Forget the playoffs. There’s a highly competitive race going on at the bottom of the NFL standings that could have as much impact on the franchises involved as winning a Super Bowl can have for the contenders.
It’s the chase for top draft picks in what looks like a loaded year for prospects, assuming some of the top underclassmen come out.
Need a quarterback, as the Jaguars, Vikings, Browns, Raiders and perhaps the Texans do? There should be several enticing choices, from Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater to Fresno State’s Derek Carr to Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel.
Searching for someone to protect that most prized commodity, as just about every team living in or near the cellar will be? Last April was the time for grabbing blockers high in the draft, with three of the first four selections offensive tackles (Eric Fisher to Kansas City, Luke Joeckel to Jacksonville, Lane Johnson to Philadelphia). But next spring will offer Jake Matthews of A&M, whose blood lines are regal — his dad is Hall of Famer Bruce Matthews — and perhaps Cameron Erving of Florida State among other blue chippers.
It would be difficult to pass up a pass-rushing demon such as South Carolina’s Jadeveon Clowney, likely the top overall talent in the 2014 draft class.
The selection order won’t be set for weeks, although Houston will get the top spot if it loses out. Here’s how the nine teams most solidly in the mix for the No. 1 draft position figure to approach next May’s grab bag.
This has been a shocking downer of a season for the Texans, who went into it expecting to contend for the Super Bowl. They have lost 11 straight and have lost their way offensively, leading to coach Gary Kubiak being fired on Friday.
So choosing a quarterback is a strong possibility unless Case Keenum catches fire in the final four games. The defense already is strong and has an All-Pro pass rusher in J.J. Watt.
The Texans also will address their offensive line and running backs depth at some point.
Also seriously in the QB derby are the Jaguars, who have soured on their No. 1 pick of 2011, Blaine Gabbert, and recognize that Chad Henne is a solid option as a backup. They’d also like a passer who is mobile, and their fan base would love a big-name signal caller such as Manziel after the team emphatically ignored local hero Tim Tebow.
But a big-time playmaker such as Clowney could be too enticing to pass up.
Jacksonville also will address its offensive line issues again.
Both Christian Ponder and Matt Cassel are proving something: They are backup QBs. And with Josh Freeman basically having disappeared, though he probably will be in the mix in Minnesota next year, the Vikings will look seriously at Bridgewater, Carr, Manziel or other quarterbacks who come out early or impress them in workouts.
The nice thing about whoever winds up behind center, he will have Adrian Peterson to hand off to.
The Browns have been maneuvering for a top QB prospect ever since September, when they traded 2012 first-round running back Trent Richardson to Indianapolis. Nothing that has happened this season, not even Brian Hoyer’s short successful stint before wrecking his knee, has changed things.
Look for them to pursue a top passer at almost any cost, then to address other offensive needs later on. Having two first-round picks provides some options.
Yet another team thinking quarterback, although perhaps not with as dire a need as the others. Oakland needs help pretty much everywhere on offense, but would love a shot at Clowney, UCLA linebacker Anthony Barr or Alabama LB C.J. Mosley to bolster the defense.
We all know if Al Davis still was around, a speed demon receiver would be the pick. First, the Raiders must figure out if Terrelle Pryor or Matt McGloin is the guy who can get the ball downfield.
ST. LOUIS (from Washington in the Robert Griffin III deal)
The Redskins never would have imagined getting RG3 could cost them a shot at Clowney, but if they keep losing, their first-round choice might land the Rams the offense disrupter from South Carolina.
St. Louis also will be in a strong position to trade up or down, then fill needs on the offensive line or with a big-body receiver to augment Tavon Austin, someone like Mike Evans of A&M if he turns pro.
QB Mike Glennon is a nice enough fit for now for the Bucs to look elsewhere, and they would snatch up Clowney or Barr for the defense if they can. But it’s the offense that needs the most help. So Matthews or another lineman, or possibly Clemson’s Sammy Watkins or another receiver, would likely be on Tampa Bay’s early-draft radar.
One team not searching for quarterback help, thanks to Matt Ryan. But keeping him upright and healthy has to be a major priority for a team that, when it has a full roster, is capable of a turnaround back into contention in 2014.
So adding someone like Matthews, Erving, Cyrus Kouandijo of Alabama or Taylor Lewan of Michigan would make sense.
But if Clowney still is on the board, GM Thomas Dimitroff would have trouble passing on him to bolster a mediocre pass rush.
On the verge of extending their non-playoff string to 14 seasons — hard to do in the NFL, where teams rarely stay bad for a few years, let alone more than a decade — the Bills could look to bolster the offense. Matthews or another lineman to protect EJ Manuel or a receiver such as Watkins would fit right in.