Mock Draft 0.5: Non-Playoff Teams
Everything you are about to read is probably wrong.
That has nothing to do with my powers of prognostication (though it's probably a good time to remind you that my preseason Super Bowl included the teams picking first and sixth in the 2014 Draft). Rather, it's the nature of the early mock draft.
The games are over for two-thirds of the NFL, but we still don't have the full draft order. Coaches have yet to evaluate prospects firsthand, in practice situations (the Senior Bowl), in shorts (the Combine), against air (pro days). Free agency has yet to rewrite the entire landscape of team needs, as it invariably does every year. By the time you're done reading this, a half-dozen coaching vacancies may have opened up.
Mock drafts, in December, are wrong. Inevitably, undeniably, almost irresponsibly inaccurate. But there's a reason why Vegas posts odds for the next Super Bowl moments after the current one ends.
The conversation that springs from pure conjecture can be pure fun.
You'll note here, for instance, that there's only one quarterback taken in the first 20 picks. That's likely not going to be the case -- too many teams will be unable to help themselves -- although at this time it easily can be argued that there's only one top-20 talent among QB prospects.
And so begins five months of disagreement and debate.
As we count down to the May 8th draft (130 days and counting, we know that we know precious few things with any certainty. We know things will clarify with every step through the scouting process. We know that at some point we'll be introduced to this year's Eric Fisher, the off-the-radar prospect who's name has yet to seep into the speculation.
And we know that, for the moment, the Houston Texans are on the clock.
1. Texans: Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina The first time the Texans had the No. 1 pick, the expansion franchise opted for quarterback David Carr over defensive end Julius Peppers, who went second. The next time they were first on the clock, they went with the defensive end, choosing Mario Williams over Reggie Bush. Now, there's another blue-chip end prospect awaiting their decision. And since there isn't a quarterback deserving of the first pick in this draft, the Texans take the best prospect in the field, giving them a potentially devastating bookend to pair with J.J. Watt.
2. Rams (via Redskins): Jake Matthews, T, Texas A&M Trading the second pick in the 2012 draft to the Redskins so they could draft Robert Griffin III keeps paying off for the Rams. They've been masterful at trading down and filling holes all over their roster. And while it's a tittle early in the game to be talking trade, I fully expect St. Louis to move this pick. They're in prime seller's position. If the Texans take Clowney, they move No. 2 to someone (Jacksonville? Cleveland? Oakland?) desperate for Teddy Bridgewater. If Houston takes the QB, they could trade the pick to Atlanta, which would be desperate for Clowney. For now, let's assume they stay put and make the safest pick in the draft, taking a tackle to keep Sam Bradford healthy once he gets back on the field.
3. Jaguars: Anthony Barr, OLB, UCLA Sure, Jacksonville needs a quarterback as badly as anyone. But I suspect the next few months will show that there's not a QB among the top three prospects in this draft. In Barr, they get an ideal fit for the LEO position Gus Bradley wrought so much damage with as Seattle's defensive coordinator. The Jaguars take an impact defender here and take a shot at their quarterback on Day Two.
4. Browns: Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville Someone has to take the QB plunge, and the Browns' new regime will find it hard to resist the prospect of Bridgewater throwing deep to Josh Gordon for the next decade. Without question, he is the most NFL-ready quarterback, far more comfortable with a pro-style offense than Geno Smith was coming into the league, and his arm is as strong as it is accurate.
5. Raiders: Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson Oakland would love a shot at Bridgewater. If he's gone, they settle for the best offensive weapon in the draft. Whether it's Terrelle Pryor, Matt McGloin, a veteran free agent or a rookie they'll draft in subsequent rounds, the Raiders' quarterback of 2014 will have a greater chance of succeeding with the explosive, dynamic, sure-handed Watkins -- the perfect Al Davis pick, except he can catch the football.
6. Falcons: Cyrus Kouandjio, T, Alabama Atlanta would love to move up to grab Clowney or Barr. If they're gone, it makes perfect sense to go O-line with the most athletic left tackle prospect in the draft.
7. Buccaneers: Taylor Lewan, T, Michigan If the Falcons were to take Lewan, the Bucs would go Kouandjio here. Either way, they get a plug-and-play tackle.
8. Vikings: C.J. Mosley, LB, Alabama The Vikings are in a tough spot here. It's too early to take the next quarterback (a lesson we hope they learned after taking Christian Ponder too early). Taking the best player on the board is always a reasonable approach, and Mosley will stay on the field in every situation.
9. Bills: Khalil Mack, OLB, Buffalo This one feels too easy. But Buffalo gets more than just the local hero. The Bills would land a natural pass rusher, who can start as an outside backer in a 3-4 or 4-3 scheme, giving defensive coordinator Mike Pettine a lot of ways to bring pressure.
10. Lions: Jordan Matthews, WR, Vanderbilt At 6-foot-3, 206 pounds, Matthews would be the perfect complement to Calvin Johnson. The SEC's all-time leading receiver would provide another huge target for Matthew Stafford, someone else he could be comfortable throwing to on third down or in the red zone, when defenses typically double- or triple-team Johnson.
11. Titans: HaHa Clinton-Dix, FS, Alabama It's probably a bit on the early side for the best safety in a pretty shallow group. Still, Clinton-Dix would add depth to perhaps the Titans' greatest position of need.
12. Giants: Eric Ebron, TE, North Carolina This is not the year to be drafting an interior offensive lineman in the top half of the first round. If Ryan Shazier were to come out (recent reports suggest he is leaning toward returning to Ohio State), he'd be the pick. But the Giants haven't had a capable receiver at tight end since Jeremy Shockey, and Ebron plays the position like a big receiver. Giving Eli Manning another weapon will be especially important if the Giants part ways with Hakeem Nicks.
13. Rams: Marqise Lee, WR, USC The Rams started to incorporate Tavon Austin in the second half of the season. Still, he's a complementary piece to a passing game whose leading receiver was tight end Jared Cook. Bradford could return from his injury to find a new left tackle (Matthews, drafted at No. 2), a promising young running back (Zac Stacy), a developing Austin, a receiving tight end, and now Lee, whose 2013 season was dampened by nagging injuries but whose game-changing talent is considerable. He could be the outside threat that is the missing piece to the offensive puzzle.
14. Bears: Trent Murphy, DE, Stanford When one of your defensive ends is Julius Peppers and you still finish tied for second-to-last in sacks, you need some help up front. Murphy had five games this season with multiple sacks, and has the instincts, quickness and size (6-6, 261) to be an effective pass rusher early in his career.
15. Steelers: Louis Nix III, DT, Notre Dame Not only is Nix the best nose tackle prospect in the draft, he's a top-10 talent who would provide huge value at No. 15. And if he were off the board, Pittsburgh would do just as well taking Nix's Notre Dame teammate, Stephon Tuitt, the best 3-4 end prospect available.
16t. Cowboys: Darqueze Dennard, CB, Michigan State Dallas and Baltimore are tied and will rely on a coin flip at the Combine to determine who gets pick No. 16. Whenever they find themselves on the clock, the Cowboys will be looking to upgrade their deplorable defense. They have needs everywhere, but particularly in the secondary. There are a ton of cornerback prospects in this draft; just not many elite ones, and Dennard may be the most developed man corner in the draft. If the Cowboys are unnerved by his injury history, perhaps they opt instead for Oregon CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu.
16t. Ravens: Mike Evans, WR, Texas A&M The Ravens didn't open the vault for Joe Flacco to have him wind up with a meager 6.3 yards-per-attempt, tied for second-lowest in the league (when you're tied with Jacksonville in a passing statistic, that's an area you should look to improve). So Baltimore brings in a receiver to complement Torrey Smith, a year-too-late replacement for Anquan Boldin. In Evans, they'll get a huge target with terrific hands and the ability to catch the ball in traffic and when he's closely covered. He lacks the separation skills and breakaway speed of a true No. 1 receiver, but like Bill Cowher always said about Larry Fitzgerald, Evans will always be open four feet above his head.
18. Jets: Austin Seferian-Jenkins, TE, Washington The Jets would love to land a top-tier wideout like Watkins, Matthews, Lee or Evans. If they're all off the board, GM John Idzik still needs to find offensive playmakers. Seferian-Jenkins wasn't as productive in 2013 as expected, but he is a complete tight end package -- a dominant in-line blocker who often looked uncoverable as a receiver (especially in 2012). He's a 6-6, 276-pound matchup advantage and would provide a humongous target for Geno Smith, who showed a willingness to throw to tight ends Kellen Winslow and Jeff Cumberland. And the best part . . . taking ASJ would keep him out of the hands of the Patriots, who would have to be considering a guy who can play opposite or in place of Rob Gronkowski.
19. Dolphins: David Yankey, G, Stanford Miami allowed a league-high 58 sacks. They could go tackle here, or they could take the best guard available. Yankey is a big, agile, versatile lineman who also has experience playing left tackle and gives Miami versatility in plugging holes on the line.
20. Cardinals: Antonio Richardson, T, Tennessee Tiny Richardson would be a huge pickup for Arizona, which will be nicely set up to succeed next season. The Cardinals barely missed out on the playoffs and will get to play a third-place schedule next year. Richardson will have to improve his pass protection against elite speed rushers, but he'll hold his own against power rushers and will be an immediate force in the running game.