The popular choice for the best draft class in league history is the 1974 Steelers. Pittsburgh chose four Hall of Famers with its first five selections that year despite picking 21st and lacking a third-rounder. That’s a pretty good draft. Chase Stuart’s Draft Value Chart uses Approximate Value to estimate that the best draft in league history, after adjusting for the value a team would expect to reap from each given draft pick, actually belongs to the 1975 Bears. That draft yielded only one Hall of Famer, but that Canton enshrinee — Walter Payton — became a Bears icon.1
Of course it’s great to land a Hall of Fame player, but only about 6 percent of drafts include one. And given how difficult it is to project performance, most teams would be happy if the players who fell to them at their particular spots in the draft were talents who fit the organization’s needs for the next few seasons, let alone could be added to their respective Rings of Honor. Let’s go around the league and figure out what that would look like at the top of the draft for each team. Obviously, every team would love to come away with Jadeveon Clowney and Sammy Watkins with their first two picks, but that’s not going to happen; consider this an attempt to realistically imagine the best-case scenario for each team. I’ll go in order and start with Houston, which has the most obvious one-two punch of all:
Round 1, Pick 1: LB Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina
Round 2, Pick 33: QB Teddy Bridgewater, Louisville
Imagine what a coup this would have seemed like six months ago, when Clowney and Bridgewater spent virtually the entire campaign competing to be the first overall pick. The Texans will almost surely go for a quarterback in the second round (or trade up into the first round for one) if they take Clowney — and even if they’ve decided against Bridgewater, they could come away with somebody like Jimmy Garoppolo. If they draft a quarterback with their first pick, they won’t necessarily need to go for a pass-rusher second; they might be more interested in a right tackle or defensive line depth. Those pieces could have a bigger impact than adding a non-Clowney pass-rusher, especially given that incumbent outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus, the team’s first-round selection in the 2012 draft, might still develop into a useful piece.
St. Louis Rams
Round 1, Pick 2: T Greg Robinson, Auburn
Round 1, Pick 13: CB Darqueze Dennard, Michigan State
Oh, the Rams. So much cleanup to do from those free-agency missteps. The Rams could use the final pick from the RG3 trade haul to give Sam Bradford some security. Robinson’s still a better run-blocker than he is a pass-blocker, but if Jake Long is able to return from his torn ACL for Week 1, Robinson could make his pro debut on the right side before transitioning to left tackle. Dennard would fill in the weakest spot in the St. Louis defense after the release of veteran Cortland Finnegan and give the Rams an athletic, tough corner across from Janoris Jenkins.
Round 1, Pick 3: DE Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina
Round 2, Pick 39: QB Teddy Bridgewater, Louisville
Mr. Bridgewater’s going to show up a bunch in this piece — each team’s dreams are mutually exclusive, after all. Clowney would be a prototypical pass-rusher for Gus Bradley and a critical building block for the future; if the Jags could come away with the quarterback they might have been targeting during the season with their pick in the second round, that would just be gravy. To get Clowney, the Jags will need to hope that the Texans prefer Khalil Mack to Clowney at no. 1, and that the Rams don’t trade the second pick away for a small fortune (again).
Round 1, Pick 4: WR Sammy Watkins, Clemson
Round 1, Pick 26: QB Teddy Bridgewater, Louisville
Most mocks have Johnny Manziel going to the Browns at four, but this is the better look for Cleveland. Given its huge investment in pass-rushers Paul Kruger and Barkevious Mingo last offseason, the Browns would be better off getting a franchise wideout who would immediately form the league’s best set of receivers with Josh Gordon and Jordan Cameron. That would make any quarterback better, and while concerns about Bridgewater’s arm strength linger, he would not lack for targets in Cleveland.
Round 1, Pick 5: LB Khalil Mack, Buffalo
Round 2, Pick 36: QB Teddy Bridgewater, Louisville2
It’s not impossible to imagine Mack ending up with the Raiders at five; if the draft starts with Clowney-Robinson-Watkins-Manziel, the Raiders would have an elite defender fall into their laps. They might, of course, be even better off trading the pick in that scenario. Oakland has so many needs and lacks depth to the extent that it would be better off with three good players than one great one.
Round 1, Pick 6: T Jake Matthews, Texas A&M
Round 2, Pick 37: LB Dee Ford, Auburn
Atlanta would love to end up with Clowney or Mack, but it’s almost impossible to imagine either of them falling to six. The best-case scenario for a trade-free Falcons draft, then, sees them shore up their offensive line before adding Ford (who, at the very least, says he’s better than Clowney) early in the second round. Michigan tackle Taylor Lewan has made a late rise on mock draft boards, but Atlanta might very well prefer Matthews, who has experience playing right tackle, if it still thinks incumbent Sam Baker is a viable long-term option at left tackle.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Round 1, Pick 7: QB Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M
Round 2, Pick 38: WR Cody Latimer, Indiana
With just six picks to play with, the Buccaneers might feel some pressure to fill a need with every selection. If that’s the case, they might pass on Manziel and go for his top wideout, Mike Evans, instead. In reality, though, Manziel would be the right pick for Tampa if he fell this far; with Josh McCown entrenched as the short-term starter, Manziel would get the time he needs to adapt to the speed of the pro game while learning Jeff Tedford’s complex offensive scheme. In the second round, then, the Bucs could get the second wideout they need after the Mike Williams trade by adding the fast-rising Latimer, a big, aggressive talent who could take some pressure off Vincent Jackson.
Round 1, Pick 8: QB Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M
Round 2, Pick 40: LB Chris Borland, Wisconsin
If the Buccaneers do pass on Manziel to take Evans, the Vikings should run the pick up to the podium at eight. (Admittedly, getting picks in time isn’t always their strong suit.)3 The Vikings have been commonly linked to Blake Bortles, but Manziel’s success at the highest level in college makes him somehow both the safer and the more exciting option of the two. Borland, meanwhile, would give the Vikings a tackling machine and defensive leader at middle linebacker, arguably the weakest spot on their roster.
Round 1, Pick 9: TE Eric Ebron, North Carolina
Round 2, Pick 41: S Deone Bucannon, Washington State
When was the last time the Bills had a top-10 tight end? Probably the early ’90s, when Wabash product Pete Metzelaars was catching passes from Jim Kelly. And if it’s not Metzelaars, the best Buffalo tight end in history might very well be Paul Costa, who made two AFL All-Star teams before moving to right tackle. Which leads us to Ebron, who would certainly have the biggest pedigree of any tight end in Bills history, and he would be a much-needed weapon for second-year passer EJ Manuel. The Bills need a safety after Jairus Byrd left for New Orleans, and while Bucannon profiles best as a run-stopper in the box, the Bills could comfortably move re-signed starter Aaron Williams from the strong spot into Byrd’s vacated center-field role.
Round 1, Pick 10: T Taylor Lewan, Michigan
Round 2, Pick 45: S Deone Bucannon, Washington State
There’s something heartening about a Michigan product staying in-state — and while the Lions’ most pressing concern is at corner, they’re also desperate for a tackle. Riley Reiff was better than some expected on the left side last year, but Lewan has prototypical left tackle size and would allow Reiff to move to the right side of the line. If Bucannon’s available in the second round, the Lions could pursue him and ease him into the lineup alongside Glover Quin and James Ihedigbo, who would eventually move into the utility role for which he is best suited.
Round 1, Pick 11: DE Aaron Donald, Pittsburgh
Round 2, Pick 42: LB Dee Ford, Auburn
Desperately in need of improvements to their front seven, the Titans would be well served to skip the quarterback class (especially the big-armed stiffs new head coach Ken Whisenhunt usually favors) and go after pieces on defense. Donald has a J.J. Watt vibe to him after dominating the Senior Bowl and producing the most impressive combine performance of any player. He might be best as a penetrating tackle in a 4-3, but the Titans could play him as a defensive end in Ray Horton’s 3-4. Likewise, Auburn end Dee Ford would move to outside linebacker and join the likes of Shaun Phillips and Kamerion Wimbley in Tennessee’s previously enigmatic pass rush.
New York Giants
Round 1, Pick 12: DT Aaron Donald, Pittsburgh
Round 2, Pick 43: TE Jace Amaro, Texas Tech
Please, please, please let me get what I want. Donald could potentially be the next great Giants lineman as an interior rusher between Cullen Jenkins and Jason Pierre-Paul. Amaro wouldn’t be a direct replacement for the departed Hakeem Nicks or Brandon Myers, but he could be something in between: He profiles as a move tight end who can create mismatches from the slot, like a poor man’s Jimmy Graham. After Nicks last season, I would settle for a bankrupt Jimmy Graham.
Round 1, Pick 14: DT Aaron Donald, Pittsburgh
Round 2, Pick 51: CB Bradley Roby, Ohio State
Another team that could use Aaron Donald! It would break my heart — and possibly the Grantland NFL Podcast — if the Giants passed on him at 12 and the Bears took him at 14. Roby played cornerback at Ohio State, but if the Bears get sick of Chris Conte, they could put Roby in the lineup at free safety before transitioning him into a role as the long-term replacement for Charles Tillman.
Round 1, Pick 15: WR Odell Beckham, LSU
Round 2, Pick 46: LB Chris Borland, Wisconsin
The Steelers are in cap hell and need to nail the draft if they want to get back to the playoffs. They’ve made investments in their offensive line over the past few seasons, using two first-rounders (Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro) and two second-rounders (Mike Adams, Marcus Gilbert) on linemen over the past three years. That should free them up to start finding weapons for Ben Roethlisberger. Having let Emmanuel Sanders and Mike Wallace leave without suitable replacements, Beckham makes sense as a target across from Antonio Brown. He gives Pittsburgh the big-play threat it has lacked since Wallace left. Borland would be a long-term starter on the inside, although given Pittsburgh’s history of developing linebackers, he wouldn’t make it into the lineup until 2015.
Round 1, Pick 16: S Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Alabama
Round 2, Pick 47: DE Dee Ford, Auburn
It wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Cowboys trade up to draft Clinton-Dix, so if he were to fall to 16, it would be a rare moment of brightness for this franchise. They’ve been a garbage fire for years at safety, and while they seem to suck the confidence and talent out of the players they acquire (see: Claiborne, Morris), Clinton-Dix would be the best talent the Cowboys would line up at that position since Roy Williams. Ford is hardly a replacement for DeMarcus Ware, but he would slot in as part of Dallas’s rotation of pass-rushers on the edge.
Round 1, Pick 17: T Zack Martin, Notre Dame
Round 2, Pick 48: S Deone Bucannon, Washington State
The Ravens installed a zone-blocking attack under Juan Castillo last year, and it produced one of the worst rushing offenses in recent memory. Baltimore averaged 3.14 yards per carry, the ninth-worst figure since 1990. Gary Kubiak is the offensive coordinator now, and hopefully he does a better job. Baltimore needs a right tackle after famous person Michael Oher signed with Tennessee, and Martin has the athleticism and frame to play in Kubiak’s scheme. Bucannon would be a complementary piece to 2013 first-rounder Matt Elam.
New York Jets
Round 1, Pick 18: WR Odell Beckham, LSU
Round 2, Pick 49: OLB Demarcus Lawrence, Boise State
Even after adding Eric Decker, the Jets could use another weapon at wide receiver. Stephen Hill could still pan out, but Beckham would give Gang Green a downfield burner they haven’t really had since the early days of Santana Moss. And while Rex Ryan is capable of generating a pass rush out of thin air, Lawrence would team with Quinton Coples to give the coach fresh bodies to throw at the quarterback in his many intricate blitz schemes.
Round 1, Pick 19: T Zack Martin, Notre Dame
Round 2, Pick 50: DB Lamarcus Joyner, Florida State
Martin was a team leader at Notre Dame, which seems like a characteristic the Dolphins might want from their offensive linemen these days. They desperately need a right tackle, and adding Martin would actually turn their offensive line from the season-destroying fiasco it was in 2013 to a relative positive in 2014. Joyner profiles as a Tyrann Mathieu clone, and the Dolphins could use him as a nickel back or even a starting corner if Cortland Finnegan is out of gas.
Round 1, Pick 20: T Zack Martin, Notre Dame
Round 2, Pick 52: G Xavier Su’a-Filo, UCLA
Like Miami, Arizona is in the middle of an offensive line revamp after years of subpar play. The Cardinals spent their 2013 first-rounder on Jonathan Cooper (returning after missing all of last season with a knee injury) and spent big on Jared Veldheer this offseason, so the left side is set. But adding Martin and Su’a-Filo would overhaul the right side and give them the potential to have a truly great line by 2015. Hey, it worked for the 49ers …
Green Bay Packers
Round 1, Pick 21: S Calvin Pryor, Louisville
Round 2, Pick 53: TE Jace Amaro, Texas Tech
Ted Thompson has had plenty of success stocking his secondary with midround picks (Morgan Burnett), undrafted free agents (Sam Shields), and castoffs (Tramon Williams) — but he’s currently stuck with a huge hole at safety. The Pack would be better off with Clinton-Dix, but Pryor is well rounded enough to fit next to Burnett. It would be cool to see them trade up a bit in the second round and grab Wisconsin icon Chris Borland, but assuming that he’s gone by 53, Amaro would fit in as a weapon for Aaron Rodgers and a replacement for the still-unsigned Jermichael Finley.
Round 1, Pick 22: S Calvin Pryor, Louisville
Round 2, Pick 54: WR Kelvin Benjamin, Florida State
You would forgive the Eagles for just picking six safeties with their six picks and figuring everything else out later, given how they’ve struggled there since Brian Dawkins left for Denver. After adding Malcolm Jenkins from New Orleans, Pryor would slot in as the strong safety, likely from Week 1 on. Benjamin is hardly a DeSean Jackson replacement, but given Chip Kelly’s known fetish for enormous playmakers on offense, the 6-foot-5 receiver could be a downfield weapon more in the Alshon Jeffery vein. (They better take De’Anthony Thomas later, though.)
Kansas City Chiefs
Round 1, Pick 23: WR Brandin Cooks, Oregon State
Round 3, Pick 87: DE Caraun Reid, Princeton
With just one choice in the first 85 selections, the Chiefs will be under pressure to address a specific need with their selection. The problem is that their real weaknesses — most notably at right guard — aren’t well covered by the value picks that will be there at 23. Cooks would be an upgrade on Donnie Avery across from Dwayne Bowe, and while Alex Smith isn’t exactly a downfield passer, the wild-card game against the Colts showed he can make those throws when somebody gets open. Reid would give the Chiefs a body for much-needed depth up front after the loss of Tyson Jackson this offseason, and deep into the third round you can’t ask for much more.
Round 1, Pick 24: CB Justin Gilbert, Oklahoma State
Round 2, Pick 55: C Marcus Martin, USC
The Bengals need a pass-rusher, but 24 is the worst possible place to land if you’re looking for one. There are a couple of superstars at the top of the draft and a bunch of gambles in the late-30s range. That should push them elsewhere, and while they might consider a wide receiver, Gilbert would give Cincinnati another big cornerback, which should come in handy given the uncertain futures of just about everybody on their depth chart there. They’re desperate for a center after losing Kyle Cook without replacing him, but there aren’t any great centers in this year’s draft. Martin’s the best of the lot, and he’s a mid–second round pick.
San Diego Chargers
Round 1, Pick 25: CB Kyle Fuller, Virginia Tech
Round 2, Pick 57: DE Dominique Easley, Florida
The Chargers need a corner far more than the Bengals do, and Fuller is regarded as a more complete prospect than Gilbert — but he lacks Gilbert’s size. San Diego had one of the worst pass defenses in league history through the first three-quarters of last season, so throwing somebody who isn’t Derek Cox at the problem is a huge step in the right direction. Easley has struggled to stay healthy, but he has the talent and motor of a first-rounder, and he could slot in as a valuable rotation lineman up front for the Chargers in their 3-4.
New Orleans Saints
Round 1, Pick 27: CB Kyle Fuller, Virginia Tech
Round 2, Pick 58: C Marcus Martin, USC
After letting longtime starter Jabari Greer leave in free agency this offseason, the Saints replaced him with Champ Bailey, whose career with Denver was twice as long as Greer’s with New Orleans. Bailey’s going to be 36, and the only player in the past decade to start regularly at corner during his age-36 season was Ronde Barber, who was terrible. At the very least, the Saints should consider a post-Bailey future. Fuller could learn from Bailey this year before taking over in 2015. A center would be nice, too, given that New Orleans’s current starter is 2013 undrafted free agent Tim Lelito.
Round 1, Pick 28: WR Marqise Lee, USC
Round 2, Pick 60: T Tiny Richardson, Tennessee
After hemorrhaging talent this offseason, the Panthers are left drafting for need. They have two obvious deficiencies. The only question, really, is whether they take the wide receiver before the tackle or vice versa. Given the way the draft will probably play out, they’re likely to get more value taking a wideout first. They would love it if Cooks or Beckham fell to them at 28, because they’re drafting low and can’t afford to trade up. Lee doesn’t have their speed or the freakish downfield ability of Mike Evans, but he’s a sound receiver who could be Carolina’s no. 1 the moment it takes him. Despite his nickname, the 6-foot-6 Richardson has the size to play left tackle. He may not have the skill, but Carolina’s so desperate that it might not matter.
New England Patriots
Round 1, Pick 29: DT Louis Nix III, Notre Dame
Round 2, Pick 62: TE Troy Niklas, Notre Dame
Well, we all know that the Patriots will trade down, up, and around, but let’s just pretend for a moment that Bill Belichick isn’t allowed to answer the phone on draft day. And that he’s only, apparently, allowed to draft players from the Golden Dome. The 331-pound Nix is a mammoth two-gap defensive tackle who profiles as Vince Wilfork’s long-term replacement (or, if Wilfork isn’t the same after his Achilles injury, Wilfork’s immediate replacement). Niklas is a dominant blocker, and if anything gets Belichick’s dander up, it’s tight ends who can block.
San Francisco 49ers
Round 1, Pick 30: CB Kyle Fuller, Virginia Tech
Round 2, Pick 56: CB Lamarcus Joyner, Florida State
Likewise, the 49ers will surely make plenty of trades with their 11 picks. Regardless of where they eventually end up choosing, though, they’ll need to add a cornerback. They’re so thin at corner that using their first two picks on the position would hardly be out of the question. 49ers fans should not want to see Doug Baldwin and Percy Harvin matched up against Eric Wright and Chris Culliver come Thanksgiving night.
Round 1, Pick 31: LB Ryan Shazier, Ohio State
Round 2, Pick 63: DT Dominique Easley, Florida
Some more defensive pieces would be nice for Denver, especially given how injuries and general wear and tear all seemed to rear their ugly head during the Super Bowl. Shazier’s a speedy 4-3 outside linebacker who will drop into coverage while DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller rush the passer. He’s also a stout run defender, which was a weak point for the Broncos at times last year. Easley can be another member of Denver’s interior defensive line rotation of freak athletes.
Round 1, Pick 32: DT Louis Nix, Notre Dame
Round 2, Pick 64: TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Washington
What do you get for the team that has everything? Nix would be the obvious replacement for Red Bryant, although the Seahawks could also opt for Nix’s smaller, more versatile teammate, Stephon Tuitt. Seferian-Jenkins would be the sort of athletic tight end Russell Wilson hasn’t had as a pro; he’s a luxury, but one that would give Wilson a bailout option when he improvises and would raise tricky matchup questions for most opponents.
Round 2, Pick 34: T Cyrus Kouandjio, Alabama
Round 3, Pick 66: S Terrence Brooks, Florida State
These picks are a pair of question marks, but Washington has to aim high given its lack of a first-rounder. Kouandjio has major medical concerns, but he was the left tackle on one of the best teams in college football over the past two years, and at some point he has to be worth the risk. He’d slot in on the right side for Washington, and if he can stay healthy (and refine his technique), he could be Jay Gruden’s new Andre Smith. Brooks has a lot to offer as a run-stuffing safety, which was a huge problem for Washington last year. He might be too aggressive, which fits the profile of Brandon Meriweather and LaRon Landry, the last two guys who had success in that spot in D.C.
Round 2, Pick 59: S Jimmie Ward, Northern Illinois
Round 3, Pick 90: DT Shamar Stephen, Connecticut
There’s not much you can do when you don’t pick until the end of the second round. The Colts did little to replace Antoine Bethea, which means they’ll likely add a safety in the draft. Ward would be a great value at 59. And the 309-pound Stephen is big enough to two-gap at the professional level, which would give the Colts some depth behind Josh Chapman at nose tackle.