Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Reloading the Musket - 2014 Mock Draft: Shazier remains atop Patriots' prospects; "Johnny Jaguar" to Jax

As expected, the weak quarterback class of 2014 is starting to manifest doubt in the hearts and brains of general managers all throughout the NFL, and if the downward trend continues, this draft could be forever known as the Clipboard Draft.

Most mock drafts have gone along with the trend, including this one as Volume 1 of this series listed three quarterbacks going in the top 10, omitting both Houston and Cleveland from consideration, then in Volume 2 we listed two, this time leaving Oakland out of the equation - but in all fairness, Fresno State quarterback Derek Carr has been a consistent choice for the Browns at 26 from the start...

...and there are many choices that were mere gut-calls back in February that have stood the test of time - relative to the NFL offseason, naturally.  For example:

*How could Houston pass up the best player in the draft and not draft Jadeveon Clowney with the first pick?

*The Jaguars need Johnny Manziel to be the face of their franchise for more reasons than one;

*Sammy Watkins will end up in Cleveland to be teamed with Josh Gordon and 26th pick Carr;

*Jerry Jones is going to crap down both legs when Aaron Donald is available at 16;

*Miami taking Notre Dame tackle Zack Martin will be the worst kept secret of the draft;

*Ryan Shazier remains the Patriots' pick and will become the final piece to a defense that is going to be among the best in football.

The first round of the 2014 draft comes with a caveat, however, in that the second day is loaded down with such great depth - including quarterbacks, tight ends and receivers - that there could be a record number of trades as teams with no one clear-cut need will be looking to trade their top pick to gain extra leverage where the meat is, between the 2nd and 4th rounds.

This is especially true for the St. Louis Rams, who could blast the entire draft sideways by doing just that with one or both of their first round selections - and any team from Cleveland at 26 on down are candidates to trade back if the teams needing signal callers look to move up and trump each other in their quest for something adequate.

1. Houston - Jadeveon Clowney, DE. South Carolina

It certainly sounds as if the Texans are planning to do everything they can to avoid picking a quarterback with the first overall selection in the draft, and it was a stroke of genius by Bill O'Brien to bring in veteran signal caller Ryan Fitzpatrick, who is a game manager if there ever was one.

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.

Original projection: Clowney

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 and a quarterback that doesn't break like cheap glass. If they stay at #2, they take the top rated tackle in the draft second overall, then address a need for a field stretching wide receiver at #13.

Original projection: Robinson

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 before becoming a Jaguar - and who has spoken on record that he believes that his former teammate belongs in northern Florida. The Jaguars insist that they are not targeting a quarterback, but they lie.

"Johnny Football" becomes "Johnny Jaguar" and gives Jacksonville their franchise quarterback - not to mention putting butts in the seats at EverBank Field - right now, that's what it's all about for the floundering Jags...

Original projection: Manziel

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.

Original projection: Watkins

5. Oakland - Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M

The Raiders brought former Texans' fans' punching bag Matt Schaub and immediately anointed him day one starter - and who knows how Schaub will prosper in the Black Hole - but one thing is for certain: If they don't protect the quarterback, it won't matter who's taking the snaps.

Oakland tried to spend major money on their tackle positions in free agency, Bringing in Austin Howard from the Jets and Roger Saffold from the Rams, but Saffold somehow managed to fail his physical and reverted back to the Rams, so the Raiders look to the best tackle available in the draft.

Original projection: Teddy Bridgewater; in Volume 2: Matthews

6. Atlanta - Kahlil Mack, OLB, Buffalo

Jadeveon Clowney all but begged the Falcons to trade up to the top pick of the draft to select him - but that's going to take some draft capital that the Falcons can't afford to part with, and the Falcons have already pretty much played that hand out in free agency by spending big bucks on their defensive line.

With both of the top offensive tackles off the board, the Falcons have some decisions to make as far as draft value - do they take the next best offensive lineman, or wait until the second round and take a pass rushing terror to continue their defensive overhaul?  The bet here is that they won't be able to pass on Mack.

Original projection: Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M

7. Tampa Bay - 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.

The Buccaneers with Lovie Smith appear to be in full rebuilding mode, as they have dismantled their offensive line and dumped major salaries across the board, and also have brought in Smith favorite Josh McCown to call signals under center so there is work to do everywhere and nothing should surprise Bucs' fans on draft weekend.

Original projection: Barr

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.

Bortles remains the pick though it is rumored that the Vikings have expressed interest in LSU's Zack Mettenberger, who should be available when they select in the second round - and if the Vikings do plan on going into the second for Mettenberger, the slide for Bortles could be Rodgers-esque.

Original projection: Bortles

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, yet they re-signed him anyway.

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.

The Bills lost free safety Jarius Byrd in free agency, so it would not surprise to see them go for the best safety in the class to replace him, though it sounds as if the coaching staff is counting on strong safety Aaron Williams to make the switch.

Original projection: Ebron

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.

Don't be fooled by the Lions acquisition of Seattle's Golden Tate, who at 5' 10" projects into more of a slot role.  The team needs Evans.

Original projection: Evans

11. Tennessee - Justin Gilbert, CB, Oklahoma State

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.

Original projection: Khalil Mack, OLB, Buffalo

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.

Original projection: Lewan

13. St. Louis - Calvin Pryor, SS, Louisville

St. Louis is a wildcard in the draft as they will be given every opportunity to trade down with one or both of their 1st round picks - however, if they do keep the picks, an offensive tackle is a must and then it comes down to who's available at safety and wide receiver...

...and after taking a bath in shame for last year's 1st round debacle, will they be hesitant to re-up on a wide receiver in the first round again? Another issue facing the Rams is that they desperately need a big, violent strong safety - and many good pure strong safeties will be available throughout the second day of the draft.

St Louis has tons of leverage with two picks in the first round and seven picks on the third day, so a very good argument could be made for the Rams to move down and collect second day picks, where all of the great depth lies.

Those thing said, they could just stay the course and take the best safety in the draft to ensure quality, and Pryor is nothing if not a huge hitter and a force in the running game - and being as they play in the NFC West with those prolific power running schemes....

Original projection: Marquis Lee

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.

Original projection: Clinton-Dix

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.

Original projection: Dennard

16. Dallas - Aaron Donald, DT/DE Pittsburgh

What a mess the Cowboys' defense is in now.  They've needed a safety since - well - forever, and then they allow their top two defensive linemen to escape the circus.

Luckily for them, there will be some quality safeties available in the second round and into the third, but to get an impact-type defensive lineman, they need to do it right here - and Aaron Donald is a Godsend to the Cowboys in the middle of the third round.

Donald is undersized for a defensive tackle, but somehow manages to slip through the tiniest of openings and causes all sorts of chaos in the opponent's backfield, and he's so quick that he can play five technique and abuse offensive tackles as well.

Original projection: 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 - and the Ravens should be a top destination for Benjamin regardless of the Steve Smith signing.

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.

Original projection: Benjamin

18. New York Jets - Marquis Lee, WR, USC 

Poor Rex Ryan.  He can't get anyone to sign with the Jets outside of the over-rated money grabber Eric Decker from the Broncos.  At least Decker fills that need, but the fact that Ryan had to cut his best remaining cornerback while banking on picking up a top DB in free agency blew up in his face.

The feeling is that while Decker is on board, he is a limited possession receiver and the need for a true number one is glaring, not because Geno Smith needs more weapons to throw to, rather, Michael Vick needs more weapons to throw to - Smith may be the starter at the beginning of the season, but don't think for a second that Ryan isn't looking for an excuse to make Vick his signal caller, and a slow start by the offense should provide that.

So with Eric Ebron off the board, the choice is between the inconsistent speedster Odell Beckham and the solid playmaking after-the-catch ability of Marquis Lee - and if he gets it right, Lee will be wearing a Jets' jersey come September.

Original projection: Odell Beckham, WR, LSU

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.

Original projection: Martin

20. Arizona - Kony Ealy, DE, Missouri

Arizona may have solidified the core of their team more than any other in free agency, finding a starting left tackle and plenty of cornerback help - leaving the outside pass rush as the top need - and while outside linebacker could use an upgrade, there's linebackers crawling all over the second round. 

The Cardinals got a lot out of greybeard John Abraham last season, but they would be wise to lock up a young defensive end for Abraham to mentor.  Ealy has some positional versatility and can rush the quarterback from the blind side from an end position or from a standing weakside linebacker position.

Original projection: Jace Amaro, TE, Texas Tech

21. Green Bay - CJ Mosely, ILB, Alabama

The Packers need many things, but for their defense to take a step up to the next level, the front seven must be stabilized.  They took steps in free agency to do just that by signing Julius Peppers and re-signing OLB Mike Neal.  Neal can play anywhere in front seven but his best position with Green Bay is on the outside, which mean the need for an interior linebacker is key.

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 - but less so with Green Bay, surrounded by top notch outside backers and a stout defensive line.

Original projection: Timmy Jernigan, DT, Florida State

22. Philadelphia -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 an Eagles' team that values mobile and versatile linemen in their defensive scheme.

Original projection: Calvin Pryor, SS, Louisville

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...

Original projection: Cooks

24. Cincinnati -Kyle Fuller, CB, Virginia Tech

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.

In this instance, Fuller gives the team some versatility as he is a scrapper that has extensive collegiate experience at both inside and outside techniques as a corner and at safety as well.  He could be the Swiss Army Knife on the back end of the Bengals' defense.

Original projection:  Justin Gilbert, CB, Oklahoma State

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.

Original projection: Verrett

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.

Original projection: Carr

27. New Orleans - Dee Ford, DE, Auburn

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 Ford is the best athlete left on the board in an area of need.

Ford is undersized for defensive end, but is perfectly sized for either the nickle rusher in Rob Ryan's defense or at weak side.  He is strong at setting the edge and for holding containment.

Original projection: Kony Ealy, DE, Missouri

28. Carolina - Allen Robinson, WR, Penn State

The Panthers have an emergency need at 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 - and is also a willing downfield blocker in the mold of recently departed receiver Brandon LaFell.

Original projection: Robinson

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 ton of bricks, 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.

Read our seven-round Patriots' mock draft here! 

Original projection: Shazier

30. San Francisco -O'Dell Beckham, WR, LSU

Beckham can flat out fly, and plays even faster than his 4.3 forty time suggests.  his greatest advantage of playing in the 49ers' system is that his strengths lie in his solid route running, sticky fingers and creativity and elusiveness after the catch.

San Francisco is loaded with short-area play makers, and Beckham would add another dimension to an offense that gets bogged down when defenses can take away their short passing game - and his kick return experience is an added bonus.

Original projection: Ra'Shede Hageman, DT, Minnesota

31. Denver - Bradley Roby, CB, Ohio State

Perhaps a reach in the first round, but Denver has a need for a corner opposite newly signed Aqib Talib with Rogers-Cromartie turning down many dollars from the Broncos and bolting for the Giants.

What may end up happening is that Denver could move up or down the board - up to take a stab at Mosely or Shazier to bolster their linebacking corps, or down to get better currency out of their draft picks.

Original projection: CJ Mosely, ILB, Alabama

32. Seattle - Jace Amaro, TE, Texas Tech

How does one replace a Golden Tate in this offense?  Right, bring in the guy that amounts to the biggest slot receiver in the draft.

Amaro is huge, but he has tremendous foot speed and is adept at splitting the seam but he's not a full value tight end in that he offers little in the way of inline blocking but would be a huge, fast safety valve for Russell Wilson to look for while he's scrambling around...

...and the kid offers a large target with big mitts that swallow the ball.

Original projection: Austin Seferian-Jenkins, TE, Washington

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