signing Branden Albert in free agency, the Dolphins make another move, grabbing the versatile Martin to play right tackle or inside at guard.
13. St. Louis Rams
Oklahoma State CB Justin Gilbert, 6-0, 202 pounds.
The Rams could go with a safety here, but the second and third round provides better value and Gilbert would be a great pick at this spot. The Oklahoma State product had seven interceptions last season and is fluid, explosive and strong enough to stand up in man-to-man coverage. The Rams struggled last season at both cornerback spots, playing soft coverage and rarely benefitting from a talented defensive line. This would allow St. Louis to move Janoris Jenkins inside to the slot, with Gilbert and Trumaine Johnson outside.
14. Chicago Bears
Louisville Safety Calvin Pryor, 5-11, 207 pounds.
Pryor fits the mold of a punishing enforcer at safety, similar to Seattle’s Kam Chancellor. The Bears could go with a defensive lineman here to shore up the league’s worst run defense, but safety may be more of a pressing need. He can come up in run support and will make division receivers like Calvin Johnson, Jordy Nelson and Cordarelle Patterson think twice before going over the middle to catch a pass.
15. Pittsburgh Steelers
Michigan State CB Darqueze Dennard, 5-11, 199 pounds.
The Steelers need an upgrade in the secondary as both William Gay and Ike Taylor are on the back end of their careers. Dennard isn’t as quick as Gilbert and Verrett, but he’s more physical and will stand up better in man-to-man situations. He had four interceptions in 2013 and excels in press coverage, making him an ideal fit to match up with division receivers like A.J. Green and Josh Gordon.
16. Dallas Cowboys
Florida State DT Timmy Jernigan, 6-2, 299 pounds.
I wouldn’t be surprised to see Dallas try to move up for Donald, but Jernigan isn’t a bad consolation prize. The Cowboys lost Demarcus Ware because of poor cap management and brought back Anthony Spencer and brought in Henry Melton, but both are coming off major surgeries. Jernigan would add talent to the interior of Rod Marinelli’s defense and has the potential to plug the middle of the Cowboys defense while adding decent pass rushing ability.
17. Baltimore Ravens
Alabama safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, 6-1, 208 pounds.
The Ravens spent a 2013 first rounder on Matt Elam, but he fills more of a strong safety role while Clinton-Dix is rangy and will be a great free safety at the next level. Although the comparisons to Seattle’s Earl Thomas are generous at best, Clinton-Dix is a talented safety that can cover a large amount of ground, secure a tackle and patrol the deep middle of the field. Similar to Dennard’s impact, Clinton-Dix would be able to back up Baltimore’s corners covering Josh Gordon and A.J. Green while providing the potential for increased turnovers.
18. New York Jets
North Carolina TE Eric Ebron, 6-4, 250 pounds.
The Jets pick up a playmaker here to go with free agent signee Eric Decker. The Jets need weapons for Geno Smith or whoever the team’s next quarterback will be and it’s hard to find a better one in the draft than Ebron. Although he only had three touchdowns last year, he ammassed 973 yards on 62 catches and exploited mismatches well. He tore up the Combine and is in the mold of high impact and athletic tight ends like Jimmy Graham and Vernon Davis.
19. New York Giants
UCLA OLB Anthony Barr, 6-5, 255 pounds.
The days of the Giants having the league’s best pass rush are over, with Justin Tuck moving to Oakland and the duo of Mathias Kiwaunka and Jason Pierre-Paul racking up a combined eight sacks last season. Barr was a monster in the Pac-12, racking up 10 sacks and making a huge impact as both a stand up linebacker and edge rusher. The Giants get a couple of mid-round picks from the Dolphins and still get a versatile and athletic pass rusher.
20. Arizona Cardinals
Missouri DE Kony Ealy, 6-4, 273 pounds.
The Cardinals solved most of their offensive line problems in free agency, leaving the team with its choice of several defensive linemen and linebackers. Arizona coaxed 11.5 sacks out of John Abraham last season, but he’s older at age 35 and other outside linebackers Sam Acho and Matt Shaughnessy combined for only four sacks. Ealy is long enough to play as a down lineman and quick enough to play at outside linebacker after racking up 9 sacks last year. Paired with one of the most underrated defensive players in the league in Calais Campbell and a rising defensive core, Ealy would make an immediate impact in the tough NFC West.
21. Green Bay Packers
Alabama ILB C.J. Mosley, 6-2, 234 pounds.
The Packers should go with a linebacker at this spot, with Mosley and Ohio State’s Ryan Shazier as the prime candidates. Mosley gets the nod because of his experience in a pro-like defense at Alabama and for his ranginess and potential for versatility in Dom Capers’ scheme. Mosley won’t necessarily be an explosive pass rusher, but he’s a field general, can flow sideline-to-sideline and is a sure tackler. After bringing B.J. Raji back, the Packers grab a linebacker to command the interior of the team’s defense.
22. Philadelphia Eagles
LSU WR Odell Beckham Jr., 5-11, 198 pounds.
The DeSean Jackson episode pushed wide receiver to the top of the Eagles needs list with Jeremy Maclin, coming off a torn ACL, and Riley Cooper as the top two guys on the depth chart. Beckham Jr. isn’t speedy like Jackson, but he brings a great skill set to the table. He has quick hands, runs good routes and plays well in traffic despite his smaller size. He ran a quick 40-yard dash at the Combine and showed that he can be a playmaker at the next level for Nick Foles inside Chip Kelly’s offense.
23. Kansas City Chiefs
USC WR Marqise Lee, 6-0, 192 pounds.
Lee has been my pick for the Chiefs from my first mock draft and it still makes sense in this spot. After a great 2012 season, Lee’s play suffered in 2013 because of a knee injury and uncertainty in the coaching staff for the Trojans, but the tools for him to succeed at the NFL level are there. He ran slower than expected at the Combine, but is quicker in games, runs polished routes and has deceptive speed after the catch. Former Ute Alex Smith doesn’t have a ton to work with offensively in Kansas City between the inconsistency of Dwayne Bowe and lack of a true second receiving threat, making Lee an obvious choice.
24. Cincinnati Bengals
Ohio State CB Bradley Roby, 5-11, 194 pounds.
Roby had an up-and-down 2013 season, culminated by an arrest on April 20 that took him out of the conversation for the top 10 picks. However, he has the talent to be an immediate contributor in the secondary, boasting quickness, fluid hips and an underrated physicality. The Bengals need help at corner with an aging Leon Hall as its best option outside and Roby would be an upgrade to contain guys like Josh Gordon and Torrey Smith.
25. San Diego Chargers
Virginia Tech CB Kyle Fuller, 6-0, 190 pounds.
Fuller goes back-to-back behind Roby, with this mock showing the importance of both passing and stopping the pass with eight total corners and receivers gone already. The Chargers had a rough time defending the pass last season, giving up 259 passing yards per game. It also doesn’t help that the team is in the same division as Peyton Manning, stressing the need for a guy like Fuller. He doesn’t have the same top end speed or fluidity as the corners selected before him, but he has good instincts, ball skills and will excel in zone coverage.
26. Trade — San Francisco 49ers
Oregon State WR Brandin Cooks, 5-10, 189 pounds.
The 49ers currently have more picks than holes to fill on the depth chart, creating flexibility to move up a few spots with the Browns. Cooks set the Combine 40-yard dash drill on fire by running it in 4.33 seconds and was dominant for the Beavers last year with 1,730 receiving yards and 16 touchdowns. The 49ers whiffed on A.J. Jenkins in 2012 and can’t rely on Anquan Boldin forever. Michael Crabtree has also had some trouble with injuries, making a speedster like Cooks a good pick to add a new dimension to San Francisco’s passing game.
27. New Orleans Saints
Auburn DE Dee Ford, 6-2, 252 pounds.
The Saints don’t deviate from my first mock, nabbing a great edge rusher in Ford. Will Smith is no longer a Saint and Junior Gallette can only do so much, leaving room for another pressure specialist. Ford had 10.5 sacks last season at Auburn and although he doesn’t have ideal size and length, but he has good burst and would thrive in Rob Ryan’s scheme.
28. Carolina Panthers
Virginia OT Morgan Moses, 6-6, 314 pounds.
The Panthers needs list is long, with upgrades and replacements needed at receiver, in the secondary and at tackle. Moses can fill one of those holes left behind by departing left tackle Jordan Gross while the Panthers wait for the second round to fill the void left by Steve Smith. He’s massive and has long arms to stave off pass rushers and protect Cam Newton’s blindside. Although he’s not as athletic and talented as the offensive linemen taken above him, Moses can still be a solid starter in the NFL.
29. Trade — Oakland Raiders.
Louisville QB Teddy Bridgewater, 6-2, 214 pounds.
The Patriots, who seemingly never hold on to a first round pick, move to the upper part of the second round in this trade. The Raiders move up and get Bridgewater, whose stock seems to have plummeted recently despite strong accuracy, leadership qualities and clean mechanics. Bridgewater struggled at his Pro Day, causing some concern, but the bottom line is he’s a clean prospect and would be a great pick for the Raiders in this spot. Matt Schaub could start the beginning of the season, with Bridgewater coming on eventually as the starter.
30. Cleveland Browns
Florida State CB Lamarcus Joyner, 5-8, 184 pounds.
Joyner may be a reach at this spot, but looking past his size, he’s a playmaker at safety and is a fit at third corner for the Browns. Cleveland is thin at corner outside of Joe Haden and Joyner could fill the void. He has good instincts and punches above his weight, as well as the ability to rush the passer in blitz packages.
31. Denver Broncos
Ohio State OLB Ryan Shazier, 6-1, 237 pounds.
The Broncos could go for an interior offensive lineman here to replace Zane Beadles, but Shazier is a good value at a position of need. Denver added a lot to its defense in the offseason with Demarcus Ware and Aqib Talib, but Shazier would round out the unit. He would complement pass rushers like Ware and Von Miller with his range and sound tackling.
32. Seattle Seahawks
Nevada OT Joel Bitonio, 6-4, 302 pounds .
The Seahawks have the luxury of considering a wide range of players at this spot, but Bitonio fits the best. He’s incredibly versatile and plays with a mean streak, making him ideal for either inside at guard or at right tackle to pave the way for Marshawn Lynch. Seattle also declined its fifth year option on 2011 first round pick James Carpenter, showing the need for another quality lineman.
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