Red Zone

The Star’s NFL first-round draft projection

Kansas State’s Jake Waters was sacked by UCLA’s Eric Kendricks during the Alamo Bowl.
Kansas State’s Jake Waters was sacked by UCLA’s Eric Kendricks during the Alamo Bowl. The Associated Press

1 Tampa Bay

QB Marcus Mariota, 6-4, 219, Oregon

The Josh McCown experiment was a disaster, and Mike Glennon was not drafted by this current regime. That makes Mariota the early favorite to go No. 1 overall, despite concerns about how his skill set will translate from Oregon’s up-tempo, spread offense. Mariota believers will tout his size, athleticism, arm strength and plus-plus character for the next three months, while his doubters will knock his QB-friendly college offense, his potentially steep NFL learning curve and soft-spoken personality. Still, new Buccaneers offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter is known for pushing the pace, so Tampa could be a place where Mariota thrives.

2 Tennessee

OLB Randy Gregory, 6-6, 240, Nebraska

The Titans went a dismal 2-14 this season — someone explain how the Chiefs lost to them in week one again? — and a big reason for that was their inconsistent quarterback play. But it appears coach Ken Whisenhunt might be serious about wanting to ride it out with talented-but-raw sixth-round pick Zach Mettenberger. This, plus the Titans’ hole-ridden roster, allows them take one of the two best defensive players on the board, USC’s Leonard Williams and Nebraska’s Randy Gregory. The Titans are set at both defensive end spots with Ropati Pitoitua and Jerrell Casey, which rules out Williams, so Tennessee could go with the lanky Gregory, whose athleticism and chippiness makes him a potentially disruptive 3-4 outside linebacker.

3 Jacksonville

DE Shane Ray, 6-3, 245, Missouri

The Jaguars could stand to put a little more talent around 2014 No. 3 overall pick Blake Bortles, but after investing a pair of 2014 second-round picks in receivers, this feels a little high to take a receiver, and there are no running backs or right tackles worthy of the pick. So let’s head to defense — specifically the defensive line. USC’s Leonard Williams could represent a long-term upgrade at “big” defensive end over Red Bryant and Tyson Alualu, but with Gregory off the board, Ray — who possesses an elite first step and a real knack for getting after the quarterback — might have a higher ceiling as a difference-making “Leo” pass rusher in the Jaguars’ scheme than Williams.

4 Oakland

WR Amari Cooper, 6-1, 210, Alabama

There’s some thought the Raiders will try to upgrade a flagging receiving corps to aid quarterback David Carr’s development. And with new offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave expected to bring some of Chip Kelly’s up-tempo, zone-read offense with him from Philadelphia, Alabama star Amari Cooper could be the pick. Cooper is a perfect fit in the Jeremy Maclin-DeSean Jackson role as the speedster who takes the top off the defense — something the Raiders struggled to do all season. Cooper, a polished route runner who can track the deep ball, is the most pro-ready receiver in the draft — a plug-and-play type. Williams would also be a good fit here as another defensive centerpiece next to stud outside linebacker Khalil Mack.

5 Washington

DE Leonard Williams, 6-5, 300, Southern Cal

Washington hired a new defensive coordinator in Joe Barry, but he will continue to use the 3-4 defense. Washington needs help at inside linebacker and the secondary, but this is a little early to take anyone at those positions. Fortunately for Barry, they also need help on the interior defensive line, and Williams fits the bill as a three-down player with agility, strength, polish and two-gap ability. He represents an immediate upgrade over 2014 starter Jarvis Jenkins at defensive end and has enough ability to stay on the field when Washington occasionally mixes in 4-3 looks, as it plans to do.

6 New York Jets

QB Jameis Winston, 6-4, 230, Florida State

The Jets’ quarterback play was terrible this season, and ultimately led to the firing of head coach Rex Ryan and general manager John Idzik. Second-year pro Geno Smith performed better late in the year, but new general manager Mike Maccagnan did not select him, which means Smith is in danger of being replaced. Cue Winston, a big, sturdy pro-style quarterback who has done a lot of winning in college. He will be difficult to pass on if the Jets can come to grips with his character concerns. If they can’t, a pass rusher like Florida’s Dante Fowler, Jr. would be a nice addition to an already-strong front seven.

7 Chicago

DT Danny Shelton, 6-2, 343, Washington

With the hiring of head coach John Fox and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, the Bears — who have long been a 4-3 team — could be switching to a 3-4 look. That means there’s a need for a space-clogging nose tackle. Defensive tackle Stephen Paea had a nice season, but he’s a free agent and he might not be an ideal fit. Defensive tackle Jay Ratliff has experience as a nose tackle, but Shelton is 50 pounds heavier and is tough to move in the running game.

8 Atlanta

DE Dante Fowler, Jr., 6-3, 260, Florida

The Falcons ranked second-to-last in the NFL in sacks, which is something new coach Dan Quinn (Seattle’s defensive coordinator) should try to address immediately. Fortunately for him, Fowler is an excellent fit as a “Leo” pass rusher in his scheme. He possesses good quickness and gives great effort on a play-by-play basis. By the way, Quinn recruited Fowler when he was the defensive coordinator at the University of Florida, so he is well aware of former five-star’s gifts.

9 New York Giants

OT/OG Brandon Scherff, 6-5, 320, Iowa

With Jason Pierre-Paul set to hit free agency and Mathias Kiwanuka coming off a down year, the Giants certainly wouldn’t mind if one of the pass rushers fell — particularly if they choose not to franchise Pierre-Paul. But in this scenario, all four of the top-tier guys are gone, which means they’ll turn their attention to the other side of the ball. Scherff might not have the feet to play tackle, but he’s a mauler in the running game and a classic Giants lineman — big, tough and strong. He’ll be an ideal fit at left guard, which would allow them to shift 2014 second-round pick Weston Richburg back to center and boost the league’s 28th-ranked rushing offense.

10 St. Louis Rams

OT Andrus Peat, 6-7, 316, Stanford

The quarterback situation is unsettled, but in this scenario, the only first-round worthy quarterbacks are off the board. Barring a trade down, that shifts the focus to right tackle, where starter Joe Barksdale is a pending free agent. Peat is the best tackle on the board; he combines a massive frame with decent feet in pass pro and power as a run blocker. The Rams drafted Greg Robinson No. 2 overall last year to be their long-term left tackle, but Peat’s selection protects them in case Robinson eventually proves to be a better guard (which he might). In the meantime, Peat can nail down the right-tackle position.

11 Minnesota Vikings

WR Kevin White, 6-3, 210, West Virginia

There’s going to be a push to draft DeVante Parker, quarterback Teddy Bridgewater’s favorite college target, and the Vikings just might do that. But at this point, White is probably the best prospect on the board. He is big, strong and fast enough to be a vertical threat, and he consistently makes difficult, contested catches. He also gives great effort as a blocker and plays with passion.

12 Cleveland

NT Eddie Goldman, 6-4, 320, Florida State

The quarterback position is a disaster, but there’s no one on the board here to make the leap with. And with Josh Gordon facing a yearlong suspension, a receiver like Parker might be an option. But the interior defensive line needs to be addressed, and Florida State defensive tackle Eddie Goldman has the look of an NFL-caliber run stuffer in the Browns’ 3-4 scheme. Cleveland’s starting nose tackle — Ahtyba Rubin — is a free agent.

13 New Orleans

OLB Vic Beasley, Jr., 6-2, 235, Clemson

Junior Galette is an emerging pass-rusher, but he might be facing a suspension after his recent arrest. Meanwhile, the Saints’ other outside linebacker, Parys Haralson, is better against the run and set to be a free agent. So the Saints, like several other teams in this draft, could go with a pass rusher in a pass-happy league, and few can bring it like Beasley, who is undersized but plays hard.

14 Miami

OT/OG La’El Collins, 6-5, 308, LSU

The Dolphins need help in the interior on both sides of the ball. But with Shelton and Goldman off the board, they could settle for fortifying the offensive line with Collins, a left-tackle convert who is a strong run blocker. He was fairly light on his feet at tackle, but should be better in pass pro at guard.

15 San Francisco

WR DeVante Parker, 6-3, 209, Louisville

With Michael Crabtree set to be a free agent and Anquan Boldin turning 35 this year, the 49ers could desperately use a big-play outside receiver. Parker certainly fits the bill; he’s a bit of a long strider, but he has some zip after the catch and he also possesses a knack for winning contested vertical balls. Colin Kaepernick has the arm strength to take advantage of this skill, which would give the 49ers the big-play vertical threat they’ve been lacking for years.

16 Houston

TE Maxx Williams, 6-4, 250, Minnesota

Texans coach Bill O’Brien likes his tight ends — he served as the Patriots’ offensive coordinator in 2011, the year Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez destroyed defenses — and Williams offers a chance to get back to some of that. He features a plus frame (that still has room to grow), plus athleticism and soft hands, a combination that will make him a friend to whoever plays quarterback for the Texans in 2015 and beyond.

17 San Diego

RB Melvin Gordon III, 6-1, 213, Wisconsin

Ryan Mathews can’t stay healthy, and while Branden Oliver is an NFL-caliber back, he’s probably too small to assume full-time duties. That’s why the Chargers could opt for Gordon, a true bell cow of a back with an impressive combination of speed, quickness, and vision. You rarely see running backs go this high anymore, but Gordon would give the Chargers the kind of balance that might have been worth a few more wins in 2014.

18 Chiefs

ILB Eric Kendricks, 6-0, 230, UCLA

The Chiefs probably wouldn’t mind scooping up any of the top three receivers — Cooper, White and Parker — or even Scherff, who figures to be a plug-and-play left guard. But all those guys are off the board here, and the widely-acknowledged first-round alternatives at those positions — Dorial Green-Beckham, Devin Funchess and Jaelen Strong at receiver and T.J. Clemmings, Ereck Flowers and Cedric Ogbuehi at offensive line — have question marks (for now).

But if the Chiefs address those positions with veterans in free agency, which might be the best option, given coach Andy Reid’s complicated playbook, that would allow general manager John Dorsey to take the best player at a position of need. Lanky Michigan State cornerback Trae Waynes could be tempting, particularly with veteran Sean Smith set to hit free agency in a year, but inside linebacker is a bigger need right now, particularly if they fail to address it in free agency. Even if Derrick Johnson, 32, returns to his pre-injury form, this unit is in desperate need of young talent, and the best player on the board at this position is Kendricks, who a bonafide tackling machine who racked up a ridiculous 145 tackles in only 13 games this season.

Kendricks is not very big, so long-term durability is a concern, but his plus instincts, quickness and passion for the game would allow the two-time UCLA captain to be a plug-and-play, three-down weakside inside linebacker who can immediately help a leaky run defense. As long as Kendricks’ medical checks out, it would be a surprise if he lasts until the Chiefs’ pick in the second round.

19 Cleveland

WR Jaelen Strong, 6-4, 205, Arizona State

With Josh Gordon facing a yearlong suspension, it’s finally time for the Browns to address receiver. Andrew Hawkins, Taylor Gabriel and Travis Benjamin are effective but short; the Browns need a bigger possession receiver, and Strong fits the bill. He’s big and he can go get the deep ball, but he needs to work on his route running and consistency.

20 Philadelphia

CB Trae Waynes, 6-1, 182, Michigan State

Starting cornerback Bradley Fletcher had a rough season, and the other starter, Cary Williams, was just OK. Waynes is a big, man-to-man corner who needs to brush up on his technique but projects as a solid press cornerback.

21 Cincinnati

DE Alvin “Bud” Dupree, 6-4, 264, Kentucky

The Bengals’ pass rush could use a little more juice, and Dupree — who has racked up 23 1/2 career sacks at Kentucky has shown a knack for getting after the quarterback.

22 Pittsburgh

OLB Nate Orchard, 6-4, 250, Utah

Respected defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau has officially parted ways with his longtime team, but given the way the Steelers are built, it would be a surprise if coach Mike Tomlin went to a 4-3 scheme. That said, Jason Worilds, James Harrison and Arthur Moats — their top three outside linebackers —are all free agents, and pressure is important in this system. Enter Orchard, who opened eyes with his quickness and ability to bring it off the edge during Senior Bowl week.

23 Detroit

DT Mike Bennett, 6-2, 288, Texas

Four of the Lions’ top five defensive tackles are free agents, so that position is a big-time need, even if Ndamukong Suh returns. Bennett, for now, fits the bill as a potential 3-technique tackle who plays hard, is quick off the snap and is strong enough to give offensive linemen problems. Don’t rule out a cornerback, such as Washington’s Marcus Peters, either.

24 Arizona

C/OG Cam Erving, 6-6, 311, Florida State

Outside of left tackle, where free agent Jared Veldheer held down the fort, the Cardinals’ offensive-line play struggled in 2014. This would be a nice spot for Erving, whose length and quickness off the ball make him an intriguing option at guard or center, two positions of need for the Cardinals.

25 Carolina

OT Ereck Flowers, 6-6, 324, Miami

The Panthers’ left tackle situation was substandard in 2014, and if the Panthers truly hope to get the most out of quarterback Cam Newton, it’s time to start protecting him. Flowers is a massive early entrant with good athleticism and a high ceiling, the kind of talent they need at the position.

26 Baltimore

WR Dorial Green-Beckham, 6-6, 225, Oklahoma

Even if the Ravens bring back Torrey Smith, they’re going to need a long-term playmaker to replace the ageless Steve Smith at some point. Why not have it be a massive receiver who, if he pans out, could be the next Plaxico Burress? Green-Beckham has first-round talent, and if he’s matured since his days at Missouri, could represent great value at this point. The Ravens have made a killing on taking the best player available, and new offensive coordinator Marc Trestman has a reputation for running a fairly simple offense, which could allow Green-Beckham to see the field earlier.

27 Dallas

CB Quinten Rollins, 5-11, 193, Miami (Ohio)

A converted point guard, Rollins (who has played one year of college football) showed surprising ball skills and natural instincts in zone coverage, a boon in defensive coordinator Rod Marinneli’s defensive scheme. There’s also a need here; Brandon Carr’s future with the team is cloudy, while Morris Claiborne hasn’t panned out.

28 Denver

OT T.J. Clemmings, 6-5, 307, Pittsburgh

The Broncos might have to make some changes up front, particularly if left guard Orlando Franklin and/or center Will Montgomery bolt via free agency. If Montgomery leaves, the Broncos can draft a gifted-but-raw right tackle like Clemmings and shift Manny Ramirez back to center and Louis Vasquez back to right guard, where both thrived last season. Clemmings needs to be coached up, but he possesses good athleticism and length and also shows some nastiness as a run blocker.

29 Indianapolis

RB Todd Gurley, 6-1, 226, Georgia

One of the best things the Colts can do for star quarterback Andrew Luck is get him a legitimate running game. Trent Richardson hasn’t panned out, and Ahmad Bradshaw will be a free agent, which means a potentially elite back like Gurley, who is coming of an ACL injury, could offer the most value. ACL injuries aren’t as devastating as they used to be.

30 Green Bay

ILB Benardrick McKinney, 6-5, 249, Mississippi State

The Packers’ play at inside linebacker was so bad that they moved star outside linebacker Clay Matthews midseason. This can’t continue. McKinney moves fairly well for his size and is a big body with decent instincts against the run. He also flashes some ability as an edge rusher.

31 New England

DE Arik Armstead, 6-7, 285, Oregon

The Patriots likely will take the best player on the board, and that’s Armstead, whose length and athleticism make him intriguing, though he’s raw and his production hasn’t been great. Still, Armstead will receive the quality coaching he needs here.

32 Seattle

DT Malcom Brown, 6-2, 320, Seattle

The Seahawks could use a little more young talent in the trenches, and Brown or Iowa’s Carl Davis fits the bill. Brown is a big run stuffer who could fill in for Kevin Williams, who is a free agent.

To reach Terez A. Paylor, call 816-234-4489 or send email to tpaylor@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter @TerezPaylor.

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