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So what if quarterbacks didn’t rule the top of the draft? That’s the question we asked as we began putting together our first mock draft of the season. At this point, it’s still our belief that there’s value in waiting on the signalcallers, and while we realize that the reality of team needs at the position could very well drive the draft next month, there is a lot of viable talent at a number of positions.
Here are our first 16 picks of the draft. The second half of Round 1, featuring the Jets' first pick at No. 18 overall, will appear Wednesday, and Round 2 of our mock draft will go up a week from today, April
ROUND 1 — FIRST HALF
1. Houston — Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina
In the AFC South you can still beat the Titans and Jags without a QB. The key to winning the division is shutting down Andrew Luck. There have been questions about Clowney’s work ethic and his 2013 production. But this is a front seven that includes J.J. Watt and Brian Cushing. You can’t block them all. Clowney had 47 tackles for loss in 36 career games.
2. St. Louis (from WAS) — Greg Robinson, T, Auburn
We don’t believe the Rams will keep this pick. If they do, there will be great temptation to select WR Sammy Watkins or add players like Khalil Mack or Anthony Barr to an improving defense. But the fact is that the Rams absolutely cannot go into the season with Rodger Saffold as their starting LT. (Jake Long, torn ACL, may not be ready.)
3. Jacksonville — Jake Matthews, T, Texas A&M
Everybody is screaming QB, but the Jags may have plenty of suitors on the phone for this pick. With so many needs, they’d be smart to take a deal and move down. If they stay, reuniting college teammates Matthews and Luke Joeckel on the O-line will be enticing. Gus Bradley comes from the Pete Carroll tree — run the ball on offense. That starts up front, and Matthews is a roadgrader who has played RT and LT.
4. Cleveland — Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson
There isn’t a QB in the top 10 on our board. That doesn’t mean some team won’t take one. But the Browns can get one of the top QBs with their second first-rounder, and whoever it is could get to throw to Josh Gordon, Jordan Cameron AND Watkins, an explosive and polished playmaker.
5. Oakland — Mike Evans, WR, Texas A&M
With Matt Schaub at QB, Evans’ 6'5" height and catch radius and his ability to compete for 50-50 balls and make the tough catch will be invaluable for a team that needs to give its QB all the help he can get.
6. Atlanta — Khalil Mack, OLB, Buffalo
The player some are calling the best pass rusher — and maybe the best overall player — in the draft answers the Falcons' need for pressure off the edge. He can be moved around and play standing up or in a three-point stance.
7. Tampa Bay — Justin Gilbert, CB, Oklahoma State
When you play in the NFC South, you have to think hard about how you will defend the Saints. Gilbert gives the Bucs a stellar athlete and natural playmaker who will go get the ball. Technique and footwork need polishing, but he has size and speed to play in Lovie Smith’s Tampa-2.
8. Minnesota — Ha'sean Clinton-Dix, S, Alabama
Ha Ha is smart, aggressive and decisive. He hits like a safety and covers like a corner. That versatility will make him a starter from day one.
9. Buffalo — Taylor Lewan, T, Michigan
Bills coach Doug Marrone needs to protect EJ Manuel, and the early run on tackles will force his hand here. Besides, an old O-lineman wants to build his team behind a tough, smart line with size. Lewan has a mean streak and great athleticism to boot.
10. Detroit — Darqueze Dennard, CB, Michigan State
While Justin Gilbert may be the better athlete, this hometown athlete may be the best cover corner in the draft. Dennard won’t show a lot of flash, but he will compete as a physical defender out on the perimeter.
11. Tennessee — Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville
New coach Ken Whisenhunt has been a friend to quarterbacks — look at what he did for Philip Rivers last year. Bridgewater didn’t meet expectations last season or during the workout season, but he’s smart, driven and competitive and has played well in a progression-read offense. Whizzer will make him better and can bring him along slowly behind Jake Locker if need be.
12. Giants — Aaron Donald, DT, Pittsburgh
Donald’s undersized (6'0", 284) but is quick and powerful, with an explosive first step and a motor that never stops running. He led the country with 1.6 sacks and 2.4 TFLs per game in 2013 and can contribute right away as a rotational 3-technique in the Giants 4-3. Compared by some to John Randle.
13. St. Louis — Calvin Pryor, S, Louisville
An Antrel Rolle lookalike, Pryor is willing in run support, understands coverages and has range to cover the deep middle, but can also cover in the slot or on the perimeter. A versatile player with elite tools.
14. Chicago — Kyle Fuller, CB, Virginia Tech
Fuller has been shooting up boards around the league. Instinctive and physical with 4.4 speed, he’s played CB, S, nickel corner, and even OLB, and comes from a family of pro athletes. Chicago lacks youth at CB and depth at S.
15. Pittsburgh — Eric Ebron, TE, North Carolina
Heath Miller doesn’t have much time left and Matt Spaeth is more blocker than receiver. Ebron is the tight end class of this draft and has the speed to flex out and the size to create mismatches on LBs.
16. Dallas — Timmy Jernigan, DT, Florida State
The 'Pokes would love to have an edge rusher to replace DeMarcus Ware, but they also have to fill the hole left by Jason Hatcher. Jernigan is a quality lineman with some versatility and terrific athleticism for a 300-pounder.
Jets Pick at No. 18 and Rest of Round 1 on Wednesday, April 16