Still more than a month away and with a few pro days left, we take our first crack at mocking up the…
Mock draft: Round 1, Version 4
1. Houston Texans – Blake Bortles, QB, Central Florida. Teams rarely get the chance to draft a quarterback with the first pick of the draft and, simply stated, Bortles has fewer question marks than Teddy Bridgewater or Johnny Manziel. We've made no bones about the fact that, if we were making this pick, we would take Jadeveon Clowney. Given their losses along the defensive line in free agency, J.J. Watt needs someone to play opposite him and they could be dominant in a hurry. But the Texans are looking to develop a quarterback under Bill O'Brien and he has ties to the Bortles-run UCF offense (George O'Leary). It's a tough call and a trade is possible, but, if they stay, they use this opportunity to land a franchise QB.
2. St. Louis Rams (from Washington)—Greg Robinson, OT, Auburn. Miami let Jake Long go because they figured his best years were in the rearview mirror. Despite re-signing Rodger Saffold, he was dominant on the inside when moved to guard last year and is expected to return there. At a minimum, Robinson would play right tackle for one year. At the maximum, he replaces Long, who suffered a torn ACL and MCL late last year and his availability for the start of next season is in question. Robinson could be the reincarnation of Orlando Pace. If the Rams feel confident Long can return, they could take Jadeveon Clowney, the most explosive player in draft. If nothing else, as with RG3 that got them this pick, they could harvest picks to trade down and still get Robinson or Jake Matthews.
3. Jacksonville Jaguars – Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina. The Jaguars tied for last in sacks, and with a lot of questions on offense, the best the Jags can do to make a quick improvement is to take the best defensive player in the draft. There's no questioning that Clowney is that player. If Houston or St. Louis draft Clowney or trade the pick to someone who does, don't be shocked to see the Jags jump in the quarterback pool – most likely with Teddy Bridgewater. If Clowney is here, they can grab him and have the draft ammunition to try to move back into the final third of the first round if Derek Carr is still on the board.
4. Cleveland Browns – Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville. It seems clear the Browns are going to take a quarterback in the first round after cutting two of their former starters (Brandon Weeden and Jason Campbell) last month. The last time they were in a situation like this, they waited and grabbed a QB in the final third of the first round. That guy was Weeden. At this point, they are guaranteed to get one of the quarterbacks viewed as the "Big Three" (or Clowney in a worst-case scenario). However, with another pick later in the round – as well as the third and fourth rounds – the Browns have the ammunition to draft a non-quarterback, let the first round start to play out and move back into the first round if they covet someone like Derek Carr, who is currently expected to be the fourth quarterback off the board. Trading down is also a possibility.
5. Oakland Raiders—Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson. This will be a tough decision that will have a domino effect throughout the rest of the next dozen or so picks. Given the difficulty the Raiders have had at quarterback, Johnny Manziel makes a lot of sense. He fits the bad boy image of the Raiders, but the Raiders still have the scars from Jamarcus Russell, an entitled SEC quarterback with an off-field history, that could throw up red flags. The Raiders traded for Matt Schaub, which gives them a Plan B if the QB they really like is gone, but, if they sign DeSean Jackson, this pick will be a wild card. Even as this one lays out, if Al Davis was still alive, he'd take Manziel.
6. Atlanta Falcons—Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M. Sam Baker hasn't lived up to his contract at left tackle, and while some scouts have Matthews rated as the top tackle on the board he is ideally a right tackle that, with more time, can become a solid left tackle. Seeing as the Falcons are only one year into the six-year deal, they aren't throwing in the towel on Baker just yet. If he pans out, they're set with bookend tackles for the next five years. If not, Matthews will get a year or two of catching up to speed and then make the move to left tackle.
7. Tampa Bay Buccaneers—Khalil Mack, OLB, Buffalo. The Bucs have one of the best outside linebackers in the business in Lavonte David, who went to the Pro Bowl last year. Adding the dynamic Mack on the other side of the linebacker corps could give new head coach Lovie Smith and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier another weapon. Given the investment the Bucs have made in their defense this offseason, adding CB Alterraun Verner and DE Michael Johnson, Tampa Bay may not be as far away from respectability as some might think.
8. Minnesota Vikings—Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M. Few players have as wide a draft-day disparity as Manziel. Some think he could be on the radar of the Texans with the No. 1 pick to keep him in his home state. Others think his scrambling style won't play in the current NFL. For a team whose franchise QB was another scrambler by the name of Tarkenton, if Manziel can make it through the minefield between the first and fifth picks, he could land with the Vikings. If nothing else, it would put a lot of eyes on training camp in Mankato as the NFL welcomes Johnny Football and the Vikings sell a lot of jerseys to fans ready to jump on the bandwagon. There have been a lot of draftniks linking the Vikings to Fresno State's Derek Carr, but, if they trade down, it can't be too far because they could get burned and have to go to Quarterback Plan C – because Plan A (drafting a QB at No. 8) and Plan B (dropping down a half dozen spots and taking a QB) both failed.
9. Buffalo Bills – Anthony Barr, OLB/DE, UCLA. The Bills have needs on both sides of the ball, but have their most pressing need at outside linebacker. Buffalo was ecstatic with how rookie Kiko Alonso performed at middle linebacker last year – he took every defensive snap – but outside linebacker remains a big problem. The team may have solved some of their short-term needs by signing veteran free agents Brandon Spikes and Keith Rivers to short-term, team-friendly contracts, but neither is a long-term solution. With Barr and Alonso together, they have the makings of a linebacker crew that could eventually rival the group they had during their Super Bowl run.
10. Detroit Lions – Justin Gilbert, CB, Oklahoma State. There isn't a clear consensus as to who will be the first cornerback off the board. Some think Gilbert. Others see Darqueze Dennard. There haven't been any taken yet, so the Lions would have their choice. If there isn't a player that jumps off the page at them, the Lions could easily trade down with a team that feels strongly about a player like tight end Eric Ebron or offensive tackle Taylor Lewan. But cornerback is such a glaring need that it can't be ignored. Rashean Mathis is at the end of the line, turning 34 this year. Chris Houston was a big disappointment as the other starter. When your cornerbacks combine for just two interceptions, it's clear an upgrade is needed.
11. Tennessee Titans—Taylor Lewan, OT, Michigan. Michael Roos and David Stewart have been advised to rent, not own. That's never a good sign. If Jake Locker is ever going to live up to the promise the franchise put in him, he needs a pocket that will be cleaner than it has been of late. Lawson is necessary insurance moving forward for the Titans.
12. New York Giants – Eric Ebron, TE, North Carolina. The Giants know the difference a playmaking tight end can have in their offense. When he was healthy, Jeremy Shockey was as explosive as any tight end in the league. The degeneration of the position as something other than a glorified blocker hit bottom when the G-Men released Brandon Myers. Ebron is like a wide receiver in the mold of recent Patriots vintage. He lines up in the slot. He lines up wide. Simply, he can create mismatches. With Hakeem Nicks and a slew of No. 3 or 4 receivers behind Victor Cruz, an impact tight end downfield could do the most benefit for a struggling offense.
13. St. Louis Rams—Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, S, Alabama. The Rams finished 7-9 last year and that was good enough to be the last-place team in the NFC West by a large margin. In the league's toughest division, they can't let need positions remain needs. Heading into the offseason, their biggest question mark was at safety and to date they have done nothing to address that need. Clinton-Dix is a physical safety who is NFL-ready. Combined with in-state rival Greg Robinson from Auburn, the Rams will have done a nice job of rebuilding both sides of the ball in the first two hours of the draft.
14. Chicago Bears—Aaron Donald, DT, Pitt. The Bears spent a ton of cash on improving at defensive end – signing Jared Allen, Lamarr Houston and Willie Yoing, but have done nothing to replace Henry Melton and Corey Wootton. Donald is a fast-rising prospect who, despite being a bit undersized for a prototype NFL defensive tackle, has the speed and burst to blow up plays. With offensive lines concerned with what Allen and Houston will be bringing from the edge, a burst player like Donald could be an ideal complement in the middle – forcing the quarterback into the path of the oncoming ends. He doesn't fit all defenses, but looks to be a decent fit with Chicago.
15. Pittsburgh Steelers – Mike Evans, WR, Texas A&M. We've had the Steelers tied to nose tackle Louis Nix III in the first three incarnations of our mock draft and he still looks like a glove fit in the Pittsburgh defense – the type of player who consistently excels in the Steelers style and is also a position of need. But Evans is simply too good to pass on here. Over the two years, the Steelers have lost Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery to free agency and the only replacement they have to show for it is Lance Moore, who at this stage of his career is just another guy. Evans will bring a dynamic deep threat dimension to Ben Roethlisberger and he could quickly elevate to the No. 1 receiver for the Steelers. With questions about the Steelers' running game, getting an aerial weapon for Big Ben may trump selecting a defensive glove fit like Nix.
16. Dallas Cowboys—Timmy Jernigan, DT, Florida State. The Cowboys were convinced they had a Super Bowl team and spent like it. When they once again missed the playoffs and found themselves millions over the 2014 salary cap, they had to release DE DeMarcus Ware and couldn't get in a bidding war for Jason Hatcher, who ended up with division rival Washington. The Cowboys have to build up front and, whether it's a tackle like Jernigan or a defensive end prospect they like, at this point it seems obvious that the defensive line will be the focus.
17. Baltimore Ravens – Louis Nix III, DT, Notre Dame. Haloti Ngata is one of the most dominant defensive linemen in the league, but his production dropped when he was moved to nose tackle. Nix would be a pick that would serve two purposes – give the Ravens a stout, young pure nose tackle for their 3-4 defense and make Ngata better by getting him back to his natural defensive tackle position. Add that it would kill the Steelers because they passed on him and it's the sort of thing that makes gritty division rivalries exist in the NFL – none as physical as the Ravens-Steelers.
18. New York Jets – Darqueze Dennard, CB, Michigan State. Wide receiver is a definite possibility here because Eric Decker has never been a No. 1 target and will need someone to play the role he did the last three years in Denver. But this is a deep receiver class and cornerback was a front-burner offseason issue before the Jets cut Antonio Cromartie. That made it significantly worse. Dennard has elite cover skills and could be a poor man's version of Darrelle Revis right out of the gate and attempt to earn praise for his similarities later. This is a pure case of athlete vs. need. The Jets can get a wide receiver in the second round that won't be a significant drop-off from what they could pick at this spot. They won't have the same level of cornerbacks available, so the pick makes itself.
19. Miami Dolphins—Zack Martin, OT, Notre Dame. The Dolphins may not seem like a logical candidate here because they signed Branden Albert to a huge contract, but the Miami O-line was a mess last year even before the Richie Incognito/Jonathan Martin bullying scandal blew up. Neither of them will be back, nor will Bryant McKinnie, so there is still a need for upgrades on the line. Martin can play right tackle and potentially could be dominant at guard. If Ryan Tannehill is going to succeed, he needs better protection and run blocking than he got from his rag-tag O-line last year and Martin could be a big piece of that puzzle.
20. Arizona Cardinals—C.J. Mosley, ILB, Alabama. The Cardinals no longer have inside linebackers Karlos Dansby and Jasper Brinkley and didn't replace either of them and the roles they played in the defense. If not for a laundry list of injuries, Mosley would be long gone by this pick, but he fills an immediate, pressing need that was created by free agency. The Cardinals quietly won 10 games last year and, if they want to keep pace with the last two NFC entrants in the Super Bowl (Seattle and San Francisco), they need upgrading at some key spots. When healthy, Mosley is dominant. He's a risk/reward pick who could pay big dividends if he can stay on the field and make a difference.
21. Green Bay Packers—Calvin Pryor, S, Louisville. Charles Woodson was sent packing last year and the results were obvious. The Packers safeties didn't cause a single turnover (interception, forced fumble or fumble recovery) last year and lost M.D. Jennings in free agency. Pryor is an athletic safety who can make plays, something the Packers desperately need right now. With the signing of Julius Peppers, they have taken care of one need at defensive end. Pryor can help them fix another problem area.
22. Philadelphia Eagles—Ryan Shazier, OLB, Ohio State. This is admittedly a bit of a reach for a player who ideally grades out as a second-round prospect, but the Eagles struggled with the switch to a 3-4 defense and neither Trent Cole nor Connor Barwin was overly effective in providing a consistent pass rush. Shazier isn't the most naturally gifted player, but he's a glass-eater who eats, sleeps and breathes football and will give maximum effort on every play—something the Eagles will need if they continue to play Chip Kelly's up-tempo, pinball-style offense that, whether it works or fails, puts the defense back on the field quickly. He may be a little bit of a stretch here, but the Eagles will get a player the coaches, teammates and fans will love.
23. Kansas City Chiefs—Odell Beckham Jr., WR, LSU. Few players made more money than Beckham at the Combine. Not only did he run a great 40 time (4.43 seconds), he also posted some of the strongest times in the 20-yard shuttle (3.94) and the 60-yard shuttle (10.93). The Chiefs have overpaid inconsistent Dwayne Bowe, but to make that investment pay off they need someone who can consistently blow the top off the back end of a defense. This is a deep WR class, but Beckham has risen up the ranks and Kansas City looks to be a good landing spot for him.
24. Cincinnati Bengals—Jason Verrett, CB, TCU. Leon Hall turned 30 in December and has torn his Achilles twice in the last three year and is a free agent. Terence Newman and Pac Man Jones are both nearing the end of their NFL ride as well. Even if the Bengals keep the band together for another season, they need an infusion of youth in the secondary, especially in a division that already has strong-armed Joe Flacco and Ben Roethlisberger in the mix and Cleveland likely to add another young gun to the division.
25. San Diego Chargers—Bradley Roby, CB, Ohio State. When inconsistent veteran Richard Marshall was your best corner, there is clearly a need to be addressed—perhaps both in free agency and the draft. If San Diego is going to build on its surprising late-season run to the playoffs (in which they still finished third in their four-team division), upgrading the secondary to compete with Peyton Manning and Denver will be a top priority.
26. Cleveland Browns (from Indianapolis)—Marqise Lee, WR, USC. The Browns took a quarterback with their first pick of the round. Now they try to complete the offensive puzzle. They already have one of the game's top wide receivers in Josh Gordon and a playmaking tight end in Jordan Cameron. Lee is a big receiver with good run-after-the-catch skills and, combined with Ben Tate in the running game to keep defenses honest, could find himself single-covered on every play with the chance to make an immediate impact on an improving Cleveland team.
27. New Orleans Saints—Kyle Fuller, CB, Virginia Tech. The Saints have a high-octane offense, but it was their defense that was their undoing much of the year and forced them to go on the road in the playoffs. The team cut Jabari Greer and Roman Harper at the end of the season, have CB Patrick Robinson coming off a significant knee injury, and lost Malcolm Jenkins in free agency. With the mega-signing of Jairus Byrd, they helped address a big need at safety. Now they need to turn their attention to cornerback. It doesn't matter how potent an offense is—if you can't stop the opposing offense and allow too many big plays over the top, you aren't going to win consistently.
28. Carolina Panthers—Brandin Cooks, WR, Oregon State. The Panthers have depended on Steve Smith and little else in the passing game for years. Smith was released for cap reasons and the Panthers lost their second- and third-most productive wide receivers—Brandon LaFell and Ted Ginn Jr.—to free agency, creating a huge void that needs to be filled both by veteran free agents and the draft. In our first mock, we projected that Cooks could see his stock rise at the Combine. After posting the best times for WRs in the 40-yard dash (4.33 seconds), the 20-yard shuttle run (3.82) and the 60-yard shuttle (10.72), the only question remaining is whether he will still be on the board when the Panthers pick.
29. New England Patriots—Jace Amaro, TE, Texas Tech. The Patriots had the best of all worlds when Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez were running free through defensive secondaries. With Hernandez never coming back and Gronk a significant injury risk, the Patriots need to bring that dual-threat component back. They were a different team in the few weeks they had Gronk last season. If he's back, great. If he's not 100 percent, they need an insurance policy.
30. San Francisco 49ers—Marcus Roberson, CB, Florida. He isn't the hardest worker in the business, but he has natural talent that jumps out on tape and he seems like an ideal fit for the disciplined system in San Francisco. If the 49ers are to get back to the Super Bowl, they will need help at cornerback. Carlos Rogers was cut for salary cap reasons and Tarell Brown signed with Oakland in free agency. The Niners signed former Viking Chris Cook to a one-year deal, but, as Vikings fans have learned, he isn't a playmaker or a long-term solution to a problem. If harnessed by Jim Harbaugh and his staff, Roberson could become a star quickly and a value pick at this spot.
31. Denver Broncos – Derek Carr, QB, Fresno State. This may seem like a strange pick for a team coming off a record-setting season. Kind of like the Vikings drafting Daunte Culpepper in 1999 when they already had Randall Cunningham and Jeff George under contract. One of two things will not allow Carr to make it past this pick (if New England didn't beat them to the punch). On tape, Carr has been viewed as a second-round talent. As such, he won't make it out of the first round. If Denver is being forward-thinking about their franchise, allowing Carr to learn behind Peyton Manning for the year or two he would be his backup, it could be the quarterback post-graduate master class of a lifetime. Watching Brett Favre made Aaron Rodgers ready to take on the bullets. Carr could be that guy for the Broncos. Either that or they stock up on extra mid-round picks and trade out of the first round.
32. Seattle Seahawks—Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Florida State. Percy Harvin is going to be the centerpiece of the passing attack, but slot receivers rarely are the dominant focus of a pass offense. At 6-foot-5, Benjamin is a huge target who will go a long way to help Russell Wilson take the next step in his maturation. With Sidney Rice gone and Golden Tate an unrestricted free agent, a thin receiver corps could get even thinner. Benjamin will be an infusion of talent the champs need in hopes of defending their title in 2014.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.
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