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The Domino Game

The no. 1 pick in the NFL draft is anyone’s guess at this point, but once it’s made everything else will fall into place

Usually, the first overall pick in the NFL draft is one of the day’s least interesting selections. By the time it’s made, the identity of the pick is clear, either by consensus proclamation or by virtue of an already-announced agreement of contract terms. This year, though, Houston’s choice at no. 1 remains up in the air. Matt Schaub’s gone, so there’s no chance the Texans will give the pick away. And the rest of the draft hinges on the Texans’ decision.

Most mock drafts have the Texans picking pass-rusher Jadeveon Clowney, whom seemingly every draftnik has pegged as both a once-in-a-generation force and too lazy to trust. Imagine what they would have said about Batman when they found out Bruce Wayne just chilled in his mansion all day. Many wonder whether, once removed from the arbitrary confines of the trade-free mock draft, the Texans might instead deal the first pick to the Falcons, who would undoubtedly use the top pick on Clowney. Others still have the Texans going after a quarterback, as plugged-in beat writer John McClain has insisted all along. That quarterback, once assumed to be Teddy Bridgewater, now seems more likely to be Texas A&M star Johnny Manziel.

But no one really knows what Houston is up to — outside of Houston itself, of course. So let’s play a game of Draft Sliding Doors. Three scenarios. Three sets of ripple effects. Let’s see how crazy things could get.

Scenario I: Houston Drafts Clowney

1. Houston Texans: LB Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina

The Texans make Clowney a 3-4 linebacker by taking him with the first overall selection, where he’ll form the backbone of a fearsome pass rush alongside J.J. Watt. Houston will likely have to make this pick while planning to draft a specific quarterback in the second or third round, unless it intends to start Ryan Fitzpatrick this upcoming season. At most positions, teams sort players into various tiers and are comfortable taking one of the players they’ve scouted from a given tier without significantly desiring one over the other. An organization, for example, might have three strong safeties with a second-round grade; if the first two get taken, they’ll just grab the third one. I think that’s way less likely to be the case with this crop of quarterbacks. The Texans will be eyeing somebody like Bridgewater or Jimmy Garoppolo, and while they’ll hope that one of those two falls to them with the first pick of the second round, it’s more likely they’ll trade up into the bottom of the first round to acquire their QB.

2. St. Louis Rams (via trade with Washington): T Greg Robinson, Auburn

The Rams will end up with the player of their choice. They have no need for Clowney and are bizarrely committed to Sam Bradford. In addition, they don’t need to trade down for depth after the huge haul from the RG3 trade. Given the struggles of their offensive line over the past few years (and the number of draft picks they’ve invested at wideout over the past several seasons),1 I think they’ll lean toward the tackle spot. That would likely mean Auburn’s Greg Robinson, who has sneaked ahead of the second man on the sinking-stock bobsled team behind Bridgewater, Texas A&M tackle Jake Matthews. (Sigh.) Matthews might even be drafted behind Michigan behemoth Taylor Lewan by the time things are done.

3. Jacksonville Jaguars: WR Sammy Watkins, Clemson

The Jaguars would consider trading down from this spot if somebody blew them away with an offer. (And if they do end up in the middle of the first round, I suspect they would use the pick to draft Bridgewater.) There are still people in the organization hoping that Justin Blackmon will turn his personal life around, and if Blackmon were on track to play next year, it wouldn’t really make sense to draft Watkins, given the team’s holes elsewhere. If the Jags do take Watkins, it’ll tell us what they think about Blackmon’s chances of staying on the straight and narrow. It will also give their next quarterback of the future — who can’t be worse than the last one, hair aside — a better shot at developing. Then again, that’s what we would have said about Blackmon two years ago, and that didn’t help Blaine Gabbert. Or Blackmon. Or the Jaguars.

4. Cleveland Browns: QB Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M

Most mock drafts have the Browns taking a quarterback at this point because the other prospects just don’t make sense for them. They don’t need a pass-rusher, a left tackle, or a top wide receiver. That would leave them with Khalil Mack and their choice of the passers, and given that they have more draft capital available to them than anybody else, my suspicion is that they would go for the glamour pick now in Manziel and add a linebacker later in the draft.

5. New York Jets (via trade with Oakland Raiders): WR Mike Evans, Texas A&M
Raiders send: Fifth overall pick in this year’s draft
Jets send: Eighteenth, 49th, 104th picks in this year’s draft, 2015 second-rounder

What do you get for the team that has just about nothing? Well, for the Raiders, the answer seems to be more picks. About the only thing the Raiders won’t do here is draft an offensive tackle, given that they gave big money to Donald Penn and Austin Howard in March. A quarterback could be in play. They could upgrade their linebacking corps by adding Mack from Buffalo. If Reggie McKenzie is going to follow the Ted Thompson path to rebuilding, though, acquiring as many picks as possible in a deep draft makes the most sense. And with the Buccaneers popularly linked to massive Texas A&M wideout Mike Evans at seven, somebody’s going to have to come up here to beat Tampa Bay to him.

And who will that be?2 The Jets have 12 picks to work with and a hole in their lineup at wideout, even after adding Eric Decker. They could probably move up from 18 to five by sending Oakland three picks in this year’s draft and a second-rounder in the 2015 edition. Such is the depth in this year’s draft, and such is Oakland’s need for picks.

Congratulations, John Idzik! You’ve rebuilt a terrifyingly poor offense on the fly. The Jets could come out in Week 1 with Michael Vick handing the ball off to Chris Johnson and throwing to Decker and Evans, who would be the terrifying downfield threat Stephen Hill was supposed to become, especially with Vick’s arm strength. With an above-average offensive line already in place and Rex Ryan’s perennially impressive defense lurking, the Jets could be a competitive team very quickly.

6. Atlanta Falcons: T Taylor Lewan, Michigan

Nobody loves Sam Baker more than the Falcons do, which is unfortunate, because Baker hasn’t developed into much of a left tackle after five seasons in the league. They’re committed to their former first-round pick after giving him a six-year, $41 million deal last season, but they also have a gaping hole (commonly called “Lamar Holmes”) at right tackle; Lewan can play there before transitioning to the left side, as Tyron Smith did for the Cowboys during his first two years in the league. That would make Baker Doug Free … which checks out.

Scenario II: Houston Drafts Manziel

1. Houston Texans: QB Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M

The Texans could take Blake Bortles, who’s a more traditional quarterback archetype. That could appeal to Bill O’Brien, but it would be exceedingly tough to draft a raw product like Bortles with the first overall pick given the presence of Clowney as an option. Manziel’s a high-risk proposition, but if he keeps his attitude right and makes plays at the pro level, the Texans could be a playoff team next season. Houston could then add a defensive piece — like Notre Dame lineman Stephon Tuitt — with the first pick of the second round.

2. St. Louis Rams (via trade with Washington): T Greg Robinson, Auburn

Still going with Robinson over Watkins, if only because the wideout crop is so damn deep this year. The Rams will have two more shots to grab an impact wideout, at 13 and 44. More on that in a second.

3. Jacksonville Jaguars: DE Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina

This is the dream scenario for the Jaguars; they already have 2013 second overall pick Luke Joeckel lined up to play left tackle, and after the Blackmon fiasco inherited from the Gene Smith regime, I doubt they’ll be interested in bringing a player with Manziel’s party-happy reputation to Jacksonville. That leaves the Jaguars with a choice between Clowney, Watkins, or a number of trade offers from teams desperate to add one of the two. The Jaguars could use the extra picks, and they did add Chris Clemons this offseason to rush the passer, but I can’t see this organization passing on Clowney. Gus Bradley has a strong defensive mind-set and is the supreme motivator Clowney might need to get the most out of his ability.

4. Buffalo Bills (via trade with Cleveland Browns): WR Sammy Watkins, Clemson
Browns send: Fourth overall pick in this year’s draft
Bills send: Ninth overall pick in this year’s draft, 2015 first-rounder

That leaves the Browns with another quandary at four. With Watkins almost surely the best player on the board, do they draft him and line him up next to Josh Gordon in some unholy alliance of a receiving corps (while simultaneously retaining some leverage if Gordon’s off-field issues arise again)? Do they draft Mack or another player, knowing they might be passing up the best wide receiver prospect in years?

More likely, the Browns consider trading down. As previously noted, Cleveland already has the most valuable set of picks in this year’s draft, but the opportunity to move up and draft Watkins could inspire somebody to make an offer the Browns can’t refuse. The Bills reportedly have the hots for Watkins; if Buffalo offered Cleveland its 2015 first-round pick to move up from nine to four, I think the Browns would bite.

Watkins would probably represent a fatal blow to Stevie Johnson’s long-term future with Buffalo; the Bills could cut Johnson before the 2015 season and save $3.2 million on next year’s cap while lining Watkins up across from 2013 second-rounder Robert Woods, who showed impressive flashes last season. The team could certainly stand to add another weapon for EJ Manuel to work with; if they stay at nine, they would have to consider UNC tight end Eric Ebron in that slot.

5. Oakland Raiders: LB Khalil Mack, Buffalo

With the Bills trading up to grab Watkins, teams in need of a wide receiver might feel more comfortable about staying where they are in lieu of trading up for Evans. (The Browns aren’t drafting a wideout at nine.) The Raiders would likely choose between Evans and Mack, given how thin they are at linebacker. Mack seems like the more likely selection to me.

6. Atlanta Falcons: T Taylor Lewan, Michigan

Atlanta sticks with Lewan in this scenario, but in our final round …

Scenario III: Houston Trades the Pick

Let’s have a little fun with this one. Is there a way to make everybody happy? I think there is. If Houston wants to draft a quarterback, it can safely trade the top pick to Atlanta, but that would drop the Texans to the sixth spot, which might be too low. They would risk losing Manziel to the Jaguars or Browns. If they fall only from first to third, though, they can safely pick the quarterback of their choice, knowing that the Falcons and Rams have no interest in drafting one. That would require a three-way trade, as the Jaguars3 would need to be involved.

What would that trade look like? Just to throw a possibility out there …

Atlanta gets: First overall pick in this year’s draft.

Houston gets: Third overall pick in this year’s draft, Atlanta’s 2014 fifth-round pick, Atlanta’s 2015 first-round pick, and Jacksonville’s fourth-round pick (105) in this year’s draft.

Jacksonville gets: Sixth overall pick in this year’s draft, Atlanta’s 2016 first-round pick, Atlanta’s 2014 second-round pick (37), and Atlanta’s 2015 second-round pick.

You get the idea: Houston has to get a first-rounder back (at minimum) for dealing out of the top spot, but since it’s moving down only two slots (and taking the 2015 Atlanta first-rounder as opposed to the 2016 selection), Jacksonville gets the rest of the draft haul. Atlanta gets the star, Houston gets the player it wants anyway, and Jacksonville gets some much-needed draft capital over the next few seasons.

1. Atlanta Falcons: DE Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina

The downside of trading for Clowney, of course, is that the Falcons won’t be able to draft help for their other soft spots in the lineup. They could be stuck starting the aforementioned Holmes at right tackle. Next to him could be Levine Toilolo, a 6-foot-8 wishing well who seems to be Tony Gonzalez’s replacement at tight end. Some combination of Osi Umenyiora, Kroy Biermann, Paul Worrilow, Jonathan Massaquoi, and Joplo Bartu would be responsible for filling at least two and likely three linebacker spots. You haven’t heard of most of these guys, and the ones you have heard of aren’t very good (or healthy) anymore. The Falcons could draft Clowney, get a great year out of him, and still be subject to the same replacement-level talent problems they struggled with a year ago.

2. St. Louis Rams (via trade with Washington): T Greg Robinson, Auburn

That three-way trade depends on the Rams not picking Manziel here, of course.

3. Houston Texans: QB Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M

If Houston doesn’t feel the need to stay ahead of Cleveland in the hunt for a quarterback, it could just take all the Atlanta picks and move down to six, where it would still be in the running for Bortles (ahead of Minnesota, which could covet him at eight) or Ebron, who would be a nice target for whichever quarterback Houston would then target in the later rounds of this draft.

With Watkins on the board at four, the Bills would make that same deal from Scenario II (above) with Cleveland here.

4. Buffalo Bills (via trade with Cleveland Browns): WR Sammy Watkins, Clemson

One other Watkins swap that intrigues me; if he falls to four, would the Rams be interested in making a big offer and trading up from the 13th slot to grab him? They can certainly afford the draft picks, given the picks they acquired in the RG3 trade. Would they be willing to give up their 2015 first-rounder — knowing that it could be a top-10 or even top-five pick if Bradford gets hurt again — to come away with the draft’s premier tackle and its premier wideout? What if they also had to throw in a 2014 third-rounder? At the very least, it’s an interesting all-in move from an organization that might need to make one sometime soon.

5. Oakland Raiders: LB Khalil Mack, Buffalo

Again, Mack falls narrowly ahead of Evans for the Raiders, given their needs.

6. Jacksonville Jaguars: WR Mike Evans, Texas A&M

The Jaguars could choose to trade down again in this scenario. If they stayed at six, they could also consider Bortles or Matthews, who would play right tackle across from his old A&M teammate Joeckel.

These scenarios are all going to be totally wrong, of course. Mock drafts always are. Instead, think about the ideas in here as relative indicators of how teams will approach these different situations after the first pick. The Jets might not be the team that trades for Evans, but if Manziel and Watkins are off the board within the first four picks, somebody might very well come blazing up to grab him away before the Buccaneers take him. If the Texans take Clowney first, the quarterback class could slide down the draft and lose millions of dollars before ever suiting up for a pro game. And if the Falcons trade up for Clowney, Drew Brees should probably start examining his relationship with his Maker. We’ll know for sure next week. For now, all we can do is guess.

Filed Under: NFL, NFL Draft, Jadeveon Clowney, sammy watkins, Greg Robinson, Mike Evans, Johnny Manziel, Houston Texans, Jacksonville Jaguars, Atlanta Falcons, St. Louis Rams, Khalil Mack, Bill Barnwell, Cleveland Browns, New York Jets

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Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell