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$.10 For Labor Day

By Jeff Risdon

As the calendar turns to September, football has returned! The first week of college football is in the books, and the NFL kicks off this Thursday.

From cutdown day to suspensions to preseason surprises, here are a few things rattling around my football brain.

$.01--My hometown of Cleveland once again dominated the summer sports news cycle. This time it had nothing to do with Johnny Manziel or LeBron James, though the Kevin Love trade did make my smile a mile wide.

Star wideout Josh Gordon was suspended for a full year for his most recent failed drug test. His appeal was denied, and now the habitual offender faces a one-year banishment from the NFL.

Gordon, who twice failed drug tests while at Baylor and failed another when he tried to transfer to Utah, has a serious marijuana problem. Of that there is no doubt. Yet many are criticizing the NFL, and more specifically Commissioner Roger Goodell, for the way the Gordon case has been handled.

The appellate process dragged on far longer than necessary. The league failed to rule on it for some three weeks, which means the banishment extends deep into the 2015 preseason. It also completely removes him from any NFL activities, the one bit of structure in his troubled life.

It’s hard to sympathize with Gordon. Even if he was merely guilty of being exposed to secondhand smoke, he’s a complete idiot for being around guys smoking weed. His selfishness and lack of professionalism and good judgment have likely cost him his career, and that’s a shame.

Now the Browns face the season without the NFL’s leading receiver a year ago. His 1646 yards ranks 9th in the Super Bowl era, and Gordon’s blend of size, speed and strength made him one of the most formidable weapons in football.

His absence leaves oft-injured Miles Austin and 5’7” Andrew Hawkins, who caught 12 passes in Cincinnati last year, as the starting receivers for underwhelming starting QB Brian Hoyer. This could be one of the lowest-scoring offenses of the 2000s, folks. Bet the under on everything with the Cleveland Browns.

$.02--Another long-lingering suspension issue came down in San Francisco, where star pass rusher Aldon Smith was suspended for the first nine games for a series of malfeasances. Among his indiscretions:

- A DUI in Sept. 2013

- Guilty plea to six charges, including illegal assault weapons charges, following a party at his home where someone was shot

- A Jan. 2012 DUI

- A fake bomb threat at LAX last April

He missed five games last season after entering rehab, so when he finally returns to the field in November Smith will have missed 14 games because of his propensity for illicit activities.

The Niners will miss Smith dearly. Remember, they’re also without star inside linebacker Navorro Bowman for at least the first six weeks as he recovers from a significant knee injury suffered in the playoffs. He might not be back at all.

Without that dynamic LB duo, and with defensive end Ray McDonald apparently gunning for a suspension of his own, these Niners are not even close to the dominating defense they’ve fielded in recent seasons.

This is among several reasons why I think San Francisco misses the playoffs in 2014 after making three straight NFC Championship games. You can read the full season predictions here this Wednesday.

$.03--Sadly there’s still more suspension news. This is what happens when there aren’t any games to distract us from the negatives, and no the final preseason week does not count as “real” NFL football.

In response to overwhelming criticism from all corners of the media for how the league handled Ray Rice and his domestic violence suspension, Commissioner Goodell announced a new policy.

Effective immediately, any NFL employee guilty of domestic violence is immediately suspended for six games for a first offense and a lifetime ban for the second. Further details are available here at the LA Times.

This is an appropriate response. It’s a shame it took such a public spectacle for the NFL to admit it was wrongly behind the times. The disturbing video of Rice, the Ravens star running back, dragging his unconscious fiancée out of a casino elevator is far more deserving of harsh punishment than a player getting busted with pot for the first time.

To his credit, Rice has handled his humiliation with dignity and proper remorse. I believe him when he says he regrets it and wants to make it right. But in any other profession, knocking a woman out in public and dragging her like a deer carcass would result in far sterner punishment than sparking up a few milligrams of weed.

The NFL did get it right, but only after failing miserably on the issue of domestic violence.

$.04--There was a chance that no rookie quarterbacks will start in Week 1, a feat that has not happened since 2007.

Normally, I would applaud the patience of these obviously needy franchises, but in two cases I believe the best option is to play the rookie over the veteran. Derek Carr should be the starter in Oakland, and Blake Bortles deserves the nod in Jacksonville.

Carr is the more ready and clearly the better option to lead the Raiders to victory than Matt Schaub. The former Texans QB was unimpressive once again in preseason. He’s obviously never recovered from his Lisfranc (foot) injury in 2011. Since that time, Schaub has been unable to drive the ball. He’s now messed up his elbow trying to compensate for the loss of base strength, and he’s not a capable NFL quarterback anymore.

Carr might not be one right away either, but at least he’s got potential. He played reasonably well in preseason, showing poise and awareness as well as a decent arm. The Raiders might as well get him up to speed as fast as possible. With him they might win 6 or 7 games, whereas with Schaub they top out at 4-12.

The Jaguars are strongly resisting the urge to play Bortles instead of underwhelming vet Chad Henne. It’s like a horny teenage boy on a first date with a buxom young lady and he’s trying to be on his best behavior. The gap between Henne and Bortles is closer than the one in Oakland, and Henne can produce some quality moments; the veteran Michigan man had a better QB Rating in the first half of games than Andrew Luck last year.

It’s a delicate balance for the Jaguars, and for the Vikings with Teddy Bridgewater as well. Their rookie QBs clearly need more time to hone their skills, but they also offer the team the better chance to win right now. The Browns are in that boat too, but not even Johnny Unitas, let alone Johnny Football, could get that team to more than 7 wins.

$.05--Saturday was roster cutdown day, as teams had to trim down to 53 players from 75. Several recognizable names wound up on the waiver wire, but none more prominent than Michael Sam.

The Rams' 7th round pick out of Missouri, Sam flashed some pass rushing skills in preseason. He even sacked Johnny Football and mocked him with the infamous money sign, a moment which almost caused the earth to stop spinning. Yet he was beaten out by better men for the job on a ridiculously deep St. Louis defensive line.

He’d be just another marginal NFL talent scrapping his way onto a practice squad (as of 5:24 PM Sunday he was still not signed anywhere), and the larger world would scarcely know his name. But because Sam came out as a homosexual player, the mass media will not let you forget about him.

Sam is, was and always will be a limited athlete with a great motor and good-not-great burst around the edge. He’s a one-dimensional player, strictly a pass rushing specialist. His sexual preference, showering habits (thanks for asking, ESPN!) and gregarious smile all have nothing to do with that.

You probably won’t hear much about other seventh round picks who didn’t make their teams. The Rams themselves have three others who also failed to make the team. Go ahead and try to name one without looking it up…

You’ll never hear ESPN ever mention Mitchell Van Dyk, Christian Bryant or Demetrius Rhaney. But you’ll hear volumes about Michael Sam. That’s not fair to him, or to the Rams. When the people covering the game care more about ancillary crap than the people playing it, it’s time to find new people to cover the game.

$.06--There was a rare trade of actual players last week, as the New England Patriots dealt Logan Mankins to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for Tim Wright. The Patriots will also receive a fouth-round pick.

Mankins is a Pro Bowl-caliber guard, albeit an aging one (he’s 32) with a fat contract and no desire to restructure said contract. He’s made five All Pro teams while doing an exemplary job of keeping Tom Brady comfortable and healthy.

He immediately becomes the best lineman on what has been a strangely depleted Bucs unit. After Carl Nicks was forced to retire due to MRSA he contracted from team facilities (allegedly) and departures of Donald Penn and Jeremy Zuttah, the Bucs are left with a rebuilt line. Before Mankins’ arrival, the starting guards were Jamon Meredith and Patrick Omameh. That’s easily the worst guard tandem in football.

Now the Bucs add a stud back to the front, and one with much-needed playoff experience. Mankins is a tone setter for a team that is still recovering from tone-deaf coach Greg Schiano, who played every note wrong in his two seasons of ravaging this franchise. Even if he’s just 90% of his peak self, he’s still an incredible asset for a team that could be a pleasant surprise this year.

The Patriots get an underrated talent in Wright, a hybrid tight end/wideout who hauled in 50 catches as a rookie last year. My first exposure to Wright, an undrafted player from Rutgers, was in the Detroit game. He immediately impressed with his ability to get open against a very good cover LB in DeAndre Levy.

He’s a sure-handed, big and fleet target who can line up inline or as the motion end or in the slot. For a team still among the very bottom in receiving talent, adding a player of his ability is a big boost. The Patriots were likely to cut Mankins as a salary cap casualty after 2014, and they trust Marcus Cannon to fill Mankins’ spot reasonably well. I do too. 

$.07--One of the common complaints about this preseason was the barrage of flags that dragged the pace of the game down to almost baseball levels. Okay, nothing is slower or more tedious to watch than baseball. But still, when both teams rack up double digits in penalties, the gridiron action often crawled along.

The renewed emphasis on illegal contact by defensive players on receivers was the genesis of much of the yellow laundry, and also the scorn of the fans. Fret not, because the point has been made. While there will still be a definite uptick, the players are now conditioned to understand what will draw a flag and what they can get away with. Defensive coaches now have the ability to make adjustments, some of which include increased jamming right at the line or learning how to sell the offensive player initiating the contact and committing interference.

One trend I did really like in the preseason was the officials more closely calling the head bobs and failure to completely set by offensive linemen. It’s a blatant violation that has been under-policed for years. The most infamous example was in Peyton Manning’s final year in Indianapolis and two of his linemen were still not even to the line of scrimmage when the ball was snapped, but no flags.

Keep in mind that preseason was practice for the officials too, and many of them are new. Even casual NFL fans (read: my mom) know who Mike Carey is, but he won’t be working games anymore. Expect penalties to be up, but not as dramatically as they were in the preseason.

$.08--College/Draft quickies

--I was really impressed with Texas A&M as they throttled South Carolina. Kenny Hill looked fantastic running the Aggie offense, a real testament to the coaching prowess of Kevin Sumlin. For my money he’s the best coach in the nation, and as he gets more notoriety the Aggies are only going to get better. Remember the name Ricky Seals-Jones, too.

--Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon looked rocked up but still in possession of lightning acceleration and a top-end gear that few can match. So it’s puzzling why the Badgers barely played him, let alone fed him the rock, in the second half of a bad loss to LSU. Wisconsin was in complete control until coach Gary Andersen inexplicably fell in love with a bad quarterback throwing to worse receivers against one of the best defenses in the nation. The Big Ten sorely needed a marquee win there, but the Badgers gave it away by being outcoached by Les Miles. Ouch.

--Clemson edge rusher Vic Beasley is widely touted as a top-10 pick, but he looked decidedly pedestrian in the Tigers’ bad loss to Georgia. The scoreboard said 45-21 but it wasn’t that close. Beasley struggled against a relatively straightforward blocking scheme, unable to get the edge or bend around it when he did. Instead of Beasley, the player who looked like a top-10 pick was Todd Gurley. Yes, Georgia’s running back. He absolutely can go that high.

--Jameis Winston is a fantastic college quarterback, and he deserved the Heisman Trophy while leading Florida State to the national title last year. As a NFL prospect however…let’s just say he needs a lot of work. A lot of work. The good news is he has a lot of time, too.

--Here’s why casinos make money. The line on the Ohio State-Navy game dropped to OSU -17.5 after the news of Braxton Miller’s injury got out. Ohio State won 34-17 after scoring a touchdown with just over two minutes remaining. Decent first outing for Miller’s replacement J.T. Barrett: 12-of-15, 226 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT in a game I did not watch.

$.09--NFL quickies

--The Chicago Bears are my pick to win the NFC North, but their safeties still scare the hell out of me. They should scare the hell out of Bears fans too. Ryan Mundy and Danny McCray are a little better than Chris Conte and Major Wright, but that’s like saying it’s better to get pooped on by a sea gull than a pigeon.

--I’ve been an avowed Kellen Moore basher for his entire NFL career, but he absolutely earned his roster spot as Detroit’s third quarterback. He outplayed No. 2 QB Dan Orlovsky in the preseason and demonstrated his accuracy and ability to read defenses are definitely NFL caliber. I still believe his inferior arm strength limits him to being nothing more than a never-used backup, but that’s real progress for the Boise State legend.

--This week highlights the all-or-nothing career of Ryan Grigson as Colts GM. Indy’s personnel manager saw the team cut two of his five draft picks this year. Just one, left guard Jack Mewhort, will see significant action. He dealt the first-round pick for Trent Richardson and his 2.8 yards per carry projection. They also cut linebacker Kelvin Sheppard, for whom Grigson traded away quality pass rusher Jerry Hughes.

--Don’t forget that fantasy football also starts this Thursday night. If you’re a casual fantasy footballer like me, you might need the reminder to set your lineup after your league’s draft.

$.10--It’s a holiday, so I’ll keep this one brief. Enjoy your time with loved ones. Put down the tablet and go throw a ball with your kids, or take a walk on a nature trail. Play a board game. Go fishing with an older relative. Buy an actual newspaper and share it with your cohabitants, and even talk about the stories inside. Introduce your kids to classic movies like Ghostbusters or National Lampoon’s Vacation. Take the time to appreciate and take advantage of your day off. 

Initial 2015 NFL Mock Draft

By Jeff Risdon

I know, college football season hasn’t even started yet. So why put out a mock draft now?

There are a couple of reasons. First, consider this a sort of “watch list” for players who I believe could wind up as first-round picks next May. I haven’t really perused other mock drafts to this point, so the players populating this list are talents I believe are either already highly regarded or will emerge to that level in the ’14 season.

Second, it’s always fun to look ahead and try to project where NFL teams will be nine months from now. What might they be looking for in the ’15 draft? Obviously that’s quite difficult to predict, as several teams will have coaching and front office changes.

The order here is based on current (as of 8/18/14) season win total over/under lines in ascending order. In cases of ties, I broke those ties with my own forecast for which team will win more games. The draft order here is technically impossible, as it does not account for division winners and playoff seeding. Get past that, folks…

1. Oakland Raiders: Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon. Sure they just drafted Derek Carr in the second round. They cannot afford to look past a superior overall prospect and dual-threat weapon like Mariota. He needs some passing polish, but the physical tools are all there for Mariota to be Colin Kaepernick’s equal, if not superior. He’s just a junior, so it’s far from a given that he declares.

2. Jacksonville Jaguars: Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, CB, Oregon. Ducks go 1-2 in this premature edition. IEO, as he’s known in scouting shorthand, enters the season as my personal No. 1 overall player. He’s got size, speed, vision, instincts and playmaking flair. He has a chance to be the best CB in the NFL at some point, something that cannot be said of any first-rounders in the last 2-3 drafts.

3. Cleveland Browns: Sammie Coates, WR, Auburn. He’s a downfield demon with legit 4.3 speed, impressive for a rocked-up 6’2”, 200+ pounder. Coates is dripping with potential. If he shows he can improve his footwork on routes and concentration over the middle, he’s going to be the first wideout taken. The Browns need every weapon they can get for Johnny Football, and character concerns are going to matter. Coates

4. Cleveland (from Buffalo Bills): Vic Beasley, Edge, Clemson. The booty for dealing the pick that became Sammy Watkins to Buffalo is the top pass-rushing prospect heading into the season. Beasley has a lightning first step and great closing burst to the ball. He fits better as a 3-4 OLB as he appears fairly maxed out at about 245 pounds.

5. Minnesota Vikings: Andrus Peat, OT, Stanford. The Vikings already have a solid pair of tackles in Matt Kalil and Phil Loadholt, but Peat could be too skilled to pass on here. He’s got outstanding length and quick feet, a natural left tackle. The Vikings do like to trade picks, too…

6. Tennessee Titans: Leonard Williams, DT, USC. He’s the closest thing I’ve seen to Ndamukong Suh since the Lions stud was dominating at Nebraska. A violently strong interior presence with the athleticism to play anywhere along the line, the rising junior has everything NFL teams want. The Titans have a sturdy young line with Jurrell Casey, Mike Martin and Sammie Lee Hill, but Williams gives them real star potential up front. Have to think that if they’re picking this high they’ll look strongly at a QB, however.

7. Houston Texans: Jameis Winston, QB, Florida State. It might seem inconceivable for the reigning Heisman winner and field general of the national champs is not a top 5 pick, let alone No. 1 overall. I think he’s a victim of hyper-scrutiny about his character, but also his surprisingly spotty mechanics and accuracy. He can--and I suspect he will--iron the on-field issues out, and that should be enough to convince the Texans to trust him with the keys to the franchise.

8. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Brandon Scherff, OT, Iowa. The Bucs offensive line is in the process of a major turnover, and Scherff has the potential to be the centerpiece of a rebuilt front. Physical and relentless, he’s likely a right tackle at the next level, but could be an awesome one. When I graded him for the ’14 draft he came out ahead of No. 11 overall pick Taylor Lewan, a similar style of player. Scherff isn’t as athletic, however.

9. New York Jets: Jaelen Strong, WR, Arizona State. If you liked Mike Evans in the ’14 draft, Strong is your kind of receiver. Big and strong (no pun intended) with a huge catch radius, the 6’4” junior is a better route runner than Evans already. He’s a viable potential No. 1 receiver, something the Jets could pair nicely with a talented No. 2 in Eric Decker. 

10. St. Louis Rams: Brett Hundley, QB, UCLA. If the Rams miss out on the playoffs once again, it’s likely Sam Bradford’s fault. That means it’s time for a change, and that change is the rangy Bruins junior. He’s a divisive prospect already, as some (I raise my hand high) worry about his accuracy as much as they are tantalized by his huge arm and great size.

11. Washington Ethnic Slurs: Landon Collins, S, Alabama. Washington drafted a pair of safeties in 2013, but Philip Thomas and Bacarri Rambo have yet to emerge past decidedly average journeymen Ryan Clark and Brandon Meriweather. Collins is a do-it-all safety with strong tackling skills and solid instincts vs. the pass, giving them a long-term solution at a position of growing importance. Collins is just a junior.

12. Arizona Cardinals: Dante Fowler, DE/OLB, Florida. Fowler is a rising junior with freak closing speed and lateral quickness for a 275ish-pound edge player. He’s not afraid to get physical. If he can clean up his positional discipline and continue to wreak havoc in backfields, he could go a lot higher than 12th. I think the Cardinals are better than this slot, so for them to add another impact piece to their solid defense would be quite fortunate. Fowler and Calais Campbell would be a devastating DE/OLB duo to try and block.

13. New York Giants: Cedric Ogbuehi, OT, Texas A&M. Ogbuehi continues the strong line of premium tackles in College Station. He’s not quite as high-end as Luke Joeckel or Jake Matthews, but he’s a high-floor talent who is ready to start right out of the box at either tackle spot. The rebuild of the Giants offense continues by building up the front and adding skill position weapons in the next few rounds.

14. Miami Dolphins: Devante Parker, WR, Louisville. Long and strong, Parker proved he could make the tough catch from Teddy Bridgewater. Now he gets to break in a new QB at Louisville. His projected 4.55 speed waters down his draft stock a bit, but there might not be a better catcher of the football in the next draft. He’d make a great complement for Mike Wallace to help Ryan Tannehill’s progression in Miami.

15. Kansas City Chiefs: Ty Montgomery, WR, Stanford. A blazing speedster with reliable hands, Montgomery would immediately upgrade a Kansas City receiving corps that scares Chiefs fans more than it does opponents. In his junior season, he can elevate his stock by improving his footwork and selling his moves better.

16. Carolina Panthers: P.J. Williams, CB, Florida State. A fluid athlete with a very high football IQ, Williams will get a lot of exposure playing for the Seminoles. He can elevate himself higher than this if he makes more impact plays as a junior. He would immediately step into Carolina and be their No. 1 corner.

17. San Diego Chargers: Shilique Calhoun, Edge, Michigan State. He’s a fierce pass rusher with explosive athletic metrics, a perfect fit along a Chargers front that needs more sizzle off the edge. His ability to play both end and 3-4 outside backer gives the defense more options. The junior reminds me of Mario Williams.

18. Dallas Cowboys: Randy Gregory, Edge, Nebraska. Another player who is going to divide the draft community, Gregory has potential to be a dynamic edge rusher with a great first step. If he can even out some truly ugly ’13 game tape (Michigan, among others), the rising junior would bring speed and length to what appears to be a brutal Dallas defense.

19. Pittsburgh Steelers: Devin Funchess, TE/WR, Michigan. He’s a hybrid receiver along the lines of Eric Ebron or Tyler Eifert, a wideout in a tight end frame. The junior offers great potential as a seam-stretcher and giant slot presence. He could blossom with more consistent QB play, something he would get in Pittsburgh with Big Ben.

20. Atlanta Falcons: Todd Gurley, RB, Georgia. The two-year drought of first round running backs ends with the eminently talented Bulldogs junior. He will remind some of Steven Jackson, others of Marshawn Lynch. With Jackson nearing the end, the Falcons could add the local product to bolster and balance the Matt Ryan-centric offense.

21. Detroit Lions: La’el Collins, OT, LSU. A massive and punishing line presence, Collins offers the Lions options up front. LaAdrian Waddle and Riley Reiff are both versatile, which would allow Detroit to find the best combination to help fuel their high-powered offense. Yes, once again the Lions do not take a first-round corner…that’s what free agency is for.

22. Baltimore Ravens: Trae Waynes, CB, Michigan State. With Darqueze Dennard now a Bengal, the Ravens tap his Spartans mate to be their own shutdown corner. The rising junior has size and attitude, two attributes in high demand in the NFL today. Of all the picks I’ve made here, this is the one that is the most likely to actually come to fruition.

23. Chicago Bears: Derron Smith, S, Fresno State. Smith is a playmaking cover safety, something the Bears desperately need. He lacks size but doesn’t lack punch when he’s flying all over the field. He’d make a great fit for Chicago in the pass-happy NFC North, a division I think they win in 2014 despite a still-leaky defense.

24. Philadelphia Eagles: Noah Spence, Edge, Ohio State. The rising junior performed at his best against top competition, and he’s an impact player against both the run and pass. His game is similar to Kyle Van Noy from the ’14 draft, and Spence has the similar lack of power and strength that he can build up to improve his stock.

25. Cincinnati Bengals: Corey Robinson, OT, South Carolina. Bengals fans are used to a former SEC behemoth anchoring the offensive line. As Andrew Whitworth approaches his mid-30s, Cincinnati reloads with the 6’7”, 330ish Robinson. He’s still fairly raw with his technique, but you can’t coach his length and brute power.

26. Indianapolis Colts: Ellis McCarthy, DT, UCLA. The junior’s upside is similar to the good Nick Fairley, a disruptive gap penetrator with both power and quickness. McCarthy has to be reminded he’s big at times, but guys his size (6’4”, 325) with his movement skills from a major program typically don’t last long on draft boards.

27. New Orleans Saints: Ramik Wilson, ILB, Georgia. A tightly-wound tackling machine with decent range, Wilson would make a great fit in Rob Ryan’s aggressive, oft-unconventional defense. He could lead the nation in tackles in 2014, but his best NFL attribute might be his cover skills in the short and intermediate range.

28. San Francisco 49ers: Deontay Greenberry, WR, Houston. Every year there are a couple of surprise first round picks, and it’s often the 49ers who make one. Greenberry is a long, speedy monster along the lines of Dez Bryant or Demaryius Thomas. He needs to show his strength more frequently, and then the junior can take the NFL draft process by storm.

29. Green Bay Packers: Alvin Dupree, Edge, Kentucky. Dupree is a player I think will blossom going forward as he gets stronger and learns how to better use his hands. He’s already physical and has nifty feet for a 260-something pound edge rusher, and he’s also shown he is fluid in space. Great fit for a zone blitzing team like Dom Capers’ Packers, who can use him opposite Clay Matthews.

30. New England Patriots: Amari Cooper, WR, Alabama. This is probably lower than you’ll see the talented Cooper in most mock drafts, but his lack of any elite trait will water down his stock. That doesn’t mean the Patriots won’t be getting a potentially great receiver, as his sticky hands, route savvy and professional polish are all already evident.

31. Seattle Seahawks: Rashad Greene, WR, Florida State. The player Greene most reminds me of is former Seahawk Golden Tate, who took the money and ran to Detroit. He’s comfortable lining up in the slot or outside, has superb hands and body control and he can make tacklers miss. He’s not as fast at Tate, but the reigning Super Bowl champs can use his NFL-ready game.

32. Denver Broncos: Josh Shaw, CB, USC. The onetime Florida star recruit has the traits of a hybrid corner/safety a la Kenny Vaccaro or Calvin Pryor, two recent first round picks. His high football IQ and great burst out of breaks should translate well to the NFL. Denver needs to keep reloading secondary talent. 

Next 10 players picked: Shawn Oakman, DE, Baylor; Marcus Peters, CB, Washington; Cameron Erving, OT, Florida State; Denzel Perryman, LB, Miami; Ty Smabrailo, OT, Colorado State; Stefon Diggs, WR, Maryland; Jordan Jenkins, Edge, Georgia; Reese Dismukes, C, Auburn; Shaq Thompson, LB, Washington; Christian Covington, DT, Rice

The Best Pick For Every Team

By Jeff Risdon

I’m not a big fan of issuing draft grades right after the fact. And with so much negativity floating around, I opted to stay on the positive side of the coin.

Here are my favorite draft selections for each team.

Arizona Cardinals

Logan Thomas, QB, Virginia Tech--the fourth round pick (#120 overall) wound up in the best possible situation for his NFL potential. He’s got better athletic potential and a better arm than #3 overall pick Blake Bortles, and there are times (the Miami game comes to mind) where Thomas looks like a legit NFL star. Not starter, star.

He was often really, really bad too, and that’s why many groaned when the Cardinals took Thomas in the fourth round. But Bruce Arians uses an offensive system that plays to his downfield strengths, and there’s no pressure to rush his progress. Give him two years of advanced coaching and encouragement, and the Cardinals just might have themselves a franchise quarterback. The reward is worth the risk here.

Atlanta Falcons

Jake Matthews, T, Texas A&M--This was a toughie, as they made some very good value picks and fits. Yet Matthews was my No. 1 player in the entire draft, and the Falcons landed him with the sixth overall selection. He’s instantly the best starter on what has been a problematic line for the last couple of years. He’ll be protecting Matt Ryan and clearing holes for another pick I really liked, 4th round RB Devonta Freeman. Matthews is a can’t-miss prospect for a team that desperately needed one.

Baltimore Ravens

Crockett Gillmore, TE, Colorado State--Gillmore is a player I really grew to like after seeing him in person at Shrine Game week and Senior Bowl week. He didn’t have a lot to do at CSU, but in those two weeks I saw a sure-handed receiver who could use his big frame to get separation and reach out to pluck the ball from the air. He’s a solid in-line blocker and he can chip and release nicely. Gillmore projects as a very good second tight end, something the team needed. They could have done a lot worse with the 99th pick.

Buffalo Bills

Preston Brown, LB, Louisville--I do really like adding Sammy Watkins to the mix, but I’m not sure they had to give up as much as they did to get him. Brown, on the other hand, is a strong value in the third round. He should be able to line up inside or outside. When I watched Louisville film to break down Eagles 1st round pick Marcus Smith, all I saw was Brown making plays all over the field. He and Kiko Alonso make a very nice young LB tandem for a team that should be on the rise.

Carolina Panthers

Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Florida State--The giant wideout was the epicenter of some very divisive opinions in the scouting community. I happen to value his athletic gifts, and think his detractors ignored a lot of very strong plays he made under pressure for a championship team. He landed in the perfect spot; Cam Newton has the same style as Jameis Winston and Benjamin will get every chance to shine, and he wasn’t a reach in the late first round. Benjamin is my too-early projection for Offensive Rookie of the Year. Having said that, it also wouldn’t be a surprise if he washed out a la James Hardy either.

Chicago Bears

Kyle Fuller, CB, Virginia Tech--The Bears absolutely had to upgrade the defense. I like all of their first three picks; Ego Ferguson and Will Sutton are both limited role players, but the Bears sorely needed those roles filled. Fuller has a chance to be a very good cornerback, and he fits schematically. I also like that they didn’t reach to fill the gaping hole at safety, sticking to their board with the higher-end player. The Bears had one of the best drafts of 2014.

Cincinnati Bengals

Darqueze Dennard, CB, Michigan State--Cincinnati landed my 16th-rated player overall and top CB on my board with the 24th pick. Aside from the value they got, Dennard’s aggressive style fits well both within the context of their defense (assuming they keep a similar scheme with the change in coordinator) and in the AFC North. Jeremy Hill could wind up being a very good power RB for them, too, though I think he went too high.

Cleveland Browns

Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M--I wrote earlier about my mixed feelings on their tumultuous first round. The more I look at the reaction to Manziel and how he’s reinvigorated my hometown, the more I support the decision. He’s a unique player that represents a stark contrast to the “same old Browns”. Johnny Football is the face of the franchise and seems quite capable of handling that pressure. I would not bet against him.

Dallas Cowboys

Ahmad Dixon, S, Baylor--This one is all about relative value. They badly needed a safety, and Dixon could have gone at least two rounds earlier. He’s stiff in coverage and tested poorly in workouts, but he’s still immediately the second-best safety on the Cowboys roster. They got him with the 248th overall pick deep in the 7th round. I do like Demarcus Lawrence’s potential as an edge rusher, too.

Denver Broncos

Bradley Roby, CB, Ohio State--Roby is the top choice with a condition: the Broncos have to get the 2012 version and not the 2013 one. He’s got very similar skills and upside to Joe Haden, who just signed a monster contract extension with the Browns. The Broncos filled their top need with the best value on the board at that spot. It’s risky but should pay off.

Detroit Lions

Kyle Van Noy, LB, BYU--The Lions aggressively pursued the versatile Van Noy, trading up a few spots in the second round to reunite him with his former Cougars roommate, Ezekiel Ansah. He is a perfect fit for the new defensive scheme, which will play more 3-LB sets and blitzes. His biggest weakness--sifting through traffic--is mitigated by the Lions’ strong defensive line in front him. Van Noy could be very, very good right away.

Green Bay Packers

Khyri Thornton, DT, Southern Miss--Third-round pick Thornton is an odd fit on the surface. He’s a one-gap upfield penetrator who doesn’t tie up blockers well despite being a large man, and that tends to fit better in a 4-3 defense than Green Bay’s variable 3-4 front. Yet I love his energy and the reckless edge he brings. He’s a poor man’s Nick Fairley without the baggage, both off-field and in the midsection. Thornton is an agitating instigator of a defensive lineman, something this defense badly needed. I really like Davante Adams in the second round too, though he’s not apt to contribute much as a rookie.

Houston Texans

Jadeveon Clowney, Edge, South Carolina--Houston had to be tempted by a quarterback, but they smartly held off and added the defensive prospect with the highest talent ceiling to hit the draft in the last 25 years. He’s not a sure thing, but passing on Clowney could have been as disastrous as passing on Dwayne Wade or Carmelo Anthony for Darko Milicic. Clowney could be the LeBron James of the NFL. Could be. You have to take that gamble with the #1 overall pick.

Indianapolis Colts

Donte Moncrief, WR, Ole Miss--I’m not going to lie here: I have major reservations about what GM Ryan Grigson has done in the last 15 months, and this draft did not help his cause. Moncrief is a great value with the 90th overall pick, but he carries some risk. While he’s a dynamic athlete who looked like a first-round talent at times, he also has a lot of disturbingly lethargic and disinterested games too. A team with limited draft resources probably should have opted for a safer route, though if Moncrief is a hit, he’ll be a big hit. I’m optimistic he will.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Allen Robinson, WR, Penn State--The Jaguars took two wideouts in the second round, and I love both picks. Marqise Lee went earlier, and the USC receiver has a chance to be special if his knee gets healthy. Robinson came later in the round (61st overall) and should prove more than worthy of the trade up to nab him. His size and leaping ability nicely compensate for a lack of top-end speed, which Lee brings. I love that they got two receivers who complement one another so well. Now about that massive reach for a quarterback in the first round…

Kansas City Chiefs

Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, T, McGill--The 200th pick of the draft was a complete mystery to many, but for those of us who saw “Larry” in person at the Shrine Game practices, we know how good the giant Canuck can be. He was every bit as dominant in St. Pete as Terron Armstead, the 75th pick in 2013, was a year earlier. He’s light on his feet but very tough and strong. Once he learns the American game (Canada has different rules on the line), he can be an above-average starting left tackle. The Chiefs got him in the 6th round. I also like guard Zach Fulton from Tennessee, their other sixth rounder. KC could very well have landed two starters in that round.

Miami Dolphins

Jordan Tripp, LB, Montana--The Dolphins had an interesting draft. I like a lot of their players, but they almost universally went about 15-20 picks higher than I liked. Not so with Tripp, whom I graded a solid 3rd round talent. They got him in the 5th, and he’s got a chance to be a solid starter if he can add some functional strength. Billy Turner in the third could wind up being better than first-rounder Ja’Wuan James, and I say that as someone who liked James too.

Minnesota Vikings

Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville--Absolute jackpot pick. GM Rick Spielman was patient in watching Bridgewater fall, and then he pounced on the best quarterback in this draft by trading up into the 32nd pick. The best part is they don’t have to rush him onto the field if he isn’t quite ready, though I suspect he’ll be starting for Minnesota by Halloween and will be for a very long time. I like the Anthony Barr pick at 9, too, especially since they pilfered an extra fifth rounder from Cleveland and still got him. That’s good, because none of their Saturday picks might make the final 53-man roster.

New England Patriots

Jemea Thomas, DB, Georgia Tech--With their third 6th round pick, and I like all three of them, the Patriots scored with the versatile Thomas. He can play the nickel corner over the slot, but he also plays big enough to handle safety duties. He’s small and that limits his upside, but Jemea Thomas is a smart, quick-twitch football player. Guard Jon Halapio from Florida, the first of their 6th rounders, will start sooner than later too.

New Orleans Saints

Brandin Cooks, WR, Oregon State--Not only did the Saints get their replacement for Lance Moore, they just might have gotten their new #1 wideout. Cooks is smallish but freakishly quick, and he catches the ball effortlessly. He answered the speed questions, as silly as they seem in watching lots of Beavers tape, by running a 4.33 at the Combine. He should prove worthy of the move up to the 20th overall pick; he was not going to fall to 27th. The NFC South isn’t exactly crawling with defensive back talent, so he could be very good very soon.

New York Giants

Weston Richburg, C, Colorado State--I freely admit to a major bias here. Richburg was my favorite player in this entire draft, my prospect man crush. I even told him so when talking to him during Senior Bowl week, and he accepted it graciously. He’s a smart tactician who can play guard or center, and he adjusts on the fly to opponents as well as any center in the NFL right now. He helps fill one of the gaping holes along their lines. Side note: he was a high school teammate of Baltimore’s above entry, Crockett Gillmore.

New York Jets

Jace Amaro, TE, Texas Tech--Their second-round pick was rated much higher on my board than their first-rounder, safety Calvin Pryor. Amaro is a monster of a target on crossing and out routes, and he can lay out unsuspecting defenders as a blocker. You can pencil him in for 65-75 catches for 850-950 yards and 5-8 TDs every year. Fourth-round guard Dakota Dozier is a promising project, though he probably won’t contribute much as a rookie. Shaq Evans was a solid pick too.

Oakland Raiders

Khalil Mack, LB, Buffalo--Their first four picks could all realistically emerge as quality starters by the middle of 2015, but only Mack has the potential to be great. No matter what they ask him to do--blitz, cover, play end, stuff the A-gap--Mack can do it all very well. Hopefully they unleash him quickly instead of playing it safe. I am a Derek Carr supporter, too.

Philadelphia Eagles

Taylor Hart, DE, Oregon--The first pick of the fifth round could very well end up being a much better player than the man they took 26th overall, Marcus Smith. Hart is a smart, aggressive, strong end who disengages and chases very well for a 280-pound guy. Coach Chip Kelly knows what he’s got in him. I really like adding his Duck teammate, WR Josh Huff, in the third round too.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Jordan Zumwalt, LB, UCLA--He’s not a great player, but Zumwalt is a consummate Steeler. His throwback style and almost scary toughness scream Pittsburgh. I expected him to be a 4th round pick, but he slid to the sixth. He is the ying to first-round pick Ryan Shazier’s yang. I happen to like Shazier’s fit here too, as the Steelers are finally acknowledging their egregious lack of range in the back end of their defense. Wesley Johnson was a strong pick, too.

San Diego Chargers

Jason Verrett, CB, TCU--This is another great pick with a condition. Verrett is an outstanding, sticky man-coverage corner, but he’s got serious durability questions between his small frame and balls-out style. His fight/size of dog ratio is off the charts. As long as he stays healthy, the Chargers got themselves a very useful player they desperately lacked with their first round pick.

San Francisco 49ers

Marcus Martin, C, USC--I did an in-depth scouting report on Martin, which you can read here. He was a very fun player to study. Martin has some warts, namely a lack of strength and a bizarre lack of second-level vision, but everything wrong with him can be fixed with experience and good coaching. He could be the best guard from this draft class too, though I think he should stick to center. Good developmental pick in the third round for a team that didn’t have any pressing needs to address. Though I don’t issue draft grades, the Niners still earned no worse than an A-minus.

Seattle Seahawks

Kevin Norwood, WR, Alabama--The second of their three 4th round picks could very well be the only player the Seahawks picked who makes their active roster in 2014. While he lacks second-rounder Paul Richardson’s blazing jets, Norwood does every single other thing a receiver needs to do, including catch the ball, better that the one-dimensional Colorado Buffalo. Fourth-round LB Kevin Pierre-Louis has great athleticism that Pete Carroll can work with, though he’s smaller and weaker than some safeties.

St. Louis Rams

Greg Robinson, T, Auburn--This was not a no-brainer of a #2 overall pick, and I rated Jake Matthews higher, but Robinson was a smart choice and a better fit for the Rams. Coach Jeff Fisher cherishes his combativeness and truly devastating power, even if he will have some pass protection struggles. I really like 6th round corner E.J. Gaines, who completely erased #7 overall pick Mike Evans from the field at Missouri.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Austin Seferian-Jenkins, TE, Washington--The big tight end will make for a fantastic red zone target, and at his pro day he proved his athleticism came back after being asked to bulk up in 2013. ASJ is a great weapon at a position of dire need for the Bucs. First-rounder Mike Evans should wind up being a very good wide receiver, but I worry they’re going to ask him to do too much too soon.

Tennessee Titans

Bishop Sankey, RB, Washington--Sankey is a great fit for the Titans, a very quick, efficient slasher with great hands out of the backfield. He should reliably move the chains. I like the concept of him running behind first-rounder Taylor Lewan, though they took the Michigan tackle a few spots higher than I preferred. Third round DT DaQuan Jones was a nice pick.

Washington Football Team

Zack Hocker, K, Arkansas--This probably comes off as a dis on the earlier picks, but I really do like their 7th round placekicker. He’s got a booming leg and should be a mainstay in Washington for years. Fourth-round corner Bashaud Breeland has major talent but fell because of some off-field concerns and spotty reliability. Third-rounder Morgan Moses has some tools. Did I mention how much I like Hocker?

Post Draft Report – Way Too Early First Impressions (AFC Edition)

The Browns, Bills, Texans and Jaguars made the most noise in the draft.

Round 1 Thoughts, Looking Ahead At Round 2

This was indeed a deep draft, with more prospects than ever evaluated as worthy of being drafted, but it was still filled with surprises.

Rules Of Thumb Following The First Round

Great first rounds for the Rams, the NFC North as a whole, Bengals and Chargers, while the Eagles and Patriots received thumbs down, while Cleveland had the most intriguing night.

Final 7-Round NFL Mock Draft

The two extra weeks of NFL Draft season have led to way too much smoke and speculation. It's one of the most confusing drafts ever, with beat writers for the same teams often wildly differing in their own projections and information.

2014 NFL Team & Draft Preview

Breaking down the draft needs, tendencies, draft history, round 1/entire draft priorities for all 32 teams.

Looking Team-By-Team At The 2014 NFL Schedule

The schedule of an NFL team is critical in predicting how they will manage the ups and downs of a season. Here is a team-by-team breakdown.