NFL news has slowed to a snooze-inducing crawl with just under three weeks left before May's draft, which was pushed back over a week by the league's revised offseason schedule. I sure hope the calendar-makers reconsider this next year. But without further ado, my latest mock draft:
1. Houston Texans -- South Carolina DE/LB Jadeveon Clowney
The Texans have kept their cards close to the vest regarding the draft's top pick, but Clowney is the odds-on favorite as Houston transitions to Romeo Crennel's style of 3-4. Crennel's defenses have historically relied on outside linebackers to generate pressure, rather than down linemen. Clowney would play the Willie McGinest role in Crennel's scheme, bookending Whitney Mercilus with Brooks Reed kicking to inside linebacker. Houston can select a quarterback at No. 33 overall.
2. St. Louis Rams -- Auburn OT Greg Robinson
The Rams tinkered with a pass-happy spread early last year, but played more efficient offense with a run foundation featuring Zac Stacy in the season's second half. Although Robinson must improve his pass-protection technique, he blocks out the sun in the run game. In Paul Boudreau, St. Louis has an elite line coach to show him the pass-pro ropes. If the Rams intend on playing "Fisher Ball" in Sam Bradford's first year back from an ACL tear, this is a match made in heaven.
3. Jacksonville Jaguars -- Buffalo DE/LB Khalil Mack
The Jaguars are quietly a franchise in ascent, but have two major hurdles to clear to become consistently competitive on game days. They need a franchise quarterback and a franchise pass rusher. While the top of round two may provide opportunities to address the former weakness, this draft is not deep on the latter. Mack is a relentless, violent edge disruptor with special traits.
4. Cleveland Browns -- Texas A&M OT Jake Matthews
Armed with ten selections in his first-ever draft, rookie GM Ray Farmer may opt to go "safe" with his first-ever pick, aiming for a top-five double rather than a home run. A strong bet to be a solid long-term starter and natural fit in new playcaller Kyle Shanahan's zone-blocking scheme, Matthews' addition would allow Cleveland to kick incumbent RT Mitchell Schwartz inside to guard. With Alex Mack, Joe Thomas, and John Greco returning, the Browns would suddenly boast a top-shelf offensive line. Cleveland has two more top-35 picks to address quarterback and receiver.
5. Oakland Raiders -- Clemson WR Sammy Watkins
Handling a roster laughably bereft of young talent, GM Reggie McKenzie won't have to think twice about staying true to his board. Watkins is likely to be his highest-rated player if the draft plays out as this mock portends. Even in his prime, Matt Schaub was a quarterback who required a top-notch supporting cast to function effectively. Watkins would significantly upgrade Schaub's "weapons." I also think Oakland will trade contract-year wideout Denarius Moore during the draft.
6. Atlanta Falcons -- North Carolina TE Eric Ebron
This mock arguably presents a nightmare scenario for the Falcons, who would likely run to the podium were any of the top-four players here available at No. 6. Fallback options include trading down -- perhaps with a quarterback-needy team -- or deciding between Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Taylor Lewan, Anthony Barr, and Ebron. An athletic phenom with seam-stretching speed, Ebron has the highest ceiling in that group and would give Atlanta an immediate successor for Tony Gonzalez.
7. Tampa Bay Buccaneers -- Texas A&M WR Mike Evans
It's hard to imagine Evans getting past Tampa after the Mike Williams trade. Their current No. 2 wideout is Louis Murphy. Not only would Evans' addition allow the Buccaneers to semi-recreate Josh McCown's jumbo-sized 2013 Bears receiver corps, Evans would fit new OC Jeff Tedford's preference for a plus run-blocking wideout. The Bucs plan to pound the rock under Lovie Smith.
8. Minnesota Vikings -- Pittsburgh DT Aaron Donald
Mike Zimmer's new Geno Atkins. Although this match may seem surprising because it probably doesn't appear often in other mock drafts, we don't know how Minnesota's new defensive-minded coach feels about Sharrif Floyd, and Zimmer's units have always functioned at their maximum with deep rotations of explosive pass rushers. Donald is the type of all-out-effort player Zimmer loves. The Vikings were very involved on Henry Melton during free agency -- even after signing Linval Joseph -- strongly suggesting they believe the interior defensive line remains a weakness.
9. Buffalo Bills -- UCLA DE/LB Anthony Barr
Edge rusher isn't perceived as a glaring need in Buffalo due to the 57 sacks recorded by old DC Mike Pettine's 2013 defense, but the scheme is changing under new coordinator Jim Schwartz. The Bills are vanishingly thin at defensive end beyond Mario Williams and Jerry Hughes, and Schwartz teaches a Wide-9 technique that requires waves of outside rushers. Barr has limitations, but his strength is bee-lining to quarterbacks and defeating blockers with speed. He's an ideal fit.
10. Detroit Lions -- Alabama FS Ha Ha Clinton-Dix
A long, rangy center fielder with man-coverage skills and few deficiencies, Clinton-Dix would give Detroit truly "interchangeable" safeties alongside onetime-corner Glover Quin. The Lions signed James Ihedigbo in free agency, but he is best suited as a third safety and special teamer. New DC Teryl Austin is an ex-secondary coach and should have a good feel for Detroit's back-end needs.
11. Tennessee Titans -- Notre Dame NT Louis Nix
A Wilforkian zero-technique nose, Nix is the defensive anchor new Titans DC Ray Horton's 3-4 units have always required, spanning from Casey Hampton to Dan Williams to Phil Taylor. Hampton, Williams, and Taylor were all first-round picks. Nix commands double teams and can threaten the pocket. Due to quarterback woes, Tennessee's best chance to be competitive in Horton and Ken Whisenhunt's first year would be to field a strong defense and run game. Look for the Titans to attack each of those areas with their first two picks.
12. New York Giants -- LSU WR Odell Beckham
I think GM Jerry Reese will hope a pass rusher like Donald or Barr falls to No. 12, but I'm less sure either will be available. As new OC Ben McAdoo hails from Green Bay, where they frequently run three- and four-receiver sets, Beckham would make sense as something of a fallback option. Current Giants Nos. 2 and 3 wideouts Rueben Randle and Jerrel Jernigan are unproven commodities in prominent roles, while Victor Cruz is coming off knee surgery and a disappointing season. Beckham could start at X or Z receiver, adding homerun-hitting ability on punt returns.
13. St. Louis Rams -- Northern Illinois FS Jimmie Ward
Expect Ward's name to gain steam as the draft approaches. A versatile, playmaking free safety, Ward clocked twin forties of 4.47 at the NIU Pro Day and plays the game like Kenny Vaccaro with an ability to cover slot receivers, roam center field, and fill versus the run. The Rams are needy at Ward's position, with only 2013 third-round pick T.J. McDonald returning as a probable starter.
14. Chicago Bears -- Oklahoma State CB Justin Gilbert
Gilbert's college tape isn't as impressive as Darqueze Dennard, Kyle Fuller, or Jason Verrett's, but he offers the highest ceiling in this year's cornerback class. Gilbert stands 6-foot, 202 with 33 1/8-inch arms, and ran 4.37 at the Combine with an explosive 10-foot-6 broad jump. Phil Emery has shown a fondness for measurables through two drafts as Bears GM. Charles Tillman turned 33 in February, while Tim Jennings is best suited for a No. 2 corner role. Gilbert has tools to be a No. 1.
15. Pittsburgh Steelers -- Virginia Tech CB Kyle Fuller
A pro-ready, complete corner from a college program with a good success rate for producing NFL defensive backs, Fuller is a plus-sized, sure-tackling cover man with versatility. He can defend the slot and match up with bigger receivers outside, and projects best into a zone or off-coverage scheme. Steelers DC Dick LeBeau historically utilizes zone concepts in the defensive back end.
16. Dallas Cowboys -- Notre Dame G/T Zack Martin
Martin's short arms (32 7/8") will likely kick him inside after he made 52 starts at tackle for the Irish, but Dallas' biggest offensive line need just so happens to be guard. The Cowboys will be one of football's pass-happiest teams under new OC Scott Linehan, who runs a spread-style offense. Martin could afford to get stronger, but will be a sturdy pass protector from day one.