A general manager was trying to predict what would happen at the beginning of the 2014 NFL Draft this week, and he didn't sound much more certain than anybody else.
"My best guess is, (Jadeveon) Clowney goes (No. 1), but I don't know who picks him," said the general manager, whose team is selecting in the top 10. "I don't know if there is a trade. That is my guess, and I can tell you I would not bet money on this."
With that, he summed up one of the cloudiest forecasts for the top of a draft in years, created in large part because the Houston Texans, holding the first overall pick, have done such a good job concealing their plans -- except for making it clear last week that they would happily trade out of that spot. While Texans GM Rick Smith has said he knows who the Texans would draft, the willingness to trade suggests a lack of conviction about that player -- If you love him, why would you leave him there? -- and that merely underscores the subtext of this class. The lack of a single sure-thing quarterback has made for a head-scratching two-plus months since the NFL Scouting Combine, but there is one certainty. This is a potentially transformative draft for the AFC South, which last year could best be described -- kindly -- as Andrew Luck and everybody else and -- less kindly -- as the worst division in the NFL, with three sub-.500 teams.
The lack of a first-round pick for the Indianapolis Colts -- surrendered in last year's jury-still-out trade with the Cleveland Browns for running back Trent Richardson -- opens the door for the other three teams in the AFC South to significantly alter the competitive landscape via the draft. They will be helped by an oddity: The Texans, Jaguars and Titans all pick in the top 11, making the South the only division to have it so good (for being so bad). Only two other divisions have even two teams picking that high: the NFC South and NFC North.
And while the Texans, Jags and Titans are all in the market for their next quarterback, Houston and Jacksonville are helped along in their rebuilding efforts by a windfall of 11 picks each. That is especially important in a draft that is considered deep in talent -- so deep that Tampa Bay Buccaneers GM Jason Licht said last week his team counted more than 50 underclassmen as draftable, making for nearly two full rounds of underclassmen alone.
Think an entire division can't be transformed simultaneously? Consider that in 2010, the entire NFC West was under .500. Last year -- thanks to some smart coaching hires and some very shrewd drafting -- it was the toughest division in the game, headed by arguably the two best teams in the NFL (the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers). The NFC West was the only division to have three teams post at least 10 victories (with the Arizona Cardinals joining Seattle and San Francisco), while the fourth-place team (the St. Louis Rams) finished just one game under .500 -- despite losing its starting quarterback in the middle of the season.
Here's a look at where the three teams chasing the Colts in the AFC South stand:
"Clowney has been billed as a unique creature, and because of the coverage of the draft, Clowney is a brand," a competing GM said. "You don't go a day without hearing about Clowney. Let's say Houston went with Khalil Mack at one. If you look at all that's gone on, usually the worst he goes is three at Jacksonville, but if Houston takes Mack, it would almost seem like a travesty, and it's all because of the lead-up."
The Texans might be genuinely smitten with Mack, the Buffalo pass-rusher who would fit nicely into coordinator Romeo Crennel's defense. But Houston owner Bob McNair, in a local radio interview last week, said it was clear Clowney is the best player in the draft, while questioning whether the defender could impact a team as much as one of the quarterbacks can. The takeaway there is that if there were a doubt-free quarterback in this class, the team would have a much less complicated decision on its hands.
Still, the Texans -- who had the second-worst scoring offense in 2013 -- have to get a quarterback at some point in this draft, and a move back would not hurt them there, particularly if their target is Blake Bortles rather than Johnny Manziel.
It seems obvious that the Texans would be happiest if they could make a trade, but that's a long shot. The first overall pick has not changed hands since 2001, when the Falcons moved up from fifth to first to take Michael Vick.
Is there any team that could use a new quarterback and an accompanying infusion of excitement more than the Jacksonville Jaguars? The Jaguars had the league's worst scoring offense (15.4 points per game) in 2013, and their profile is such that general manager Dave Caldwell last week thanked the local media for coverage -- "good, bad, indifferent."
That would seem to make Manziel a natural fit for the Jaguars, who have the third overall pick. The team went at free agency aggressively to shore up its defensive front, leaving the offense primed for the draft. The uncertainty surrounding Houston and St. Louis at first and second overall makes the pool for Jacksonville murky, too. But the Jags know firsthand from their experience with Blaine Gabbert the damage that can result when a high pick is used on a quarterback who is not a sure thing.
Something else to keep in mind is this quote from Caldwell, which he offered when asked about receiver Justin Blackmon's availability following an indefinite suspension for running afoul of the NFL Policy and Program for Substances of Abuse:
"It's not something we're counting on."
That could thrust receiver Sammy Watkins into the mix at third overall. But personnel evaluators believe this is one of the deepest wide receiver pools in years, and that there are quarterbacks who will be taken later in the first round or in the second or third rounds who could develop for a year before becoming starters. If they choose to take a quarterback later, the Jags have Chad Henne in the fold to serve as a veteran place-holder. If the team sees it that way -- and Caldwell and Gus Bradley proved to be immune to the siren song of flashy headlines when they took an offensive tackle in the first round last year -- it opens the door for the selection of Mack. He plays the pass-rushing linebacker spot that the Jaguars' defense desperately needs, and he's one of the few sure things in this class. Jacksonville's defense was tied for last in sacks last year; Mack could help solve that problem quickly -- and potentially harass Luck for years.
It's easy to forget this, but the Tennessee Titans actually finished second in the division at 7-9, which gives them the 11th overall pick. The Titans do not have any glaring needs, and new coach Ken Whisenhunt has the luxury of having patience -- but that's not to say there aren't spots that should be upgraded. Keep an eye on the quarterbacks in the early rounds, because the Titans ranked 22nd in total offense last season.
Last week, the Titans declined to pick up the fifth-year option on quarterback Jake Locker. This is about as clear an indication as there can be that his time is about up, considering that picking up the option carries very little risk for the team. The Titans have been linked in the rumor mill to Derek Carr, although taking him at 11 is highly unlikely. That could mean the Titans want to move back to later in the first round, or that they'd target Carr with their second-round pick (42nd overall). If the Titans can get Carr or another quarterback in the second round or later, it would open the door for them to replace one of their big losses in free agency -- Pro Bowl cornerback Alterraun Verner -- with someone like Oklahoma State's Justin Gilbert in the first round.
Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.