This year, I plan on changing those things as I intend to dive head-first into the draft this offseason in what will be a pivotal one for the Atlanta Falcons. And thus, this change starts with my very first mock draft of the year.
Now, like anybody that understands the draft process should already know, doing a mock draft before free agency is essentially a shot in the dark. Mock drafts are highly inaccurate to begin with, but projections made before March are even more so. Teams will address key needs in free agency, thus eliminating the possibility that they draft a player at that position. In a lot of these instances in this pre-free agency mock, I’ll be guessing at what teams might do that could affect the draft and will make note of some possible scenarios that could play out.
Let’s get started. Underclassmen are denoted by an asterisk (*).
1. Houston Texans – QB Teddy Bridgewater, Louisville*
John McClain is arguably the most respected NFL beat writer in the country, and when he says the Texans will take a quarterback, then the Texans will take a quarterback. Frankly, Texans fans would riot and destroy the city of Houston if they opened up the 2014 season with Matt Schaub as their quarterback. So the only question is which of the quarterbacks the Texans will take. Ultimately, I think it’s going to be Bridgewater. Despite recent reports to the contrary, he’s the most complete passer in this class. I suspect that he won’t be a slam dunk selection, similar to last year’s No. 1 overall pick where we really didn’t know until the day of the draft that Eric Fisher would be the top selection. Thus, there will be plenty of drama that unfolds over the next three months.
2. St. Louis Rams (from Washington) – OT Greg Robinson, Auburn*
It seems very likely that when draft day arrives, this pick won’t be in the hands of the Rams. The Rams don’t have any real pressing needs. They could take an offensive tackle, but that is largely dependent on whether the team re-signs free agent Rodger Saffold. They can move back in the draft, pick up some more picks on the second or third day in exchange with a team looking to move up for a quarterback or Jadeveon Clowney. The Jeff Fisher-Bruce Matthews connection will likely have many projecting Bruce’s son Jake to St. Louis. But the Rams want to be a physical, ground and pound offense, and I think a road-grader like Robinson will be too hard to pass up. Because the Rams aren’t in a position where they need a sure thing at the position, they can gamble on Robinson’s upside and potential. But as a right tackle, I don’t think Robinson is much of a gamble at all since the only questions about him is whether or not he’s good or polished enough to hold up at left tackle in the NFL long-term.
Jacksonville is probably sitting prettier than you think. They will definitely take a quarterback at some point, as owner Shad Khan is quick to point out, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that will happen in the first round. In fact, their stint working with the South team at the Senior Bowl could mean that they could target a player like Derek Carr or Jimmy Garoppolo in round two, instead of one of the underclassman quarterbacks at the top of the draft. That frees them up to get Clowney, the dominant pass rusher at the LEO position that Gus Bradley’s defensive scheme is reliant upon.
4. Cleveland Browns – QB Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M*
I think the Browns are the team most likely to swap picks with the Rams for the second overall selection. By having extra picks in rounds one, three, and four this year, the Browns definitely have the ammunition to move up in the draft and outbid any other potential suitor. Reports have swirled that the Browns are smitten with the athletic Manziel. The only real question that could doubt those reports is whether or not they believe Manziel has the arm strength to play in the AFC North, something that previously undersized but athletic developmental passer Colt McCoy did not have. I believe the Browns will ultimately conclude that Manziel does, thus getting star power back in Cleveland that could be the shortcut to relevancy.
5. Oakland Raiders – OLB Khalil Mack, Buffalo
The Raiders also need a quarterback, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they opt to sign a veteran like Josh Freeman instead of going with another young guy, especially if players like Bridgewater and Manziel are off the board. Freeman played under Raiders offensive coordinator Greg Olson in Tampa Bay, and frankly the last time Freeman was a competent starter was when Olson was there. Olson indicated this past year before Freeman was traded to Minnesota, that he was still a fan of the young quarterback. The Raiders brass are in the position to try and save their jobs, and going with another unproven passer makes less sense. Instead they can pick Mack, who can bolster their pass rush as they try and get after Peyton Manning, Philip Rivers, and Alex Smith in their division next year. What makes Mack intriguing fit for Oakland is that he could play a similar role in their defense as Von Miller players in Denver’s. Worth noting that Raiders head coach Dennis Allen was the defensive coordinator of the Broncos when they took Miller at the top of the 2011 draft.
6. Atlanta Falcons – OT Jake Matthews, Texas A&M
With no pass rushers left on the board, the Falcons “settle” for a bookend left tackle like Matthews. The son of Hall of Fame legend Bruce Matthews, he’s about as safe a prospect as you’re going to find. Long-term Matthews will play left tackle, but at least offers the potential to start at right tackle if the Falcons are content to leave Sam Baker on that side for 2014. Matthews played right tackle his first three years at Texas A&M due to the presence of Luke Joeckel on the other side, so his versatility is another reason why the Falcons could be attracted to him. He’s not a great run blocker, but effective there. Where he really shines is in pass protection and gives Matt Ryan potentially a top-level blindside protector for the next decade, since Ryan is much more likely to last that long given the decline in punishment he should receive.
7. Tampa Bay Buccaneers – WR Sammy Watkins, Clemson*
Given recent revelations surrounding wide receiver Mike Williams, it seems like the chance the Bucs use their top pick on a wide receiver just increased. Worth mentioning is that Williams off-field concerns could potentially be alleviated by the presence of new head coach Lovie Smith, who is noted as a player’s coach and thus probably willing to give Williams a relatively clean slate. That would free up the Bucs to pursue a player at their primary need: pass rusher. It’s one of the reasons why St. Louis is holding such prime real estate because teams like the Bucs and Falcons are in a position to potentially try and outbid each other for a chance to move up and get Clowney. But the possibility of Watkins lining up across from Vincent Jackson is about as scary a proposition as you can get for a Falcon fan. The downfall of Smith in Chicago was his inability to spark the Bears offense, and thus adding a playmaker like Watkins could be his attempt to not repeat history.
8. Minnesota Vikings – QB Blake Bortles, Central Florida*
Bortles is an intriguing prospect because he’s much more of a fire brand than either Bridgewater or Manziel are concerned. His upside is intriguing, but his lack of experience and consistency at the collegiate level are typical red flags for a potential bust. Bortles is big, strong-armed and athletic, but relatively raw. But the last time the Vikings drafted a similar player out of UCF, it was in Daunte Culpepper who had a nice career up north before a knee injury threw things out of whack. Josh Freeman is a free agent and unlikely to return, and Christian Ponder is also potentially on the outs. Matt Cassel could void his deal and become a free agent. With so many questions at the position, it seems a near certainty that the Vikings will take a quarterback. The positive for the Vikings is that if they do decide to retain Cassel and/or Ponder, they won’t be forced to start Bortles right away, similar to how Culpepper sat behind Jeff George and Randall Cunningham his rookie season.
9. Buffalo Bills – ILB C.J. Mosley, Alabama
With the hiring of Jim Schwartz, the Bills are going to move back to an aggressive 4-3 defensive scheme. There has been so much turnover on the defensive coaching staff the past few years, with Schwartz becoming the fourth defensive coordinator in as many years. But the positive for the Bills is that front-seven players like Mario Williams, Kyle Williams, Marcel Dareus, Kiko Alonso should be able to play in any scheme. In a 4-3 scheme, Alonso may be asked to play on the weak side instead of the middle, opening up the position for Alabama’s Mosley to man the middle. The Bills don’t have one pressing need, as they could draft a wide receiver, tight end, offensive lineman, or defensive back this high in the draft. In all likelihood, they’ll be hoping one of the top players in this draft like a Watkins, Robinson, or Matthews falls to this spot. Instead, I peg Mosley to them, as outside Alonso, the Bills don’t have a ton of confidence in their remaining linebackers. Another positive for Mosley is that he could also play the weak side spot in the 4-3, thus giving him versatility to play alongside Alonso.
10. Detroit Lions – TE Eric Ebron, North Carolina*
This pick is another reason why mocking drafts before free agency is hard, because the Lions have a decision to make on tight end Brandon Pettigrew, an impending free agent. If they re-sign Pettigrew, then this pick won’t be another tight end. Instead, the Lions are likely to seek a playmaker at wide receiver, an offensive lineman, and/or a cornerback this high in the draft. But the introduction of new offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi makes Ebron an intriguing fit. Lombardi spent the past five years coaching Drew Brees in New Orleans, and saw first hand how an athletic tight end in Jimmy Graham helped Brees out tremendously. With the Lions still looking for a No. 2 receiver that can take pressure of Calvin Johnson to be the alpha and omega of their offense, Ebron could serve a similar role.
The Titans just hired Lou Spanos as their new linebackers coach. Spanos spent the past two seasons as the defensive coordinator at UCLA. If that isn’t connecting the potential dots for Barr landing in Tennessee, I don’t know what is. The Titans are going to transition full-time to a 3-4 defense under new defensive coordinator Ray Horton. Barr isn’t a polished enough pass rush in my eyes to merit being a top 10 selection for a team looking for one. But at pick No. 11, his potential upside starts to look a bit more worthwhile.
12. New York Giants – OT Zack Martin, Notre Dame
The Giants shared a similar fate as the Falcons, signing free agent left tackle Will Beatty to a market-value contract this past offseason which resulted in a disastrous 2013 season for him. It calls into question whether Beatty has a long-term future in New York just like Sam Baker’s status in Atlanta is up in the air. What makes Martin a great fit in New York is his potential to play multiple positions, similar to recently retired David Diehl. The Giants have been able to make due with a subpar offensive line the past few years, but with Diehl retiring, right guard Chris Snee also seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, and the subpar play of everyone else up front not named Justin Pugh, taking a versatile blocker like Martin here makes too much sense.
13. St. Louis Rams – CB Justin Gilbert, Oklahoma State
The Rams have a decision to make on the future of Cortland Finnegan, who has struggled through two subpar seasons since the team gave him a $50 million contract in 2012. The Rams could opt to cut bait with Finnegan this offseason now that his guaranteed money has run out. But whether they do or not, drafting a cornerback makes a lot of sense with this pick. Gilbert is a tall, athletic corner that will likely be in vogue this offseason and clearly has worked to great success elsewhere in the NFC West. Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson have been decent options for the Rams, but Jenkins is inconsistent and Johnson is more a nickel option than a true starter.
14. Chicago Bears – DE Kony Ealy, Missouri*
The Bears selection of Shea McClellin in the first round two years ago just hasn’t paid dividends. McClellin is expected to play the strong-side linebacker position moving forward, opening the door to the Bears to upgrade their pass rush. Julius Peppers might be released, Corey Wotton will be recovering from hip surgery this offseason and Henry Melton is a free agent. It all points to the strong probability that the Bears will use this pick on a defensive linemen if they can’t solve these problems in free agency. Currently, Ealy is sitting in the middle of the first round range as a potential target. But due to questions about Barr’s pass-rushing ability, Ealy has a chance to bolster his stock at the Combine later this month and potentially move up into the top 10 conversation. But for now, the Bears need all the help they can get to bolster their declining pass rush.
15. Pittsburgh Steelers – WR Marqise Lee, Southern California*
Like the Bears, the Steelers have an aging defense and thus using their top selection on a young player on that side of the ball makes sense. But they also could use a complementary No. 2 to Antonio Brown at wide receiver. And there isn’t a better option than Lee, who is that smaller, explosive receiver that the Steelers have really found great success with over the past several years. Lee’s stock dropped a bit this season due to injuries and inconsistent quarterback play this past year. But once we get into the offseason, that’s where Lee could rise back up the boards and just be considered too good a prospect for the Steelers to pass up on here.
16. Baltimore Ravens – WR Mike Evans, Texas A&M*
The Ravens offense was horrible this past year, and much of it had to do with the fact that they lacked any reliable weapons outside Torrey Smith. Smith struggled to carry the load as a No. 1 option. Evans would be a great fit for the Ravens because his size makes him an excellent jump ball receiver, which will be very useful for a big-armed passer like Joe Flacco. Basically the Ravens will use him in the same capacity that other big wideouts like Calvin Johnson and Alshon Jeffery have been used in recent years, which could provide the spark they need to get their offense out of the basement.
Donald’s performance during Senior Bowl week and also in the game should cause his stock to rise as we inch along to May. He is the idea fit for a three-technique in a 4-3 defense, that will now be helmed by Rod Marinelli in Dallas. Jason Hatcher filled that role this past year with the Cowboys very well, but there isn’t a lot of confidence that he’ll be returning to the team in 2014. That opens the door for a player like Donald to help bolster the Cowboys pass rush.
18. New York Jets – TE Jace Amaro, Texas Tech*
The Jets need to improve their offense and try to find ways of making quarterback Geno Smith. One way is to add a good tight end to the lineup, as it is said that they are very beneficial for quarterbacks, especially young ones. The Jets were forced to start Jeff Cumberland and Kellen Winslow this past year at the position, two players that are backups at this point in their careers. Amaro is a big, athletic receiver that the Jets will hope can be their version of Rob Gronkowski, who has given New York fits over the years.
19. Miami Dolphins – OT Taylor Lewan, Michigan
If there’s a sure bet in this draft, it’s that the Dolphins top selection will be an offensive lineman. Their line was a disaster in 2013, and with the team likely to move on from Jonathan Martin, Bryant McKinnie, and Tyson Clabo, it opens a large hole at tackle. One that Miami hopes Lewan can fill. The last time they drafted a tackle out of Michigan, they found success with Jake Long. Lewan isn’t on the same level as Long, but is a definite upgrade over the mess the Dolphins currently feature up front.
20. Arizona Cardinals – OLB Dee Ford, Auburn
Right behind Miami in terms of likelihood of taking a blocker at the top of the draft is Arizona, who got no production out of their left tackle. But the Cardinals may not wait until the draft by trying to sign free agent like Branden Albert. To do that, they’ll need to free up cap space by restructuring deals like that of wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald’s. Luckily for them, Fitzgerald appears amenable to doing that, increasing the potential that Arizona addresses their offensive line need in March. That frees them up to take a pass rusher since the team hasn’t found much success over recent drafts with picks. Ford would be a good fit in their 3-4 and would find an excellent mentor in John Abraham.
21. Green Bay Packers – DT Louis Nix, Notre Dame*
The Packers have invested heavily in their defensive line in recent drafts, but that hasn’t quite paid dividends to producing one of the top units int he league. B.J. Raji and Ryan Pickett both are impending free agents, and the signs aren’t strong that either will return to Green Bay. If that is the case, then drafting a wide body like Nix makes a ton of sense to take over that nose tackle spot.
22. Philadelphia Eagles – CB Darqueze Dennard, Michigan State
The Eagles finished dead-last in pass defense this past year, prompting the likelihood that their top pick is used on a defensive back. A player like Dennard at this point in the draft is too good to pass up, who is widely considered to be among the better prospects in this draft. But what could hurt his stock is if he doesn’t have a great 40 time at the Combine later this month, which could make Dennard a good value in the lower half of round one.
23. Kansas City Chiefs – S Calvin Pryor, Louisville*
The Chiefs have been able to get by with Kendrick Lewis playing opposite Eric Berry at safety, but now are in a position to move on with Lewis hitting free agency. Berry is best used in the box, and the value of a player like Pryor is that he can be that deep-patrolling centerfielder. It makes him an excellent complement and only enhances an already top-notch Chiefs defense.
24. Cincinnati Bengals – CB Bradley Roby, Ohio State*
The Bengals cornerbacks are getting older with Terrence Newman and Adam Jones both being on the wrong side of 30. Leon Hall is 29 and coming off his second Achilles tendon tear in three years. Meanwhile, 2012 first-round pick Dre Kirkpatrick hasn’t lived up to his billing due to durability concerns. Roby is coming off a down year at Ohio State, but prior to this year was considered the top cornerback in this class. What would attract Cincinnati to him over say a player like Florida’s Marcus Roberson is that Roby doesn’t have the durability concerns of Roberson. Basically, the Bengals need a stabilizing force at this position, and hope that Roby is another talented, but unpolished player that could blossom in Cincinnati.
25. San Diego Chargers – OG Xavier Su’a-Filo, UCLA*
When the Chargers signed Chad Rinehart in free agency last year, he was just a stopgap option and will now be a free gent. Coupled with the fact that guard Jeromey Clary has been average his entire career, and center Nick Hardwick is potentially on the verge of retirement, the interior of the Chargers offensive line could use some help. By the time May rolls around, I expect Su’a-Filo to be the consensus No. 1 guard on most team’s draft boards, including San Diego’s.
26. Cleveland Browns (from Indianapolis) – WR Allen Robinson, Penn State*
The Browns could address several spots with this pick, assuming it’s not part of any trade package that will move them to the top of the draft board. If they are successful in retaining free agent safety T.J. Ward, that position becomes less of an issue. Instead, the Browns could turn their attention of an acquiring more talent and/or protection for top selection Manziel. A pick like Robinson would make sense. He’s another big, speedy corner that would look good playing opposite Josh Gordon and give the Browns two dynamic weapons that a scrambler like Manziel could exploit with splash plays down the field.
27. New Orleans Saints – OT Cyrus Kouandjio, Alabama*
In light of the news that right tackle Zach Strief could be headed for greener pastures this offseason, the Saints could be in need of a player that can step in immediately to play right tackle. Kouandjio could fit that bill, since a poor performance against Oklahoma in Alabama’s bowl game calls into question his ability to play on the left side. There has been plenty of turnover at the tackle position over the years and Kouandjio, opposite left tackle Terron Armstead, gives the Saints some potential stability there.
The Panthers need to find the heir apparent to Steve Smith as their No. 1 option in the passing game. Brandon LaFell will now join Dwayne Jarrett as a failure that the team has tried over the years. Beckham has the ability to take the top off a defense, making him a good target for the big-armed Cam Newton. He also is dynamic with the ball in his hands, and could be compared favorably with Smith in his prime in that way.
29. New England Patriots – DT Timmy Jernigan, Florida State*
Early season injuries to Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly really sapped the middle of the Patriots defense this past year. 2014 represents the final year of both’s contracts and will be 32 and 33 at the start of the season. That opens up a big need for the Patriots up front. Jernigan is coming off a strong National Championship game, and has the sort of upside to be a disruptive force in the middle that the Patriots sorely need.
30. San Francisco 49ers – DT Ra’Shede Hageman, Minnesota
Outside wide receiver the 49ers don’t have any pressing needs, and thus could resort to taking the best player available here. And given the depth of this draft’s wide receiver class and the investments they’ve already made early in past drafts at the position, they may be reluctant to pull the trigger on one of the wideout options with their first selection. The 49ers can afford to take a high-upside player like Hageman with the intention of him being the long-term replacement for Justin Smith, who has two more years left on his contract, but will turn 35 in September. Hageman has the length and athleticism to offer similar potential down the road as Smith as a disruptive dominator at the line of scrimmage, and would greatly benefit from any tutelage Smith can offer over the next year or so.
31. Denver Broncos – CB Jason Verrett, TCU
With top corner Chris Harris suffering an ACL tear in the playoffs, it puts the start of his 2014 season in jeopardy. Throw in the concerns about Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, an impending free agent, about whether he’s the sort of player you want to commit long-term to, and the age of Champ Bailey and Quentin Jammer, the Broncos have a definite need at cornerback. Verrett is a good ballhawk that simply lacks size, which won’t be that big a negative in Denver. With Harris possibly out, the Broncos could use a smaller, quicker corner that could play in the slot and eventually move outside if/when Harris is back to form later this year.
32. Seattle Seahawks – WR Kelvin Benjamin, Florida State*
Sidney Rice has been semi-productive when healthy over the past three years, but has struggles to get on the field due to various injuries. Rice has missed a combined 25 games over the past four years due to injuries, and the Seahawks can free up roughly $7 million in cap space by releasing him this offseason. It just seems like a forgone conclusion that he won’t be back in Seattle in 2014. With that being the case, the Seahawks could definitely use another big receiver on the outside to complement smaller, quicker guys in Doug Baldwin, Percy Harvin and Golden Tate. Benjamin has intriguing size and upside, but is a bit raw. He’ll be developed long-term, but the presence of those other receivers can allow the Seahawks the time to be patient.