Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Reloading the Musket: 2014 Mock Draft, Volume 1 - Combine edition

Ryan Shazier, a linebacker in a safety's body, could find multiple purpose on New England's defense
There's a reason why the NFL draft is such a process, and why talent evaluation is such an arduous procedure.

The New England Patriots are stocked with talent at virtually every position on the field, but to hear some of the fans and national writers talk, you'd think they were the doormat of the AFC East and that they'll be lucky to win one game next season...

...which is absurd, of course, and the incessant whining about surrounding quarterback Tom Brady with more weapons is the stuff that General Managers and coaches get fired for, because to go "all in" on getting Brady that illusive fourth ring before he retires - regardless of cost - would have repercussions so severe that a great depression would fall upon Foxborough within hours after Brady retires.

The Patriots are the model franchise in the NFL due to their consistency, due to Bob Kraft's business sense and his knowledge and belief that consistency produces a winner over the long-term, and not just a flash in the pan whose fortunes rise and fall with the salary cap.

The truth is that the Patriots are loaded for a run at a fourth consecutive AFC Championship game appearance, and another shot at winning Brady that ring - especially considering that since 1996, a span of 18 years under Kraft's rule, the Patriots have made the playoffs an astounding 14 times, won the AFC East 13 times, are 6-3 in nine conference title game appearances and have three world titles.

So when Bob Kraft lays stuff on reporters like "The fans deserve a consistent winner", he's not just blowing smoke, he believes it and he believes in it.

The Patriots won't go "all in" on weapons - and they don't need to.  What this offseason is all about is putting the finishing touches on the complete team overhaul, a five year process that has seen every position on the field turn over to new personnel with the exception of Brady, defensive tackle Vince Wilfork and and left guard Logan Mankins...

...winning the division each year and appearing in the AFC championship game for the last three, giving credence to the worn out axiom that the Patriots don't rebuild - even though that's exactly what they've done - they reload, and the process is complete after this draft.

That said, what do the Patriots need to accomplish to complete the process and get that fourth trophy?  Well, in addition to resigning running back LeGarrette Blount and cornerback Aqib Talib, they must find a nickle pass rusher, an intimidating presence in pass coverage, a "move" tight end to dominate the seam, one more pass catcher on the outside and some help on the interior of the offensive line along with some depth in the secondary.

The future franchise quarterback could be in the mix somewhere as well, but what you see is a team getting better from the inside out, taking care of business in-house and selecting pieces to put the team over the top and doing so while accounting for the future bottom line.

Whatever the Patriots end up doing in player acquisitions, it will be nothing fancy - filling spots where there is a depth need and rolling with a roster that is as talented as any other in the NFL from top to bottom - and ensuring that there is solid depth everywhere.

1. Houston - Jadeveon Clowney, DE. South Carolina

The Texans can not miss with the top pick in the draft, and with no sure-fire franchise signal caller in the draft, the Texans take the top rated player in the draft to team with JJ Watts to give them the most imposing pair of bookend pass rushers in the NFL.  A Quarterback?  They'll take Jimmy Garappolo with the first pick in the second round.

2. St. Louis - Greg Robinson, OT, Auburn

Unabashedly, the Rams are dangling the #2 overall pick in front of quarterback hungry teams willing to give up a boat load of picks as compensation - but it seems that the excitement surrounding the top three quarterback prospects has waned a bit with either poor combine showings, or not working out at all - so the Rams' status of having the second pick is a bit fluid.

On paper, this team has it all, everywhere except along the offensive line.  If they stay at #2, they take the top rated tackle in the draft second overall, than address a need for a field stretching wide receiver at #13.

3. Jacksonville - Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M

The Jaguars are a mess, but they're not as bad off as they were at this point last season due to the drafting of Texas A&M offensive tackle Luke Joeckel, who protected the blind side of manic quarterback Johnny Manziel - and who has spoken on record that he believes that his former teammate belongs in northern Florida.

"Johnny Football" becomes "Johnny Jaguar" and give the Jaguars their franchise quarterback - not to mention putting butts in the seats at EverBank Field.

4. Cleveland - Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson

New Browns' bench boss Mike Pettine is apparently enamoured with brief 2013 starter Brian Hoyer and says that he's the top guy going into the offseason process - and while things change in a hurry in the NFL, for the moment it sounds like he won't take a QB with the #4 overall.

Cleveland follows the lead of the Texans and grabs the most explosive playmaker in the draft and waits until #26 to snag their franchise quarterback, who will have the luxury of being able to use his huge arm to throw to both Watkins and Josh Gordon, then solidifies their line with guard David Yankey in the second round.

5. Oakland - Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville

Bridgewater calls himself a perfectionist, saying that he would not throw at the combine because he wanted to throw to his own guys back on the campus of Louisville on his Pro Day in mid-March - citing chemistry and that "You want to be with your guys to have that timing and that connection"...

...something that the Raiders haven't known for a decade or so between their quarterbacks and receivers - and with it being rumored that Bridgewater was the only quarterback the Raiders would take in the first round, the fit is there - if Bridgewater is still on the board.

The most NFL-ready quarterback goes to the team that surely needs a quarterback right now.

6. Atlanta - Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M

It's a toss up in Atlanta, where both sides of the line of scrimmage were woeful in 2013 - they are the wild card at the top of the draft and Jadeveon Clowney all but begged them to trade up to the second pick of the draft - but that's going to take some draft capital that the Falcons can't afford to part with, as many holes as they have to fill, so the smart choice is a tackle to keep the NFC South pass rushers off quarterback Matt Ryan's back.

The camera will pan to Matty Ice just as he hears that his blind side will be protected by Matthews for the rest of his career and will be inconsolable with joy...

7. Tampa - Anthony Barr, OLB, UCLA

The biggest need in Tampa is for an edge rusher, and short of Jadeveon Clowney slipping to the Buccaneers at seven - which wouldn't happen in even the strangest of parallel dimensions -  Barr is the guy, whether the new regime has a stongside linebacker spot waiting for him or they need him to bulk up to play with his hand in the dirt.

8. Minnesota - Blake Bortles, QB, Central Florida 

Bortles has climbed most mock drafts all the way to the top pick of the draft, but this quarterback class has it's share of mystery and certainly no locks to be a success - and with a talent evaluator's charge being to find the guy that give the offense the best chance of succeeding, the Vikings would have to be considered a perfect destination for Bortles.

Classic pocket quarterback that can balance the Vikings' offense and with the play action talent to take advantage of the attention that defense pays to their running game - and the big hands that you want your quarterback to have when you go to places like Green Bay and Chicago in the middle of the freaking winter.

9. Buffalo - Eric Ebron, TE, North Carolina

When approached on the matter of trying to resign tight end Scott Chandler, coach Doug Marone was less than enthusiastic in his response, telling reporters that it was a matter for team management, not him - not exactly a ringing endorsement.

Without a doubt, the fastest and most versatile tight end in the draft is an immediate upgrade over the plodding, yet effective Chandler - which is more an indication of Ebron's skill than any thing to do with the serviceable Chandler and immediately gives quarterback E.J. Manuel a solid safety valve in the middle of the field and a huge, athletic target in the red zone.

10. Detroit - Mike Evans, WR, Texas A&M 

The Lions desperately need a big, fast wideout to take some heat off of Megatron, and the speedy Evans can do just that. At a rangy 6' 5" and a sturdy 231 pounds and the longest arms of any receiver in the draft class, the only question the Lions needed answered was what manner of straight line speed Evans brings - and he ran a respectable 4.53 at the combine.

11. Tennessee - Kahlil Mack, OLB, Buffalo 

A defensive end is what the defense really needs along with a violent safety - but they can have the best of both worlds with Mack.  A relentless pass rusher off the edge and a hard hitting run defender with good coverage skill to take on the running backs coming out of the backfield.  Mack dropping to 11, they can't pass that up.

12. New York Giants - Taylor Lewan, OT, Michigan

Lewan's got a questionable reputation coming out of college, being linked (in name only) to a couple of indiscretions on the campus of the University of Michigan, but he did his best at the combine to quell the talk and stop the rumor mill - did he say enough to keep the Giants enticed?

This is need number one for the Giants, protecting Eli Manning's blind side.

13. St. Louis - Marquis Lee, WR, USC

The Rams used the second pick to protect Sam Bradford's blind side...giving him time so he can throw to Marquis Lee down the field.  See how that works?

And while Lee didn't wow anyone with his combine 40 time, when coupled with his solid hands and the fact that he looked fluid in and out of his cuts while dealing with a sore knee that limited him in the latter parts of his 2013 season, his toughness may have even raised his draft stock a bit.

14. Chicago - Hasean Clinton-Dix, SS, Alabama

With the passing attacks that the Bears have to face in the NFC North, not to mention a couple of pretty good running backs, the Bears just can't continue to rely on patchwork in the safety positions any longer.  In Clinton-Dix, Chicago gets a free safety that can cover deep or underneath and has some man press abilities.  He's not the most physical of safeties, but his speed and lateral quickness could work wonders.

15. Pittsburgh - Darqueze Dennard, CB, Michigan State

Ike Taylor fell apart in the second half of last season and carries a cap hit equivalent to what the franchise tag offers, and the Steelers just can't afford it. Releasing Taylor for cap relief is probable, and even if they somehow manage to retain him, he's 33 years old with a lot of wear on his tires.

As fluid a corner as you'll find in the draft, the Steelers will snatch up Dennard in a heartbeat if he's there for them at 15.

16. Dallas - Aaron Donald, DT, Pittsburgh

Word out of Dallas is that both Jerry Jones and defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli are enamoured with the undersized and lightning quick defensive line swiss army knife, as Donald reminds Marinelli of a younger faster Henry Melton, whom he coached on the Bears as their defensive coordinator from 2010 through 2012.

They should bite, provided Chicago doesn't feel the same way and lets Melton walk in free agency with the intent of drafting Donald.

17. Baltimore - Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Florida State

How perfect was Anquan Boldin for the Baltimore Ravens' offense?  Well, good enough to take a stab at another big, reasonably fast possession receiver.

Benjamin is a beastly cross between the storied Ravens' possession receiver and a move-type tight end and will undoubtedly draw plenty of attention away from Torey Smith on the other side of the field - and at 6' 5" and 240 pounds and huge hands, he could be a natural insurance policy should tight end Dennis Pitta either not be retained or get injured.

18. New York Jets -O'Dell Beckham, WR, LSU

This is where things get dicey, mostly because Rex Ryan likes blowing up draft boards.  At this juncture he still has one of the best tight end prospects available plus a myriad of wide receiver options - but one thing is certain, if the Jets want quarterback Geno Smith to succeed, they've got to give him some guys to throw to.

Beckham is lightning in a bottle, his 4.43 speed, sure hands and precise routes exactly what Smith needs to gain early confidence.  A vertical threat but with a skill set that can see him operating out of the slot and picking up yards after the catch, plus he's an explosive return man.

19. Miami - Zack Martin, T/G, Notre Dame

It requires zero brains to realize that dysfunctional Miami needs to rebuild an offensive line torn apart by scandal last season, and Martin could wind up being the binding agent that brings it all together.  While not as accomplished as a Matthews or a Robinson, he is far more versatile and can play every position along the line - though his best spot would probably be holding down Richie Incognito's old left guard position.

20. Arizona - Jace Amaro, TE, Texas Tech

The tight end position in Arizona is pot luck at best, and a stud yards-after-the-catch tight end like Amaro would elevate the talent level in the pattern and give pass defenses a nightmare matchup to contend with, opening up just a smidge more room for receiver Larry Fitzgerald on the outside.

Most mocks have Amaro going to New England at 29, but there's no way he falls that far.

21. Green Bay - Timmy Jernigan, DT, Florida State

There is much debate in Titletown whether the Packers should continue with their standard 3-4 defense or switch to a 4-3 - Green Bay answers the question by taking Jernigan - an undersized 4-3 tackle with a non-stop motor to get things started in that direction.

22. Philadelphia - Calvin Pryor, FS, Louisville

The Eagles need an enforcer to keep offenses honest when dealing with the middle of the field, and Pryor's 6' 2", 220 pound frame brings that kind of attitude and pain - and Chip Kelly likes him some big physical safeties.

And he needs to replace Patrick Chung, who performed nowhere near the exorbitant salary the Eagles paid him in his first year away from New England - which has been the M.O. in Philadelphia's secondary for years, and what better place to start than a kid that could be the cornerstone of a rebuilt secondary.

23. Kansas City - Brandin Cooks, WR, Oregon State

Speed is what Andy Reid needs.  Actually, what Reid needs is some consistency, and with the explosive Dexter McCluster probably on his way out of town, it leaves just Dwayne Bowe and the wildly inconsistent Donnie Avery for Pro Bowl quarterback Alex Smith to throw to on the outside and down the field.

Enter the appropriately named Cooks, who absolutely burned up the field at Lucas Oil Stadium during the combine with an overall best 4.33 on the 40 yard dash, coupled with him going for over 1,700 yards and catching 16 touchdowns in an incredibly average Oregon State offense and winning The Bilitnikof Award for the nation's best receiver...

24. Cincinnati - Justin Gilbert, CB, Oklahoma State

The Bengals needs are very simple: they need some help at offensive tackle, maybe at guard depending on how things shake out in a seemingly fluid situation - and also at corner, where Terrence Newman is getting a little long in the tooth and Dre Kirkpatrick is not the successor.

Gilbert is a high-wire act, taking incredulous risks and relying on his his range and athleticism to get him by if his plans backfire - but a solid man corner with a nose for the ball, and while he isn't overly aggressive or physical at the point of contact, his risky style leads to some spectacular plays and with a little NFL coaching, he could be the outside shut-down corner of the immediate future in this defense.

25. San Diego - Jason Verrett, CB, TCU

Verrett is the intense, twitchy guy that would be the pest on a hockey team - smallish, talkative, always buzzing around your head, just waiting for the opportunity to drop the gloves...

The TCU product is smallish in stature but big in confidence and attitude, a perfect combination for a nickle slot back - his athleticism and natural football instincts allow him to be exceptional in space and he is willing in run support - a perfect addition to an over-achieving team.

26. Cleveland - Derek Carr, QB, Fresno State

So now Cleveland has Josh Gordon and Sammy Watkins and a truly great offensive line - they also have Brian Hoyer at quarterback, who will play the part of "incumbent" to the strong-armed rookie and let the chips fall where they may.

Ideally, Carr would win a quarterback competition (isn't that what you would expect from your first round pick?) and have one of the most able backups in the NFL in Hoyer, just in case.

27. New Orleans - Kony Ealy, DE, Missouri

Ideally, the Saints could use a good cover corner, but the best ones are off the board by this time.  The Saints are pretty lean on pass rushers as well, and Ealy is the best athlete left on the board in an area of need.

Not a ringing endorsement because he's not an every down player - he is a pass rusher and not much against the run, but a nickle rusher who has been compared favorably to Justin Tuck can't be all bad - and can you just see defensive coordinator Rob Ryan finding a seam for this guy in a cloud?

28. Carolina - Allen Robinson, WR, Penn State

The Panthers have an issue in that they need a wide receiver and some help along the offensive line, but all of the elite talent has already been scooped up - so a question to ask themselves is if they reach for a second round talent in an area of need, trade out of the round and pick up draft capital for the second day or take the best athlete left on the board?

At this point Robinson would be a decent pick as a bigger receiver who has a knack for making himself available as a safety valve type possession receiver who picks up the majority of his yardage after the catch.  He's not a burner by any means, but gets constant separation and works the middle of the field like a tight end.

29. New England - Ryan Shazier, LB/SS, Ohio State

The need here is for a nickle rusher as well as a physical intimidator underneath the coverage - and Shazier could be both.

Small for a linebacker at 6' 2" and 235 pounds, Shazier was the fastest linebacker in the nation the past two seasons, easily covering running backs and tight ends in the pattern underneath with a penchant for causing cases of alligator arms amongst them - he was a finalist for the Lott IMPACT Trophy, and anyone who saw Ronnie Lott play for the 49ers knows what "impact" means.

An accomplished blitzer who hits like a brick wall, coupled with being one of the best sideline-to-sideline talents in college football, Shazier projects as a big nickle who would also provide quality depth on the weak side - a cover backer with his safety skill and range, as well as being an explosive pass rusher, Shazier would complete the back seven picture for the Patriots' defense.

30. San Francisco - Ra'Shede Hageman, DT, Minnesota

An interesting prospect that would be among the highest rated tackles in the draft were he more consistent.  He's explosive in getting into the backfield, and when rushing the passer he can shoot through gaps or simply pull his man to the ground and run over him, but he is a project when it comes to the running game, his length working against him as shorter guards can get under his pads.

Not a bad pick in this spot for the 49ers, however, as he would be used as more of a nickle rusher and line up all over the line of scrimmage.

31. Denver - CJ Mosely, ILB, Alabama

Denver needs a leader, a middle linebacker with the football IQ and intense focus to lead the defense tothe next level - and it's not beyond the realm of imagination that Mosely could fall this far - and if he didn't, he's the one player that it is speculated John Elway and John Fox would trade up to go get if necessary.

There's nothing spectacular about his game and he is rated as high as a top 10 pick in some mocks to as low at the top of the second round in others, so it's more or less a crap shoot with Mosely.  He lands here with the idea that the teams in front of Denver have more pressing needs, and that Denver would go get him if need be.

32. Seattle - Austin Seferian-Jenkins, TE, Washington

Big, rangy, incredible hands - a true all-around tight end who can line up next to the tackle and block in the running game and can also stretch the seam in the pattern - but questions about his maturity and a fractured bone in his foot that may or may not heal before training camp drives down Sefarian-Jenkins value as a first rounder, and the Seahawks snag him.

It might be that the off-field issues and the foot injury doesn't bother other teams that are desperate for an athletic freak of a pass catcher, but chances are that if Seattle doesn't take him here, he becomes a better value somewhere on the second day.

For those that are interested, other players who would fit in well with New England later in the draft:

Corners: Keith McGill, Utah; Stanley Jean-Baptiste, Nebraska; Lamarcus Joyner, Florida State
Tight ends: Jacob Pedersen, Wisconsin; C.J. Fiedorowicz, Iowa; Joe Don Duncan, Dixie State
Receivers: Jared Abbrederis, Wisconsin; Jordan Matthews, Vanderbilt; Martavis Bryant, Clemson
Centers: Weston Richburg, Colorado State; Bryan Stork, Florida State; Tyler Larsen, Utah State
Guards: Xavier Su'a-Filo, UCLA; Gabe Jackson, Mississippi State; Dakota Dozier, Furman
Defensive Tackle: Dominique Easley, Florida; DaQuan Jones, Penn State; Daniel McCullers, Tennessee
Safety: Jimmy Ward, Northern Illinois; Ed Reynolds, Stanford; Tre Boston, North Carolina
Quarterback: Zach Mettenberger, LSU; A. J. McCarron, Alabama; Tom Savage, Pitt; Logan Thomas, Virginia Tech

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