OVERVIEW: As the annual NFL Scouting Combine cattle call prepares to get underway, Viking Update is breaking out the prognosticating crystal ball with the first of what will likely be a dozen mock drafts between now and when the draft arrives in May, changed because different points in the pre-draft process bring out different revelations about the prospects on the field and off, as well as free agency having a stout impact on team needs. For this first mock draft, we focus on what the most glaring needs are for the 32 NFL teams (actually 31 because RG3 is still costing the Redskins through the nose). As teams release high-priced veterans and the opening of free agency fills some projected short-term needs, this will be altered, but here is who we have going where in the first round … for now.
1. Houston Texans – Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville. There is a growing sentiment that the Texans will take home state product Johnny Manziel. He would sell a ton of jerseys and energize the fan base, but Bridgewater has the intangibles to make the big plays that win games. His sleight frame may play against him at the Combine, but with a run-first offense, adding a dynamic playmaking QB gives Bridgewater the edge … for now. Personally, I would like to see Houston take Jadeveon Clowney. The combination of J.J. Watt and Clowney on the edge rushing passers would make a good Texans defense dominant. But the Texans don't plan to be drafting this high again anytime soon and need to grab a QB while the opportunity is there.
2. St. Louis Rams (from Washington) – Greg Robinson, OT, Auburn. This seems like a two-man race here – Robinson and Clowney. Some might lean toward Jake Matthews, but he is ideally a right tackle playing left tackle. Robinson is 325 pounds and eats up space. With Jake Long coming off a torn ACL and MCL in December and underachieving Roger Saffold a free agent, the Rams need to upgrade the position even if both Long and Saffold are back. Can the Rams start a bidding war again for the No. 2 pick? If so, they could be building a team that will contend with Seattle and San Francisco sooner than later.
3. Jacksonville Jaguars – Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina. Nobody in Jacksonville is excited about Blaine Gabbert or Chad Henne, so QB is a definite possibility, especially if they have the choice of all three of the Big Three if Clowney and Robinson go 1-2. But it won't matter who is at quarterback if the defensive line doesn't improve. The Jags had one of the worst pass rushes in the league last season and Clowney would make a bigger immediate impact than any quarterback the Jags might draft.
4. Cleveland Browns – Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M. The Browns have some nice component pieces on both sides of the ball, but they have had a revolving door at quarterback for the entirety of the Browns 2.0 franchise. Manziel has some downside, but his upside is so through-the-roof high that, even if he fails at the pro level, the team will recoup his entire contract in jersey sales. It wouldn't be shocking that, if Bridgewater goes with the first pick, the Browns will give up the first-rounder they got from Indianapolis in the "Richardson Hustle" to move up to No. 2. For those Vikings fans who want Johnny Football, he isn't coming.
5. Oakland Raiders – Blake Bortles, QB, Central Florida. The speed of Sammy Watkins might win the day here because, although Al Davis is gone, his long shadow remains and Watkins' stock will rise at the Combine. But the Raiders haven't had a legitimate starting quarterback that was weaned within the organization since Daryl Lamonica. Their draft choices have so consistently been failures that they have picked the free-agent market clean. Bortles has a strong arm and can make the plays needed to be a franchise quarterback. If he makes it past Oakland, barring a trade, he drops to the Vikings.
6. Atlanta Falcons – Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M. Sam Baker hasn't lived up to his contract at left tackle, and while some scouts have Matthews rated as the top tackle on the board he is ideally a right tackle that, with more time, can become a solid left tackle. Seeing as the Falcons are only one year into the six-year deal, they aren't throwing in the towel on Baker just yet. If he pans out, they're set with bookend tackles for the next five years. If not, Matthews will get a year or two of catching up to speed and then make the move to left tackle.
7. Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson. A talent-on-the-board pick, the Bucs have other more pressing needs, but the combination of Watkins and Vincent Jackson could be lethal. It might be a trade position if the Bucs want to cash in on moving down and allowing someone else to jump in here. But with the Falcons, Saints and Panthers in the same division, a weapon like Watkins is likely too hard to pass up.
8. Minnesota Vikings – Khalil Mack, OLB, Buffalo. The biggest question here is whether the Vikings feel confident enough in Mack's athleticism and game-changing ability to overlook the fact he played at Buffalo. He is going to wow the scouts at the Combine and has all the looks of a three-down NFL linebacker. With the top three quarterbacks gone, if the Vikings want Derek Carr, at this point, it would seem they could drop 10 spots or so without fear of missing out. At this point, we don't have Carr going in the first round. We believe he will, but it's more likely someone will trade up into the first round to take him. That may end up being Rick Spielman's "big move." If the Vikings stay here, it would seem it's down to C.J. Mosley to play the middle or Mack on the outside. If Spielman is looking for an athlete at this pick that could be the type of game-changer a sorely lacking Vikings defense needs, it may be time to roll the dice and take a three-down linebacker who could become a franchise cornerstone.
9. Buffalo Bills – C.J. Mosley, ILB, Alabama. If Mack is available and the Bills brass passes, there will be a fan mutiny. But the potential combination of Mosley and 2013 rookie sensation Kiko Alonso could be the building blocks for the collective effort of knocking New England out of its perennial catbird seat atop the AFC East. They need help elsewhere and Mosely has injury red flags that will scare off G.M.'s like Spielman. Barring the local hero (Mack) getting by the Vikings, the Bills could have the linebacker foundation posts in place to make a long-term run at success.
10. Detroit Lions – Darqueze Dennard, CB, Michigan State. Another seeming "hometown" pick, the primary reason the Lions missed the playoffs last season was that Rashean Mathis was the most consistent corner on the roster. At this point, the Lions would have their choice of the cornerback they think best fits their offense. It may not be Dennard, although he would seem to make sense. It could be one of a handful of CB prospects that make an indelible impression on the Lions scouts, but the position seems clear. Whether they value Dennard as highly as we do is another story. But he's the pick.
11. Tennessee Titans – Taylor Lawson, OT, Michigan. Michael Roos and David Stewart have been advised to rent, not own. That's never a good sign. If Jake Locker is ever going to live up to the promise the franchise put in him, he needs a pocket that will be cleaner than it has been of late. Lawson in necessary insurance moving forward for the Titans.
12. New York Giants – Anthony Barr, DE/OLB, UCLA. Barr is a rare athlete that can be a defensive end in a 4-3 defense and an outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme. The drop-off at linebacker is pretty significant here, so for a team that has prided itself on strong pressure from the edge, they get a player who can fill multiple needs depending on how the Giants envision his best fit.
13. St. Louis Rams – Mike Evans, WR, Texas A&M. Nobody calls him Mikey Football, but, when you watch Manziel film, it's hard to ignore how many plays Evans made when Manziel passes were thrown up for grabs. While Tavon Austin was an expensive experiment, without a running mate on the outside, the Rams offense can't utilize Austin to his fullest potential. Evans will go a long way to opening up the entire offense, which could be the theme of the early portion of the Rams draft. If, however, the Rams make yet another quarterback-for-riches trade, they may go in a different direction here. But giving Sam Bradford every chance to succeed before giving up is a must.
14. Chicago Bears – Timothy Jernigan, DT, Florida State. Henry Melton was viewed as the future of the franchise at the DT spot. A sub-par season and off-field drama make his bid for free agency a reclamation project. However, someone will be willing to pay more than the Bears to land him and start the career rehab process. Even if Melton comes back, getting a foundation pin in the middle of a sorry-looking Bears defense late last year is likely a tipping point in Jernigan's favor.
15. Pittsburgh Steelers – Louis Nix III, DT, Notre Dame. This may be a VU defiant pick much in the same way we refused to pick Dontari Poe to the Chiefs in 2012. It's a pick that screams. Steelers fans got spoiled by the consistent play of Casey Hampton. Of all the players on the board at this point that "fit" with a long-term check mark on the roster, it's Nix to Pitt. In all the incarnations of the VU mock drafts this year, this pick may never change.
16. Dallas Cowboys – Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, S, Alabama. This is the type of player Jerry Jones loves. When Jones is enamored with a player, his absolute power kicks in. He has always had a weakness for big-hitting safeties and Clinton-Dix fits that mold. His stock may rise or fall at the Combine, but, if he's on the board when Jerry is on the clock, don't bet against Clinton-Dix landing here.
17. Baltimore Ravens – Marqise Lee, WR, USC. Soon to be known as Mr. Spellcheck, he's a system college receiver going to a system NFL passing game. Lee would have been the top wideout on the board if not for an influx of underclassmen throwing their hats in the ring. As a result, the big thing about this pick is whether the Ravens finally do something to replace Anquan Boldin, who proved his toughness back when he was with Arizona. Lee has YAC potential that will make Torrey Smith more dangerous. Considering Ozzie Newsome is running the show, tight end Eric Ebron could get strong consideration. If that's the case, wide receivers may start dropping. If not, it's a positional land grab coming.
18. New York Jets – Eric Ebron, TE, North Carolina. The Jets need a lot of help on offense and they may be the first of several teams to say they will wait until the second round to grab a wide receiver – a clear need for the Jets. But in a division where playmaking tight ends can alter the landscape, landing a Patriot clone would be an ideal spit in the eye from Rex Ryan.
19. Miami Dolphins – Cyrus Kouandjio, OT, Alabama. The Dolphins offensive line blew up last year when Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin splashed into the headlines, but neither of them was dominant to begin with. Bryant McKinnie wasn't an adequate short-term answer, much less long-term. If Ryan Tannehill is to be successful, he needs protecting and this pick makes sense.
20. Arizona Cardinals – Zack Martin, OT Notre Dame. Martin could become a dominant guard if the Cardinals are willing to put him there, but, given that Bradley Sowell was the de facto left tackle when Levi Brown was traded and right tackle Eric Winston is a free agent, Martin can be holed into to multiple spots as needed. The Cardinals may opt for more of a sure thing locked in at one position, but, in his case, Martin's position versatility could pay dividends.
21. Green Bay Packers – Ra'Shede Hageman, DT, Minnesota. It's been a long time since a Gophers player went in the first round. Given the questions with the interior of the Packers defensive line, Hageman has the versatility to move along the line depending on situation and be a playmaker for a team in need on a talent infusion along the defensive front, unless the team pays heavily to keep the current cast intact.
22. Philadelphia Eagles – Calvin Pryor, S, Louisville. Nate Allen is a free agent and Patrick Chung didn't live up to expectations. The Eagles have the best team in the NFC East on both sides of the ball, but if the Eagles have any hopes of returning to playoffs, upgrading the safety position is a must.
23. Kansas City Chiefs – Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Florida State. The Chiefs have invested in Dwayne Bowe, but unless they get a second viable receiving option, it's money wasted. Benjamin fits the quick-cut, short-pass offense with Alex Smith and could open things up for both Bowe and Jamaal Charles, which makes him a value pick at this spot for the Chiefs.
24. Cincinnati Bengals – Justin Gilbert, CB, Oklahoma State. The Bengals are a young team, but are getting old at cornerback. Leon Hall has torn his Achilles tendon twice in the last three years and Terrance Newman and Pac Man Jones are both getting closer to the end of their effectiveness. The Bengals have invested heavily in offense over the last few drafts and it's time to invest in defense.
25. San Diego Chargers – Jason Verrett, CB, TCU. The Chargers gained some respectability last year, but their consistent weak link was cornerback play. Verrett will be able to step in immediately and give the Chargers an upgrade that is sorely needed if they intend to return to the playoffs in 2014.
26. Cleveland Browns (from Indianapolis) – Odell Beckham Jr, WR, LSU. With Josh Gordon and Jordan Cameron, the Browns offense has two critical pieces to the passing game. If the Browns select Johnny Manziel as we project, he will need another receiver. His ability to play outside or in the slot will make him another weapon in a growing arsenal that is merely missing a running back – at least one better than they traded away to get this pick.
27. New Orleans Saints – Stephon Tuitt, DE, Notre Dame. The Saints may have bigger needs, but Tuitt is ideally suited for Rob Ryan's defense. With needs at all three levels of the defense, getting an improved pass rush is critical at every step and Tuitt is a value pick that fits both a need and a best-athlete-available mantra. In that scheme, he may be an early frontrunner for defensive rookie of the year.
28. Carolina Panthers – Brandin Cooks, WR, Oregon State. The Panthers have depended on Steve Smith and little else in the passing game for years. Smith is nearing the end of his career and the Panthers not only need to get a solid veteran in free agency, but need to draft a rookie that can project to be a No. 1 receiver down the line. Cooks is going to make some money at the Combine and be more of a factor than where we currently have him projected.
29. New England Patriots – Jace Amaro, TE, Texas Tech. The Patriots had the best of all worlds when Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez were running free through defensive secondaries. With Hernandez never coming back and Gronk a significant injury risk, the Patriots need to bring that dual-threat component back. They were a different team in the few weeks they had Gronk last season. If he's back, great. If he's not 100 percent, they need an insurance policy.
30. San Francisco 49ers – Marcus Roberson, CB, Florida. He isn't the hardest worker in the business, but he has natural talent that jumps out on tape and he seems like an ideal fit for the disciplined system in San Francisco. If the 49ers are to get back to the Super Bowl, they will need help at cornerback. Carlos Rogers could be a cap casualty because he didn't earn his pay in 2013. Tarell Brown and Tremaine Brock can hold down the starting spots, but Roberson would give them immediate competition for their starting spots.
31. Denver Broncos – Bradly Roby, CB, Ohio State. It's a bad storm in the Rockies. Champ Bailey is at the end of the line. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie is a free agent. Chris Harris is recovering from a torn ACL in January. Quentin Jammer is done. There is help needed badly here and the best thing for the Broncos is to have a player they covet at the position fall to them. OSU cornerbacks tend to come to the NFL ready to get out of the blocks early and make an impact. Roby has that potential.
32. Seattle Seahawks – Allen Robinson, WR, Penn State. Percy Harvin is going to make his impact, but Sidney Rice is likely gone and Golden Tate may follow unless he is willing to accept a steep hometown discount. Russell Wilson is on the cusp of greatness but needs more weapons. At 6-foot-3, 205 pounds, Robinson gives him a big target that can make plays down the field and clear things out for Harvin underneath.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.
Viking Update Mock Draft: Round 1, Version 1
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