The 2014 NFL Draft is right around the corner, this year tantalizingly pushed back a few weeks resulting in even more hyped anticipation. I’ve been working on my mock draft for months, at times tweaking things here and there and other times destroying my previous version completely and building it back up again.
Though I might still tweak things on my own personal version of the mock, the mock draft results below are about as close as I can come to predicting what will happen. You’ll find analysis of each decision, as well as plenty of trades — we know there will be a lot of moving and shaking, and since any no-trade mock has virtually no chance of being 100 percent accurate anyway, we may as well mock a few deals that could make sense for both sides.
Without further ado …
1. HOU – Edge rusher Jadeveon Clowney
It appeared for the longest time that the Texans would bypass the ubertalented Clowney for a much-needed quarterback, and that may still happen, but a few things have become clear about the quarterback class of 2014.
First, no clear No. 1 guy has emerged throught the predraft process worthy of bypassing generational talent at another position, whereas there are at least two or three players at other positions who could be at the beginning of Hall of Fame careers with the right development. It’s eerily similar to the 2006 draft, where the Texans settled on Mario Williams for the No. 1 slot while Vince Young (No. 3), Matt Leinart (No. 10) and Jay Cutler (No. 11) all settled into spots in the top half of the first round, with varying degrees of success.
Second, unlike that 2006 draft, there’s a lot of quality depth at the quarterback position. Several teams seem to have fallen in love with projected Day 2 (or even Day 3) signal callers who could cause them to bypass the position in the first round. The fact that current stars like Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson fell out of the first round further strengthens a team’s resolve to boost the rest of the roster with a first-round selection if they identify a Day 2 quarterback as a diamond in the rough. Reductively, if there’s no Andrew Luck or Cam Newton available (and there’s not), don’t try to shoehorn a player into that level of potential and hope for the best.
So that’s why Clowney has to be the pick. There was some buzz that the Falcons could jump to No. 1 to take Clowney as well, but they’re reported exploring a trade up for a player not worth the top pick (re: not Clowney), which some are translating as tackle Greg Robinson but I think is most likely linebacker Khalil Mack, who fits the same need as Clowney but has less of a chance of lasting until No. 6 than Robinson. In any case, the Texans grab a potential Hall of Fame pass rusher to line up at outside linebacker and team with J.J. Watt to wreak havoc on opposing offensive lines.
2. STL (f/WAS) – Wide receiver Sammy Watkins
The Rams have several enticing options at the No. 2 spot, some of which include trade scenarios, even with the draft’s top player off the board. There’s buzz they could take a quarterback, but it’s buzz I attribute to trying to drum up trade interest for any team targeting Johnny Manziel. They could work out a trade with the Falcons to leap up and take Mack. They could take Mack themselves and enjoy an embarrassment of pass-rushing riches, with Mack playing linebacker in the base 4-3 and shifting to end in nickel scenarios while Chris Long kicks inside to form a devastating test for opposing offensive lines.
However, Watkins makes the most sense to me. He’s the best wide receiver prospect since A.J. Green and one of the best few prospects at the position over the last decade. He’s so good that teams who already call receiver a strength (Lions, Browns) are hoping against hope they can land the talented Watkins. The Rams did use a high pick on a receiver last year when they took Tavon Austin, but as a player he’s markedly different from Watkins. We call both “Wide Receivers,” but they do very different things in the passing game.
This upcoming season is going to be Sam Bradford’s last chance to prove he can be a franchise quarterback in St. Louis, and drafting Watkins gives him the highest possible chance at success while also providing a potential future franchise quarterback with a potential top-five receiving weapon overall. With Watkins as a go-to option, Austin destroying defenders out of the slot and a handful of young players with potential to fight for the second outside receiver spot in three-wide sets, the Rams can boast an overwhelming amount of talent both in the passing game and on the defensive front seven. Without Watkins, they could continue to be a run-run-incomplete pass-punt offensive unit.
3. JAC – Edge rusher/linebacker Khalil Mack
Jacksonville is a team led by defensive whiz Gus Bradley, who laid the foundation of a Seahawks defense that totally dominated a historically good Broncos offense in last year’s Super Bowl. He appears to be remaking the Jaguars in the same image, importing two Seattle defensive lineman to join the resigned Jason Babin and potentially help a league worst pass rush. So why take another front-seven option like Mack?
The players they signed actually gives them more reason to seek out a franchise pass rusher, not less. New addition Red Bryant is a rush defender who brings virtually nothing in terms of pressuring the quarterback. Clemons is a player limited last season after his recovery from a torn ACL, and while he could provide more this season, a player in his mid-30s who recently suffered a significant injury isn’t one worth building around. Babin, another aging veteran, was a member of that weak pass rush last season. While what was a good defense last year could be much improved this year, it still lacks a signature young talent to build around, something crucial to a coach with a defensive focus.
Enter Mack. His pass-rush ability from the linebacker position makes him the perfect player to become this team’s signature defensive weapon out of its signature Leo role. There’s a massive gap after Clowney and Mack as far as edge rushers go, so if a team is in need of an edge rusher and can get one of the two, they have to take that opportunity. If St. Louis passes on Mack, he’ll 100 percent be the third player chosen, either by the Jaguars or by the Falcons in a trade up. Unless the Jaguars can extort a future first-rounder from the Falcons in a trade, I don’t see any reason to move down and bypass what could be a franchise changer on defense.
4. CLE – Quarterback Johnny Manziel
Welcome to the biggest wild card of the draft in terms of selection. I’m fairly certain Clowney, Mack and Watkins will constitute the top three picks in some combination of draft order and teams that may or may not trade up. Many think the Browns could spend the pick on tackle Greg Robinson, another player with massive upside who could be an eventual Hall of Fame player. If the team didn’t already employ one of the best left tackles in the league, I’d certainly slot Robinson here. But teams generally don’t spend a top-five pick on an offensive lineman that they don’t expect to end up at left tackle eventually.
This could lead the Browns to explore options for trading down, likely with a team looking to move up for Robinson, receiver Mike Evans or maybe even a quarterback. However, the Browns have been relatively aggressive in free agency this season, bringing in Karlos Dansby and Donte Whitner to replace the key players they lost on defense while resigning top center Alex Mack and finally adding a potential feature back in Ben Tate. While there’s a reason the Browns are picking in the top five, they have less reason to trade down than other mediocre teams. The Browns have a lot of top-level talent around the roster, on the offensive line in Thomas and Mack, at receiver in Josh Gordon, in the secondary in Joe Haden. They also have decent depth and, more importantly, plenty of premium picks already with which to supplement the roster. They’re already scheduled to pick seven times in the first four rounds, and hitting on just a few of those picks and finding starters could quickly make them competitive in an AFC North division that is less top-heavy than it’s been over the last 15 years, when the Steelers and Ravens consistently battled for Super Bowl appearances.
The one key piece the Browns don’t have is a franchise quarterback. Brian Hoyer looked good in very limited action before suffering a serious injury, but at best he can be described as a quality stopgap while a team looks for a franchise signal caller. Manziel is the one quarterback who could likely handle a starting job right out of the gate. He also presents an incredible amount of upside and fan appeal, though of the highly-rated options at the position, he also could represent the player who could be out of the league in five years. Think of him as this year’s Vince Young, and while that pick didn’t work out for the Titans in 2006, it’s a move to make when you need to swing for the fences with a high-upside quarterback to be the final piece of what could be a playoff contender.
The Raiders are finally in a stage where they’re ready to be competitive, having added a lot of potential starters in free agency and with time running out on the front office to give the higher-ups a reason not to fire them. With this being the case, they seem more like a candidate to move up for a piece like Watkins or Mack rather than trade down. However, they still lack much quality young talent on both sides of the ball, which should preclude them from sacrificing key Day 2 picks to grab those types of players (as well as preclude the teams that actually do draft those players for giving them up for anything less than a can’t-say-no haul). That leaves the Raiders probably looking to Manziel as a best-case scenario, and when he’s gone, they can leverage the quality players still remaining with the onus to move down and pick up one or two premium selections later in the draft or in 2015.
So who’s moving up? It could be someone looking to get ahead of Atlanta for Robinson or ahead of Tampa Bay for Mike Evans. It could be a team with an eye on a particular quarterback worried that he could be taken by the Raiders or another top-ten team.
MIN (f/OAK) – Quarterback Blake Bortles
The Vikings may be the one team that needs to add a quality quarterback above all else. They have an ever-shrinking window to compete before future Hall of Famer Adrian Peterson hangs it up. They also have absolutely nothing at the QB position for which they can hang their hat, with Christian Ponder proving to be a bust and Matt Cassel defining a journeyman stopgap. Bortles seems like the perfect fit for new addition Norv Turner, who could mold him into his next success story at the position. Bortles would also look good in Tampa Bay with Jeff Tedford, and with that in mind, the Vikings chose to make the leap and secure Bortles, who may not start in Week 1 but who should see most of the time under center in 2014. Without the trade, the most likely scenario would seem to be the Raiders taking Mike Evans, which would leave Bortles as the clear option for Tampa Bay, one pick ahead of Minnesota. This trade takes that off the board.
Continue to the next 11 picks of the first round.
R.J. White is the head editor at the Cafe and contributes to CBSSports.com's MLB Rumors blog. He has previously written for FanHouse, Razzball and FanDuel. Catch up with him in the forums under the name daullaz. Follow him on Twitter; don't follow him in real life.
Want to write for the Cafe? Check out the Cafe's Pencil & Paper section!