NFL Nation: 2014 NFL draft

South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, considered the top prospect in this year’s NFL draft, is scheduled to visit the Atlanta Falcons next week, according to a league source.

Clowney said during his Pro Day that he was in the process of coordinating a meeting with the Falcons. His visit coincides with another appearance from a top prospect as Texas A&M offensive tackle Jake Matthews is scheduled to visit Atlanta next week as well.

[+] EnlargeJadeveon Clowney
David Newton Jadeveon Clowney shined during position drills at South Carolina's pro day workout.
Clowney has been touted as the No. 1 overall pick -- held by the Houston Texans -- by many draft experts. ESPN’s Todd McShay had this to say about Clowney in his latest mock draft:

"The Texans really need a QB, and (Blake) Bortles has the highest ceiling of any passer in this draft, but I just think it’s going to be too difficult for the Texans to pass on Clowney. He is the best player in this class and the most naturally talented defensive lineman I’ve ever evaluated, and guys like him simply don’t come around that often."

Clowney recently visited the Jacksonville Jaguars and St. Louis Rams, and reportedly visited the Detroit Lions on Wednesday. He made headlines this week after a story surfaced about him not doing any other private workouts after Clemson offensive tackle Brandon Thomas tore his ACL during such a workout.

Bus Cook, Clowney’s agent, told USA Today that his client could go through one more abbreviated private workout prior to the May 8 draft.

It is unclear whether Clowney already had a private workout with the Falcons.

Cook also dismissed comments from anonymous NFL teams calling Clowney spoiled and lazy.

"We don't give any consideration to that," Cook told USA TODAY Sports. "None of that has bothered us. It doesn't bother Jadeveon. That's not something that's been asked of me by any of the teams that I've talked to. Just go watch the tape."

If the Falcons truly have an interest in Clowney, they likely would have to trade up for him. General manager Thomas Dimitroff said he is open to trading up or down. And during this year’s NFL combine, Clowney mentioned such a scenario involving the Falcons.

"I wish they could trade up for me," Clowney told ESPN.com, "but I hope I don’t fall to No. 6. I like Atlanta -- a lot. They’re pretty good. They’ve got some guys from South Carolina on the team, also. And it’s close to home."

The 6-foot-5-inch, 266-pound Clowney, a native of Rock Hill, S.C., solidified his standing as a top talent with a great performance at his pro day, where he showed the ability to drop into the coverage to go with blazing speed.

The Falcons sorely need help at pass-rusher after finishing tied for 29th in the league last season with just 32 sacks. Although the Falcons are preparing for more of a 3-4-base defensive scheme, the multiplicity they seek on defense would make Clowney a fit regardless.
The New England Patriots continue to devote attention and significant resources to the quarterback position in the NFL draft, as two weeks after creating a buzz by hosting Johnny Manziel and Teddy Bridgewater on visits at Gillette Stadium, they welcomed another top prospect earlier this week – Jimmy Garoppolo of Eastern Illinois.

Some analysts, such as ESPN’s Bill Polian, have Garoppolo rated as high as a first-round draft choice.

The 6-foot-2 1/4, 226-pound Garoppolo earned the Walter Payton Award in 2013, which is given to the top player in the Football Championship Subdivision. In 14 games, he completed 375 of 568 passes for 5,050 yards with 53 touchdowns and nine interceptions.

NFL teams are allowed 30 in-house visits with out-of-town prospects, and the Patriots have devoted at least three of them to top quarterbacks (Manziel, Bridgewater, Garoppolo).

Starting quarterback Tom Brady turns 37 in August and is signed through 2017, while the only other signal-caller on the roster, Ryan Mallett, is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent after the 2014 season.
The Atlanta Falcons obviously are impressed with at least one small-school running back.

Towson University's Terrance West, a player the Falcons reportedly worked out privately, is scheduled to visit the team next Wednesday, according to a league source.

The 5-foot-9, 225-pound West opened eyes with an impressive performance during his pro day. He is projected as a third-round pick after leaving school a year early.

In three seasons at Towson, West rushed for 4,849 yards on 802 carries with 84 touchdowns. His touchdown total tied the NCAA FCS record set by Georgia Southern's Adrian Peterson, the brother of former Falcon Mike Peterson.

Although the Falcons still believe in veteran Steven Jackson, they'll need to draft another running back for the future. Jason Snelling's abrupt retirement created a need for more depth at the position although the Falcons have Jacquizz Rodgers and Antone Smith returning.

The Falcons also have top offensive tackle Jake Matthews from Texas A&M visiting next week, as well as UCLA outside linebacker Anthony Barr.
The Dallas Cowboys have three quarterbacks on their roster and expect to keep it that way when the 2014 regular season begins.

However, it doesn’t mean the Cowboys won’t look at some quarterbacks.

Team officials are in Athens, Ga., on Wednesday looking at University of Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray. Among the officials in attendance is Cowboys’ quarterbacks coach Wade Wilson.

Murray
There is no expectation the Cowboys will draft Murray in the later rounds of next month’s draft, but the team is doing its due diligence, much like it did two years ago with Brandon Weeden.

When Weeden was entering the draft from Oklahoma State, Cowboys officials met with him and kept watch from afar. After Weeden was released by the Cleveland Browns this spring, the Cowboys jumped at the chance to sign him because they had done the research necessary to make a move.

With the amount of money invested in starting quarterback Tony Romo and backup Kyle Orton, the team isn't trying to draft a quarterback in the first two rounds. Finding a future replacement for Romo isn't a high priority, but they are looking for a quality young backup. Though Weeden is 30, he has only two years of NFL experience, so that justifies the Cowboys signing him.

Also, the Cowboys are expected to void out the last few years of Orton's contract, making him a free agent after the 2014 season.

Murray is projected as a middle-round draft selection, but ESPN’s Jon Gruden was impressed with him.

Gruden said Murray, who is fully recovered after tearing his ACL in his left knee last November, has deep-ball accuracy, good touch on the ball and will be “the steal for somebody” in the draft. Cowboys' officials aren't in love with Murray's height, 6-1, but they believe he's got a strong enough arm to make the necessary throws in the NFL.

Murray is the all-time leading passer in SEC history and holds the school record with 121 career touchdowns.

The Cowboys haven’t met with any of the top quarterbacks at Valley Ranch during their 30 pre-draft visits. It could be a smoke screen, or the simple fact the team isn’t drafting a quarterback.

Team officials are quite familiar with all the top quarterbacks, and their closer look at Murray might not mean anything now, but could be something for the future.
Ray RiceAP Photo/Tom DiPaceRay Rice has been the Ravens' lead running back the past five seasons. Are those days over?
BALTIMORE -- Shortly after becoming the Baltimore Ravens' offensive coordinator, Gary Kubiak made this pronouncement: "As Ray Rice goes, we’ll go." Two months later, Kubiak obviously has to make his first audible.

The Ravens need to take a running back in this year's draft, because they need insurance not only for this season but for the future. The best investment the Ravens could make in the middle rounds is to select a running back such as Towson's Terrance West, Washington's Bishop Sankey, Florida State's Devonta Freeman, Boston College's Andre Williams or West Virginia's Charles Sims.

Much of the talk at running back has centered on how much time Rice will miss in 2014, and it's a legitimate concern after he was indicted for third-degree aggravated assault after allegedly striking his now-wife unconscious. Rice was arrested and charged with simple assault-domestic violence Feb. 15 after a physical altercation with Janay Palmer at the Revel Casino and Hotel in Atlantic City, N.J. Even if Rice is found not guilty or avoids jail time, he is expected to face punishment from the NFL under the league's personal conduct policy.

The Ravens have repeatedly voiced their support for Rice, and owner Steve Bisciotti said he believes Rice has a future with the team. But the Ravens' front office is too shrewd to rest all of its hopes on Rice. No one knows what to expect out of Rice when he does line up in the Ravens' backfield. He is coming off a season in which he averaged a career-worst 3.1 yards per carry and produced more fumbles (two) than 20-yard runs (one).

The Ravens have done their part to help this offseason by re-signing left tackle Eugene Monroe and trading for center Jeremy Zuttah. Rice is working hard to rebound and has reportedly lost 15 pounds. What if this isn't enough? Bisciotti acknowledged at the end of the season that the team did bring up the question of whether Rice is done.

Numbers suggest Rice's days as a premier playmaker in the league are over. The wear and tear of the position has caught up to most of the running backs in the 2008 draft class. Of the top 10 backs taken that year, six averaged less than 4 yards per carry last season, and two are out of the league.

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Those who defend Rice will say he lacked explosion after injuring his hip in Week 2 and he didn't have any running room because of the Ravens' dreadful offensive line. There is just no reasoning behind why Rice failed to make plays when catching the ball in space. He averaged 5.5 yards per reception, which was the worst of his career by an average of two yards. Since that memorable "Hey Diddle Diddle Ray Rice Up The Middle" moment in November 2012 -- when Rice converted a fourth-and-29 in San Diego with a 29-yard catch and run -- he has had three catches over 20 yards. That is over a span of 24 games, and only 13 of those came after Rice's injury.

Rice turned 27 this year, which is a telling age for NFL running backs. As ESPN's Kevin Seifert pointed out, running backs are peaking at 27 before suffering significant drop-offs. This is why 72 percent of running backs currently under contract are 26 or younger.

If Rice misses games or struggles again, the Ravens don't have much of a safety net. Backup running back Bernard Pierce's stock dropped last season. Pierce averaged 2.9 yards per carry, which was second-worst among qualified running backs, and couldn't stay healthy for a second straight year. He won't practice until the start of training camp after offseason shoulder surgery. There is no guarantee that he'll be at full strength when the season begins or whether he has the durability to handle the starting job for an extended period.

The need to draft a running back increased this offseason when the Ravens signed Justin Forsett in free agency instead of LeGarrette Blount as their third running back. Forsett has experience in Kubiak's system, but it's never a good sign to have "cut by the Jaguars" on your résumé.

It's no longer a question of if the Ravens should draft a running back. It's a matter of when. Most draft analysts have the Ravens selecting an offensive lineman and a safety in the first two rounds. The Ravens might consider using a pick on a running back in the third round, where they have two picks (79th and 99th overall), or fourth round (138th overall).

ESPN draft analyst Steve Muench's top picks in the middle rounds are:

  • West Virginia's Sims: "Doesn't have great power but sudden with quick feet and outstanding in the passing game."
  • Boston College's Williams: "Minimal production in passing game, and to a lesser degree, injury history, are concerns. As a runner he's a battering ram, and he shows deceptive speed when he gets a seam."
  • Towson's West: "He's a tough, hard-nosed runner who has flown under radar at Towson, and it would be a great story if he ended up staying in Maryland. If they can get him late fourth he could prove to be a steal."

Running the ball has long been a foundation of the Ravens' offense, and it will be a big part of Kubiak's play calling. Over the past five seasons, only five other teams ran the ball more than Kubiak's Texans. Establishing a strong running game is his blueprint to set up the play-action pass.

The importance of a running back in Kubiak's offense can't be overstated. That is why the Ravens have to make it a priority to draft a running back this year, whether it's for a contingency plan in 2014 or an investment for the future.

No one expected the Ravens to take a running back in 2008, when they drafted Rice in the second round. Six years later, it would be a surprise if the Ravens didn't draft his potential successor.
Don't be surprised if Auburn tackle Greg Robinson's name surfaces in relation to workouts or visits conducted by the Atlanta Falcons over the next week or so.

The Falcons definitely could target an offensive tackle if they keep the sixth overall pick in the upcoming NFL draft. And they've reportedly already worked out top tackle prospects Jake Matthews from Texas A&M and Taylor Lewan from Michigan, so Robinson naturally would be next up in the workout circuit.

The Falcons also continue to bring in top players for visits, and Matthews has a visit scheduled for next week. So it would only make sense for both Robinson and Lewan to make the trek to Atlanta, too, if they haven't already.

ESPN draft analysts Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay believe the Falcons will take Matthews with the sixth pick, although Kiper's opinion could change when his latest mock draft appears this week. At least one mock draft, posted this week by NFL.com's Bucky Brooks, has Robinson falling to the Falcons at No. 6 with the St. Louis Rams taking Matthews with the second overall pick. There also has been talked this week of Robinson being worthy of consideration as the first overall pick, currently held by the Houston Texans.

However it all unfolds, the Falcons will have options. Protection still seems to be issue that needs to be addressed first over adding another pass-rusher, although Buffalo's Khalil Mack would be hard to pass up if he falls to No. 6.

South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney should be the top pick and likely won't fall to the Falcons. He is expected to visit Atlanta in the next few weeks, but don't count on him being a Falcon.

Matthews, Robinson or Lewan would be the safe bets.
We've made the case that the Patriots' biggest need entering the 2014 NFL draft is tight end, and they'll spent part of Wednesday getting a close look at a highly regarded prospect, as Iowa tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz is taking a visit to Gillette Stadium, a source confirmed.

NFL Network first reported the news.

The 6-foot-5, 265-pounder was a first-team All-Big Ten selection during his final college season, hauling in 30 passes, including six for touchdowns. He was a standout during the week of the Senior Bowl and ran a respectable 4.76 40-yard dash at the combine while also putting up 25 reps on the bench press.

Washington State safety Deone Bucannon will also be in Foxborough, Mass., for a visit on Wednesday, as we noted on Tuesday evening.

Fiedorowicz is the fifth-ranked tight end and 76th-rated prospect overall by ESPN's Scouts Inc.
The Patriots are hosting former Washington State safety Deone Bucannon on a pre-draft visit, a league source confirmed.

Aaron Wilson of National Football Post first reported the news.

Bucannon was named an Associated Press first-team All-American during his final college season, leading the Pac-12 with 109 tackles, while also tallying six interceptions.

What also stands out about Bucannon is his size, as he is 6-1 and 211 pounds, as noted here by colleague Mike Reiss.

The Patriots may well consider adding safety depth during the draft, as they are thin in terms of experience beyond Devin McCourty.

Second-year player Duron Harmon temporarily can be penciled in as a projected starter, with Tavon Wilson, Nate Ebner, Kanorris Davis and the recently re-signed Patrick Chung also on the depth chart.

Bucannon had an impressive showing at the combine, running a 4.49 40 and jumping 36.5 inches in the vertical leap. He is the third-ranked safety and 45th-best prospect overall according to ESPN's Scouts, Inc.
The New England Patriots hold private workouts with hundreds of prospects leading into the NFL draft, so there is reluctance to read too much into those workouts.

The most accurate analysis would be that the workouts indicate that the team is still seeking more information on a prospect; sometimes it can lead to genuine interest or to confirm interest, while other times it can lead the team in another direction.

Along these lines, Colorado State center Weston Richburg popped up on the radar late last week after it was learned the Patriots put him through one of their many private workouts, this one coming in Fort Collins, Colo.

Richburg, at 6-foot-3 3/8 and 298 pounds, is one of the higher-rated centers in the draft, according to Scouts Inc. He's projected as a second-to-third-round pick.

A closer look at Richburg reveals a few things that are sure to appeal to the Patriots:

1. He made the line calls and has good football intelligence.

2. Has played games at center, guard and tackle, highlighting his athleticism and versatility.

3. He appears to fit best in a zone-blocking scheme, which is what the Patriots primarily utilize.

4. He played 49 career games.

5. He is a two-time team captain.

The Patriots re-signed their starting center from the last two seasons, Ryan Wendell, to a two-year deal in March. But the expectation has been that Wendell can expect competition, and perhaps it will come in the form of Richburg.

At the least, the Patriots wanted to get a closer look to consider the possibility.
Jamar Taylor, Dion Jordan and Will Davis AP Photo, Getty ImagesJamar Taylor, Dion Jordan and Will Davis made a minimal impact as rookies.
Most of the attention over the next three weeks will be focused on the 2014 NFL draft, as each team tries to shape its present and future by identifying the right college players to fill needs.

But for the Miami Dolphins, success or failure this season will depend more on the development of the 2013 draft class. Few teams got less production from their rookies last year than Miami. Only the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks had fewer snaps from first-year players -- and those teams, which competed in Super Bowl XLVIII, were stacked with established veterans.

The Dolphins, who faltered down the stretch and finished 8-8, did not have that luxury.

It's time for Miami's second-year players to come of age during an important time for many within the organization. Head coach Joe Philbin is entering an important third year after going 15-17 his first two seasons, and there could be a lot of change next year if the Dolphins aren't successful.

Most of Miami's top picks -- including defensive end Dion Jordan, offensive lineman Dallas Thomas and cornerbacks Jamar Taylor and Will Davis -- basically had red-shirt seasons in 2013, thanks to injuries, inconsistency and lack of confidence from the coaching staff. That lack of production was one reason why the Dolphins failed to get to the playoffs for the fifth consecutive year.

"They got less than anybody in the league out of their draft class, and they had high picks. That's a huge issue," ESPN.com NFL scout Matt Williamson said. "But if that group, the corners and especially Jordan, can play up to what Miami thought they were and what most people thought they were, the Dolphins could rebound."

"We have a lot of hope for the draft class from last year," Philbin said at the NFL owners meetings in late March. "A lot of them have been back early, working. You want to see development throughout the course of an individual player's career, but I think all of you guys would agree you usually see a significant jump between Year 1 and Year 2. These are guys we thought highly of a year ago when we drafted them.

"They had some injury issues that kind of curtailed their development in Year 1. So I'm excited about working with them, developing them and seeing them progress here this season."

The 2013 draft class was one point of contention last year between Miami's coaching staff and the front office. Philbin didn't feel his rookies were ready to take on larger roles. Jeff Ireland, then the Dolphins' general manager, believed in the talent of his draft picks and felt they were not being used properly. Jordan, the No. 3 overall pick in 2013, was perhaps the biggest example.

Due to offseason shoulder surgery, Jordan missed time in training camp and the preseason. He never found his footing in the regular season and he fell behind veteran defensive ends Cameron Wake, Olivier Vernon and Derrick Shelby.

Williamson described Jordan as "a ridiculous athlete." He has immense potential but spent most of the season as the third or fourth defensive end and on special teams. He was involved in 321 snaps and had a disappointing 26 tackles and two sacks.

There have also been offseason trade rumors involving Jordan, which Philbin has denied. Miami's head coach expects Jordan to have a larger role in 2014.

"We feel like with a full offseason, with more time devoted to his fundamentals, he will have a better grasp of the position he's playing," Philbin said. "We do want to do a better job with the numbers, rotating him in. ... We want to get him more snaps on first and second down. "

The Dolphins also are counting on young corners Taylor and Davis, who were drafted in the second and third round, respectively. Both had injury setbacks last season and played a combined 104 snaps.

Pro Bowl cornerback Brent Grimes will occupy one starting job, and Taylor and Davis will compete with veteran free-agent acquisition Cortland Finnegan for the other spot. Finnegan, a former Pro Bowl corner, is the favorite to start due to experience. But Philbin is not going in with any preconceived notions.

"I want to see the best player, whoever can help us win football games," Philbin explained. "Whoever performs the best should be the starting corner."

Miami got most of its rookie production last year from unlikely sources. Fifth-round kicker Caleb Sturgis proved to be the Dolphins' best rookie acquisition last season. He beat out longtime Miami kicker Dan Carpenter in training camp and led the Dolphins with 111 points.

The Dolphins also had decent production from undrafted rookie guard Sam Brenner, who made four starts and played 274 snaps. Brenner stepped up following the suspension of guard Richie Incognito in Miami's high-profile bullying scandal.

Brenner's production highlighted the fact that Thomas, a 2013 third-round pick, was too green to step in and be productive. Thomas was rotated between guard and tackle in training camp and never got comfortable in either position. Thomas must find a home at this season in order to provide quality depth.

In fact, it will be vital for Miami's entire 2013 draft class to find roles and contribute next season. The Dolphins used nine draft picks last year, and most have yet to make an impact.

"The Dolphins have a young quarterback [Ryan Tannehill], so they need to build a real core for the long term," Williamson said. "They need last year's draft and this upcoming come to build around Tannehill. They don't need to live for today. A strong core is more important than winning it all this year, although that philosophy can get you fired in Miami if you're 6-10."
A look at what the national media is predicting for the Baltimore Ravens with the 17th overall pick:

Don Banks, Sports Illustrated
Posted: April 10
Pick: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, FS, Alabama
Banks' comment: "The Ravens are having the kind of strong offseason you'd expect them to assemble after getting the smelling salts treatment under their noses: coming off a playoff-less season for the first time since the close of the Brian Billick coaching era in 2007. And having Clinton-Dix, the top-rated safety, waiting for them at 17 makes this one of the easier draft debates conducted in the Ravens' war room."

Bucky Brooks, NFL.com
Posted: March 25
Pick: Zack Martin, OT, Notre Dame
Brooks' comment: "Gary Kubiak's arrival in Baltimore will change the core traits the Ravens' personnel department looks for in offensive linemen. Martin's athleticism, balance and technical skills are ideal fits for the Ravens' new zone-based blocking scheme."

Cooks
Charlie Campbell, Walter Football
Posted: April 7
Pick: Brandin Cooks, WR, Oregon State
Campbell's comment: "The Ravens missed Anquan Boldin last season and need to get more receiving weapons for Joe Flacco. Steve Smith is on his last legs and may not provide much next season. A receiver like Cooks could cause a lot of mismatch problems on the other side of the field from Torrey Smith."

Charles Davis, NFL.com
Posted: March 18
Pick: Eric Ebron, TE, North Carolina
Davis' comment: "Not a need pick, but too talented to pass up if he lasts this long."

Doug Farrar, Sports Illustrated
Posted: April 3
Pick: Calvin Pryor, FS, Louisville
Farrar's comment: "What we do know is that the team wants to move 2013 first-rounder Matt Elam to strong safety, leaving it in the lurch when it comes to deep coverage. Pryor, who I actually like a bit better than Clinton-Dix, is physical in the run game and can handle everything from slot duty to center field. He’s not quite as fast as Earl Thomas, but he plays with a similar disregard for his own body -- and the bodies of his opponents."

Daniel Jeremiah, NFL Network
Posted: April 9
Pick: Calvin Pryor, FS, Louisville
Jeremiah's comment: "The Ravens could look at the receiver position here, but safety is a higher priority."

Pat Kirwan, CBS Sports
Posted: April 11
Pick: Cyrus Kouandjio, OT, Alabama
Kirwan's comment: "Big Cyrus had a very good pro day and the doctors declared him ready to go. The Ravens have to do a better job of protecting Flacco, so it comes down to Zack Martin or Kouandjio. The upside is with the latter, and Ozzie Newsome is an Alabama guy."

Ourlads' Scouting Service
Posted: March 26
Pick: Zack Martin, OT, Notre Dame
Ourlads' comment: "The Ravens need help at center, guard and tackle. Martin fills one of the three positions. He projects inside from left tackle. He will get a chance to play on the edge first because he uses his hands well and is an efficient pass protector. Intense and focused. Good body control and balance."

Pete Prisco, CBS Sports
Posted: April 10
Pick: Zack Martin, OL, Notre Dame
Prisco's comment: "He can play either guard or tackle, which would give the Ravens some flexibility."

Rob Rang, CBS Sports
Posted: April 14
Pick: Taylor Lewan, OT, Michigan
Rang's comment: "General manager Ozzie Newsome is a master on draft day in large part because he sticks to the Best Player Available strategy. Lewan is a top 10 talent, whose propensity for over-aggression on and off the field could result in a bit of a slide."

If you have an Insider subscription, you can click here for the latest mock drafts from Mel Kiper Jr. Insider and Todd McShay Insider.
Neil Hornsby over at Pro Football Focus put together a piece Wednesday identifying five teams that could push themselves into the playoffs Insider by identifying and addressing one specific positional need in the upcoming NFL draft.

Conrath
Conte
He pointed to Carolina in 2013 as an example. Headed into last year’s draft, the Panthers needed to fix issues at defensive tackle. They did so by drafting interior linemen Star Lotulelei and Kawaan Short with their first two selections, turning what had been identified as a glaring weakness into a major strength.

For the Chicago Bears, the significant weakness, according to Hornsby, is the safety position.

Horsby writes: “It would be far from unfair to say the worst position group in football last year was the Bears' collection of safeties. Both regular starters were listed in the worst five of our 86 ranked players at the position. Major Wright and Chris Conte combined to give up more than 1,000 yards in the air, and if anything, were worse as run defenders. Both missed more than 10 tackles in that phase alone, and were both in the top 10 for missed tackles overall.”

Obviously, the Bears tried to upgrade the safety position in free agency by acquiring Ryan Mundy, M.D. Jennings, and Danny McCray. But at this point, those players appear to be depth signings, capable of starting games in a pinch. The club needs to raise the talent level, especially now that Conte might end up missing some training camp coming off a shoulder surgery.

Though it’s unclear whether the Bears will address safety immediately with the No. 14 pick, it’s pretty much guaranteed that at some point in the draft the team will take one, possibly even two.

By Hornsby’s rationale, that could be the difference in the Bears earning their first trip to the playoffs since the 2010 season.
Teddy Bridgewater, Blake Bortles, and Johnny Manziel USA Today Sports, Getty ImagesTeddy Bridgewater, Blake Bortles and Johnny Manziel are options the Cleveland Browns will consider with their top pick in May's NFL draft.
And then there was one.

The Cleveland Browns' busy offseason leaves them having addressed the possible loss of Alex Mack (he stayed) and the departures of T.J. Ward and D'Qwell Jackson (Donte Whitner and Karlos Dansby). They added a running back (Ben Tate) and they added depth at several spots, including the offensive line (Paul McQuistan), receiver (Andrew Hawkins, Nate Burleson), tight end (Jim Dray) and cornerback (Isaiah Trufant).

On Monday, they even added the long-lost fullback, a guy the team did not give Rob Chudzinski a year ago. Chris Pressley is coming off a missed season due to ACL surgery so he is not a lock to make the team, but if he can give anything at all it’s more than the Browns had a year ago.

All this does is set the Browns up to draft the way they want to draft, not the way they have to.

"[GM] Ray [Farmer] talked about that process of just stabilizing, leveling the ship," coach Mike Pettine told the gathered media at the NFL owners meetings.

Which basically leaves one spot to address: quarterback.

Yes, Virginia, there will be a new quarterback in Cleveland before training camp.

Probably two.

The team must add a veteran before the “voluntary” minicamp the end of the month. They can’t go into camp with only two guys, especially because Brian Hoyer will probably be limited as he comes off knee surgery. Given that the market of veterans left are the Rex Grossmans of the world, the Browns also will add a quarterback in the draft.

When is the million-dollar question.

If it’s fourth overall, the choices remain the same three: Blake Bortles, Johnny Manziel or Teddy Bridgewater. If it’s later, there is a bundle from which to pick.

"That's the position that needs to be addressed," Pettine said. "But we're not locked into, 'We're drafting a starter.'"

Which is good to hear.

Because if the Browns draft a guy to start and they force him in too quickly they'll be following the wash-rinse-repeat cycle that has contributed to so many problems since 1999. The challenge comes in managing the situation.

Because if the team selects a quarterback with the fourth pick, Hoyer will find out quickly what it’s really like to play for his hometown team. Assuming he starts, the first time he has a two-interception, one-touchdown game in a 23-14 loss, the clamor will start from fans and media about the guy drafted fourth.

If it’s Manziel, that clamor will be loud and ornery.

If it’s Bortles, folks might be a little more patient because the word on him is he will need a year or two.

If it’s Bridgewater, it’s anyone’s guess.

Then if the young guy plays the negativity will continue if he struggles.

This negativity has affected Browns quarterbacks since '99 – all the way back to Tim Couch and Kelly Holcomb. It’s unrealistic to think it didn’t, because quarterback is a confidence position. He who hesitates is lost. It may sound like an easy excuse, except it affects a player’s psyche.

The spiral is almost natural. Young guy has to learn, to grow, but because he’s learning he makes mistakes, which leads to criticism, which he says he doesn’t hear but he does. Which leads to self-doubt, which leads to tentative play, which leads to more mistakes and more questions and clamor – and soon enough, the environment to succeed is damaged, which only exacerbates the issue.

There is the Bruce Arians argument, which says a team needs to pass-protect and run the ball to help a young quarterback, but if the guy can play he can play. But Bill Walsh, the great quarterback guru and leader of the San Francisco 49ers, once talked about protecting a young quarterback from a damaging environment. He talked almost emotionally, as if the damage to the player was almost permanent.

The word he used: traumatic.

The Browns have to be aware of this, and if they’re not they need only look at their history since their return. The good thing is whoever plays will have a much fuller deck than many of his predecessors. That’s the result of the offseason work.

But the Browns have saved the most important position for last.

How they handle it not only in the next two months but also through the entire 2014 season could have as much impact on the team as the selection itself.
MINNEAPOLIS -- During an offseason full of moves to improve the first and third levels of their defense, the Minnesota Vikings have left their linebacking group largely unchanged. The team brought back Jasper Brinkley after letting him leave in free agency a year earlier, but five of the seven linebackers presently on the Vikings' roster were also there last year. It seemed obvious they needed to improve at the position, but considering how thin the free agent linebacker class was, it was always more likely the Vikings would address the position in the draft.

Based on how they're setting up their top-30 prospects event for Wednesday and Thursday, the Vikings certainly seem to be doing their homework on linebackers. Louisville linebacker Preston Brown said he will attend the event, and two league sources said UCLA's Anthony Barr and Boise State's Demarcus Lawrence will also be there. Additionally, NFL.com reported that Buffalo linebacker Khalil Mack -- who could be drafted well before the Vikings make the eighth pick in next month's draft -- will travel to the Twin Cities for the event, as well.

General manager Rick Spielman said last month he feels good about some of the young linebackers the Vikings already have, and Audie Cole might have played his way into contention for a starting spot based on how he did at the end of last year. Michael Mauti is more than a year removed from knee surgery, and could push for a starting spot at either middle or outside linebacker. But with Chad Greenway at age 31, having renegotiated his contract and due to become a free agent after 2015, the Vikings need to get some things in place for their future at the position. They could especially use an active, physical linebacker who could cast an imposing presence in Mike Zimmer's defense, and all of the linebackers we know the Vikings are bringing in for pre-draft visits would fit that profile.

It's always dangerous to assume the Vikings' top-30 event reveals anything definitive about the team's pre-draft thinking, since teams have so many other avenues to talk with and evaluate prospects before the draft. But as purposefully as the Vikings have addressed their defensive needs this offseason, they've left themselves some work to do at linebacker. If nothing else, their top-30 event could hint at the strategy they plan to use to improve the position.
The possibility still exists for the Atlanta Falcons to trade up or down in this year's NFL draft, as general manager Thomas Dimitroff has reiterated throughout the offseason.

But if the Falcons keep the sixth overall pick, they should find an impact player. The last time they owned the No. 6 pick was in 2011, when the Falcons selected game-changing receiver Julio Jones. Dimitroff, of course, traded away five draft picks in order to move up for Jones.

Matt Haley of the Falcons' football communications department put out some interesting figures recently. Players selected sixth overall have earned 136 Pro Bowls, 46 first-team All-Pro selections, and 10 Hall of Fame nods. The last to achieve the latter honor was offensive tackle Walter Jones, the sixth overall pick of the Seattle Seahawks in 1997 and a 2014 Hall of Fame inductee.

Maybe the Falcons will find their own Hall of Fame tackle in a draft class that includes Auburn's Greg Robinson, Texas A&M's Jake Matthews and Michigan's Taylor Lewan.

Here's a look at the sixth-overall picks from the last 10 drafts, with a mixture of hits and misses:

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