2018 RSO Rookie Mock Draft v2.1

Updated: January 27th 2018

My first 2018 rookie mock draft was published back on Sept 6 and while some things have changed, I am actually quite pleased with how my mock draft held up throughout the season.  I followed the same guidelines here as I did back in September.  Namely,  I used two base assumptions: 1) a standard one QB roster setup and 2) any junior good enough to be considered will declare early (the deadline is Jan 15 so by the time you read this we may already know that some guys are not going into the draft).  Players are broken down into tiers and I have noted where they were mocked last time to show their movement from version to version.  To view version 1.0, click here.  Version 2.0 never saw the light of day as Bryce Love, Damien Harris and Myles Gaskin decided to return to school before publishing (for what it’s worth they were at 1.09, 2.06 and 2.09 respectively).  I also compile mock draft information for the /r/DynastyFF sub Reddit which you can view here.  Share your thoughts with me on Twitter @robertfcowper.

1.01, Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State (last: 1.01)

Barkley is in a tier all by himself.  He’s a supreme athlete (possibly sub-4.40 speed) with good vision and is a good pass catcher.  He’ll be the consensus first pick in just about every fantasy rookie draft and could be a Top 5 NFL Draft pick.  Don’t overthink it.

1.02, Nick Chubb, RB, Georgia (1.03)

1.03, Derrius Guice, RB, LSU (1.02)

(Note: this was written prior to Nick Chubb’s poor performance in the championship game.  In hindsight, I am less confident about placing him at 1.02.  One game does not a career make but still he played poorly against a defense full of NFL talent.  I will re-visit this in the offseason)  I now have Chubb and Guice flipped compared to where I had them to start the season.  Heading into the season, Chubb’s 2015 knee injury felt like more of a concern than it does now since he has completed two full seasons since.  Their stats this season were similar but Chubb had a slight edge as a rusher (1,320 yards and 15 TDs for Chubb, 1,251 and 11 TDs for Guice).  Neither is a receiver like Barkley.  Both backs have a career high of 18 receptions in a season – Guice did so in 2017 while Chubb did so as a freshman in 2014.  The margin between the two for me is razor thin.  I lean towards Chubb since we have a bigger sample size.

1.04, Calvin Ridley, WR, Alabama (1.04)

1.05, James Washington, WR, Oklahoma State (1.08)

1.06, Ronald Jones, RB, USC (2.07)

I still have Ridley as my WR1 even though 2017 was not a great season (just 59 receptions, 935 yards and 4 TDs prior to the championship game).  To my eye, he is just the most skilled WR in the class, regardless of his production.  He is very fast (4.35 40 yard dash in the Spring), jumps well enough to out play his 6’1″ height and is a good route runner.  Washington is pretty quick himself but he just doesn’t seem as polished as Ridley.  It’s hard to argue against Washington’s production but I think he’ll be drafted later than Ridley and won’t be as good of a pro in the long run.  Washington is this high though because I think he will make an early impact in the league if he lands on the right team.  Jones makes a huge jump from 2.07 to 1.06.  I questioned his size to start the year, I thought he was too tall for his weight, but am no longer as concerned because he put on some weight.  He’s such a quick and fast runner and was very productive this year (1,550 yards, 19 TDs).  If he was a little more “squat” but just as fast and nimble he’d be challenging for the 1.02.

1.07, Rashaad Penny, RB, San Diego State (undrafted)

1.08, Courtland Sutton, WR, SMU (1.07)

Rashaad Penny made a huge impression on me this season.  I noticed Penny in August but thought he was more of a returner than a running back.  He proved his worth as a rusher (his 2,248 yards led the FBS) but still managed to contribute as a return man (3 return TDs).  Penny will probably be an early Day Three draft selection but I think his value as a return man will help him see the field earlier.  Bryce Love originally found himself in this tier before deciding to return to school.  Conversely to the ascending Penny, Sutton’s stock is falling for me.  Sutton has the best size of the top three receivers (6’4, 215lbs) but I have some concerns.  In my past research, I found that he mostly beat up on bad defenses; against the best defense he played this year (TCU), he was held to one catch for zero yards.  It also bothers me that Sutton was not the leading receiver on his team this year (Trey Quinn had more receptions, yards and touchdowns).  Sutton likely saw extra defensive attention but if he’s to be an NFL star, he must be able to dominate even against double coverage in games against lesser defenses.  Interesting stat for Sutton, 8 of his 31 career receiving touchdowns came in three games against North Texas.  I want to see him at the combine – if he comes in smaller than advertised he could fall out of my first round.

1.09, Royce Freeman, RB, Oregon (1.07)

1.10, Anthony Miller, WR, Memphis (2.02)

2.01, Sony Michel, RB, Georgia (2.06)

2.02, Christian Kirk, WR, Texas A&M (1.05)

This tier features some of my favorite players in the draft in terms of value.  I was high on Freeman to start the season before he came out on fire (10 TDs in the first four games).  His pace slowed in the middle of the season but he finished strong too with 6 TDs in the games against Arizona and Oregon State.  He decided to skip the bowl which was disappointing because I wanted to see him against Boise State’s defense.  Despite the positive impression he made on me, I do have him a little lower now because he was jumped by Ronald Jones and Rashaad Penny at the position.  Two players who did not skip the end of their seasons are Anthony Miller and Sony Michel.  Miller is an absolute gamer who I want on my team.  He’s not that big or that fast but he’s just productive.  He runs routes well and has possibly the best hands in the class.  He could have broken his leg in the AAC Championship game and he would have still finished the overtime.  It may be a bit of a reach but I’m willing to take Miller at the end of the first to guarantee I get him.  Michel is sometimes overshadowed by Chubb but he’s just as good in his own right.  He has two 1,000+ yard seasons to his name and a career 6.1 yards per carry average.  He is a better receiver than his 9 receptions in 2017 show.  In 2015 and 2016 he had 48 combined.  The hype on Michel is growing so you may not be able to get him at 2.01 but let’s not overreact to two nationally televised games.  Michel will be a solid pro but I’m not willing to jump him over Chubb.  Kirk dropped because I was probably too high on him originally but I still like him.  He’s a great return man but so many of his receptions come at the line of scrimmage that I worry his NFL role may be limited.

2.03, Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA (2.08)

2.04, Sam Darnold, QB, USC (2.01)

This is where my RSO mock will diverge slightly from a true dynasty mock.  I strongly believe that going quarterback early in the second round of your rookie mock is the way to go.  The salary paid will be less than $2mil per season which is a fantastic bargain for a starting quarterback, especially considering that most quarterbacks taken in the first round of the NFL Draft will see game action sometime in the first season.  The return on investment here is so high when you “hit” that it’s worth taking a chance on a “miss.”  Readers will notice that 1) Rosen has jumped Darnold and 2) I am taking the QBs a little later now.  Neither guy had a great season and they both come with some warts so I think this spot feels right.  Even if Darnold gets drafted higher, barring some crazy trade that lands him on a good team, I would go with Rosen first as I feel he is more NFL-ready and will realize more value during his four year RSO rookie contract.

2.05, Equanimeous St. Brown, WR, Notre Dame (2.03)

2.06, Akrum Wadley, RB, Iowa (undrafted)

2.07, Michael Gallup, WR, Colorado State (3.07)

This was a very tough stretch for me to rank.  I originally included Myles Gaskin and Damien Harris in this tier but they are now removed as they seek a higher grade next year.  St. Brown dropped between mocks because he only had 33 receptions.  Like Calvin Ridley, he was the leading receiver on a run-heavy offense.  I didn’t count that against Ridley but I do against St. Brown because it’s tough to invest highly in a guy with just 92 career receptions.  St. Brown would have dropped further if it weren’t for the decisions of Love and Harris ahead of him.  Wadley and Gallup mostly stayed under the radar this season but move up in my rankings even though their per-touch averages decreased.  They both significantly increased the number of touches they handled this season and played well in their biggest games.  Gallup totaled 21 receptions and 282 yards in three games against Power 5 defenses (Oregon State, Colorado, Alabama); Wadley had 158 total yards versus Ohio State in what was ultimately the death blow for the Buckeyes’ playoff chances.

2.08, Dante Pettis, WR, Washington (2.04)

2.09, Bo Scarborough, RB, Alabama (1.06)

2.10, Josh Adams, RB, Notre Dame (undrafted)

Bringing up the rear of the second round are three Power 5 players that I would be willing to take a shot on despite my concerns about their size.  Pettis is a dynamo and can change a game with one touch.  He had four punt return touchdowns this year and led the FBS in punt return average.  He managed to increase his receptions this year but his per-touch averages decreased.  He’s 6’1″ but about 195lbs so he’s a little too light.  The fact that his former teammate John Ross was such a bust as a first rounder last year probably hurts Pettis even if it’s not fair.  Scarborough and Adams were both productive in college but at 6’2″ they might be too tall to play running back effectively in the NFL.  The comps in that size are not favorable.  The best is Derrick Henry but other than that it’s a lot of no-name players over the last decade.

3.01, Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma (undrafted)

If it makes RSO salary cap sense to take a quarterback near the top of the second, it stands to reason you should at the top of the third.  Mayfield is currently my QB3 after an incredibly efficient season but I want to watch more tape.  Heading into the season I had both Mason Rudolph, Lamar Jackson and Luke Falk ranked higher.  Right now Rudolph would be the only one I consider putting here instead of Mayfield.

3.02, Mike Gesicki, TE, Penn State (undrafted)

3.03, Allen Lazard, WR, Iowa State (3.01)

3.04, Hayden Hurst, TE, South Carolina (3.05)

3.05, Mark Andrews, TE, Oklahoma (2.10)

Let the tight end run begin!  I think everybody would agree that this year’s tight end class pales in comparison to last year but when is the right time to take one?  I’m having trouble valuing them so I’ll bet others are too.  My guess is that once one goes in your RSO draft, two or three will follow shortly after.  Gesicki gets the nod as the top prospect because he’s bigger than both Andrews and Hurst and at least as athletic, if not more.  Hurst is more of a traditional TE than the other two as he blocks better but he’s also fast enough and a good pass catcher.  I had Hurst above Andrews in my early 2018 positional rankings and will stick with my gut.  It takes time for tight ends to develop, Evan Engram notwithstanding, so I’ll knock Andrews down a peg because he so rarely lined up as a tight end in college.  Lazard isn’t a TE but he’s a big-bodied receiver who I am a fan of.  He was a key part of Iowa State’s miracle run (71-941-10).  I wish I was able to find him a spot higher because it feels like I’m down on him compared to start the season but that’s not the case.

3.06, Auden Tate, WR, Florida State (undrafted)

3.07, Simmie Cobbs, WR, Indiana (undrafted)

3.08, Kalen Ballage, RB, Arizona State (3.04)

3.09, Jaylen Smith, WR, Louisville, (undrafted)

3.10, Deon Cain, WR, Clemson (1.10)

Similarly to how I ended the second round, I will end the third round with a group of Power 5 players who I will take a flyer on.  Tate has elite size, ball skills and body control but has just 65 career receptions.  Cobbs also has elite size but he concerns me.  He was suspended to start the 2016 season for “not living up to the responsibilities of the program,” and then subsequently suffered a season ending injury in his first game that year.  In the summer of 2017 he was arrested at a concert.  He didn’t face any discipline so it’s probably nothing but still I would worry about a pattern of negative behavior.  Ballage is a bowling ball at 6’3″ and 230lbs.  He is an effective receiver but averages just 4.4 yards per carry in his career.  His size concerns me too.  It’s hard to find a back with receiving stats like he had in 2016, so with a late third, what the heck.  I don’t know enough about Jaylen Smith to properly evaluate him yet but our friends at the Dynasty Command Center are very high on him so I’ll trust their analysis.  Smith had a crazy 22.9 yards per reception average in 2016 which was unsustainable (in 2017 it was still a solid 16.3).  Deon Cain is another player who concerns me off the field.  After a failed drug test, Clemson suspended him in 2015 for both of their College Football Playoff games and continued to hold him out through Spring practice.  He lead the Tigers in yards (734) and TDs (6) this season but I was hoping for more now that he was out of Mike Williams’ shadow.

Honorable Mentions

4.01, Richie James, WR, Middle Tennessee State (undrafted)

4.02, Mike Weber, RB, Ohio State (undrafted)

4.03, Mason Rudolph, QB, Oklahoma State (undrafted)

4.04, Adam Breneman, TE, UMass (undrafted)

4.05, Kerryon Johnson, RB, Auburn (undrafted)

4.06, Deontay Burnett, WR, USC (undrafted)

4.07, Jalin Moore, RB, Appalachian State (undrafted)

4.08, Dallas Goedert, TE, South Dakota State (undrafted)

4.09, Jaylen Samuels, TE, North Carolina State (undrafted)

4.10, Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville (undrafted)

Guys who I like but couldn’t find space for yet: Ryan Finley, Ito Smith, Jordan Chunn, Cedric Wilson, Antonio Callaway, Troy Fumagali

Note: When watching film for a player in the offseason, I typically pick two games at random to watch.  If game film is not available I will search for highlight reels, but keep in mind these are the best plays that player had all season so they really need to jump off the screen.  I do not necessarily want to watch games where they did very well or very poorly as that may not be a great illustration of their true ability.  If possible, when comparing players at the same position I also like to watch film against common opponents.  Full disclosure, I am not watching film of every single game any player plays, instead I am looking for a representative sample.  When researching college players I use a number of resources, I would recommend bookmarking the below sites…

  • Stats: espn.com, sports-reference.com, cfbstats.com, herosports.com, fcs.football, foxsports.com
  • Film: draftbreakdown.com, youtube.com (but be wary of highlight only reels)
  • Draft info and mocks: draftcountdown.com, nfldraftscout.com, walterfootball.com, mattwaldmanrsp.com, draftek.com
  • Draft history: drafthistory.com
  • Combine info: pro-football-reference.com, espn.com, nflcombineresults.com
  • Season preview magazines: Phil Steele, Lindy’s, Street and Smith’s
  • Podcasts: ESPN’s First Draft, Strong as Steele with Phil Steele, The Audible by Football Guys (specifically episodes w/ Matt Waldman), UTH Dynasty

Robert F. Cowper is a freelance writer who lives in New Jersey.  Robert works as a recreation professional, specializing in youth sports, when he isn’t acting as commissioner for his many fantasy sports leagues.

More Analysis by Bob Cowper

RSO Rookie Rundown: 2018 QBs, Part I

Updated: January 27th 2018

Welcome to the RSO Rookie Rundown, a resource to help RSO owners prepare for their upcoming rookie drafts. For more college football and NFL Draft coverage, follow me on Twitter at @robertfcowper. Throughout the offseason, the RSO Rookie Rundown will delve into dozens of future rookies for your consideration. Each prospect will be evaluated on a number of criteria including size, production, performance, character and durability. This is an inexact science but the goal is to gain a better perspective of each player through research. Each player will be given a draft round grade as well as a recent NFL player comparison. For draft round grades, it’s important to remember that some positions are valued more highly than others in the NFL. For player comparisons, it’s important to remember that it is a rough heuristic for illustrative purposes and is based on a physical and statistical basis rather than a prediction of a similar NFL career.

Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville

Lamar Jackson is an interesting prospect so I wanted him to be the first player that I researched this offseason. His production and accolades are at odds with his NFL Draft stock and it’s important to know why. Jackson, a junior, is listed at 6’3″ and 211 lbs. Per NFLDraftScout.com he is estimated to run a 4.42 40 yard dash. Jackson has been free from serious injury, a surprise given his size and playing style. He also does not have any character concerns that I am aware of. There is a great story of Jackson’s mom pushing him hard as a youngster which ESPN ran last year.

Stats & Accolades:  Jackson has high name recognition because he was the 2016 Heisman winner and a finalist again in 2017. He was also the back-to-back winner of the ACC’s Player of the Year and Offensive Player of the Year awards. There’s no doubt that Jackson is talented and puts up big stats but there are a few red flags that warrant a closer look. First off is the fact that Jackson is not a very accurate passer. He has never completed 60% of his passes in a season which is not unheard of but is not a good sign. What doesn’t show up in the above stats are all of the sacks that Jackson takes. In 2017 he took 29 while in 2016 he took 46 (the most taken by a quarterback in 2017 was 39 by Luke Falk). When I looked deeper into Jackson’s statistics and game logs, I was even more concerned with Jackson’s accuracy. In the first quarter in 2017, Jackson completed over 66% of his passes. In subsequent quarters, it falls to under 60% with the worst percentage coming in the fourth quarter (54.9%). It seems that as the game wears on and Jackson tires from all of his running, his ability to complete passes suffers. It might also be that in clutch moments, Jackson (and likely his coaches) don’t trust his arm. As his completion percentage drops throughout the game, his yards per carry increases. His yards per carry average is highest in the fourth quarter (7.51 vs 6.66, 6.68 and 6.79). Jackson’s best game of the year, as a passer, came in the season opener against Purdue. He completed 65.2% of his passes and threw for 378 yards and two scores.

Passing Table
Year School Conf Class Pos G Cmp Att Pct Yds Y/A AY/A TD Int Rate
*2015 Louisville ACC FR QB 12 135 247 54.7 1840 7.4 7.0 12 8 126.8
*2016 Louisville ACC SO QB 13 230 409 56.2 3543 8.7 9.1 30 9 148.8
2017 Louisville ACC JR QB 13 254 430 59.1 3660 8.5 8.7 27 10 146.6
Career Louisville 619 1086 57.0 9043 8.3 8.5 69 27 142.9

Provided by CFB at Sports Reference: View Original Table
Generated 1/17/2018.

Rushing Table
Rush Rush Rush Rush
Year School Conf Class Pos G Att Yds Avg TD
*2015 Louisville ACC FR QB 12 163 960 5.9 11
*2016 Louisville ACC SO QB 13 260 1571 6.0 21
2017 Louisville ACC JR QB 13 232 1601 6.9 18
Career Louisville 655 4132 6.3 50

Provided by CFB at Sports Reference: View Original Table
Generated 1/17/2018.

Film Study: Mississippi State (2017), Clemson (2017)

In addition to having a reputation as an inaccurate passer, Jackson has a reputation as having a good deep ball. Unfortunately, that deep pass was rarely on display in the two games I watched of him. I dug into Jackson against Mississippi State (the bowl game) and Clemson (third game of the season) so that I could watch him against two tough defenses and at different points of the season. On the whole, I was disappointed.

We know he is a supreme athlete and can run better than just about anybody in the game so I won’t spend much time on that. I did take note of one rushing touchdown which stood out because it showcased his speed and elusiveness but also his toughness which I think is under advertised. The play was in the second quarter against Mississippi State. Jackson took the shotgun snap from the left hash and sprinted right on a designed run. He realizes he cannot get the corner and instead plants his foot into the ground and makes a hard cut up field. The cut allows him to slip between an over-pursuing defender and one who was trying to join the play. After he makes the cut he accelerates for a few yards and, about three yards from the end zone, half-hurdles half-jukes a defender and awkwardly leaps into the end zone. He easily could have slid or gone down to protect his body but he sold out for the score. Obviously, that toughness can easily lead to injury but Jackson has been lucky in that regard.

In the Mississippi State game, Jackson missed a number of throws high and behind his receivers. It appears that he struggles to anticipate the receiver’s route on crossing patterns. This was a theme against Clemson too. Early in the first quarter, already down by a touchdown, Jackson had WR Jaylen Smith open on a deep post. He put the ball high and behind Smith and the ball fell incomplete. It would have been a big play to get the offense closer to scoring position but it also would have helped in the field position battle (after Clemson punted after their ensuing possession, Louisville got the ball back inside their own five). Throughout both games, it was clear that Jackson struggles feeling the rush and does not respond well to the pressure. This is borne out in the sack stats mentioned above. There was one strange play against Clemson where Jackson was pressured after Clemson got caught mid-substitution and managed to throw a touchdown pass to his TE who managed to high-point the ball. A pro-Jackson fan could say he put the ball high where he knew his taller TE could out jump the defender; an anti-Jackson fan would say that it was another high throw that he was lucky to complete. Jackson does not throw a ton of interceptions despite what I saw against Mississippi state when he threw four. In the Clemson game he did throw a particularly killer pick-six in the third quarter. The Cardinals were down 19-7, points on that drive would have significantly improved their chances to hang in the game. Instead, the poor pass turned into seven points the other way and after Clemson scored on their next possession the game was already out of reach at 33-7. I do not believe Jackson has much experience progressing through reads and reading the full field. On many completions he is simply throwing it to his first read; his second “read” is often to tuck the ball and run.

One positive on Jackson’s throwing ability is that he can really fire it to his receivers. At one point in the Clemson game, the commentator said he was throwing “heat seeking missiles” to Jaylen Smith. That arm strength can help him fit the ball into tight windows, when thrown accurately, and is the reason he can throw the deep ball successfully.

SWOT Analysis: (SWOT analysis is a way to study the internal and external factors that may help or hinder your ability to achieve an objective. The objective here: getting drafted.)

Strengths: Rushing ability, 4.40 speed, arm strength, toughness, confidence, durability despite being a rushing quarterback.

Weaknesses: Accuracy, composure in the pocket, decision making under pressure, thin frame for an NFL quarterback.

Opportunities: Deshaun Watson showed NFL personnel that an athletic but inaccurate quarterback could have success in the NFL. If paired with a creative offensive coordinator and strong offensive line, Jackson could flourish.

Threats: Some NFL scouts will want to change his position. The Watson comparison also shows that injury is a risk. He will be very dependent on his head coach, offensive coordinator and supporting personnel more so than some quarterback prospects.

Draft Round Grade: 2nd Round

I believe that Jackson will fall out of the first and be a target for a team in the early 2nd Round, maybe a target for a team trading up to get the 33rd pick. I would not be surprised to hear that some teams have him off their board all together at QB. It only takes one team though to think that they know best and have the perfect scheme for him to succeed.

Recent NFL Comparison: Tyrod Taylor

Jackson is a bit taller than Taylor but otherwise they have similar athletic profiles. Their rate stats in college were also similar (i.e. under 60% completion percentage). Jackson is a more dynamic runner than Taylor though. In the NFL, Taylor has become a game-manager quarterback with a higher completion percentage and few mistakes but it took him four years as a backup to get to that point. Jackson likely won’t get that luxury being such a high pick. I anticipate that many people will compare Jackson to Robert Griffin III but I don’t see it. RGIII was a bit heavier and was a significantly more accurate passer than Jackson.

Mason Rudolph, QB, Oklahoma State

I am higher on Mason Rudolph than most analysts. Earlier in the year, I had Rudolph ranked as my second quarterback, ahead of Sam Darnold and just behind Josh Rosen and he’s still in that range for me. Rudolph likely won’t start in the NFL in 2018 but he has the experience, size and arm strength that scouts will love. In my opinion, he’s a high ceiling, low floor player. He may not have the star potential of Sam Darnold but but he’ll be a solid pro. Rudolph is a senior who played 42 games in his career in Stillwater. He has elite size at 6’5″ and 230lbs and I believe he has underrated mobility. Since taking over as the starter as a true freshman late in the 2014 season (the team had to burn his redshirt due to an injury to their starter), Rudolph has avoided injury. A sprained ankle forced him to miss all but one series against Oklahoma in 2015 and a “very minor,” yet undisclosed, injury limited his productivity this year against Texas. He’s also free from character concerns like suspensions or arrests. Rudolph instantly became the BMOC in 2014 when he led a comeback victory against a ranked Oklahoma team in their annual “Bedlam” rivalry game.

Stats & Accolades: Mason Rudolph’s stats speak for themselves. He’s a high volume, deep ball thrower who feasted on weaker Big 12 defenses. He has 92 career passing TDs and nearly 14,000 yards – crazy. In 2017, he led the FBS in passing yards, ranked 4th in passing TDs and was 3rd in rating. He won’t win any of the country’s biggest awards but he did win the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm award. That may not sound like much but when you look at the history of the award there is a great recent history: Deshaun Watson, Marcus Mariota, AJ McCarron, Andrew Luck, Matt Ryan and Eli Manning. Rudolph beat out Mayfield for the award, one would presume, based on character as that is listed as a key component. It’s easy to be blinded by the big numbers so let’s take a closer look. I used Pro Football Focus’ Signature State Guide to go deeper on Rudolph. In their three key quarterback metrics, Rudolph ranked 22nd or better. His Adjusted Completion Percentage, which accounts for drops, was 73.9% (22nd). His passer rating under pressure was 95.5 (15th). His passer rating on deep throws was 118.1 (7th). He threw for more yards on deep passes than any other player in the sample (1,562). I also reviewed Benjamin Solak’s Contextualized Quarterbacking treatise (a fantastic read, by the way). Solak’s data shows that Rudolph completes 61% of his passes when he goes beyond his first read. On those plays, he throws an “interceptable” ball 34% more often than when he throws to his first read. This may sound like a lot but not when compared to other top prospects, specifically, Baker Mayfield (throws interceptions 81.7% more often after the first read) and Josh Allen (288.9%). Solak goes on to show that Rudolph struggles when fitting a pass into a “tight window.” He only completes 35% of those passes and throws “interceptable” balls 402.2% more often, which is significantly worse than Mayfield and Allen. Solak’s data also shows that Rudolph does not benefit from Yards After Catch (YAC) as often as other passers do. In his study of the eight Senior Bowl quarterbacks, Rudolph had the second lowest YAC percentage (37.8%). When paired with the stats of his deep ball passing, it shows that Rudolph can really chuck it and accurately so. If you see a 58 yard reception in the box score, chances are the ball flew 50 yards with 8 yards coming after the catch, rather than vice versa.

Passing Table
Year School Conf Class Pos G Cmp Att Pct Yds Y/A AY/A TD Int Rate
*2014 Oklahoma State Big 12 FR QB 3 49 86 57.0 853 9.9 9.2 6 4 154.0
*2015 Oklahoma State Big 12 SO QB 13 264 424 62.3 3770 8.9 8.9 21 9 149.1
*2016 Oklahoma State Big 12 JR QB 13 284 448 63.4 4091 9.1 10.0 28 4 158.9
2017 Oklahoma State Big 12 SR QB 13 318 489 65.0 4904 10.0 10.7 37 9 170.6
Career Oklahoma State 915 1447 63.2 13618 9.4 9.9 92 26 159.7

Provided by CFB at Sports Reference: View Original Table
Generated 1/17/2018.

Rushing Table
Rush Rush Rush Rush
Year School Conf Class Pos G Att Yds Avg TD
*2014 Oklahoma State Big 12 FR QB 3 14 -33 -2.4 0
*2015 Oklahoma State Big 12 SO QB 13 67 -35 -0.5 1
*2016 Oklahoma State Big 12 JR QB 13 83 61 0.7 6
2017 Oklahoma State Big 12 SR QB 13 61 38 0.6 10
Career Oklahoma State 225 31 0.1 17

Provided by CFB at Sports Reference: View Original Table
Generated 1/17/2018.

Film Study: Pittsburgh (2017), Iowa State (2017)

After going through two games worth of Rudolph’s film I was not disappointed. Were there a few things I noted that could be improved, sure, but I do not feel that he has any glaring weakness to his game. The first thing I noted in the Pitt game was Rudolph’s excellent field awareness. The play came early in the first quarter when Rudolph was about to be sacked in his own end zone for a safety. He had the presence of mind to reach the ball across the line to avoid the turnover. It is a simple play but one that many less experienced quarterbacks would not make. His composure was on display on two big third down plays as well. The first, against Pitt, was a 3rd and 11 from his own 31 yard line. Rudolph takes the shotgun snap and takes a three step drop before the pocket collapses around him. He spins out of the grasp of the first defender and then breaks a second tackle as he rolls left. Rather than throwing while on the run in the opposite direction, he sets his feet and looks down field. He skips his first read and throws a 35 yard pass to Marcell Ateman. Ateman breaks a tackle and beats the last defender to the end zone. The sky cam replay showed a great view. Rudolph threw his receiver open along the sideline and away from the defender. A great play. Against Iowa State, he made a similar pass on a 3rd and 13. He stepped up to avoid the rush only to have the spy come forward to cut off Rudolph’s running lane. He gives a bit of a shimmy as he moves right and brushes off the arm tackle. He finishes off the play with a 20+ yard pass. Rudolph also shows his composure when he’s not chased from the pocket. Late in the Iowa State game, down by eight, the Cowboys found themselves behind the chains with a 3rd and 22. I couldn’t remember the outcome of the game but I just knew Rudolph would find a way to convert and keep his team in it. Sure enough, he delivered. He had great protection and showcased his great footwork in the pocket as he went through at least three reads. He did not get antsy and let the play develop. He finally airs one to Ateman in the back of the end zone for a score.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere in this write-up, I believe Rudolph has better mobility and is a better athlete than he is credited for. He won’t be winning any straight line races but he has enough wiggle and strength to fend off rushers and to rush for short gains. Some of the plays I described above showcased this ability perfectly. Another play that helps make my case came on a 4th down late in the Iowa State game. Oklahoma State needed six yards to keep the game alive – they were down by eight at the time. The play call was definitely a pass as all of the receivers are running routes and not blocking but as soon as he receives the snap, Rudolph takes off. I assume he made the decision pre-snap after seeing the defensive alignment (or maybe the play caller told him to do it but not tell the other players to really sell it, either way it’s a good sign). He runs for eight and safely slides to avoid a big hit.

Another positive I noted was Rudolph’s ability to lead his receiver and anticipate their route. It led to three scores to for the speedy WR Jalen McCleskey against Pitt.

Two negatives I noted were: 1) his play action fake does not seem to be very effective and 2) I counted four throws from the left hash to the right boundary that were poor. We know Rudolph has the arm strength to make the throw across the field but I think it comes down to the ball placement as Solak discusses in his Contextualized Quarterback research.

SWOT Analysis: (SWOT analysis is a way to study the internal and external factors that may help or hinder your ability to achieve an objective. The objective here: getting drafted.)

Strengths: Size, arm strength, deep ball, durability, experience, high character, composure, underrated mobility.

Weaknesses: Few passes outside of the pocket or on the run, ball placement in tight windows, offensive scheme in college, quiet leader.

Opportunities: Could start in year one if needed because he is experienced and has played in big games. He has already showed that he can come in as an inexperienced first-year player and win games. He appears to be a quiet leader which may not be great for the college game but will be better in the NFL. Due to his arm strength he will show-out at the combine, pro day and in training camp.

Threats: Some teams may not like that he is not a rah-rah guy. Teams may also question his ability to transition to an NFL style scheme. He’ll need to land with an offense who heavily utilizes shotgun as I don’t recall a single snap from under center. The heavier pass rush and tighter coverage he’ll face in the NFL could pose a problem for him.

Draft Round Grade: Late 1st, Early 2nd Round

Quarterbacks inevitably get drafted higher than we expect at this point in the process. I think Rudolph would be the perfect backup for a team with a one or two year transition coming at the position. Maybe to a team like Pittsburgh?

Recent NFL Comparison: Ben Roethlisberger

I had this comp in mind early during my research of Mason Rudolph and I just couldn’t get off it. I also considered Blake Bortles but Bortles was less experienced than Rudolph at this point in their careers and is likely a faster runner. Ben and Mason are of similar size and build. They were both three year starters who led their team to more wins than the school typically had throughout their history. They had similar senior seasons (37 TDs, 4,400+ yards, 63%+ completion percentage, rating around 170.0). Roethlisberger has a reputation of not being fast but of being good at moving in the pocket – given some more practice, I could see Rudolph playing similarly. Roethlisberger went 11th overall in 2004 in a quarterback class that featured two major names (Eli Manning and Philip Rivers) that overshadowed the other prospects. Sound familiar?

Josh Allen, QB, Wyoming

Josh Allen has had a long and interesting road to this point in his football career. As an outside observer, I have to give him credit. Coming out of high school he did not receive a single offer and instead went the community college route before getting offers from Eastern Michigan and Wyomin. ESPN ran a detailed piece in the preseason which they updated in December which shows just how determined Allen was to get a shot. (Bonus points to author Mark Schlabach for one of the best lines I’ve read all year: “His unsolicited emails went over like a loan request from a Nigerian prince.”). Like Mason Rudolph, Allen has elite size; unlike Rudolph, Allen struggles with accuracy and did not dominate in college as you would expect against Mountain West competition. Allen will be a high draft pick but he won’t end up on any of my fantasy teams. His inaccuracy, failure to dominate lesser opposition and his injury history all give me pause. He seems like a good kid with a great story but he’s being over hyped in my opinion based on a handful of big plays.

Stats & Accolades: As I mentioned above, the biggest knock on Allen’s stats is his inaccuracy and his inability to succeed at a high level against lesser defenders. Over his two year career, Allen completed just 56.2% of his passes. His stats in 2016 were solid and promising given that he wasn’t on anybody’s radar but 2017 left a lot to be desired. Allen took better care of the football in 2017 (he cut down on his interceptions, 15 to 6, and fumbles lost, 5 to 2) but saw his yardage per attempt plummet. Allen played well but not great against many Mountain West foes. Against Boise State, the conference’s best defense this year, he completed just 44% of his passes for one score and two picks. In three career games against Power 5 opponents (Nebraska, Iowa, Oregon) Allen also struggled. He completed just 50% of his passes for a combined 427 yards, 1 TD and 8 INTs. My concerns with Allen hold up when you scrutinize some advanced stats. Pro Football Focus gives him an adjusted completion percentage of 65.2%. That may look good but keep in mind that it’s the lowest of any of the top quarterback prospects; Sam Darnold, second lowest, is at 70.6%. The same holds true for his completion percentage under pressure. He’s lowest of the cohort at 52.2% with Darnold second at 59.7%. The aforementioned Contextualized Quarterbacking study by Benjamin Solak finds that Allen’s placement is worse for throws behind the line of scrimmage than throws within nine yards of the line. That’s an odd stat that matches what I noticed while watching Allen against Iowa. Solak goes on to note that Allen rarely goes past his first read with just 18 completions on such plays. I struggled to find positives when studying Allen’s stats. His 2016 passer efficiency ranked 32nd in the FBS and his 28 TDs tied for 20th. His best stat in 2016 was yards per attempt which ranked 8th.

Passing Table
Year School Conf Class Pos G Cmp Att Pct Yds Y/A AY/A TD Int Rate
2015 Wyoming MWC SO QB 2 4 6 66.7 51 8.5 8.5 0 0 138.1
*2016 Wyoming MWC SO QB 14 209 373 56.0 3203 8.6 8.3 28 15 144.9
2017 Wyoming MWC JR QB 11 152 270 56.3 1812 6.7 6.9 16 6 127.8
Career Wyoming 365 649 56.2 5066 7.8 7.7 44 21 137.7

Provided by CFB at Sports Reference: View Original Table
Generated 1/19/2018.

Rushing & Receiving Table
Rush Rush Rush Rush
Year School Conf Class Pos G Att Yds Avg TD
2015 Wyoming MWC SO QB 2 3 40 13.3 0
*2016 Wyoming MWC SO QB 14 142 523 3.7 7
2017 Wyoming MWC JR QB 11 92 204 2.2 5
Career Wyoming 237 767 3.2 12

Provided by CFB at Sports Reference: View Original Table
Generated 1/19/2018.

Film Study:

SWOT Analysis: (SWOT analysis is a way to study the internal and external factors that may help or hinder your ability to achieve an objective. The objective here: getting drafted.)

Strengths: Arm strength, perseverance and dedication to get this far, elite size, ability to throw on the run.

Weaknesses: Accuracy, performance against subpar opposition in MWC, questionable pocket presence, lack of pedigree, injury history.

Opportunities: Allen has some great plays on tape and some scouts will inevitably fall for him thinking they can fix the problems in his game. QBs of this size are always overvalued. The success of Carson Wentz and Jimmy Garoppolo so far will help show that you can be successful in the NFL even if you didn’t play against top talent in the NFL.

Threats: As scouts watch more tape, they may become more worried with the inaccurate throws and the degradation of Allen’s mechanics under pressure. There are some recent big name clavicle injuries (Tony Romo, Aaron Rodgers) which could force Allen to undergo additional medical scrutiny.

Draft Round Grade: Early to Mid 1st Round

There’s too much buzz around Allen right now for him to fall out of the 1st Round. I wouldn’t bet on it but an Aaron Rodgers like fall to a pick in the 20s may not be out of the question. The hype may start to fade as NFL personnel guys start worrying about the negatives they are seeing on tape rather than gushing about the positives.

Recent NFL Comparison: DeShone Kizer

I picked Kizer for a few reasons. First, I felt similarly about Kizer at this point in the process last year as I do about Allen this year. There’s buzz but I don’t really agree with it. When I looked at incoming rookie QBs last year, here are a few of the conclusions I drew about Kizer, much of that mirrors exactly what I am saying about Allen:

  • “Kizer will be over-drafted because of his size, plain and simple. He is 6’4″ and 230lb which should peg him as the biggest quarterback prospect…”
  • “He certainly won’t be drafted for the stats he put up at Notre Dame. He had a horrendous completion percentage of 58.7% in 2016 and did not break 3,000 passing yards in either 2015 or 2016. He does have some “boom” capability though so be careful which tape you watch…”
  • “When I watched Kizer’s film, I was struck by how uncomfortable he looked under pressure…”
  • “Some quarterback desperate team will inevitably take Kizer in the Top 15 due to his physical tools but I wouldn’t want my team making that mistake – he will need time to develop and he won’t get that if he’s taken in the top half of the first round.”

Note: When watching film for a player in the offseason, I typically pick two games at random to watch. If game film is not available I will search for highlight reels, but keep in mind these are the best plays that player had all season so they really need to jump off the screen. I do not necessarily want to watch games where they did very well or very poorly as that may not be a great illustration of their true ability. If possible, when comparing players at the same position I also like to watch film against common opponents. Full disclosure, I am not watching film of every single game any player plays, instead I am looking for a representative sample. When researching college players I use a number of resources, I would recommend bookmarking the below sites…

  • Stats: espn.com, sports-reference.com, cfbstats.com, herosports.com, fcs.football, foxsports.com
  • Film: 2018 NFL Draft Database by @CalhounLambeau, youtube.com (but be wary of highlight only reels)
  • Draft info and mocks: draftcountdown.com, nfldraftscout.com, walterfootball.com, mattwaldmanrsp.com, draftek.com
  • Draft history: drafthistory.com
  • Combine info: pro-football-reference.com, espn.com, nflcombineresults.com
  • Season preview magazines: Phil Steele, Lindy’s, Street and Smith’s
  • Podcasts: ESPN’s First Draft, Strong as Steele with Phil Steele, The Audible by Football Guys (specifically episodes w/ Matt Waldman), UTH Dynasty

Robert F. Cowper is a freelance writer who lives in New Jersey. Robert works as a recreation professional, specializing in youth sports, when he isn’t acting as commissioner for his many fantasy sports leagues.

More Analysis by Bob Cowper

Championship Weekend Projections

Updated: January 20th 2018

It is Championship Sunday! What an amazing slate of games last weekend. The Eagles hung on at home in a thrilling victory that stunned a bunch of critics. New England unsurprisingly throttled Tennessee despite the Titans striking first with a score. And then Sunday, in what many thought would be a defensive battle, the Jaguars and the Steelers combined for 87 points with the Jags edging the Steelers by 3 points, sending the Steelers and their fans depressed into the offseason. And then for the finale, Case Keenum to Stefon Diggs in walk-off fashion at home to beat the Saints on what is being called the Minnesota Miracle. Below is a recap of how we have all performed over the past two weeks:

  1. Stephen Wendell: Wildcard Weekend: 3-1 ML & 3-1 ATS / Divisional Weekend: 3-1 ML & 2-2 ATS
  2. Matt Papson: Wildcard Weekend: 2-2 ML & 2-2 ATS / Divisional Weekend: 3-1 ML & 4-0 ATS
  3. Bob Cowper: Wildcard Weekend: 3-1 ML & 1-3 ATS / Divisional Weekend: 3-1 ML & 4-0 ATS
  4. Matt Goodwin: Wildcard Weekend: 1-3 ML & 1-3 ATS / Divisional Weekend: 1-3 ML & 4-0 ATS
  5. Nick Andrews: Wildcard Weekend: 2-2 ML & 0-4 ATS / Divisional Weekend: 2-2 ML & 3-1 ATS
  6. Bernard Faller: Wildcard Weekend: 2-2 ML & 1-3 ATS  / Divisional Weekend: 1-3 ML & 1-3 ATS
  7. Dave Sanders: Wildcard Weekend: No Picks / Divisional Weekend: 1-3 ML & 2-2 ATS

The table is set for an incredible Championship Sunday, and here are our writers’ projections for this weekend:

  1. Jacksonville Jaguars @ New England Patriots (Line NE -7.5): ML – 2 JAX & 4 NE// ATS – 5 JAX & 1 NE
  2. Minnesota Vikings @ Philadelphia Eagles (Line MIN -3.5): ML – 4 MIN & 2 PHI // ATS – 3 MIN & 3 PHI

#3 Jacksonville Jaguars (10-6) @ #1 New England Patriots (13-3) [Line: NE -7.5]

Stephen Wendell: Well I certainly underestimated Jacksonville last week. I have to tip my cap to them as they came into Pittsburgh and played without fear and handed the Steelers a crushing defeat. Even though Tom’s hand may not be 100%, I don’t think the Jag’s miracle run continues, as the Patriots (even if led by Hoyer) find a way to get it done at home where they have won so many games before in January.  Projected Score: Patriots 24 – Jaguars 13.

Matt Papson: At 6-2 ATS, Papson is letting his score predictions speak for themselves this week. Projected Score: Patriots 27 – Jaguars 21.

Robert Cowper: Offense sells tickets, defense wins championships. Defense travels. These may be cliches, but cliches become cliche for a reason. I can’t believe I’ve convinced myself of this but I’m taking the Jags and their defense to overcome the Patriots offense. It’s part contrarian pick but it’s also based on stats. The Patriots are the second best offense when it comes to turnovers; just 6.5% of their drives end in a turnover. The Jags on the other hand are prolific at creating turnovers; they rank third, creating turnovers on 15.8% of drives. Something’s gotta give and I think it’ll be New England losing the turnover margin battle. One area where the Patriots offense is not elite is when it comes to protecting Tom Brady – they rank 15th in sacks allowed and 12th in sacks allowed per pass attempt (which helps control for the fact that they pass more frequently than many teams). Not surprisingly, if you’ve watched any of their games, the Jags are second in both categories on defense. Another reason I think the Jags will have the better turnover margin is that Blake Bortles is being utilized differently in the playoffs. Through the regular season he averaged over 32 attempts per game; so far in the playoffs he has attempted 23 and 26 passes. His attempts are down and so are his interceptions (13 on the season but none in the playoffs). One reason his attempts are down is because he’s running more often: 28% of his 2017 rushing yards came in the two playoff games. Throughout all of December (5 games) Bortles had just 67 yards and so far in January (2 games) he has 123. The Jags need to keep the game plan the same and they will win a close one led by their defense and kicker Josh Lambo. Projected Score: Jaguars 19 – Patriots 11

Matt Goodwin: I’m sure I’m in the extreme minority here, but there’s something about this Jaguars team that seems 2013 Ravens-like and potentially even like the 2014 Seahawks. Both of those teams had to climb their respective conferences after coming just short in season’s past. This Jaguars team, buoyed by key free agent additions on the defensive side like Calais Campbell and the instant success of #4 overall draft pick Leonard Fournette have turned it around in one season. While nobody seems to ever be able to completely neutralize the Patriots offense, this one feels like the Jags have the talent to do just that and their offense has been efficient and confident enough to win different types of games. If the Jags had a weapon like Allen Robinson in this game, I’d be more confident in the pick, but I’m rolling with them nonetheless as I think Telvin Smith can contain Gronk and Jalen Ramsey will do his thing, while receivers like Keelan Cole and Dede Westbrook do enough to compliment Fournette’s running and Yeldon catching passes out of the backfield. Give me the Jags in a “shock the world” upset.  Projected Score: Jaguars 23 – Patriots 20.

Nick AndrewsThis is the matchup everyone expected for the AFC Championship, Pittsburgh Steelers Jacksonville Jaguars vs. New England Patriots. Jokes aside, this actually might be a better game than if Pittsburgh had made the trip to Foxborough. There are only two things that have prevented Tom Brady and Bill Belichick from having another handful of Super Bowl rings: 4-man defensive pressure and Tom Coughlin. The Jaguars have both of these which is why I think they have a better shot to make it to the Super Bowl than the Steelers ever did. Belichick and Josh McDaniels will certainly use a different game plan to try and counter the pressure but it definitely will make things interesting. What will be more interesting is which Blake Bortles shows up to play? The Patriots are unlikely to give up as many opportunities as they Steelers afforded him last week so can Bortles make three or four drives that result in touchdowns over field goals? I think that will be the difference in Sunday’s results. Projected Score: Patriots 23 – Jaguars 16.

Bernard Faller: Rookie Leonard Fournette and the Jaguars run game pounded Pittsburg last week. The formula remains the same this week relying on a stout defense and limiting the Patriots offensive touches with the run game. The challenge will be scoring against a New England defense which closed the year strong giving up only 14 points per game in the last 13 contests after a brutal first four weeks of the season. This could be closer than some think but I will bet against New England when Tom Brady retires. Maybe. Projected Score: Patriots 24 – Jaguars 16

#2 Minnesota Vikings (13-3) @ #1 Philadelphia Eagles (13-3) [Line: PHI -3.5]

Stephen Wendell: I was more optimistic than most last week, picking the Eagles to win outright, and I feel the same way this week. Foles showed he can play under immense pressure, and ultimately, I think the home crowd and playing outdoors proves to be the difference this week. The Eagles win on a late 4th quarter touchdown and head to Super 52 for a rematch against their last Super Bowl foe, the Patriots. Projected Score: Eagles 21 – Vikings 17.

Matt Papson: At 6-2 ATS, Papson is letting his score predictions speak for themselves this week. Projected Score: Eagles 19 – Vikings 17. 

Robert Cowper: Meh. That’s how I’m feeling about the Vikings and Eagles matchup. There are some interesting storylines, my favorite being “how did Jeff Fisher manage to be 4-12 with three playoff QBs on the Rams’ roster last year,” but I’m just not into it. We all agree that losing Carson Wentz takes some of the sizzle out of this game. Nick Foles is steady and reliable enough to not be a liability but I don’t see him winning this game for the Eagles because the Vikings defense is first in so many categories that I lost count. I think the game will come down to Vikings RB Jerick McKinnon. He only got 8 carries to Latavius Murray’s 19 last week but with Murray running headlong into Fletcher Cox I think it’s inevitable that they’ll change strategy. I think we’ll see a game similar to the one McKinnon had against the Bengals when he caught 7 balls for 114 yards. Let’s not forget that Minnesota has the added incentive of playing a Super Bowl at home. (did I mention that I’m a Cowboys fan?) Projected Score: Vikings 23 – Eagles 16

Matt Goodwin: I’m really excited about this game and how could anyone not be after Stefon Diggs’ walk-off touchdown last week? One game away from hosting the Super Bowl, the Vikings take on the underdog Eagles in a likely grind-it-out matchup. Since teams can’t really run on the Vikings, it will be imperative that Nick Foles and the Eagles get creative on offense and try to attack the Vikings secondary. Good luck with that as I don’t think Alshon Jeffery gets separation on average DBs, let alone Xavier Rhodes. Beyond Zach Ertz, I think guys like Nelson Agholor, Corey Clement and Trey Burton will have to get going in the passing game for the Eagles to be able to do much on offense. In order to win this game, the Eagles defense will have to make life terrible for Case Keenum with constant pressure. In the end, causing turnovers is the Eagles best shot at getting back to the Super Bowl without Carson Wentz. I think the Eagles’ time will come sooner than later and I’m not just saying this for Matt and Stephen’s benefit (maybe even next season), but I’m taking the Vikings this weekend as they just seem to be a “team of destiny”. Projected Score: Vikings 19 – Eagles 16

Nick AndrewsWow. Wow. Wow! No offense to the Eagles but I think that Saints vs. Vikings might have been the real NFC Championship game. Drew Brees did everything he could to vanquish the best defense in the NFL and the Saints still fell just short. The Eagles also boast a strong defense which should make this a low(er) scoring game. However, I don’t think Nick Foles can rise up to the level that Drew Brees needed to take down this Vikings squad. The Eagles best shot is for their defense to create short fields with turnovers and 3-play drives increasing their scoring opportunities. I don’t see them sustaining many 60+ yard drives. If the Vikings gain a two score lead at any point, this one is over. Projected Score: Vikings 24 – Eagles 10.

Bernard Faller: The Jeff Fisher nightmare continues as two quarterbacks who struggled under Fisher for the Rams over the previous two seasons are playing for the chance to go to the Super Bowl. I can not wait to see two of the best defenses in the league face off. Minnesota gets the slight nod with a slightly more reliable offense in a low scoring contest on the way to a home Super Bowl. Projected Score:  Vikings 17 – Eagles 13.

More Analysis by Stephen Wendell

Divisional Round Predictions

Updated: January 12th 2018

Well, the underdogs were the story of last week, covering all four games, and winning two of them outright with the Titans pulling off a miracle at Arrowhead and the Falcons dominating the Rams. All in all, the games were highly entertaining save for the Jags/Bills game which was one of the worst games in the history of football in my unfettered hyperbolic opinion. Here is how our writers performed last week (only one of us with a winning record ATS 🙂 ): 

  1. Stephen Wendell: 3-1 ML & 3-1 ATS
  2. Matt Papson: 2-2 ML & 2-2 ATS
  3. Bob Cowper: 3-1 ML & 1-3 ATS
  4. Matt Goodwin: 1-3 ML & 1-3 ATS 
  5. Nick Andrews: 2-2 ML & 0-4 ATS
  6. Bernard Faller: 2-2 ML & 1-3 ATS 

A quick summary of the picks for this week are below in case you don’t want to read each writer’s analysis…but you should because there are some great nuggets of information down there:

  1. Atlanta Falcons @ Philadelphia Eagles (Line ATL -2.5): ML – 4 ATL & 3 PHI// ATS – 3 ATL & 4 PHI
  2. Tennessee Titans @ New England Patriots (Line NE -13.5): ML – 0 TEN & 7 NE // ATS – 3 TEN & 4 NE
  3. Jacksonville Jaguars @ Pittsburgh Steelers (Line PIT -7.5): ML – 1 JAX & 6 PIT // ATS – 4 JAX & 3 PIT
  4. New Orleans Saints @ Minnesota Vikings (Line MIN -4.5): ML – 4 NO & 3 MIN // ATS – 7 NO & 0 MIN

#6 Atlanta Falcons (10-6) @ #1 Philadelphia Eagles (13-3) [Line: ATL -2.5]

Stephen Wendell: As a Birds fan, I am very nervous, but I think Foles and the defense do enough to get this one done, narrowly escaping defeat and setting up an exciting NFC Championship game at home hosting the Vikings featuring two backup quarterbacks!  Projected Score: Eagles 28 – Falcons 27.

Matt Papson: It’s a Falcons line but I can’t bring myself to pick against the Birds. It’s a home game. Nick Foles is capable of putting together two good games, which is enough to get them to the super bowl. Will he? I’ll bet on at least 1. Projected Score: Eagles 24 – Falcons 23.

Robert Cowper: Jury duty got a hold of Bob this week (good thing college is done) so he was just able to send his projected scores. Projected Score: Eagles 25 – Falcons 19.

Matt Goodwin: Going with experienced QB play in each game as that is the key to the divisional round in my opinion. Projected Score: Falcons 23 – Eagles 20.

Nick AndrewsThe Eagles have been sliding down the power rankings ever since Carson Wentz was lost for the season. In their final three games, the Eagles looked on par with the 3-13 Giants and 6-10 Raiders and then were shutout by the Cowboys in week 17. There’s a reason why this will be the first time since the playoffs expanded that the #1 seed is an underdog in the Divisional Round. The Falcons flaunted their playoff experience against the Rams last week by taking the early lead and then holding strong throughout. I expect the same will occur this week. Projected Score: Falcons 27 – Eagles 16.

Bernard Faller: Philadelphia was in the conversation for most complete team in the NFL with Carson Wentz at quarterback.   The Eagles dominated in almost every aspect with no weaknesses.  Things change in a hurry.  Atlanta has not exactly been a “juggernaut” in any area this season but I will take Ryan almost every time in a Ryan vs. Foles matchup.  The improving Falcons defense does just enough. Projected Score: Falcons 21 – Eagles 17.

Dave SandersWhile Doug Peterson tries to return Nick Foles to somewhere between competent and his 2014 form, the Atlanta Falcons come to town as -2.5 point road FAVORITES.  I’d expect that Ajayi, Blount, and Clement will faced a stacked box as Dan Quinn will force Foles and company to attack their Cover-3 zone scheme, which has been very successful this year.  Foles will have to get the ball out quickly to counter Atlanta’s ability to pressure with only four rushers.  On the other hand, Atlanta’s offense hasn’t be great this season and likely will continue struggle against a stout Philadelphia defense.  All of that said, give me Ryan over Foles in a playoff game.  It’s as simple as that.  I’ll take Atlanta and lay the 2.5 points. Projected Score: Falcons 20 – Eagles 13.

#5 Tennessee Titans (9-7) @ #1 New England Patriots (13-3) [Line: NE -13.5]

Stephen Wendell: The Titans cover but in a backdoor fashion. They will not compete on the road in one of the toughest places to win in January. Brady and a healthy Gronk dominate this game from start to finish. Projected Score: Patriots 27 – Titans 14.

Matt Papson: All the drama surrounding the Pats isn’t nearly enough to create a chance they lose this one. Projected Score: Patriots 45 – Titans 13.

Robert Cowper: Jury duty got a hold of Bob this week (good thing college is done) so he was just able to send his projected scores. Projected Score: Patriots 33 – Titans 10.

Matt Goodwin: Going with experienced QB play in each game as that is the key to the divisional round in my opinion. Projected Score: Patriots 31 – Titans 10.

Nick AndrewsI called everything but the score in last week’s Titans/Chiefs game. The Chiefs did everything to lose that game by not relying more on Kareem Hunt in the second half. It will be interesting to see what happens to them in the offseason. As for the Titans current matchup, the Patriots are the opposite of the Chiefs in terms of offering opportunities to come back from a multi-score deficit. There are only two outcomes that this game can have. Either the Patriots are distracted from last week’s media storm and allow the Titans to pull out another sneaky win or they use the distraction as fuel to throttle the Titans out of playoffs. I expect the latter. Projected Score: Patriots 27 – Titans 12.

Bernard Faller: The Titans move on to the second round after a historic collapse by the Kansas City Chiefs last week.  New England’s defense, one of the worst in the league this year, is certainly exploitable especially against the run.  That won’t matter as Tom Brady brutalizes the Tennessee defense.  The Kansas City offense forgot to play the second half last week.  New England’s will not.  Projected Score: Patriots 34 – Titans 24.

Dave SandersGive me Tennessee and the 13.5 points.  This isn’t about the drama between Brady, Belichick, and Kraft, which I believe to be overstated.  It’s simply too many points for New England to be laying against anyone in the divisional round.  Mariota and Henry should be able to do just enough to cover, while still losing a close game to the Pats. Projected Score: Patriots 34 – Titans 24.

#3 Jacksonville Jaguars (10-6) @ #2 Pittsburgh Steelers (13-3) [Line: PIT -7.5]

Stephen Wendell: Blake Bortles is awful, plain and simple. Big Ben threw 5 INTs, 2 of them were run back, and the Jags still only scored 30 points in the Week 5 defeat of the Steelers. Big Ben will protect the ball this time around and the Steelers offense will score enough to overcome a very very weak Jags offense. Projected Score: Steelers 24 – Jaguars 10. 

Matt Papson: Despite last week’s abysmal performance I think this is going to be closer than people are expecting.. Projected Score: Steelers 31 – Jaguars 27.

Robert Cowper: Jury duty got a hold of Bob this week (good thing college is done) so he was just able to send his projected scores. Projected Score: Steelers 16 – Jaguars 9 

Matt Goodwin: Going with experienced QB play in each game as that is the key to the divisional round in my opinion. Projected Score; Steelers 16 – Jaguars 10

Nick Andrews: Antonio Brown is expected to be back but how healthy will he be? These two teams met up in week 5 when Big Ben had five interceptions and the Jags got a rare win at Heinz Field. While I don’t think there will be five interceptions again I do suspect that the result will repeat itself. The Jags defense has shown that they can cover the best receivers in the league and can also get to the quarterback. Bortles was rather lackluster against the Bills but he surprisingly did enough on the ground to get a win last week. His performance will likely be the difference between a victory and defeat.  Projected Score: Jaguars 19 – Steelers 17.

Bernard Faller: The Jaguars won an ugly contest in the wild card game against Buffalo featuring one of the worst cumulative performances by opposing quarterbacks in playoff history.  Jacksonville’s defense might be the best in the league and could keep the game close.  The Jaguars beat the Steelers earlier this season with a historically bad five interception game from likely future hall of famer Ben Roethlisberger.  It will not happen again.  One can not trust Blake Bortles against Ben Roethlisberger in a playoff matchup.  Projected Score:  Steelers 24 – Jaguars 13.

Dave SandersI can’t wait to watch the Steelers offense vs. the Jacksonville defense.  It’s the head-to-head matchup I’m most looking forward to watching, most especially if Antonio Brown has fully recovered from injury.  In what may become a defensive grind, I’ll take Jacksonville and the 7.5 points. Projected Score:  Steelers 23 – Jaguars 16.

#4 New Orleans Saints (11-5) @ #2 Minnesota Vikings (13-3) [Line: MIN -4.5]

Stephen Wendell: Man this is the toughest game to predict of the weekend. I think the Vikings put together a FG drive late to win 17-16 and inch out the Saints, putting them one win in Philly away from hosting the Super Bowl! Projected Score: Vikings 17 – Saints 16.

Matt Papson: The Vikings have a more feasible path to a home super bowl than any team in recent memory. Case Keenum isn’t as good as Drew Brees, but the Vikings offense has been consistent and Pat Shurmur is going to put his mark on his final few games with the team Projected Score: Vikings 31 – Saints 27.

Robert Cowper: Jury duty got a hold of Bob this week (good thing college is done) so he was just able to send his projected scores. Projected Score: Vikings 24 – Saints 23.

Matt Goodwin: Going with experienced QB play in each game as that is the key to the divisional round in my opinion. Projected Score: Saints 24 – Vikings 20.

Nick AndrewsThis is another regular season rematch but unlike my Jags prediction, I think this one will be a different outcome. In week 1 the Saints were trying to figure out what to do with Adrian Peterson, had yet to discover the awesome power of Alvin Kamara, and faced Sam Bradford instead of Case Keenum at QB. Marshon Lattimore has also developed into a shutdown corner which will limit the big plays of Stefon Diggs. If the Saints offense can continue to both stretch the field with Brees, Thomas and Ginn Jr. as well as pound the ball with Ingram and Kamara I see the Saints hosting the NFC Championship game next week. Projected Score: Saints 20 – Vikings 17.

Bernard FallerThis game is the highlight of the playoff weekend.  Two of the best overall teams in the league face off for the second time this season.  The Vikings won the first matchup on the strength of a 347 yard, 3 touchdown game by Sam Bradford.  Both teams are good on each side of the ball but the highlight will be two top-rated units squaring off in the New Orleans offense against the Minnesota defense.  In a common theme for my picks, I pick the team with the proven quarterback in Drew Brees going against playoff first-timer Case Keenum. Projected Score: Saints 24 – Vikings 20.

Dave SandersIn what most are calling the game of the week, New Orleans travels to Minnesota in a showcase of two of the best QBs in 2017….Drew Brees (makes sense) and Case Keenum (wait what?).  It’s true.  Maybe it’s the 2,500 virtual reality reps or just distance from Jeff Fisher, but Keenum has turned himself into a very good quarterback.  I still have this feeling in the back of my mind that he’s going to sink the Vikings with a dud of a game at some point.  I’ll bet on it being this game as Kamara, Ingram, Brees, and Thomas may be too much for the Vikings regardless. Give me the Saints and the 4.5 points. Projected Score: Saints 24 – Vikings 23.

More Analysis by Stephen Wendell

Wildcard Weekend Predictions

Updated: January 5th 2018

Yes, your fantasy season is over, but the NFL playoffs have begun! Whether your team is still alive or failed to make the exclusive 12-team field, the action this weekend should be very entertaining. There are some big point spreads but something tells me we will see one or more upsets this weekend.  Like last year, some of the RSO Writers have made their predictions for and given a little analysis on each game, which can be found below. Enjoy the games!

A quick summary of the picks in case you don’t want to read each writer’s analysis…but you should because there are some great nuggets of information down there:

  1. Tennessee Titans @ Kansas City Chiefs (Line KC -8.5): ML – 6 KC & 0 TEN// ATS – 4 KC & 2 TEN
  2. Atlanta Falcons @ LA Rams (Line LAR -5.5): ML – 2 ATL & 4 LAR // ATS – 3 ATL & 3 LAR
  3. Buffalo Bills @ Jacksonville Jaguars (Line JAX -8.5): ML – 0 BUF & 6 JAX // ATS – 1 BUF & 5 JAX
  4. Carolina Panther @ New Orleans Saints (Line NO -6.5): ML – 1 CAR & 5 NO // ATS – 2 CAR & 4 NO

#5 Tennessee Titans (9-7) @ #4 Kansas City Chiefs (10-6) [Line: KC -8.5]

Stephen Wendell: The Titans are a really nice story, but KC at Arrowhead will prove to be too tough. The Chiefs come in on a hot streak that will continue with a win over the Titans that will be a little closer than the experts think.   Projected Score: Chiefs 28 – Titans 20.

Matt Papson: Papson is letting his score predictions speak for themselves this week. Projected Score: Chiefs 31 – Titans 16.

Robert Cowper: This one isn’t even that close for me, honestly.  The Titans are a bad team with a mediocre record that snuck into the playoffs because they earned wins against a poor division.  Of their nine wins, four came against below average quarterbacks (Brissett twice, Kizer/Kessler and Savage).  The Chiefs did struggle in the middle of the season too, losing six of seven in one stretch, but they are hot now after four straight wins.  Wunderkind Kareem Hunt had his “sophomore slump” a little early during that losing streak, however he has rebounded and is ready to dominate the playoffs.  Not counting the Week 17 Denver game when Hunt had one carry (for 35 yards and a score, by the way), he had three straight games of 100+ total yards and at least one touchdown.  With Hunt running well again I don’t think there is any way that the Titans can beat the Chiefs.  The Chiefs are 6th in the league in average time of possession per drive, whereas the Titans are 22nd; if the Chiefs go up by two scores the Titans won’t be able to score enough in their limited time of possession.  Projected Score: Chiefs 22 – Titans 11

Matt Goodwin: Based on scoring differential and other key markers, teams like the Titans and Bills were far inferior to the Chargers and Ravens. Yet the Titans and Bills find themselves in the tournament this weekend while the other two are watching on the couch just like I will be. That said, it’ll be a quick visit for the Titans who unless they get something outer-worldly from QB Marcus Mariota both with his legs to make plays and in the air, I see this game being a big one for Kareem Hunt in the passing game (you saw what Gurley did to the Titans a few weeks ago) and I see Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill both scoring in this game and potentially even a defensive score out of the Chiefs. I’ll be watching Corey Davis on the Titans to see if he can build some momentum to be a fantasy relevant WR2 next season in RSO leagues. Projected Score: Chiefs 30 – Titans 13

Nick AndrewsThe Chiefs played like Super Bowl favorites for the first five weeks of the season but struggled through the middle of the season forcing them to be playing this weekend instead of having a bye. Because of this, along with the past history of Andy Reid teams coming up short in playoff games, I really wanted to pick the Titans here to upset the Chiefs. However, over the last four weeks, the coaching staff seems to have realized that they need the offense to run through rookie Kareem Hunt and allow him to touch the ball 25-30 times a game in order to win. The Titans have the opportunity to beat the Chiefs but more likely this game will be decided by whether the Chiefs beat themselves with bad/conservative play calling. Projected Score: Chiefs 23 – Titans 13.

Bernard Faller: Kansas City heated up at the right time, rolling into the playoffs on the strength of a four-game winning streak.  The Chiefs feature one of the best all around offenses in the NFL with good skill weapons across the board, a solid offensive line, and quarterback Alex Smith having a career season.  The same can not be said for the other side of the ball.  Kansas City managed one of the worst defenses in football struggling against the run and pass.  The Titans limp to the postseason losers of three of their last four games, ending the season with a negative point differential.  The decidedly mediocre Tennessee team relies on winning at the line of scrimmage with good run offense and defense but struggles both throwing the ball and defending the pass.  Tennessee will not hang with the big play Kansas City offense.  Projected Score:  Chiefs 27 – Titans 20

#6 Atlanta Falcons (10-6) @ #3 Los Angeles Rams (11-5) [Line: LA -5.5]

Stephen Wendell: Atlanta is overwhelmed with relief to be back in the playoffs so they officially have a chance for redemption of last year’s Super Bowl debacle. That redemption will start on the road in LA against a very talented Rams team, but I believe Matt Ryan finds a way and Goff makes a couple key mistakes due to his inexperience, resulting in a Falcons upset victory and a second round matchup with Philadelphia. Projected Score: Falcons 28 – Rams 24.

Matt Papson: Papson is letting his score predictions speak for themselves this week. Projected Score: Rams 31 – Falcons 28. 

Robert Cowper: The Rams were a great bounce back story in 2017.  Sean McVay would get my vote for Coach of the Year and Todd Gurley should be considered for MVP now that Carson Wentz is hurt.  That being said, I’m actually not feeling that confident in the Rams chances.  Goff’s numbers have not been as strong in the final half of the season as they were earlier in the year.  Part of that may be them slowing him down to preserve him for the playoffs (as they did in Week 17 by resting him fully), but you can look at his rate stats and see the trend line decreasing too.  Goff’s five highest outings in regards to yards per attempt, a stat he finished 2nd in for the season, all came in Weeks 1-9.  In those weeks his Y/PA was 9.13 or higher; all of his games since Thanksgiving have been 8.23 or lower.  He’s still playing at an above average level, most quarterbacks including Matt Ryan, would love to have a Y/PA like Goff’s, but if I had to bet I would say that Goff plays closer to the bad than the good in the playoffs given his lack of experience.  Don’t forget the Rams also lost kicker Greg Zuerlein; replacement Sam Ficken went 2-3 last week but with a long of just 23 yards.  That will likely matter in a game that I expect will come down to field goals.  The Falcons won three of four to clinch the last playoff spot but could be without Julio Jones who is questionable as of this writing.  I expect Julio to play, even if limited.  He only has 3 TDs on the year but his 88 receptions were 9th most in the league.  Regardless of Julio’s status, keep an eye on Mohamed Sanu, a homer favorite of mine (67-703-5).  Thankfully Devonta Freeman should be healthy enough to play.  I’m not ready to buy in on the Rams yet, they are young and inexperienced at the two most important positions: quarterback and head coach.  Dan Quinn is no Vince Lombardi, but take him and the Falcons.  Projected Score: Falcons 31 – Rams 25

Matt Goodwin: I think this game has the potential to be the most fun of the weekend slate and certainly has the potential to be high scoring. I’m curious about what Devonta Freeman’s knee injury really is as it seemed to come from nowhere. Not sure if that is going to be a factor in this game, but seemingly not as Freeman is not on the final injury report. If it is, I think the Falcons have the potential to get blown out, even with being the more experienced playoff team. In the end, I think Wade Phillips’ defense is going to be fired up against a turnover prone Matt Ryan and I think the Falcons aren’t a good come from behind team. In a tight game, I would worry about Rams rookie kicker Sam Ficken as he’s definitely no “Greg the Leg”. I’m most excited to see Cooper Kupp’s continued ascendance to fantasy relevance and expect him to have a solid game. Give me fellow Miami alum Sean McVay and the Rams in this one. Projected Score: Rams 31 – Falcons 17

Nick AndrewsI don’t know whether Sean McVay and the Rams were resting their start players to purposefully try and fall to the #4 seed to increase their chances of playing the Eagles in the Divisional Round or if they truly wanted to keep them fresh for the playoffs. Either way, everyone else lost in week 17 so the Rams stayed in the #3 seed and will play the Vikings with a victory over the Falcons. The Falcons have had a down year compared to last year’s offensive explosion but they are the only NFC team to return the playoffs from 2016. That is a big check mark for playoff experience on their side of the matchup. If the Falcons are going to beat the Rams it will be because this game is tight in the 4th quarter and their Super Bowl experienced team will be cool and calm under pressure. Expect this game to be the highest scoring game on Wild Card weekend. Projected Score: Rams 34 – Falcons 27.

Bernard Faller: Coach Sean McVay is evidentiary piece number one for what a difference quality coaching can make.  The Rams went from one of the worst teams in football with the lowest scoring offense (by a lot) in 2016 to one of the best teams with the highest scoring offense in the NFL for 2017.  Atlanta, on the other hand, does not look like the same team which narrowly missed winning the Super Bowl last year.  The offense never fully recovered from losing offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan seemingly just a small step out of balance all year.  Look for the Rams dominance continuing in the first playoff game for either new Los Angeles team.  Projected Score:  Rams 31 – Falcons 21

#6 Buffalo Bills (9-7) @ #3 Jacksonville Jaguars (10-6) [Line: JAX -8.5]

Stephen Wendell: Bills Mafia is in full effect as the team is back in the playoffs for the first time since Y2K! They travel to Jacksonville to play a really improved Jaguars team whose defense is flat out relentless. The line is pretty large in my opinion as I do not trust Blake Bortles to play mistake-free football in the pressure type situations he will find himself in this weekend. Ultimately, the defense will be too tough, even if McCoy is fully healthy for the Bills. Jacksonville advances. Projected Score: Jaguars 20 – Bills 13. 

Matt Papson: Papson is letting his score predictions speak for themselves this week. Projected Score: Jaguars 24 – Bills 15.

Robert Cowper: Much like Tennessee against Kansas City, I don’t think the Bills stand a chance in this matchup.  Buffalo is saying that LeSean McCoy may play this weekend but I think that is more gamesmanship than anything.  How often does somebody get carted off with an injury and return the next week?  So, the Bills will likely need to rely on QB Tyrod Taylor’s arms (and legs) to will them to competitiveness.  The Jags pass defense is just is so good.  They lead the league in numerous categories including: completion percentage, yards per attempt, rating, and interception percentage.  They also have the second most sacks so it’s the rush and the coverage working in tandem to shut down the opposition.  Pro-Football-Reference.com tracks “expected points contributed” and in that category the Jags pass defense has “contributed” 121.9 points which is astronomical.  The second best pass defense checks in at 61.30, half of the Jaguars.  Amazingly, the Jacksonville pass offense only contributes 71.65 points – they are the only playoff team whose pass defense is worth more than their pass offense, and I would bet that would hold true for non-playoff teams too.  Projected Score: Jaguars 26 – Bills 9 

Matt Goodwin: I don’t like this matchup at all for the Bills, especially with Lesean McCoy a game-time decision. I think Blake Bortles may have turned a corner late in the season and all of a sudden the Jags passing offense is formidable even without Allen Robinson and Marqise Lee. Combine this with a tough running game and a play-making defense and Buffalo won’t be able to control clock or move the ball. I’ll be watching to see if late season rookie sensation Keelan Cole continues his hot streak. Projected Score; Jaguars 30 – Bills 10

Nick AndrewsWhen the Bills traded Marcell Dareus and started Nathan Peterman it seemed like they had packed it in for the season. Instead, they managed to sneak into the playoffs for the first time this millennium and set up some pretty juicy narratives against the Jaguars. As previously mentioned Marcell Dareus will be playing against his old team for the first time since being traded. Jaguars Head Coach Doug Marrone also was the head coach for Buffalo in 2014 before voiding his contract and leaving the team. But the biggest story is whether LeSean McCoy will be available for Sunday. Even if McCoy can gut it out it will be difficult for the Bills to generate much offense on the best defense in the NFL. If he cannot go the slim chances that Bills have to win will likely disappear completely. Projected Score: Jaguars 19 – Bills 6.

Bernard Faller: These teams each play in a similar manner relying on good pass defenses and the run game while limiting quarterback usage.  Jacksonville has simply been much better at it this year with a dominant best pass defense that is perhaps the best in the league.  Blake Bortles improved but is still an average option at quarterback the Jaguars will try to cover up.  Buffalo struggled making the playoffs and most would consider them the worst team in the playoffs.  The Bills could be in real trouble if LeSean McCoy is unable to produce due to his injury.  Expect a low scoring contest.  Projected Score:  Jaguars 24 – Bills 13

#5 Carolina Panthers (11-5) @ #4 New Orleans Saints (11-5) [Line: NO -6.5]

Stephen Wendell: Pretty easy game for me to pick here. Saints beat the Panthers twice this season, Cam has no weapons to speak of, and Drew Brees now has two fantastic RBs to go with a solid core of WRs. Saints win big! Projected Score: Saints 35 – Panthers 24.

Matt Papson: Papson is letting his score predictions speak for themselves this week. Projected Score: Saints 31 – Panthers 27. 

Robert Cowper: The Panthers lost to the Saints in both head to head matchups by a combined 31 points this season.  This one will probably be closer just because it’s the playoffs and the Saints may be more risk averse in their play calling but I do still expect them to win.  Drew Brees was not his usual prolific self this season, he threw for the fewest yards and touchdowns of any season since joining the Saints, because the offense has relied on the dynamic one-two punch of Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara.  I was dead wrong on Kamara who I avoided in rookie drafts and am sorry now.  He’s been fantastic with over 1,500 total yards and 14 total TDs.  On the Panthers side, the passing game has been hampered by the trade of Kelvin Benjamin, the injury of Greg Olsen and the inconsistency of Devin Funchess.  Funchess has played through injury without missing a game so he’s tough, but still, he has not surpassed 60 yards receiving since Week 11.  RB Christian McCaffrey is the team’s leading receiver, averaging 5 receptions and 40 yards per game.  Both defenses are Top 11 when it comes to total points allowed but both are in the bottom half of the league when it comes to yards per play and the number of punts forced.  I think it will be a game with a lot of yardage but it’ll come down to who converts in the red zone and that favors New Orleans (58.2% vs 53.8%).  Projected Score: Saints 34 – Panthers 19

Matt Goodwin: I know that the Saints swept the Panthers this season in fairly convincing fashion. However, Cam Newton has had some monster games in the Big Easy in the past few years. The Saints now boast a play-making defense with a very underrated secondary and probably the best running game in the NFL. That said, I still like the Panthers here, especially if they can figure out how to get Christian McCaffrey in space and use Greg Olsen in the middle of the field where the Saints are more vulnerable. This one’s probably closer than the other three games given the division familiarity. Projected Score: Panthers 24 – Saints 21

Nick AndrewsHad the Bills not found a way into the playoffs I would have said that the Panthers are easily the worst team to make the playoffs this year. Cam Newton doesn’t have enough weapons around him on offense and the defense isn’t as elite as several of the other NFC teams in the playoffs, including the Saints. Newton himself hasn’t looked elite since his MVP 2015 season. Other than an explosive game against the Dolphins, Newton hasn’t thrown for 250 yards or completed 65% of his passes in a game since week 5. The Saints are too strong of a defense and too efficient of an offense to allow Cam Newton and the Panthers enough short fields and opportunities to beat them. Projected Score: Saints 31 – Panthers 13.

Bernard Faller: Two intra-division rivals face off for the third time this season.  The New Orleans story starts with finally finding a competent defense this season.  This changed the formula for the Saints relying much more on one of the best run games in the league highlighted by rookie sensation Alvin Kamara.  Drew Brees’ numbers may be down but not due to effectiveness as he leads the NFL in completion percentage and yards per attempt.    Carolina made the postseason again but it was not pretty.  Cam Newton’s struggles as a passer continue resulting in an erratic offense throughout the year.  New Orleans dominated the first two matchups racking up over 30 points in each contest.   It is difficult beating a playoff-level opponent three times but there is nothing suggesting anything but the same here. Projected Score:  Saints 28 – Panthers 21

More Analysis by Stephen Wendell

The Watch List: National Championship Preview

Updated: January 5th 2018

Welcome to The Watch List, a resource to help RSO owners identify the storylines, players and matchups from the college game that deserve your attention.  To view my weekly picks, follow me on Twitter @robertfcowper.  During the college bowl season, The Watch List will continue to update you on who is fantasy relevant and worth your draft capital next year.  Note: times listed are Eastern.

The finish line is in sight, the marathon that is the bowl season is nearly over, just one more game remaining.  While listening to ESPNU Radio these past few days (a must-listen for anybody with SiriusXM) a number of callers and pundits have expressed disappointment in an all-SEC championship.  I say, “who cares,” because they are the two best teams in the country in my mind.  Let’s not forget that despite all the banter about Bama’s playoff resume, they were still ranked #1 in the AP Poll until they lost to Auburn on Nov 25.  Georgia didn’t get that high but was #2 for about a month in the middle of the year.  I have covered these two teams a lot this season so I wanted to avoid rehashing the same analysis and the same talking points.  So, I decided to go with a “tale of the tape” type preview.  I will compare the teams’ various units to see who has the advantage before making my prediction.

Quarterback: Alabama

Ironically the first unit I looked at was probably the hardest for me to determine my pick.  Jake Fromm leads Jalen Hurts in most passing categories but I give Hurts the nod for two reasons: 1) his experience and 2) his ability to protect the ball.  Hurts may only be a sophomore but he’s literally been here before.  This game will be Hurts fourth College Football Playoff game.  He has played okay in those games but it’s less about what he does do and more about what he doesn’t do: turn the ball over.  Hurts has just one interception and two fumbles lost this season.  Fromm has five and two – not a huge increase but he had far fewer “touches” this season than Hurts.  The two had basically the same number of passing attempts (248 vs 259) but Hurts had a hundred more carries and played in one less game.  Fromm will likely outplay Hurts as a passer but I’d rather have Hurts.

Running Backs: Georgia

Both teams feature a stable of backs that contribute.  Georgia uses Nick Chubb and Sony Michel almost equally but also sprinkles in freshman D’Andre Swift.  Meanwhile, Alabama uses Damien Harris, Bo Scarborough, Najee Harris and Joshua Jacobs.  Najee Harris and Jacobs only combined for three touches against Clemson but they were both utilized more during the regular season.  Damien Harris is the lead back (19 carries for 77 yards last week) but Scarborough will still see plenty of action.  Damien Harris averages 7.6 yards per carry on the season which is great but is actually eclipsed by Georgia’s Sony Michel (8.0).  If you watched Georgia beat Oklahoma you were surely impressed by Michel.  He out-touched Chubb 15-14 because of his four receptions.  Michel is a better pass catcher than Chubb but his receiving against Oklahoma was mostly unexpected; he had just nine receptions on the season and only once in his four season career has he had four receptions in a game.  My guess is that they did not feel they could trust freshman D’Andre Swift, the leading pass catcher among running backs this season, in pass protection which meant Michel getting more snaps on passing downs.  If Georgia’s backs can match half their Rose Bowl output (367 total yards, 6 TDs) they’ll give the Bulldogs a shot.

Receivers: Alabama

Neither team had a receiver crack 60 receptions or 1,000 yards this season which is surprising to me.  In an atmosphere that is so pass-heavy right now in college football, the nation’s two best teams are run-first and run-second offenses.  Georgia WR Javon Wims arguably had the best game of his career in the Rose Bowl (6-73-1) but was not a huge factor in the offense until later in the season (25 of his 44 receptions came in the last five games, just 19 in the first eight).  Alabama’s leading receiver is Calvin Ridley.  Statistically, Ridley had the worst season of his career (59-935-4) but I’m not deterred: he’s still my WR1 for 2018 rookie drafts.  Ridley is fast, has good hands, catches the ball away from his body and is a very good route runner.  In Alabama’s rush oriented offense he may not put up big numbers but he’s a difference maker.

Defensive Line: Alabama

I’ll venture a guess that none of Georgia’s defensive lineman have a receiving touchdown this season like Daron Payne does now.  That’s not why I’m taking the Tide’s line though, it’s the combination of Payne, Da’Shawn Hand and Raekwon Davis that clinches it.  Payne, a 308lb DT, should be a first round pick this year if he declares early.  Davis is a 6’7″ monster at DE who had 9.5 tackles for loss and 7 sacks this season; he was a factor in the Sugar Bowl with 5 tackles, 2 tackles for loss and a sack.  Hand has been limited by injuries throughout his career but is still an early Day Two prospect.  Phil Steele ranked Alabama as the 6th best d-line corps in the preseason and they lived up to that billing this season (for what it’s worth, Georgia was not far behind at 11th).  Georgia’s Trenton Thompson was a top high school recruit, had a good sophomore season (capped off by an 8 tackle, 3 sack bowl game vs TCU) but didn’t live up to his potential in 2017 (just 35 tackles, no sacks).  DE Jonathan Ledbetter recorded a sack and six tackles last week against Oklahoma so keep an eye on him too.  There’s a funny pun somewhere in the names of Davis, Hand and Payne but all I can come up with is “On MonDavis, Da’Shawn’s Hands will cause Jake Fromm some Payne.”  I’m sorry.

Linebackers: Georgia

Alabama is used to having a “next man up” mentality on defense because they graduate so many players to the NFL.  That was no truer than at linebacker this year when they lost Reuben Foster and Ryan Anderson last season and then lost Shaun Dion Hamilton to injury earlier this year.  The Tide’s linebacker room sustained another blow this week when they heard that Anfernee Jennings underwent knee surgery.  Rashaan Evans has stepped up in the meantime, especially in the Sugar Bowl tallying 9 tackles and a sack.  Evans has 9+ tackles in four of the five games since Shaun Dion Hamilton went down.  Unquestionably, the best linebacker on the field will be Roquan Smith.  Smith is a potential Top 10 pick in the Spring (a la Reuben Foster last year).  He’s a tackle monster, 218 combined the last two years, and added 5.5 sacks in 2017.  Not surprisingly, he had 11 tackles in the Rose Bowl and made a key tackle to prevent a first down late in the game.  The Bulldogs’ best OLB is Lorenzo Carter.  Carter is long at 6’6″ and plays well in coverage when he’s not rushing the passer (Carter was PFF’s 11th ranked pass rusher in the FBS).  Like Smith, Carter also went for double digit sacks against Oklahoma; that’s the first time he’s done that in his career so maybe he has a knack for the big game.  If Alabama wasn’t facing injuries this unit matchup would be closer but it would still be tough to beat consensus All-American Roquan Smith.

Secondary: Alabama

Similar to how Georgia has one standout in the linebacker unit, so does Alabama in the secondary.  Meet Minkah Fitzpatrick, a guy guaranteed to go in the Top 5 in the NFL Draft (maybe higher if any of the QBs return to college).  Fitzpatrick is also a consensus All-American despite battling injury this season.  He missed a game but still managed 55 tackles, 7 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks and an interception.  That lone INT was a big drop from the six he had last season but it won’t hurt his draft stock, he has ball skills.  What Fitzpatrick also has is versatility: he has played at both corner and safety and will be an immediate starter at the next level.  Safety Ronnie Harrison and CB Anthony Averett will also get drafted high, maybe Day Two for both of them.  Levi Wallace led the team in passes defended (14) and won SEC Defensive Player of the Week twice.  He wasn’t even on my radar prior to writing this preview but the stats caught my eye.  Safety Dominck Sanders is Georgia’s most well-rounded and productive DB with 37 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, 4 INTs and 5 passes defended.  He’s been a durable three year starter and could be a late round draft prospect but I honestly have not done any research on him.  There won’t be a ton of passing in this one so spending more time on the secondary is probably not worth it, just don’t forget to pay attention to Fitzpatrick.

Specialists: Alabama

If this game turns out to be a defensive battle, the specialists will figure.  Alabama punter JK Scott is an all-time great punter in SEC history (5th best average in the FBS since 2000).  He averages 45.5 yards per punt for his career so he can flip the field and give the Tide the field position advantage.  Georgia’s Cameron Nizialek is no slouch either; he averaged 44.9 yards per punt this year which was fourth best in the SEC and actually better than Scott this year.  I have a feeling we could be seeing Hurts and Fromm starting a lot of drives from their own eleven yard line.  The slight field goal kicking edge goes to Georgia’s Rodrigo Blankenship (17-20 on FG, 61-61 on PAT) over Andy Pappanastos (16-21, 54-54).  Blankenship wears a sweet pair of rec-specs while he plays so maybe I should give him a larger advantage than I am.  Neither team has returned a single kick or punt for a touchdown this season but now that I say that we’ll probably get two in the final.  This unit matchup is almost too close to call.  Since it’s close, I will go with Alabama because they have the best individual player in the bunch, JK Scott.

Prediction: Roll Tide



Note: When watching film for a player in the offseason, I typically pick two games at random to watch.  If game film is not available I will search for highlight reels, but keep in mind these are the best plays that player had all season so they really need to jump off the screen.  I do not necessarily want to watch games where they did very well or very poorly as that may not be a great illustration of their true ability.  If possible, when comparing players at the same position I also like to watch film against common opponents.  Full disclosure, I am not watching film of every single game any player plays, instead I am looking for a representative sample.  When researching college players I use a number of resources, I would recommend bookmarking the below sites…

  • Stats: espn.com, sports-reference.com, cfbstats.com, herosports.com, fcs.football, foxsports.com
  • Film: draftbreakdown.com, youtube.com (but be wary of highlight only reels)
  • Draft info and mocks: draftcountdown.com, nfldraftscout.com, walterfootball.com, mattwaldmanrsp.com, draftek.com
  • Draft history: drafthistory.com
  • Combine info: pro-football-reference.com, espn.com, nflcombineresults.com
  • Season preview magazines: Phil Steele, Lindy’s, Street and Smith’s
  • Podcasts: ESPN’s First Draft, Strong as Steele with Phil Steele, The Audible by Football Guys (specifically episodes w/ Matt Waldman), UTH Dynasty

Robert F. Cowper is a freelance writer who lives in New Jersey.  Robert works as a recreation professional, specializing in youth sports, when he isn’t acting as commissioner for his many fantasy sports leagues.

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