After what seemed like an interminably long wait – one filled with endless smokescreens and misdirection – the 2014 NFL Draft finally got underway. The storylines, subplots, and drama leading up to it were many and varied. Who was going to be the first quarterback off the board? Where would Johnny Manziel be taken? Would Jadeveon Clowney go first overall? Or would Houston punt and trade the top pick? There was far more mystery and suspense surrounding this year's draft than there was in seasons past.
You can usually count on some shake ups in the first round that alter the course of the draft for everybody. Inevitably, a player thought to be a lock for the top-10 falls to the back end of the first round. Sometimes out of the first round altogether. Other times, a team takes a player that nobody had expected them to and it forces other teams to scramble as they reset their draft boards. The Cleveland Browns, Buffalo Bills, and Jacksonville Jaguars certainly did a great job of throwing a wrench into the first-round works this year – which is what makes the draft so fun and interesting.
Though it's fun viewing, ultimately, the draft is serious business. Who a team picks can help change an organization's fortunes for the better – such as Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts. Or they can help doom a team to mediocrity, or worse, for years to come – such as Jamarcus Russell and the Oakland Raiders. The draft is high drama and there are always teams who come out further ahead than others. With that in mind, let's take a look at some of the biggest winners of the draft...
7 Cleveland Browns
They were certainly the most active on the first day of the draft, and arguably, came away the biggest winner of the night. Not only did they manage to acquire a second first-round pick in 2015 from the Buffalo Bills, they were able to snag the top cornerback in this year's draft class in Justin Gilbert. More than that, they were still able to take one of the top rated quarterbacks in the draft – whom the Browns were long rumored to have a burning interest in – when Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel unexpectedly fell all the way down to the 22nd pick. If there is one big question mark about the Browns' draft this year, it is about the fact that they opted to not draft a wide receiver to bolster an incredibly thin receiving corps. It's even more mind boggling when you consider the fact that they knew going into the draft that Josh Gordon was facing a very lengthy suspension – perhaps all of 2014. This year's draft was one of the deepest and richest in wide receivers that the NFL has seen in a good, long while.
All in all, the Browns have had a very nice offseason despite a ton of organizational turmoil, and have put themselves in a position to win some games now, and by banking future picks, did a good job of planning for the future.
6 Houston Texans
The Texans make the list mostly because they didn't screw up the first overall pick. It seemed like a slam dunk from the get-go, and despite a lot of smokescreens and misdirection, the Texans made the smart move – a no brainer really – in taking one of the biggest names in the draft in Jadeveon Clowney. Defense wins championships, and bookended with the beastly J.J. Watt, the Texans have laid the foundation that is going to wreak havoc in the AFC South, and across the league for years to come. If there is a black mark on their draft day report card, it's the fact that they waited until the 4th round to pick up a quarterback when the selected Pitt's Tom Savage. At best, Savage is a project right now, who might be able to contribute a few years down the road. But with Ryan Fitzpatrick and Case Keenum as the only viable quarterbacks on their roster, Houston had the opportunity to upgrade at the position and didn't pull the trigger – a fact that has made superstar receiver Andre Johnson a very frustrated man.
The selection of Clowney has electrified the Texans fan base, and has made Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck one of the unhappiest – and most terrified – men in the NFL today.
5 Blake Bortles
The Jacksonville Jaguars shocked the football world by taking University of Central Florida quarterback Blake Bortles with the third overall pick in the draft. Given the fact that they already have Chad Henne on the roster – and had publicly declared their support for him as their starter – and with talented but troubled receiver Justin Blackmon facing a lengthy suspension, as well as having his future in the league very much in doubt, the Jaguars were widely expected to be looking to bolster their already thin receiving corps. Most draft “experts” had projected that the Jaguars would be taking one of the top rated receivers in the draft, either Sammy Watkins or Mike Evans, with the third pick. Instead, Jacksonville chose Bortles. He seems to have all of the physical tools and desirable measureables teams want in their franchise quarterback. And despite coming from a small school, who played against “lesser” competition, Bortles seems to have that “it” factor. Of this year's quarterback class, Bortles' game seems best suited to the NFL. And as the first QB off the board, he'll always be able to say he was drafted ahead of Johnny Manziel.
4 St. Louis Rams
Despite fielding a lot of calls from teams interested in moving up to land the number two pick overall, the St. Louis Rams stood pat and used their two first-round picks (2, 13) to address some glaring needs and improve their squad. With the second overall pick, the Rams took Auburn offensive tackle Greg Robinson – the top rated player at his position in this year's draft class. For an encore, St. Louis picked up highly touted Pittsburgh defensive tackle Aaron Donald. The Rams' defense was already very, very good and was able to really get after the quarterback. The addition of Donald makes their defense even better. Robinson has the size, speed, and mobility to be one of the most dominating tackles in the game for years to come. He will anchor a line that can hopefully keep QB Sam Bradford upright, healthy, and productive.
3 Oakland Raiders
The Raiders got a gift from the Gods when University of Buffalo LB Khalil Mack fell into their laps. He is arguably, one of the two best players in this year's draft and taking him was a no-brainer. Mack is a beast, is going to be a superstar in the league, and will help put a few more teeth into Oakland's pass rush. They also found the possible “franchise quarterback of the future” that GM Reggie McKenzie and head coach Dennis Allen have been coveting for so long in Fresno State's Derek Carr. At this point, Carr is a project who will do well to spend a season or two under the tutelage of Matt Schaub. Critics say Carr is a product of a gimmicky system designed to inflate statistics, but after a season in which he threw for more than 5,000 yards, 50 touchdowns, against just 8 interceptions, the Raiders think he has the raw skills to be a highly successful quarterback in the NFL for many years to come. McKenzie also addressed a variety of other needs in drafting cornerbacks Keith McGill and Travis Carrie, defensive linemen Justin Ellis and Shelby Harris to provide some youth, depth, and competition – which will make the team as a whole better.
The Raiders electrified their fan base – the infamous Raider Nation – with one of the best drafts the team has had in years. They've fortified a number of different areas that needed it, and added some real talent to the roster with one of this year's best draft classes. Combined with some tremendous free agent additions this offseason, the Raiders look primed and ready to have a breakthrough season.
2 Michael Sam
He made national headlines by coming out and declaring that he was gay well before the draft. Michael Sam was one of the most scrutinized athletes at the combine, and has remained a figure of much discussion and fascination amongst the media. After a terrible showing at the combine, many draft “experts” and other assorted talking heads expressed their belief that Sam was unlikely to even be drafted this year.
Given the fact that Sam was the co-defensive player of the year in the SEC and racked up double digit sacks in college football's toughest division, there seemed to be little question that he can play football. The question was, would any team be willing to deal with the media circus that will undoubtedly come with drafting Sam and use one of their precious draft picks on him. Well, the St. Louis Rams answered that question by using a late round pick on the former Missouri Tiger. His reaction to the call, which has been played repeatedly on sports programs, was a transcendent, amazing, and historical moment for the NFL as Sam became the first openly gay pro football player.
Now that he's been drafted, the question becomes whether or not Sam will be able to make the Rams' 53-man roster. Most “experts” believe his best shot is as a special teams player who will have to fight for playing time on defense. Whatever his path to the field may be, Sam is a fantastic football player, and now, is an inspiration and barrier buster. The drafting of Sam truly is a historic moment in professional sports in America.
1 The NFL
With its highest ever ratings, the draft has become an amazing prime-time event. NFL executives are no doubt shaking each other's hands and patting themselves on the back as moving the draft back two weeks – from mid-April to early-May – seems to have paid them dividends. Though many – including myself – feel the extra two weeks is way too long, it gave the “experts” and pundits more time to speculate, put together mock drafts, and keep everybody talking about the draft, and the NFL, longer than usual. Football is truly becoming a year round sport. The team owners and executives – including commissioner Roger Goodell – couldn't be happier. More people watching, and more people talking about, the NFL is good for business.
With some larger than life personalities, interesting players, and compelling storylines, not the least of which is the drafting of Michael Sam and what that means for the game, the NFL scored a huge hit with this year's draft. This will undoubtedly pave the way for plans that are allegedly in the works – rotating the site of the NFL draft, and creating an even bigger spectacle than it already is. Though these athletes will be making millions of dollars soon enough, the biggest winner in this year's draft is the league itself.