2017 RSO Rookie Mock Draft v3.0

Updated: August 23rd 2017

This August update was the hardest mock I have done so far for RSO (including my first 2018 mock which is yet to be published).  It’s easy to fall into the trap of weighting preseason action too heavily so I tried to fight that urge as much as .  I’m sure you will disagree with a number of these picks and I’d like to hear about it @robertfcowper on Twitter.  Please note, I am writing this before the third week of preseason games which is typically when we see the most “realistic” preseason football and you’ll likely be reading it during or after those games.

1.01 – LEONARD FOURNETTE, RB, JAGUARS
1.02 – COREY DAVIS, WR, TITANS
1.03 – CHRISTIAN MCCAFFREY, RB, PANTHERS

I’ve had Fournette and Davis as my 1.01 and 1.02, in that order, from the beginning and don’t plan to change them now. Fournette’s value may be negatively impacted by QB Blake Bortles if he continues to struggle like he has so far in the preseason and Davis’s injury hurts his immediate value slightly. Neither falls behind McCaffrey for me, but McCaffrey’s solid preseason work pushes him into a close third in my first tier. If you need a RB over WR, I wouldn’t fault you for getting caught up in the CMC hype at 1.02.

1.04 – DALVIN COOK, RB, VIKINGS
1.05 – JOE MIXON, RB, BENGALS

In addition to moving McCaffrey out of this tier, I decided to flip-flop Cook and Mixon. Mixon may end up with the more productive career over time but on RSO we are drafting for more immediate production as rookie contracts are only three or four years long. Cook has an easier route to RB1 touches with Latavius Murray in front of him rather than Mixon who has Jeremy Hill and Gio Bernard to battle.

1.06 – ZAY JONES, WR, BILLS

I was high on Zay previously having him at 1.10 but since July his stock has risen due to personnel moves in Buffalo. Sammy Watkins was traded, Jordan Matthews was acquired and Anquan Boldin signed and promptly retired. Ultimately that’s a net positive for Jones. The Bills won’t be great, but neither was East Carolina.

1.07 – OJ HOWARD, TE, BUCS

Howard stays the course here at 1.07. I haven’t seen or heard anything that encourages me to move him up or down yet.  Don’t forget to grab Cameron Brate too because like most rookie TEs he will need time to develop.

1.08 – KAREEM HUNT, RB, CHIEFS
1.09 – D’ONTA FOREMAN, RB, TEXANS

Foreman has had better success so far during the preseason but I think Hunt has a higher ceiling for the near future. Even if Hunt can’t beat out Spencer Ware for the starting role, he will have value in the passing game. Foreman could see short yardage work so a line of 350 yards but 6-7 TDs wouldn’t be surprising. I originally put players like David Njoku and John Ross ahead these two because of their upside but I’m leaning more towards the sure thing as we get closer to the season.

1.10 – MIKE WILLIAMS, WR, CHARGERS

In true dynasty formats, Williams should not fall this far. However, in our RSO format, there’s a good chance you lose out on 20-30% of Williams’ rookie contract due to his current injuries. His ceiling is higher than that of Jones, Howard, Hunt and Foreman but his floor is lower.

2.01 – ALVIN KAMARA, RB, SAINTS

I’ve hated on Kamara a lot. It’s time to move him up my list though. So far this preseason he has just nine carries but they have been very productive. He has a 50 yard TD carry and 96 total yards; even if you remove the long carry, Kamara still averages 5.75 yards per carry on his other carries. He’ll also be a factor in the passing game, which like with Hunt, will allow him to offer some value as a rookie even with limited carries.

2.02 – DAVID NJOKU, TE, BROWNS

The bloom might be off the rose for Njoku. A report from a few weeks ago showed coach Hue Jackson’s frustration at Njoku’s hands. Plus he suffered an ankle injury in Monday’s game against the Giants (too soon as of this writing to know if it’s serious). He’s still an athletic freak with high upside so he’s worth a speculative pick at the top of the second.

2.03 – JUJU SMITH-SCHUSTER, WR, STEELERS
2.04 – SAMAJE PERINE, RB, REDSKINS

JJSS has just one catch and one carry so far but battled a minor injury to start camp. Perine has 14 carries so far (plus one 29 yard catch). I have not heard any glowing camp reports about either guy so they are basically holding steady despite being on crowded depth charts.

2.05 – MITCHELL TRUBISKY, QB, BEARS
2.06 – PATRICK MAHOMES, QB, CHIEFS
2.07 – DESHAUN WATSON, QB, TEXANS

I’m hedging my bet by putting all three of these quarterbacks together at this point but I truly believe the value in RSO drafts is too good to pass up. To lock up these rising stars for three or four years on a cheap contract is just a huge advantage. Sure, the guy you take has to “hit” but that’s the case with all of these rookies. I am a huge Mahomes fan and am encouraged by his 73% completion percentage and 3 TDs so far but it’s hard to ignore how good Trubisky has looked too and he has a better chance of starting Week 1. Watson will likely win the starting job but I have not been a fan of his so I’d rather take Mahomes and wait.

2.08 – JOHN ROSS, WR, BENGALS
2.09 – EVAN ENGRAM, TE, GIANTS
2.10 – CURTIS SAMUEL, RB, PANTHERS

These three have fallen significantly in my eyes. Ross, no surprise, has been injured. 2.08 might be harsh for Ross but I won’t own any shares of him this season if I have to take him in the first. I’m still worried about Engram’s lack of size and whether he can earn enough snaps at WR behind OBJ, Marshall and Shepard (although recent injuries to those three could linger and open the door). Samuel is supposed to be a “jack of all trades” type but until I see him in action and that the Panther’s offense can support him and CMC, he’ll be a “master of none” for me.

3.01 – TAYWAN TAYLOR, WR, TITANS
3.02 – KENNY GOLLADAY, WR, LIONS
3.03 – COOPER KUPP, WR, RAMS
3.04 – CHRIS GODWIN, WR, BUCS
3.05 – DEDE WESTBROOK, WR, JAGUARS

This group of receivers was tough to sort and I made a number of changes before settling on this. Westbrook and Golladay join the mock based off the success they have had in limited action thus far this preaseason. Westbrook had a single catch for a 42 yard touchdown in his first game and followed that with 6-131. Golladay started strong with a 3-53-2 game against the Colts and fell to just one reception for six yards against the Jets. Westbrook has off-field concerns and is likely a terrible human being but if he can ignite a stagnant Jaguars offense he’ll get some looks. Golladay’s hype train is speeding out of the station with plenty of hangers-on but I’m not ready to push him that high in my rankings after four NFL receptions. The other three receivers were in my original mock: Taylor and Godwin down a few picks and Kupp moved up. I still believe in Taylor who has taken advantage of Corey Davis missing time in camp and in the preseason and has 7 for 97 yards; pushing the QBs higher means Taylor falls to the third through no fault of his own. Kupp has a 8-105-1 line through two games. Sammy Watkins coming to town kills any hope of Kupp being the lead target for Jared Goff but he should beat out Robert Woods, et al by midseason. I’m disappointed so far by Godwin who has caught just three of his six targets. I am still hopeful that all of the attention devoted to Mike Evans, DJax and OJ Howard mean Godwin will have sneaky production.

3.06 – MARLON MACK, RB, COLTS
3.07 – WAYNE GALLMAN, RB, GIANTS

Signing Christine Michael this offseason threw some cold water on my Mack ranking.  Why sign a journeyman like Michael to a crowded backfield after drafting Mack?  Michael ended up getting hurt and is out for the season, but Mack was banged up too and missed the start of the preseason. Frank Gore and Robert Turbin can carry the load to start the season so the Colts might take it slow with Mack. Encouragingly, he did have seven touches for 49 yards in his first game action. I’ve had a man crush on Gallman since I started researching the 2016 Clemson Tigers and I haven’t given it up yet, although I continue to drop Gallman down my mock draft (2.09 to 3.05 to 3.07). I don’t believe in Paul Perkins and I’m not sure the Giants do either since they have more draft capital invested in Gallman than Perkins.

3.08 – JAKE BUTT, TE, BRONCOS
3.09 – DESHONE KIZER, QB, BROWNS

The true value of these two players will come down to when they get on the field. I rank them here with the expectation that they will start a majority of the season for their teams. Butt would have been a first round NFL talent if he wasn’t injured – he’s good value here. This late in your rookie draft, Kizer represents good value too even if he’s just QB28 at the end of the season. I’d rather lock these guys up on cheap long-term contracts now before their value crests in my auction draft (if it’s announced that they will be starting Week 1) or in free agency (if they get on the field a little later).

3.10 – TARIK COHEN, RB, BEARS

Cohen has impressed in this first two weeks of the preseason. His size is worrisome (he’s just 5’6″ and 180lbs) but it hasn’t hindered him yet. Cohen leads rookie RBs in yards (181) and leads the Bears backs in attempts (18). His size will keep him from being a workhorse in the NFL but he will have a role. It’s interesting to note that the Bears invested a higher draft pick in Cohen (4th round) than Jordan Howard (5th), even after Howard’s great rookie season.


Note: When watching film for a player, 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
  • Film: draftbreakdown.com, youtube.com (but be wary of highlight only reels)
  • Draft info and mocks: draftcountdown.com, nfldraftscout.com, walterfootball.com, mattwaldmanrsp.com, ESPN’s First Draft podcast, 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

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.

2018 RSO Rookie Mock Draft v1.0

Updated: September 6th 2017

Here it is, version 1.0 of my RSO rookie mock draft for 2018.  Remember, it’s early.  Very early.  Players will be overperform, underperform, go on hot streaks, go through slumps, get hurt, get suspended, get arrested or maybe not even declare early.  What I’m trying to say is use this as a tool to start your rookie research but don’t bank on it come May.  When creating this mock draft, I used two base assumptions: 1) a standard 1 QB roster setup and 2) any junior good enough to be considered will declare early.  For more information on most of these players, check out my Watch List previews which feature deeper dives on stats and film study.  Share your thoughts with me on Twitter @robertfcowper. Note: I wrote this article in August before the season began so any big games or injuries from the beginning of the season are not taken into account.  Updated versions will be posted throughout the season.

1.01, Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State
1.02, Derrius Guice, RB, LSU

Preseason hype has these two locked into the first two slots. I would expect them to jockey with each other throughout the season as they have good and bad games. I believe Barkley will end up the consensus 1.01 due to his larger workload and his pass catching ability.

1.03, Nick Chubb, RB, Georgia

If it weren’t for Chubb’s serious knee injury last year he would have been in the 1.01 mix. I might be higher on him than some but I feel putting him at 1.03 already takes the injuries into consideration, no need to knock him down further.  Not a bad consolation prize if you miss out on Barkley or Guice.

1.04, Calvin Ridley, WR, Alabama
1.05, Christian Kirk, WR, Texas A&M

Having Ridley as the WR1 is not the norm per my research. Ridley was more highly sought as a high school recruit than Kirk and hasn’t done anything to dissuade my opinion yet. Kirk is electric and might have a higher ceiling (I compared him to Odell Beckham Jr. in my SEC preview), but a lower floor, so it comes down to your risk tolerance.

1.06, Bo Scarborough, RB, Alabama
1.07, Royce Freeman, RB Oregon

Like Chubb, Scarborough’s injury history drops him down my mock draft. He also had an academic related suspension to start his freshman season. If he can stay healthy, you would be getting a massive value here.  Freeman screams NFL running back to me when I look at his stats and his highlights. He may end up being a day three real life pick but I have a feeling he will be fantasy relevant very early in his career.

1.07, Courtland Sutton, WR, SMU
1.08, James Washington, WR, Oklahoma State
1.10, Deon Cain, WR, Clemson

Sutton and Washington are a clear tier break at the position for me after Ridley and Kirk. They both have negatives that concern me. Sutton racked up his 2016 stats against very weak defenses; Washington looks smaller to me than his 6’0″ and 205lb listing suggests. There are some bright spots though. Sutton has NFL size and the ability to make spectacular high-point or toe-tap catches; Washington has breakaway speed that I likened to Desean Jackson.  Cain really impressed me when I researched him. He contributed as an underclassmen on very successful Clemson teams that were full of NFL talent. Now that he’s the BMOC Cain should impress everybody else.  I have Sutton ranked highest of the three because he has the best chance to move up my rankings.

2.01, Sam Darnold, QB, USC

I really wanted to put Darnold at 1.10 but I didn’t have the guts to do it yet. For our purposes here, I am using a standard 1 QB format so Darnold isn’t quite that valuable. In a superflex? He’ll move up to the 1.06 range. I continue to believe that the value of second round quarterbacks in the RSO format is too good to pass up (pun intended).

2.02, Anthony Miller, WR, Memphis
2.03, Equanimeous St. Brown, WR, Notre Dame
2.04, Dante Pettis, WR, Washington

Despite the pedigree of St. Brown and Pettis, I put Miller ahead of them. Maybe it’s a foolish decision, but even though they have had good production, I have questions about the size of St. Brown and Pettis.  St. Brown is long and lean; of the seven WR who measured 6’4″ and 205lb or less at the combine since 2010, all were busts.  The list of successful NFL wide receivers who weigh less than 190lbs, like Pettis, is short. Miller isn’t really any bigger but he just popped when I watched him – maybe because he was playing against lesser defenders. He did have one insane OBJ-esque touchdown catch that itself made me want to bump him even higher.  All three of these guys could gain ground in my mock drafts if they gain some weight.

2.05, L.J. Scott, RB, Michigan State
2.06, Sony Michel, RB, Georgia
2.07, Ronald Jones, RB, USC

I’m lower on Jones than some of the devy sites I read. I just was not a fan after doing some early research. He’s too tall for his weight and he only has one career 20+ carry game. Scott does not have the weight concern – he’s a bruiser at 230lbs – but it was disappointing that his TD production slipped in 2016, albeit on a bad Spartans team. I’m expecting the team, and his stats, to improve in 2017. Michel has shared the Georgia backfield with more highly touted backs in Todd Gurley and Nick Chubb. He likely won’t rise to their fantasy draft pick heights, but he should be a decent NFL pick. I put Michel above Jones because of the dominant way Michel closed out 2015 after Chubb got hurt.

2.08, Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA
2.09, Josh Allen, QB, Wyoming

The two Joshes will battle for the QB2 spot behind Sam Darnold. I have Rosen ahead right now because I think he’s more NFL ready but I expect Allen to put up huge numbers against the MWC’s weaker opposition. Even more so than with Darnold at 2.01, the value here for either quarterback is too good to pass up.

2.10, Mark Andrews, TE, Oklahoma
3.01, Allen Lazard, WR, Iowa State

I’m confident that these two tall Big 12 pass catchers will be solid pros but they aren’t very sexy hence the later picks. Andrews is 6’5″ and 250lbs and has 14 career receiving TDs on 50 receptions.  He is more of a “move tight end” and often lines up off the line of scrimmage in the Sooners’ spread offense; he isn’t the best TE in the class but will probably be drafted highest for fantasy purposes.  Lazard, a senior, is the same height as Andrews but weighs in at about 225lbs. He has been the best player on a struggling Iowa State team since he was a true freshman.

3.02, Myles Gaskin, RB, Washington
3.03, Damien Harris, RB, Alabama
3.04, Kalen Ballage, RB, Arizona State

These three Power Five running backs find themselves in the third round instead of the second because each has some negatives. I changed the order a number of times but settled on Gaskins first. Neither Harris nor Ballage have been “the guy” for their offenses and both have some minor injury concerns. Meanwhile, Gaskin has almost as many career carries as the other two combined but I think he will measure in smaller than advertised.

3.05, Hayden Hurst, TE, South Carolina
3.05, Troy Fumagalli, TE, Wisconsin

It’s unlikely that we see Top 12 prospects in 2018 like we did in 2017 but I’ll bet we get 3 or 4 of them taken in standard RSO drafts with owners who missed out on the 2017 class and hoping for a repeat in 2018.   Hurst was near the top in receptions and touchdowns by TEs last year with a true freshman quarterback so he will see improved production.  I watched his film against South Florida from last year and I’d say he’s a B to a B+ blocker, with good hands (evidenced by a nice one-handed touchdown catch) and good speed.  If it weren’t for Fumagalli’s injury history (it’s extensive) he’d be higher on this list.  He’s a better blocker than Hurst, probably the best blocking TE I have seen when watching film the last two seasons, and should see the NFL field quickly.

3.07, Michael Gallup, WR, Colorado State
3.08, Corey Willis, WR, Central Michigan
3.09, Jordan Chunn, RB, Troy

I’m calling my shots with these three small-school players. If they don’t put up stellar numbers they won’t make it this high in your fantasy drafts but I think each has a chance to rocket up expert rankings to find their way on your radar. Gallup is a high volume JUCO transfer who caught 14 TDs in his first NCAA season. Willis is a speedster with good hands who broke out for 72 receptions as a junior and caught my eye while writing my MAC preview. Chunn is the Sun Belt’s best hope at a fantasy relevant rookie in my opinion. In 2016, he rebounded from a 2015 medical redshirt to gain 1,288 yards and 16 TDs; he’s big at 6’1″ 230lbs and caught 30 balls last year.

3.10, Antonio Callaway, WR, Florida

I probably should have Callaway ranked higher but I was torn on whether to include him at all.  I’d rather move him up later if he shows me more than go against my gut now.  I put him here to acknowledge that he’s probably a Top 30 devy talent but I think he’s being rated too highly.

Honorable Mention, Adam Breneman, TE, UMass

Breneman is a small-school favorite of mine who had a 70-808-8 line last year.  I originally had him in the mix at 3.05 and 3.06 with Fumagalli and Hurst but ultimately I couldn’t justify having three TEs at that spot.  At this point in the process, I believe that Fumagalli and Hurst are more  NFL-ready so I gave them the nod over Breneman.

Early RSO Contracts: WRs

Updated: August 22nd 2017

Knowing the types of contracts given out by other fantasy teams can give the alert reader a big advantage when your own RSO free agency auction arrives.  Your league settings and available players will have a big impact on the size of contracts given out at various positions, but looking at the relative contracts within position groups provides some useful information.

Our last volume in the series ends with the wide receiver position.  This group is the deepest in fantasy football, reflecting the emphasis in the NFL on the passing game.  Targets have recently trended away from the primary receiving option for each team and spread out to multiple receivers.  This has resulted in many secondary targets on NFL teams having bigger and more reliable roles creating more fantasy value across the position.  I view some of the best values found throughout early auctions and players you should probably avoid based on market cost.

Top Avoids

Wide receiver production relies heavily on the abilities of the quarterbacks throwing the ball.  It stands to reason that RSO owners should make their large wide receivers investments in those receivers with good quarterback play.  Houston quarterbacks Tom Savage and Deshaun Watson, while likely upgrades over Brock Osweiler, do not exactly qualify.  The Texans are merely hoping for competent quarterback play at this point.  This makes DeAndre Hopkins (WR8) a dangerous investment at his cost.  Hopkins does not possess great size, speed, or athleticism and struggles at times creating separation.  He relies more on body control and great hands to make contested catches.  Hopkins’ RSO cost is largely a relic of his absurd 192 target season.  This is a scenario unlikely to ever happen again.

Jarvis Landry is a very good football player.  Let us get that out of the way.  He is very elusive with the ball in his hands picking up a lot of yards after the catch.  However, Landry’s fantasy value depends on a high target load more than most receivers due to his extremely low average depth of target.  Any slight decrease in volume with new quarterback Jay Cutler could substantially impact Landry’s worth.  There is also a lot of uncertainty in Miami regarding Landry’s future role.  The Dolphins have shown minimal interest in extending his contract and Landry statistical production likely drops significantly if he moves on from Miami as very few teams in the NFL feature the slot wide receiver like Miami has over Landry’s career.  The main problem is that RSO owners are treating Landry (WR14) as a definitive WR1 for the Dolphins and any future team he might move to.  We no longer can take that for granted at this point.  Landry compares favorably to a player like Golden Tate, who had similar production last season and someone you can buy for about half the cost of Landry.

Some things never change as the football season approaches.  Another season, another “This is the year Donte Moncrief breaks out” cry inevitably comes from the fantasy community.  There is no good way to sugarcoat it.  Moncrief (WR24) has been one of the least efficient WR2s in the league over his career on a occasionally prolific Colts offense.  The yardage numbers are ugly no matter whether you look at a per season basis, per game, per target, with or without Luck.  There might not be a single player in fantasy football who receives more hype based on so little production.  Moncrief was one of my favorite rookies typically going in the late 2nd / early 3rd rounds of rookie drafts.  Unfortunately his athleticism has not translated to the NFL game at this point.  Moncrief’s future in Indianapolis is uncertain at best.  The Colts reportedly made a strong push for Alshon Jeffrey this offseason trying to replace Moncrief and the Indy WR2 only has a year left on his contract.  Moncrief is also dealing with another shoulder injury this preseason.  There are far too many cheaper players available with more upside and safer floors to put your RSO cap dollars in Moncrief at his current price.  I am OK giving Moncrief a very cheap long-term speculative contract based on his age and athletic profile but that appears unlikely in the current market.

Best Values

As stated earlier, the wide receiver position boasts value deep into the board.  I would have no issue filling my receiver core in deeper league strictly with players who are priced as WR4s saving big money for other positions.   I do not have the space to detail every good value, but I will highlight a few of the best ones below.

There might not be another wide receiver more underrated in the fantasy community this decade than Jordy Nelson (WR11) as one of the premier big play threats in the league.  He finished as a WR1 every full season played since 2011 in standard leagues and has consistently produced big touchdown numbers.  Nelson finished as the overall WR2 in 2014 and the WR1 in 2016 after returning from an ACL tear prior to the 2015 season.  Nelson clearly did not have the same explosiveness last year that we are used to but should look even better another season removed from his injury (which is downright scary for opposing defenses).  Nelson is surely near the end of his career at the age of 32.  Do not let that worry you.  The Packers top wide receiver could produce enough for most of his contract value in a single season with Aaron Rodgers at the helm of the Green Bay passing attack.

If you are searching for a WR2 at WR3 prices, look no further than Emmanuel Sanders (WR34).  The Denver wide-out ended as the WR20 or better and accumulated at least 137 targets each of the last two seasons.   The key for Sanders is target concentration.  There might not be another team who focuses so much of its receiving work on two players with fellow standout Demaryius Thomas gulfing down the other main share.  The next highest target player in 2016 after Sanders’ 139 targets was running back Devontae Booker with only 46.  There are simply no other significant receiving options in Denver.  The quarterback situation likely limits the upside of Sanders but that situation is also unlikely to get worse than what Sanders dealt with over the last two years.  The Bronco wide receiver is one of the safer bets to beat their auction cost.

The Baltimore Ravens surprisingly led the NFL in pass attempts each of the last two seasons.  This has not been a particular effective NFL strategy with quarterback Joe Flacco.  His yards per attempt, passer rating, and QBR all plummeted below his career averages over that time span.  While not necessarily good for Flacco and Baltimore, this emphasis on the passing game is good news for Ravens wide receivers in the fantasy realm, particularly Mike Wallace (WR43) and new arrival Jeremy Maclin (WR42).  The Ravens lost around 390 targets from last year’s team highlighted by newly retired Steve Smith (103 targets) and injured Dennis Pitta (119 targets).  The Baltimore tight end group has been decimated by injuries and suspension this offseason leaving bottom of the barrel athlete Nick Boyle and 36 year old Ben Watson atop the depth chart.  This will not be a heavily targeted group.  Former first-round pick Breshad Perriman is, once again, dealing with injuries also.  Combine all of this information together and you get a picture where both Wallace and Maclin are in line for a lot of work this season.  Both should easily out-produce their RSO market contract costs and at least one of them likely crushes their value.  This should be one of the top wide receiver combos to target for RSO owners going with a cheaper approach at wide receiver.

 

Average RSO Wide Receiver Contracts

 


Bio:  Bernard Faller has degrees in engineering and economics.  He currently lives in Las Vegas and enjoys athletics, poker, and fantasy football in his free time.  Send your questions and comments (both good and bad) on Twitter @BernardFaller1.

Early RSO Contracts: TEs

Updated: August 16th 2017

Knowing the types of contracts given out by other fantasy teams can give the alert reader a big advantage when your own RSO free agency auction arrives.  Your league settings and available players will have a big impact on the size of contracts given out at various positions, but looking at the relative contracts within position groups provides some useful information. We move to the tight end position, probably the shallowest group in fantasy football.  There are few teams in the NFL who feature the tight end position in the passing game and many of the top options at the position have struggled staying on the field.  Let us take a deeper look at the position to sort out where we can find value.

When they are Healthy…

Two players stand out from the rest in the tight end fantasy landscape when on the field, Rob Gronkowski and Jordan Reed.   The problem for each player over their career is staying on the field.  Reed has never played a full season and Gronkowski has not played a full season in 6 years.

“Gronk” dominates in a way that is almost indescribable when on the field and he is used in ways unlike other players at the position.  He is a true downfield threat and incredibly difficult to tackle one-on-one by defensive backs.  The New England powerhouse leads active tight ends in yards per reception at 15.0 (the next highest is Travis Kelce at 12.8) and receiving yards per game at 69.3 (the next highest is Travis Kelce at 58.4) while also accumulating 68 touchdowns.  Antonio Gates, Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin, and Brandon Marshall are the only active players with more touchdowns and each has played 10+ seasons in the league.  Remarkably, Gronkowski accumulated his touchdown total in only 88 career games or 5.5 full seasons.

Not to be outdone, Jordan Reed firmly placed his name in contention for best at the position with his performance over the last two seasons.  The Washington tight end produces in a different manner than Gronkowski as a classic move tight end relying on beautiful separation skills and tremendous ball skills in the short game.  He owns a high 76% catch rate over his career.  Reed finished as the overall TE1 in fantasy points per game for PPR leagues each of the last two seasons despite being used as a decoy in multiple games last year after separating his shoulder (which he amazingly played with in multiple games).  Taking out those shoulder injury games last year, Reed’s 16-game average in 23 games played over the last two seasons looks like this:

102 receptions / 136 targets / 1101 yards / 11 touchdowns       Those are WR1 numbers in PPR leagues.

While not on the level of Gronkowski and Reed for fantasy purposes, Tyler Eifert is another player worth mentioning in the oft-injured group.  The Cincinnati tight end offers tremendous weekly upside as one of the premier red zone threats in the entire league.  The former first round pick scored 18 touchdowns over the last two seasons in only 21 games.

Even when taking into account the additional injury risk associated with each of these players, they are all well worth their current costs.  Each of these players displayed the ability in past seasons to make up the current average cost in only half a year’s worth of play and each will be a huge value-win if they play close to a full season.

Best of the Rest

Travis Kelce finished as the overall TE1 last season.  His reception and yardage total have increased each season in the league and he is the de facto top receiver in Kansas City with a bunch of unknowns at wide receiver.  The limitations of Alex Smith and the Chiefs offense limit his upside, particularly in the touchdown department, but he is a safe high-end starter for your RSO team.

Greg Olsen remains as one of the only reliable targets in Carolina.  There is a lot of unknown as to what the Panthers’ offense will look like after drafting two offensive weapons in the first two rounds of the NFL draft, running back Christian McCaffrey and wide receiver Curtis Samuel.  Similarly to Kelce, Olsen is limited by his quarterback play which caps his upside to a certain degree.

One of the more surprising stories from 2016 was the quick return of Jimmy Graham from a patellar tear, historically one of the worst injuries for NFL players.  Graham faded in the second half of the season and will never see the target load that he saw in New Orleans, but is still a dynamic receiving threat for the Seahawks.  Look for a nice season as he moves farther from his injury and is more incorporated into the Seattle offense.

Expect some Regression

Kyle Rudolf is not what one would call a dynamic receiving weapon.  He is a slow (4.88 forty time) un-athletic tight end who averages just under 10 yards per reception and only 6.3 yards per target for his career.  Rudolf demolished his career highs in yardage (840, previous high: 495) and receptions (83, previous high:  53) thanks to a massive increase in targets (132, previous high:  93) which lead to his overall TE2 finish in PPR leagues.  This big usage increase was largely the result of an awful offensive line which could not pass protect or run block. With limited weapons at both receiver and running back, quarterback Sam Bradford was forced to dink and dunk at Rudolf throughout the year.  The Vikings addressed both deficient areas in the offseason adding offensive linemen Riley Reiff and Mike Renners, running back Latavius Murray, and wide receiver Michael Floyd in free agency.  Minnesota also drafted 2nd round running back Dalvin Cook.  With last year’s first round wide receiver Laquon Treadwell likely seeing more action, look for a significant step back from Rudolf.

The Tennessee massively upgraded the receiving core drafting Corey Davis with the 5th overall pick and taking Taiwan Taylor in the 3rd round, while also adding Eric Decker in free agency thanks to the New York Jets overhaul.  These moves are great for Marcus Mariota and the Titans offense but not so good for Delanie Walker’s fantasy prospects in a run-first scheme.

Streamers and Matchup Plays

There are some names RSO owners should keep in mind for those who like to stream the tight end position in shallow leagues or employ a cheap multi-tight end matchup based system from week to week.  Few players disappointed as much as Coby Fleener last season given his sky-high expectations last season.  He still finished as the TE15 last season.  With Brandin Cooks gone, Fleener could see 100 targets in the high-volume Saints passing attack.  He is a bargain at his TE22 cost as one of the only players in this range with legitimate TE1 upside.  Charles Clay (TE29) performed as a mid range TE2 each of the last two seasons and finished last season on a strong note as the overall TE3 in the last month.  Clay does not possess much upside but he is a useful player on a team without much in receiving weapons.  When you are looking at weekly plays an RSO owner wants touchdown upside and nobody on the low-cost list has as much as Jesse James (TE27).  He is a massive target and could see lots of red-zone looks on a Pittsburg offense which could be among the league’s best.

 

Average RSO Tight End Contracts


Bio:  Bernard Faller has degrees in engineering and economics.  He currently lives in Las Vegas and enjoys athletics, poker, and fantasy football in his free time.  Send your questions and comments (both good and bad) on Twitter @BernardFaller1.

The Watch List: SEC Preview

Updated: August 16th 2017

Welcome to The Watch List, a resource to help RSO owners identify the players, storylines and matchups from the college game that deserve your attention.  Check back throughout the Summer for previews on each conference and my preseason Heisman predictions.  During the regular season, The Watch List will continue to update you on who is fantasy relevant and worth your draft capital next year. 

Players to Watch

  • Derrius Guice, RB, LSU:  My fellow RSO writer Bernard Faller recently called Evan Engram the “RSO cheat code.”  I’d like to add that nickname to Derrius Guice.  My god are his stats electric.  You may have heard of the guy that Guice was behind on the LSU depth chart: Leonard Fournette.  That didn’t stop him from putting up good numbers with Fournette; more importantly, Guice took full advantage of Fournette’s injury last season.  I apologize in advance if I lose you with all of these numbers but I promise they are worth your attention.  In the five games Guice played without Fournette last year he rushed for 903 yards (129 per game).  In the ten career games when Guice has 10+ carries, he has 1,472 yards and 17 TDs (some quick fantasy math gets you just under 25 fantasy points per game).  For his career, Guice averages 7.8 yards per carry.  He had two 250+ games last season, one of which was against Arkansas with Fournette.  The only downside of Guice’s stats are his lack of receptions, just 14 for 126 yards and a lone touchdown.  I purposefully watched Guice against Florida which was not one of his highlight reel games.  There were a number of positives but enough negatives to temper my excitement.  Knowing about his high yards per carry average, I expected to see Guice running outside the tackle box more often but he really is a between the tackles runner.  He has great lateral cutting ability, sticking his foot in and getting around a defender.  He converted an early goal line attempt but failed on one that was the last play of the game (he jumped too early and was stopped easily, it also looked like he may have fumbled but the clock had expired anyway).  He had two targets, the first was a 29 yard screen pass but the second went right through his hands at a pivotal moment late in the game.  He did make up for that 3rd down miss by making a key pass protection block on a 4th down completion.  Unfortunately that drive ended in that disappointing goal line effort. Earlier in the game he also had a fumble inside the red zone (a scoring opportunity the Tigers would really miss later).  I’m very interested to see how Guice does without Fournette (funny enough Leonard’s younger brother Lanard is on the team now) in 2017.  If he can repeat even 75% of his production from 2016 he’ll be a first round NFL back.  What I saw in Guice’s tape was not enough for me to push him to RB1 over Penn State’s Saquon Barkley, but at worst, Guice will be your 1.02 for 2018.
  • Christian Kirk, WR, Texas A&M:  While taking notes on Kirk, I went back and forth on my opinion a number of times.  Ultimately, I can see why so many experts have him as the top draft eligible wide receiver but I’m not quite sure I’m there yet.  First, let’s examine his measureables.  Kirk checks in at 5’11” and 200lbs.  Coming out of high school he ran a 4.49; one of my trusted sites, DraftScout.com, among others I checked, predict that Kirk will run a sub 4.40 at the NFL combine.  If that’s the case, Kirk has the most elite of comps: Odell Beckham Jr.  Let’s look at his stats next.  Kirk put up nearly identical lines in his freshman and sophomore seasons (80-1,009-7 and 83-928-9) which were enough to get him named as an All-American both seasons.  In 2015 he made the list as a fourth teamer for his punt return skills; as a sophomore he was a first teamer.  Kirk has seven 100+ receiving yard games in two seasons which is less than fellow prospect Courtland Sutton (and less, on average, than James Washington who has twelve over his three seasons).  Conversely, Kirk only has one career game with less than three receptions meanwhile Sutton and Washington have many more.  I thought it was interesting that 73 of Kirk’s 163 career receptions (45%) came on first down.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing, it just shows how the Aggies use him as an extension of their run game.  I briefly mentioned his punt return prowess above and it’s worth going into more detail.  In both 2015 and 2016 he led the NCAA in punt return average (23.1 career average); in both seasons he beat the second on the list by more than 4.0 yards (or the difference between #2 and #9 last year).  To go along with all those yards he has five touchdowns (also the most over the last two years).  So, he’s a very good punt returner.  How good?  Remember that Odell Beckham Jr. guy I mentioned earlier, well he had three times as many punt returns in college than Kirk has so far and had just two touchdowns.  And he averaged just 9.0 yards per (Kirk is at 23.1!).  Aside from punt return highlights, the first film I watched of Kirk was against Alabama from 2016.  I was nonplussed.  Kirk was targeted at, or behind, the line of scrimmage six times, a feature of their offense all season I’m sure, which helps inflate his number of receptions.  He did have a nice over-the-shoulder touchdown catch but to my eye it was more about the thrower than the catcher.  I was much more impressed with Kirk when I watched his tape against Tennessee.  Kirk ran more varied routes and showed how adept he is at quickly changing directions by leaving defenders behind on multiple pivot routes.  The key play I noted, and significantly raised my opinion of Kirk, came during a tie game in the 4th quarter on first down.  Kirk was lined up slot right, he came off the line and angles his route so he squeezes between two defenders and a referee.  My guess is that the route was not designed that way but he read the defense and adjusted on the fly.  He makes the catch and rather than trying to take on defenders with his A+ open field ability, he works to get out of bounds.  He breaks a tackle, staggers backward toward the sideline and manages to keep his feet until he falls out of bounds.  There was so much to unpack on the play I probably watched it five or six times.  He added a clutch catch in the second overtime where the ball was behind him so he adjusted back to it, dove and got his hands under the ball an inch from the turf.  What he did next though was the impressive part, rather than just falling to the ground as 99% of receivers would do, he sort of jerked up and rolled so that the ball couldn’t touch the ground.  Not that it will actually impact his draft stock but I did notice a number of missed blocks.  Kirk has as high of a ceiling for any prospect I’ve researched and because of that I’m willing to overlook some of my concerns.  When it comes time for me to rank wide receivers, Kirk will likely come in at #2.
  • Calvin Ridley, WR, Alabama:  I’m going to contradict myself…  In my Pac-12 preview I pointed out how few NFL WRs came out of college at less than 190lbs when highlighting Dante Pettis and how that hurt his draft stock.  I don’t feel that way about Ridley who is an identical size to Pettis at 6’1″ 188lbs.  I believe that Ridley is a more complete prospect which is why I’m less concerned with his weight.  Ridley had a strong freshman season where he hauled in 89 balls for 1,045 yards and 7 TDs.  In 2016 he still had 7 TDs but his receptions and yards dropped (72, 769).  I attribute the drop more to a change in scheme, to accommodate freshman phenom quarterback Jalen Hurts, than a change in Ridley.  The total number of attempts was pretty consistent between seasons but they went for less yards.  It also didn’t help Ridley’s production that he was playing alongside two pass catchers who were drafted this Spring in TE O.J. Howard and WR Ardarius Stewart.  This season, Ridley will be the unquestioned top receiver.  Despite my positive opinion of Ridley, I do have to admit that he has had some poor games under the biggest spotlights (i.e. a combined 11 receptions and just 50 yards in two CFP games against Clemson).  Ridley came into Alabama as a true blue chip recruit.  He was Phil Steele’s #2 receiver of the class and ESPN’s #1.  During the recruiting process he ran a 4.65 per ESPN.  During Spring practice in 2016 he ran a 4.35; then a 4.43 in 2017.  How fast is he really?  I don’t think we know but the answer is probably fast enough.  I watched film of Ridley against both Kentucky and Clemson.  He has good field awareness which was evidenced by a number of sideline grabs.  He’s a plus blocker (he was a key blocker on a Bo Scarborough touchdown against Clemson).  Even though a plurality of his targets came near the line of scrimmage in the two games, I do believe he’s at least a decent route runner.  In the second quarter against Kentucky, he ran a nice route to find the hole in the zone defense and caught an uncontested touchdown.  In the third quarter, he ran another nice route where he stopped just past the goal line, turned around and showed Hurts a good target.  Hurts fired in a bullet and Ridley showed good hand strength by holding onto the ball with the defender’s hand fighting for the break up.  Again, I full admit that I am being a bit hypocritcal with my Ridley love but I trust that he will put on a few pounds and will live up to his pedigree.  In my opinion, Ridley is an NFL-ready prospect who would contribute on any offense right now.  Until he proves me otherwise, he’s going to be my WR1.
  • Nick Chubb, RB, Georgia: If Chubb came out after 2016 he likely would have been a first round dynasty selection but he returns for 2017 looking to improve his stock.  Chubb burst onto the scene as a freshman in 2014 with 1,547 yards and 14 TDs.  His 2015 campaign was off to a solid start (747 yards, 7 TDs) before it was cut short by a knee injury; luckily he avoided the worst and did not tear his ACL.  In 2016 Chubb was back to health to start the season but suffered an ankle injury in the first half of the season.  He technically did not miss a game but had just one carry against Tennessee.  He rebounded for 121 yards against South Carolina but struggled against Florida and Vanderbilt, related to the injury I’d bet.  Chubb ended 2016 with 1,130 yards and 8 TDs.  He’s a workhorse type back with twelve career games of 20 or more carries.  I watched Chubb’s film against South Carolina, that bounce back game after his injured ankle.  I thought it would be a good game to watch because how often will he be fully healthy in the NFL?  Never, he’ll always be battling something so seeing that he could manage it was instructive.  Not surprisingly, Chubb didn’t have elite speed but he made up for it with good vision.  Georgia features a pro-style offense which lets Chubb showcase his ability to run between the tackles which NFL scouts will love.  He was adequate in pass protection, although he wasn’t called on that frequently; if it weren’t for a play near the end of the second quarter where he let Eason get lit up, I would have gave him higher marks as a blocker.  It’s a shame that Chubb is draft eligible with the two most talent rich running back classes in recent memory.  He’ll still be a top five dynasty pick in most leagues, despite the injuries, and will be a nice consolation for owners who miss out on Barkley and Guice.
  • Honorable Mentions:
    • Bo Scarborough, RB, Alabama:  Scarborough has lots of hype but not lots of career carries.  In fact, he has just 143 career carries (for comparison, Chubb passed that mark in November of his freshman season) and zero games with 20 or more carries.  The best game of his career came against Washington last year in the College Football Playoff: he exploded for 180 yards and 2 TDs on 19 carries.  Scarborough is big, but maybe a little too tall, at 6’1″ and 230lb.  He likely has 4.55 speed.  That combination nets him great comps in Jeremy Hill, Le’Veon Bell and David Johnson.  He was a top recruit, 12th overall in his class and the 2nd at his position per ESPN.  The ability I question most is his availability.  Scarborough was suspended four games to start his college career for academic reasons.  Then he tore his ACL in 2015 and broke his leg in 2016.  If it weren’t for the injuries, Scarborough could be challenging for the 1.01 based on his pedigree, let alone his potential.
    • Antonio Callaway, WR, Florida:  Callaway will be a junior and was a strong contributor his first two seasons on campus.  As a true freshman he gained 678 yards receiving and 4 receiving TDs and added two more return TDs; he was named 3rd Team All-American for his return prowess.  As a sophomore, he was more involved in the passing game.  He led the team in receptions, yards and receiving TDs (54-721-3).  A good stat that I uncovered when studying his game logs: Callaway’s five career games of 100+ receiving yards all came against the SEC.  I’d like to see more volume and more scoring this year to truly consider him as a top pick at the position.  At 5’11” he’s a little short to be considered an elite NFL receiver, but if he can run sub-4.50 he’ll get consideration as a first round NFL pick.  It’s worth noting that he did receive a drug possession citation in early 2017 – just something to keep an eye on that will surely factor into his draft process.
    • Hayden Hurst, TE, South Carolina:  This 6’5″ behemoth is just a junior so who knows if he’ll come out but if he does he’ll get some attention after 2016’s historic draft class.  Hurst was 13th in receptions and 15th in yards amongst TEs during the regular season.  Now that all of those elite names (OJ Howard, David Njoku, Evan Engram, etc) are gone, Hurst will jump to the top of the pecking order.  His QB, Jake Bentley, was a true freshman in 2016, so you’d expect some improvement which will help Hurst’s numbers progress.
    • Jacob Eason, QB, Georgia:  Circle this name for 2019 because he’s not eligible in 2018.  Eason started from Day One last year as a true freshman and led the Bulldogs to a 8-5 record that included a bowl game win over TCU and a win over #8 Auburn.  Eason’s rate stats have room to grow which I fully expect them to (55.1% completion percentage, 6.6 yards per attempt).
    • Minkah Fitzpatrick & Ronnie Harrison, S, Alabama:  These two junior safeties have their sights set on a third straight National Championship game and being first round NFL picks.  Harrison is a strong safety who supports the run.  Fitzpatrick transitioned from corner to free safety in 2016 so he’s versatile.  He has two banner games on his game logs: 2 INTs and 2 TDs against Texas A&M in 2015 and 3 INTs and a TD against Arkansas in 2016.  Fitzpatrick will get more draft buzz but his play will help Harrison get noticed too.

Storylines to Watch

  • Mr. Freeze:  We have all heard about Hugh Freeze and his questionable phone calls by now.  Let’s not rehash those, although I will say, what a hypocrite.  Ole Miss was already self-imposing a bowl ban for 2017 due to unrelated infractions.  AD Ross Bjork said that because of the bowl ban, the Rebels will have to forfeit the SEC postseason bonus which would total $7.8 million this season.  That’s a huge hit to a program will have to fight tooth and nail to keep recruits and stay relevant in their division.  Ole Miss had four straight winning seasons from 2012-2015.  All of the distractions have hurt the program and will have a lasting effect.  It’ll be a decade before we see Ole Miss competing for the SEC West title again.
  • Can the East Finally Win One:  The SEC West has been dominant in recent years and has won eight consecutive conference championships (five of which by Alabama).  Florida has the best chance to unseat the West this season.  They were the only team to beat Alabama in Phil Steele’s conference positional rankings (receivers and special teams).  The Gators have the easiest cross-over games this year of the contending East teams; they avoid Alabama and Auburn while Georgia and Tennessee each have one away.  If I was a betting man, my money would still be on the West but it’ll be fun to keep an eye on.
  • Vanderbilt Will Win Eight Games:  My bold prediction for the SEC this season is that Vanderbilt will win eight games in 2017.  That may not sound like much but they only have 13 wins over the last three years.  I don’t think they’ll quite return to the nine win seasons of 2012 and 2013 under James Franklin but fourth year coach Derek Mason will get them close.  Vanderbilt has a winnable non-conference schedule with FBS games against Middle Tennessee State, Kansas State and Western Kentucky.  The hardest game on their schedule, Alabama, will be a home game.  Per Phil Steele’s experience charts, they return 93.7% of their offensive yards from last season.  That includes their quarterback, the top two rushers, the top eight receivers, the kicker and the punter.  If anybody is poised for a surprise season, it’s the Commodores.

Games to Watch

  • September 2, Florida vs Michigan: This neutral site game, hosted at Jerry’s World, is a rematch of the 2015 Citrus Bowl which Michigan won 41-7.  Few players remain from those teams, although Antonio Callaway is one of them.  The Wolverines could be Florida’s highest rated opponent of the year, pending their season finale against Florida State.  So, it will be important for them to win this one if they have CFP aspirations.
  • October 28, Florida vs Georgia:  Another neutral site game for Florida, this one is in Jacksonville.  In fact, Florida only has three true road games this season which is another reason why I think they could challenge the West this season.  Florida has won the last three matchups by a combined 56 points.  The winner of this game will inevitably take the East so it’s a shame it’s not later in the season.
  • November 25, Vanderbilt at Tennessee:  If my bold prediction is to come true, Vanderbilt will need to steal some SEC wins.  What better one to steal than on the road against your biggest in-state rival in the last game of the season.  If Vanderbilt is already bowl eligible and having a plus season as I expect, taking out the Volunteers will be the cherry atop the sundae.
  • November 25, Alabama at Auburn:  The Iron Bowl.  I don’t love the name, but the game is always good.  Lindy’s points out that the winner of this game has gone on to play for the National Championship in eight straight seasons.  That’s crazy.  I’ve spilled enough digital ink on Alabama in this preview so let’s spend a few quick sentences on Auburn.  The Tigers feature a rush heavy offense with Kamryn Pettway and Kerryon Johnson (combined for over 2,000 yards and 18 TDs last season) leading the way.  The quarterback play will be stronger this year with Baylor transfer Jarrett Stidham taking the reigns (1,265 yards passing, 12 TDs and just 2 INTs in limited time as a freshman in 2015).  I’ll still take Alabama but it’s the closest Auburn will be to catching them in the last four years.

Note: When watching film for a player, 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
  • Film: draftbreakdown.com, youtube.com (but be wary of highlight only reels)
  • Draft info and mocks: draftcountdown.com, nfldraftscout.com, walterfootball.com, mattwaldmanrsp.com, ESPN’s First Draft podcast, 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

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.

The Watch List: Pac 12 Preview

Updated: August 10th 2017

Welcome to The Watch List, a resource to help RSO owners identify the players, storylines and matchups from the college game that deserve your attention.  Check back throughout the Summer for previews on each conference and my preseason Heisman predictions.  During the regular season, The Watch List will continue to update you on who is fantasy relevant and worth your draft capital next year. 

Players to Watch

  • Sam Darnold, QB, USC:  Everywhere you look, Darnold is the top QB prospect for 2018 if not the first overall player.  I’d say the hype is verging on Andrew Luck territory, however Luck had much more experience (38 games vs at most 25 for Darnold).  I’m not quite ready to say that Darnold is the second coming, but he’s my clear QB1 for 2018 right now.  Darnold has good size at 6’4″ and 225lb but questionable speed.  Heading into college he ran a 4.95 per ESPN; DraftScout.com has him pegged in the 4.74 range.  At those combine measureables, Darnold compares to Christian Hackenberg if he runs faster or Tom Savage if slower.  Hopefully I’m not damning with faint praise here – Hackenberg was hyped after a great freshman season but his value came crashing down after a bad sophomore year.  In 2016, Darnold threw for 3,086 yards, 31 TDs and 9 INTs – good totals for somebody who wasn’t the starter until week four.  He had a very high completion percentage of 67.2%, good enough for ninth in the nation.  I checked his situational stats on CFBStats.com and was impressed with how clutch he was in the red zone (63% completion percentage, 23 TDs and just one INT) and in the fourth quarter (when his completion percentage and passer rating spiked compared to earlier quarters).  The first game tape of Darnold I watched was against Washington (15th ranked pass defense).  His footwork was immediately apparent – his feet don’t stop moving and he is always primed to either step into a throw or leave the pocket.  He is comfortable under pressure and throws accurately while on the run.  My favorite play of his during the Washington game came on a 2nd & 11 in the red zone, early in the 2nd quarter with the score tied.  He felt the pressure from his left, rolled right, shuffled his feet until he saw a lane to hit a streaking receiver in the back of the end zone.  He managed to thread the defenders and lead his receiver well.  His evasion of the rush was also on display against Utah when literally the first play of the game saw him under duress.  He broke two tackles, rolled right while outrunning a defensive lineman and threw the ball away.  In the drive log it showed up as an incomplete pass but in reality it was so much more: it showcased his athleticism (I still won’t call him fast) and his field awareness.  I remember seeing a similar type of play when watching film of Deshone Kizer and instead of throwing the ball away and playing another down, he threw it up to be intercepted.  Speaking of his athleticism, he had a hard fought ten yard touchdown run in both games – unfortunately the one against Washington was called back on a penalty.  Regardless, he won’t be doing much running in the NFL but I think he could gain a reputation as “mobile” in the pocket like Ben Roethlisberger.  My biggest concern after watching Darnold’s tape is his arm motion.  It struck me that it looks too long.  On many throws he dips his hand below his waist as he loads for the throw.  He does throw from varied arm angles which leads me to believe he can be taught and isn’t locked into his bad habit.  Darnold will be the top pick in the 2018 draft and should garner early interest in your RSO league.  If you are in a standard league, you’re looking at an early second round pick for him; in superflex leagues, I’d say somewhere in the 1.06 range (after Barkley, Guice, Chubb, and Sutton and right around Scarborough and Washington).
  • Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA:  If it weren’t for Darnold, Rosen would be the one to watch in the Pac-12 this season.  For that reason, I’m not convinced that Rosen leaves after his junior season unless he absolutely lights it up.  Rosen lost most of his sophomore season to a shoulder injury but is okay to return this season.  In 2015, as a true freshman, he put up solid numbers: a 60% completion percentage, 3,669 yards, 23 TDs to 11 INTs.  In 2016, his stats were basically on the same track with an uptick in yards per game.  Like Darnold, I took a closer look at his situational stats but was disappointed (I used 2015’s stats to have a larger sample size and because in 2016 he missed three of the team’s four games against ranked opponents).  Rosen’s completion percentage and passer rating take a dip in the 4th quarter, the opposite of what you’d hope.  2015 was actually a tale of two halves for Rosen.  In the first half, he threw 16 TDs, 6 INTs, completed 63.7% of his passes and had a passer rating of 148.  In the second half, just 7 TDs, 5 INTs, 55.7% and 118.  It’s a shame we didn’t get a full complement of games in 2016 to see if these stats would have improved because in the small sample we have they did.  That’s something I will be checking on after the 2017 season.  Rosen measures in at 6’4″ and 210lb and is a true pocket passer, even more so than Darnold.  He’s such a pocket passer that I came across two separate pieces during my research comparing him to Eli Manning (one from NFL.com, one from DraftBreakdown.com).  I was underwhelmed by Rosen’s stats but his film is good – maybe it’s just refreshing to see a college quarterback under center and in the pocket rather than trying to run all over.  I watched him against Stanford in 2016 because that was the toughest passing defense he faced (61st) in his shortened season.  I noted that he has very good play action fakes.  At first I wasn’t sure why the play action plays caught my eye but then I realized it is because we see college quarterbacks under center so infrequently that a true play action fake, when their back is to the defense, is rare.  Rosen has a quick release and unlike Darnold does not need to work on his mechanics.  I paused the film during a few throws to see how his motion compared to Darnold and it was starkly different – Rosen’s hand rarely dips below his numbers which is why he can unload the ball so quickly.  Because Rosen is a statue in the pocket, he does take a number of sacks.  Per Phil Steele’s game logs, UCLA allowed 15 sacks in games that Rosen started (2.5 per game); for comparison USC only allowed six in Darnold’s games (0.6 per game) and never more than one per game.  I predict NFL scouts will fall in love with Rosen the more tape they watch but ultimately I don’t think he’ll overcome the Darnold hype.  His mechanics and college offense might better prepare him for the pros but Darnold is more athletic, has a better pocket presence and is clutch when it counts.  If Rosen comes out, which is likely but he might have less competition in 2019, he will likely be the second QB off the board in both NFL and RSO drafts.
  • Dante Pettis, WR, Washington:  The odds of Pettis becoming a productive NFL receiver are against him due to his size.  Since 2010, the list of WRs who weighed in at less than 190lbs at the combine is long (16 players) and the only one with any notable NFL success is Will Fuller.  Yes, that Will Fuller that just broke is collarbone and is out indefinitely; and yes, that Will Fuller who also missed time last year due to other injuries.  Pettis has contributed all three seasons and his stats have improved year-over-year.  In 2016, he was part of a potent one-two punch with John Ross.  Pettis finished with a 53-822-15 line.  His touchdown to reception ratio was impressive: he caught a touchdown every 3.5 receptions.  Whether he can keep that up in 2017 is questionable as he won’t have the threat of Ross opposite him to distract defenses.  I watched film of Pettis against Oregon and I do have to admit that I was surprised to see him as a willing blocker on a number of plays and he was also not afraid to go across the middle despite his size.  He also showcased his hands on two great touchdown catches.  The first one he high-pointed and caught the ball with good hand placement (he lost the ball when heading to the ground and it likely would not have been a touchdown in the NFL); on the second one he made a diving one handed catch in the back of the end zone.  He’s capable of NFL quality moments but I think his size will hold him back in scouts’ minds.  He’ll probably be in the range of WR6-8 for me this Spring so you should plan on targeting him late in the second round of your RSO draft.
  • Honorable Mentions:
    • Luke Falk, QB, Washington State:  Falk is a third year starter in coach Mike Leach’s air raid passing offense.  He has a very high 68.8% career completion percentage and tossed 38 TDs each of the past two seasons.  Falk feels like somebody who will be under-drafted because of his college offense but will show up in camp and beat out some veteran for a backup job due to his experience, composure and accuracy.  If he manages to land behind a questionable starter, he might be worth a speculative add.
    • Ronald Jones, RB, USC:  Ronald Jones is a bit of an enigma to me.  He’s long and lean: 6’1″ and 195lb.  That may not seem like an odd combination but I went back through combine measurements dating back to 2000.  There was just one RB who was over 6ft but under 200lb.  In order to make himself more desirable to NFL scouts, I think Jones will need to add at least 10lb.  In two seasons, Jones has 2,069 rushing yards and 20 TDs.  Unfortunately, he’s not a factor in the passing game.  One last caveat: Jones has just one career game where he received more than 20 carries.
    • Royce Freeman, RB, Oregon:  Freeman, on the other hand, is a 230lb battering ram who gets fed.  Freeman has fourteen career games with more than 20 carries, for comparison to Jones.  When I look at his stats, game logs and highlights it just screams NFL.  Freeman started as a true freshman in 2014 with 252 carries; he peaked in 2015 with 283 before being slowed to 168 in 2016.  He has 44 career rushing TDs.  Also unlike Jones, Freeman is a decent receiver, averaging 22 receptions a year.  Freeman isn’t the smoothest runner, he looks a bit laborious, but he comps well to Eddie Lacy in both size and speed (DraftScout.com estimates a 4.54 for Freeman).  I’ll be keeping an eye on Freeman this season and think he will slot in as my 5th ranked RB for the 2018 draft.
    • Vita Vea, DT, Washington:  You can’t teach size – and Vea has plenty of it.  He lists at 6’5″ and anywhere from 332-344lb depending on the source.  He will likely play at NT in a 3-4 scheme in the NFL.  I watched highlights of him against Rutgers and he honestly looked smaller than his listed size so his value could come down to the combine.  He had 39 tackles in 2016 with 6.5 tackles for loss and 5 sacks.
    • Cameron Smith, LB, USC:  Smith was a sensation as a true freshman in 2015 and was named a Freshman All-American and was Second Team Pac-12.  He increased his tackle output slightly (78-83) and should hit the century mark this year if he wants to cement his draft pedigree.  Smith is a stay at home MLB who has just two career sacks so he might not show up on the highlight reel but he will show up in the boxscore.
    • Iman Marshall, CB, USC:  Marshall came out of high school as Phil Steele’s #1 cornerback recruit; he’ll be leaving college as his #2 pro prospect at the position.  Marshall has put up good numbers through two years as a starter: 119 tackles, 6 INTs, 17 passes defended.  Marshall obviously doesn’t mind getting involved in the run defense to rack up so many tackles (for comparison, Steele’s top corner prospect Tavarus McFadden had just 19 tackles last year to Marshall’s 52).

Storylines to Watch

  • The Darnold & Rosen Show:  No, it’s not a new drive-time sports talk radio show, it’s going to be the weekly back-and-forth between these two quarterbacks.  Both have NFL aspirations and both will see themselves with 1st round draft grades if they can stay healthy and at least reasonably productive.  If both are still healthy come their November 18th face-off it will be epic.
  • The Ascension of Willie Taggart:  At just 40 years old, and with a career 40-45 record, Taggart finds himself in a great job in Eugene with Oregon.  Taggart took over struggling programs at Western Kentucky and South Florida and turned them around with back-to-back winning seasons before moving on.  His records aren’t all that encouraging (0-3 vs Top 10, 2-11 vs Top 25, 3-15 vs Power 5) so this is a move based mostly on potential.  If you’re a fan of looking at “coaching trees” you will be happy to see that Taggart is well connected to the Harbaughs: he coached under Jack at Western Kentucky and under Jim at Stanford.  Ducks fans will hope Taggart has a similar steadying influence on their program but that he sticks around for the long term.
  • Return to Mediocrity for Colorado:  Colorado was a surprise success last year.  They finished the 2016 regular season at 10-3, won the Pac-12 South and landed in the Alamo Bowl against Oklahoma State.  Unfortunately for the Buffs, 2017 will be less like the 2016 regular season and more like the Alamo Bowl, a 38-8 loss.  Colorado relied on a strong defense that finished Top 20 in both points and yards.  8 starters depart so there will be a let down.  On offense, QB Sefo Liafu is gone and the top spot will belong to Steven Montez.  Montez might sound familiar because he did get into a number of games last season when Liafu was hurt.  He did well against Oregon and Oregon State but struggled against the tougher defenses of Michigan and USC.  It will take a miracle for Colorado to make it back to the Pac-12 Championship.

Games to Watch

  • September 1, Washington at Rutgers:  This one is a bit of a homer pick, me being a Rutgers fan and all, but I do think it is a big game for Washington.  It’s their only non-conference Power 5 game and is on the road.  If the Huskies start their season with a convincing win as they did last year (48-13), heading into weaker foes in Montana and Fresno State, it should set them up well for Pac-12 play.  Washington’s schedule is back-loaded and they will face their five toughest opponents in a row to end the season.  Starting out strong is imperative.  It’ll be a national spotlight game on a Friday night so be sure to make your weekend plans accordingly.
  • October 14, Oregon at Stanford:  Stanford will be the toughest test yet in a young season for new coach Willie Taggart and the Ducks.  Both of these teams will be hoping to challenge Washington for the Pac-12 North title and winning this game will set them up well.  Making this game even more interesting is the connection between the two head coaches.  Taggart previously coached at Stanford and was the running backs coach when Stanford head coach David Shaw was the offensive coordinator.  The two should know each other well enough to make this a close one.
  • November 18, UCLA at USC:  I have touched on these two teams a number of times in this preview so it should come as no surprise that their season-ending matchup would find it’s way onto this list.  It’ll be our last chance to see one of the two star quarterbacks for 4-5 weeks until the bowl; the winner will get a chance to stay in the limelight playing in the Pac-12 Championship.  USC has won the last two games by a combined 41 points.  I expect the 2017 contest to be closer.

Note: When watching film for a player, 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
  • Film: draftbreakdown.com, youtube.com (but be wary of highlight only reels)
  • Draft info and mocks: draftcountdown.com, nfldraftscout.com, walterfootball.com, mattwaldmanrsp.com, ESPN’s First Draft podcast, drafttek.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

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.