6 NFL Draft Day Headlines to Watch

As if you didn't already have enough to think about ahead of the 2014 NFL Draft, here are a few more storylines that will spark interest and debate.

We're only hours away from the start of the 2014 NFL Draft, and the rumors and smokescreens are filling up Twitter feeds and Google searches across the Internet. It's time for some perspective.

Here at numberFire, we use Net Expected Points data to determine the efficiency of NFL players and teams. You can learn more about NEP by clicking here. Using the information we can gather from our metrics and algorithms, here are a handful of quick thoughts on some of the big storylines out there as we head into the 2014 Draft.

Will the Bengals make a move at the quarterback position?

The Cincinnati Bengals seem to have most of the pieces in place to contend for a playoff spot and a Super Bowl berth for years to come, with a solid defense, good weapons on offense, and a coach with experience in January football. But is there something holding them back?

The Bengals have been linked with a move to replace quarterback Andy Dalton this offseason, or at least put some pressure on the three-year veteran signal caller. The TCU product’s contract is up soon, and Bengals’ owner Mike Brown has stated he’s not sure if they’re going to be “able to or not” when it comes to re-signing Dalton.

So which quarterbacks in this draft should they target, and where should they pull the trigger on selecting one? Their first-round pick may present the opportunity for Fresno State’s Derek Carr or even Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater, and either of those players have a ceiling that exceeds Dalton’s.

But waiting any longer for a quarterback is only going to give the Bengals another mediocre option. Dalton finished just outside the top 10 among quarterbacks using NEP data last season, right in line with Matthew Stafford and Tom Brady, neither of whom need replacing.

If the Bengals truly believe Dalton’s price tag will be too high, then maybe they should snag a mid-round quarterback just in case. But it would be foolish to move on from Dalton for anything less than a top-flight quarterback prospect.

Should the 49ers trade up to improve their wide receiver corps?

Anquan Boldin is old, Michael Crabtree gets hurt a lot, and Vernon Davis is inconsistent. There are plenty of reasons why the San Francisco 49ers should move up in the draft to take a wide receiver.

Moving away from narratives and looking at the numbers, the support is there as well. Boldin was the only top 100 wideout for the Niners last year using NEP data, and he doesn’t have a long lifespan left in the pros.

David Fucillo of Niners Nation speculates that the 49ers could make a big move up the board to take a receiver in this year’s draft, especially considering the insane amount of picks the Niners have to begin with.

But is that the best move for the 49ers? The picks they’d use to move up the board could be spend overhauling their secondary, which will be without Carlos Rogers, and one that was the most disappointing unit on the team last season (especially when compared to the rival Seahawks, who had a stellar pass defense).

So while it certainly makes sense to move up in the draft and get the best player available, the Niners might be better off bolstering their defensive backfield rather than spending a king’s ransom to snag a wide receiver any earlier than they have to. This is a deep receiver class, and the Niners would be wise to patiently wait for the right guy.

Texans Undecided Between Mack and Clowney

The Houston Texans fell from grace in severe fashion last season, ending up with the first overall pick in one of the best draft classes in recent memory. But according to all reports, they’re not having an easy time figuring out which player to take at the top of the board.

According to Peter King of MMQB, there are rumors that the Texans prefer Khalil Mack of Buffalo to Jadeveon Clowney of South Carolina.

This obviously dismisses the other options, which include taking a quarterback like Blake Bortles of UCF, or an offensive lineman like Greg Robinson of Auburn. But if it really comes down to those two players, where are the Texans better off?

The Texans have the most dominant lineman in the NFL in J.J. Watt, but at linebacker, they’re lacking in a major way. According to Advanced Football Analytics, the Texans didn’t have a linebacker among the top-60 in their Win Probability Added metric last season.

And that’s where Mack comes in. Mack is a versatile athlete who can play outside linebacker and move in both directions, both rushing the quarterback and dropping back in coverage. He’s a tackling machine, a relentless pursuer of the football, and a dynamic player who would be a great compliment to Watt.

How do the Rams handle Sam Bradford?

For Sam Bradford, the news isn’t quite as encouraging as it was for Andy Dalton.

The St. Louis Rams have reportedly been in talks to trade Bradford, who is approaching the end of his huge rookie deal and has yet to prove himself as the franchise quarterback he seemed guaranteed to be when he was drafted.

And honestly, it’s tough to blame the Rams for having some doubts about their former first-overall pick. Bradford’s short stint at quarterback last season earned him an NEP per pass number outside of the top 20, just ahead of his replacement Kellen Clemens, and just behind Raiders’ rookie Matt McGloin.

The Rams need a long-term answer at the position, and if they’re sold on Johnny Manziel or any other quarterback in this year’s draft, it would be a wise move to make the bold decision and bring a new face into the fold.

Trading Bradford would then become a formality, as they’d simply need to find a team willing to absorb his contract for a year’s worth of audition for a job in 2015.

If the Falcons move up in the draft, should they go offense or defense?

The Atlanta Falcons were a huge disappointment last season, falling on their collective face after a strong showing in 2012.

And it wasn’t just the offense, which lost Julio Jones early on in the season. The Falcons had one of the worst defenses in recent history according to our NEP data, as they were unable to slow down both the run and the pass.

The Falcons are the same team with the same leadership that traded up for the aforementioned Jones in the NFL draft, and the rumor mill has already started to reveal that the Falcons might be looking to jump up the board again.

The question is, what position should the Falcons target?

While an offensive lineman would help pave the way for the running game and protect Matt Ryan, they need to add a playmaker to their defense, which had its worst year under defense-minded coach Mike Smith.

That means Clowney or Mack (whichever one doesn’t go to Houston) should be a target for the Falcons in a trade up with either the Rams or Jaguars at the second or third pick.

Getting after the opposing quarterback on a regular basis is an important part of building a successful defense, and when you face Cam Newton and Drew Brees four times per season, that job becomes even more important. Look for the Falcons to address their defensive needs early and often in the draft.

When will the first running back come off the board?

Last year, every running back on the board sat and waited through the first night of the NFL Draft, as teams waited on a position once deemed as a premium spot to draft. Just a few years ago, Ronnie Brown and Carnell Williams were both taken in the top 10 from the same school, and a short time later, there are no backs in the first round at all.

There are plenty of teams with needs at running back, as any of the bottom five teams in Rushing NEP last season (Giants, Jaguars, Ravens, Steelers and Cardinals) could use either a workhorse starter or a dynamic playmaker to change up the pace. But will the collective opinion of NFL teams when it comes to running backs push them all down the board?

As Jason Fitzgerald of Over the Cap points out, the running back position has been paid less and less money recently, to the point where running backs and kickers now have similar contract numbers when they hit the open market. So based on that thinking, don’t be surprised if the third round sees the first runner off the board.

Of course, that doesn’t mean the running back position isn’t important. But with the lack of durability and consistency at the position, teams have become gun-shy to commit to a player long-term with big money just to see him take a beating and not produce for the length of his contract.