The final one-fourth of the 2014 National Football League regular season is about to kick off, and plenty about the current state of the league remains unknown. Only four teams in the AFC are technically out of the playoff race heading into Week 14. The AFC North has four teams above .500, and any of those sides could end up winning the division. Meanwhile, the NFC South doesn't have a single team with a winning record. Odds are that a NFC South team with a 7-9 record will end up hosting a Wild Card Weekend game in January 2015, possibly versus a 10-6 side.
Fans and analysts alike have, since the start of the first training camps on the league calendar, had about half of a year to evaluate rookies that were acquired by teams during the May 2014 NFL Draft. Somewhat surprising is that not a single first-year quarterback, not even a certain phenom who came out of Texas A&M, has yet proven himself to be a legitimate franchise QB. The wide receiver class, however, could be the best that has come out of any NFL draft in history. One player, in particular, looks to be a superstar in the making, the next great wide receiver to rival the likes of Calvin Johnson and Josh Gordon.
There was one big question swirling around the NFL heading into the night of May 8 and the first night of the NFL Draft: Was there any way that the Houston Texans could possibly pass on prospect-for-the-ages defensive end Jadeveon Clowney? The Texans could not, as it turned out, and the pick hasn't worked out for the club...yet. It is early days into his pro career, of course, and Clowney still has freakish physical qualities that make him a player who could, if he can remain healthy and if he decides to put in the necessary work, be a game-changer. That said, the Texans would likely go another route were the draft to be held today.
20 Houston Texans: LB Khalil Mack
I was first told in January that new Houston head coach Bill O'Brien, a quarterback guru throughout his professional and collegiate coaching careers, had an eye on New England Patriots backup Ryan Mallett. O'Brien eventually landed his target in a trade, and he will likely give the keys to the offense to Mallett next summer despite the fact that the quarterback got banged up this fall. With that need filled, the Texans go and grab the young man who was reportedly high up on their big board last spring, so much so that Houston considered taking Mack over Clowney in the actual NFL Draft.
19 St. Louis Rams: QB Derek Carr
Carr is certainly not a sure thing at the quarterback position, but he is the best of the bunch as it pertains to the rookie quarterbacks who have taken the field. Sam Bradford suffered a second torn ACL in a calendar year this past August, and it now seems likely that the Rams need a quarterback for the future. Looking at how the Rams have played in 2014, especially when facing tough competition, St. Louis could, in a re-draft, select Carr and then stash him away on the bench. This would allow an intelligent quarterback to sit back and learn the NFL game from the sidelines.
18 Jacksonville Jaguars: QB Blake Bortles
I understand that Bortles has been a turnover machine in his first year in the NFL. Examine the talent, more the lack of talent, around him before you suggest that the Jaguars should look elsewhere. Drafting Bortles wasn't a mistake. Not sticking to the original plan of letting the work-in-progress learn how to be a pro quarterback while remaining at No. 2 on the depth chart for at least 70 percent of the campaign is where Jacksonville went wrong. Bortles was never turning Jacksonville into a winner in 2014. The Jags grab Bortles again here, but this time they do right by the rookie.
17 Cleveland Browns: WR Mike Evans
Here is what the Browns now know: Brian Hoyer is not a franchise quarterback who will be with the club past this season, Johnny Manziel will be there for the club when it decides to move up in the twenties of the first round, and Josh Gordon cannot be trusted to stay out of trouble during an offseason. Thus, the Browns get Manziel's Texas A&M teammate, the best wide receiver of the 2014 NFL Draft class who some are comparing to Randy Moss. With Evans on the roster during training camp, Manziel probably wins the summer quarterback competition over Hoyer. That could have been one fun offense to follow.
16 Oakland Raiders: DE Jadeveon Clowney
Of course the Raiders take the defensive prospect with character concerns, one who has been hurt for a majority of the 2014 NFL season. This is not, however, a knock on the Raiders. Clowney will, until the day comes when he is a proven bust if that hour ever arrives, be the No. 1 overall player of this draft class. Truth be told, I'm not sure that Cleveland head coach Mike Pettine would pass on Clowney if given a chance to take him. Clowney falls down to fifth in this mock re-draft, however, and Oakland cannot help but select a player who could be a massive flop or an all-time great.
15 Atlanta Falcons: OT Greg Robinson
Rejoice, quarterback Matt Ryan. Your protector arrives in Mr. Robinson. It is, of course, far too early for anybody to give up on offensive tackle Jake Matthews. The rookie, like several members of the Falcons, has been injured, and we haven't yet seen enough of him in the NFL to offer a true evaluation. That said, Robinson remains the rookie offensive lineman with the most upside. He is a physical freak with the talent to play at multiple positions on either side of the football. Robinson will be the best o-lineman in the business five years from now if he reaches his high ceiling.
14 Tampa Bay Buccaneers: WR Sammy Watkins
It is entirely possible that Watkins will be the best wide receiver of this draft class a decade from today. He falls down to seventh in this re-draft due to concerns about his health. Watkins suffered a rib injury early into his pro career, and he has also had to deal with groin and hip problems. Add in that Watkins has smashed into the so-called “rookie wall” as of late – he didn't find the end zone a single time in the month of November – and Evans is the better pick at the position as of December 2014.
13 Buffalo Bills: WR Odell Beckham Jr.
Too bad for you, Buffalo, that you miss out on Watkins this time around. I suppose you will have to put up with a rookie wide receiver who runs perfect routes, cannot be covered one-on-one and who catches just about anything thrown his way. Imagine, if you will, a scenario in which Beckham lands in Buffalo and, for one reason or another, doesn't suffer a hamstring tweak that sidelines him from the start of training camp up through the end of September. He would be a Rookie of the Year candidate. Beckham is the real deal, and he and Victor Cruz could, if Cruz can recover from a gruesome knee injury, be the best one-two combination at the position in all of the NFL next fall.
12 Minnesota Vikings: LB Anthony Barr
Does anybody among the fan base of the Vikings have a problem with the club holding onto its first-round pick? Anybody? Didn't think so. Remember that Barr is not your average top-tier rookie defensive player. He is a natural running back, and Barr only has a couple of years of playing the linebacker position on his overall resume. There is no question that Barr should improve over the next few years so long as he remains motivated and healthy. Barr has the physical attributes to be the next J.J. Watt, an unstoppable force who evolves into one of the best defensive players in all of the NFL.
11 Detroit Lions: DT Aaron Donald
Tight end Eric Ebron was physically a sure-thing on May 8, and nobody could blame the Lions for grabbing him in the first round of the draft. He may improve over time, but Ebron hasn't shown all that much in his rookie season. The Lions know that defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh is going to get paid this coming offseason, possibly earning a historic contract in the process. Detroit doesn't just grab Suh's replacement with this pick. They pair the two together and improve upon what has been, at times this season, a menacing defense, and the club ultimately saves some cap space by letting Suh walk in 2015.
10 Tennessee Titans: OT Taylor Lewan
There is no reason why the Titans should give up on Lewan four months into his pro career. One could claim that there is logic behind the notion of the Titans using this pick to take a quarterback such as Manziel or Teddy Bridgewater, but is it believed that the club is high on rookie quarterback Zach Mettenberger. Those in front of him have to do a better job of making sure he doesn't take shots during games, and that includes Lewan. Lewan suffered an unfortunate ankle injury in late November, but that should be a freak incident that is nothing more than a blip on the radar.
9 New York Giants: OT Jake Matthews
Two-time Super Bowl champion quarterback Eli Manning is playing behind one of the worst offensive lines in the NFL for the second straight season. He needs all of the help that he can get up front, and that assist comes in the form of Matthews. Matthews, if he avoids the injury bug that has made a nest in Atlanta, is a starter for the New York offensive line on day one. He helps make fellow tackle Justin Pugh a better player, and Matthews keeps Manning on his feet during games. Manning-to-Beckham is a special connection, but Matthews is the right pick for the Giants in this re-draft, since Odell's been taken.
8 St. Louis Rams: LB C.J. Mosley
Mosley has had a banner rookie campaign while with the Baltimore Ravens, and there is little chance that he would fall to the Ravens were the 2014 NFL Draft to take place tonight. St. Louis matched offense with defense with their pair of first-round picks on May 8. Why shouldn't they do so again here? The thought of putting Carr with a stellar young wide receiver such as Kelvin Benjamin is enticing, but it is not tempting enough. That St. Louis utilizes a defensive scheme that differs from Baltimore's is not enough reason for the club to avoid a steal at the No. 13 overall pick.
7 Chicago Bears: CB Kyle Fuller
The Bears have all kinds of problems on both sides of the football. One player alone is not fixing the Chicago run defense, and the Bears would have no business grabbing an offensive weapon with the No. 14 pick of a re-draft. Fuller has been excellent for Chicago in his first pro season, the best defensive back of the draft class. Injuries have impacted his rookie campaign, and he has had rough nights when forced to deal with top wide receivers like Dez Bryant. The Bears nevertheless shouldn't abandon their selection, most notably because there isn't a better option for them at this point of the draft.
6 Pittsburgh Steelers: WR Kelvin Benjamin
The Steelers have been a frustrating team to follow for Pittsburgh fans. They have looked like the best team in the AFC North at times, and they have also dropped games at home to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New Orleans Saints. Add in a road loss to the lowly New York Jets, and the Steelers should realistically have three more wins on their record. Put Benjamin on the field alongside Antonio Brown, the latter being pound for pound the best wide receiver in the NFL, and let quarterback Ben Roethlisberger have some fun.
5 Dallas Cowboys: G Zack Martin
Close your eyes hard enough and drift away into Imagination Land, and you can actually see Jerry Jones building a time machine so he can go back to May 8th and draft Johnny Manziel. Dallas hit the jackpot in acquiring Martin halfway through the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft, and Jones and company would be insane to pass on him for any player in this class. Martin is the unnamed Rookie of the Year in a league that doesn't hand such honors to non-flashy players. Mike Evans has been a tremendous weapon for the Buccaneers, but Martin is the best offensive rookie in the NFL this fall.
4 Baltimore Ravens: LB Ryan Shazier
There is a bit of irony in the Ravens landing the rookie linebacker who, in real life, was selected by their rivals, the Pittsburgh Steelers. Shazier is recovering from an ankle injury in early December, but the Ohio State product played well in his brief appearances on the field. The Ravens would still have the need with Mosley off of the board, and the club grabbing a cornerback or defensive back with this pick would be a stretch considering who would be available in this simulation. Shazier is the safe selection for the Ravens.
3 New York Jets: CB Justin Gilbert
The Jets have so many holes on the roster that you could go one of several directions and be right with this pick. Gilbert has been disappointing with the Cleveland Browns, so much so that some local beat reporters are throwing around the “bust” label. The Jets desperately need help at cornerback, and Gilbert was the top-rated rookie at the position as of the morning of May 8th. Perhaps Gilbert being forced to take a pay-cut that comes with being drafted ten spots lower than when he actually went would be the boot in the behind he needs to turn him around.
2 Miami Dolphins: OT Ja'Wuan James
The final two teams showcased in this piece are instances of clubs being spot-on with first-round draft picks, beginning with Miami. There is the temptation out there of moving offensive tackle Joel Bitonio into this spot. Bitonio has been a revelation for the Cleveland Browns, the best offensive lineman in a unit that lost Pro Bowl center Alex Mack to a broken leg. James has proven his worth to the Dolphins, providing a boost for an offensive line that needed a versatile tackle. In James, Miami has a young tackle who can feature on either side of the line, a trait that cannot be overrated for a lineman.
1 Arizona Cardinals: S Deone Bucannon
Arizona fans fearing the worst with quarterback Carson Palmer lost for the season (torn ACL) may want the club to grab a QB here who can, after sitting behind Palmer for several months, take the field in place of Palmer and of Drew Stanton. Bucannon has been a perfect fit in the Arizona defense, playing more as a linebacker than as a safety. NFL teams live and die on quarterback play, which puts Manziel and Bridgewater in-play here. Bucannon has performed well enough for the Cardinals to stick with the original plan and hope that Stanton can limit mistakes in the final month of the regular season.