Updated 2018 Positional Rookie Rankings

Updated: March 15th 2018

Back in November, I released the first draft of my 2018 positional rookie rankings. Today, I will revisit the rankings and go deeper than before (TWSS?). Before we get started, please remember that we are still early in the draft process. All of these players just completed the combine and as of this writing, none have yet had a pro day or an individual workout. We’ll likely learn more about some prospects before this article even gets published; we’ll surely know a lot more a month from now. As in November, I did struggle at times as to whether the rankings should be based on my perceived fantasy value or in what order I believe players will be drafted. Ultimately, I am ranking based more so on expected fantasy value than predicted draft order but the two are highly correlated. I’ll post separate fantasy and NFL mock drafts in April so you’ll be able to see where the two values diverge. I have included brief notes on interesting players for each position and designated tiers. For more detailed analysis follow me on Twitter @robertfcowper and check out my “RSO Rookie Rundown” series.

Note: this was written prior to the retirement of Adam Breneman.


My quarterback rankings are likely more controversial than my rankings at other positions. I truly believe that Josh Rosen is the most NFL-ready of the top prospects and as such I still rank him first. I don’t think he will be drafted first at that position but honestly that might do more to help his fantasy stock than hurt it. I have been low on Sam Darnold and Josh Allen since October so their rankings should come as no surprise. The more I watch and read about Lamar Jackson, the more impressed I am with him as a quarterback; don’t believe the WR narrative. I am much higher on Mason Rudolph than many analysts. He may be a little stiff but he was highly productive, excelled in some advanced metrics and was a quiet leader in Stillwater. I think Rudolph will get drafted by a team who benches him for Year One only to give him the keys to the car to start Year Two (i.e. Pat Mahomes). Luke Falk and Mike White find themselves ahead of the next tier due to their elite size and above average production. Of the rest, my picks for guys who may move up the rankings are JT Barrett and Chase Litton. Barrett was a proven winner at one of the nation’s best programs so I won’t count him out yet. Litton threw too many interceptions in college but is one of the biggest quarterbacks in the class and as such will get a shot somewhere.

Running Backs

No change at the top for me. It’s Barkley well above Guice and Chubb. Jones, Penny and Michel are the next tier and are all very close. I have not elevated Sony Michel as high as some others because I am wary of the recency effect. Michel was in the RB5-10 range all season and one great game against Oklahoma shouldn’t really change that. All of the things we “learned” against Oklahoma were already baked into Michel’s ranking. We knew he could catch the ball, we knew he was explosive, we knew he didn’t need 20 carries to make a difference, etc. To bump him higher based off that one game is essentially a double counting accounting error. Freeman (early in the season), Balage (at the combine) and Johnson (late in the season) are an interesting tier as they all flashed at different times. I’m intrigued by Balage and his combination of size and athleticism; I want to study him more and could slide him up into the third tier. Two big names that have slid down the rankings are Josh Adams and Bo Scarborough. Both concern me because of their size: running backs as tall as they are just don’t often succeed in the NFL (which is also a concern for Balage). There are three FCS prospects on the list (Martez Carter, Chase Edmonds, Roc Thomas). My favorite of that group is Martez Carter. He is short and stout and is a dynamic pass catcher. Edmonds showed out at the combine and will likely move up NFL Draft boards. I’m not a fan of John Kelly because he has a lack of production, size and speed that worries me even though he’s starting to get some buzz. If I had to pick one mid- to late-round pick that will have the biggest immediate impact in the NFL, it might be Ito Smith. Smith was a very good blocker according to PFF’s metrics and is a fantastic receiver (40+ catches each of the last three seasons).

Wide Receivers

I have had Calvin Ridley as my WR1 since the start of the year and I have not been discouraged by the mediocre stats or his middling combine performance. I still believe in Ridley’s raw ability and think that he’s the best of this class. Unlike last year, this class lacks a Top 10 talent so Ridley may be artificially moved up draft boards simply because he may be the best at a position of need. Many other analysts have either Washington or Sutton at WR1 and I can’t really argue with that. They both out-produced Ridley over their careers and each have their own athletic attributes. Ironically, both Washington and Sutton are the only two to have a teammate also make this list so maybe I’m undervaluing just how dominant they could have been on another team. I love all of the guys in my second tier and I don’t think NFL teams will go wrong with any of them. If I was an NFL GM I would probably pass on Ridley in the first and instead grab one of Miller, Moore, Kirk or Gallup in the second. All four have a similar profile: they are versatile, quick and can make spectacular catches. Auden Tate is a big, pun intended, wildcard for me because his sample size is so small (just 65 career catches). However, he has the size and body control to be a true X receiver in the league. Dante Pettis is being too undervalued right now in my opinion. Many analysts seem to have forgotten all about him. He was a four year contributor on a championship contending team. He’ll get on the field early with his punt return and run after catch ability, maybe like how Tyreek Hill started his career, and could be a late round steal in fantasy drafts. Allen Lazard has fallen far down my rankings, mostly because he just failed to impress me at points this past season. There is talk of him moving to TE which would do wonders for his fantasy value. There are three guys in the bottom tiers who are more talented than their rankings: Cain and Callaway (off the field issues) and James (injury). I ended up watching a number of Syracuse games this year and became a fan of Steve Ishmael. He had a fantastic 105-1,347-7 line while playing for a bad Orange team. He has good size and made a number of big-time catches in the games I watched him play against Florida State and Clemson.

Tight Ends

The consensus opinion currently states that Mark Andrews is the best player at the position but I strongly disagree. I did not see enough out of Andrews for me to think he could be a starting NFL tight end. I would feel much more confident drafting one of the other top four for my squad. Goedert is the most well rounded player in the group and he’s such a likable person to boot. Gesicki and Hurst are right with Goedert. Gesicki is an incredible athlete but has a wrap for being a poor blocker. Hurst is underrated because he doesn’t score much (just 3 career TDs) but catches a lot of balls and can block better than most in the class. Adam Breneman has serious injury concerns which drags down his potential – if it weren’t for his history of knee injuries he could be atop this group (Editor’s Note: Breneman has since retired from football). Tight end was a difficult position to rank for me because there were few prospects I had a great feel for. Admittedly, everybody past Troy Fumagalli is a dart throw. Chances are that your fantasy league won’t need to draft the position deeper than that but if you do, I provided a bunch of names of guys to keep on your radar. I prioritized players with either great size or great production – very few had both – and left off some players who might be selected in the NFL Draft but likely have no shot at factoring in fantasy-wise. If you have to go deeper, take the guy who gets drafted highest, regardless of where he ended up in my ranking because there’s so little between TE7 and TE13. The two at the bottom, Yurachek and Akins, are truly deep sleepers. Both are undersized, “move” tight ends who could see a hybrid TE/WR role in the NFL. Teams may be less hesitant to draft somebody of their size and speed after the success of Evan Engram in 2017.

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, ndtscouting.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, Draft Dudes

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

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

The Watch List: Bowl Game Previews, Part VI

Updated: December 30th 2017

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.

Monday, Jan. 1

Outback Bowl, Michigan (8-4) vs. South Carolina (8-4), 12 p.m. (ESPN2)

  • Michigan: 88th scoring offense, 112th passing offense, 44th rushing offense; 14th scoring defense, 1st passing defense, 21st rushing defense
  • South Carolina: 99th scoring offense, 79th passing offense, 108th rushing offense; 27th scoring defense, 71st passing defense, 42nd rushing defense

As my readers know, I am a Michigan homer but I’m going to be as impartial here as possible. There is no reason this game should be on New Year’s Day. I guess the NCAA (read as: ESPN) prefer to have some of the biggest games spaced out on Dec 29 and Dec 30 but it’s hard to get excited by this matchup. Both teams are 8-4 and were a combined 1-5 against ranked teams (notably that single win was Michigan over #17 Florida in the first game of the season before we knew how bad Florida was going to be). The teams are also banged up: per Sports-Reference.com’s injury reports, the teams have a combined 22 players injured with varying severity.

Since Gamecocks WR Deebo Samuel has not returned to practice and will not play in the bowl, the most significant injury is likely to Michigan QB Brandon Peters. Peters started the year as the third stringer but was elevated to the starting role on Oct 28 against Rutgers. Wilton Speight got hurt in the team’s fourth game but wasn’t playing well anyway. Wolverines fans like myself got a taste of truly dreadful quarterback play when John O’Korn took over and struggled mightily. Peters has not been great (57.6% completion percentage, 4 TDs and 0 INTs) but he’s a significant improvement over the turnover prone O’Korn. The offense is led by a trio of running backs: Karan Higdon (929 yards, 11 TDs), Chris Evans (661-6) and Ty Isaac (548-2). Not surprisingly, none of the WRs are a factor. The team’s leading receiver is TE Sean McKeon (29-285-3). Keep an eye on FB Khalid Hill near the goal line. Hill only has 34 yards on 17 carries this season but he has three scores and had ten last year. Michigan’s defense is chock-full of NFL talent and they alone should warrant their own full-length piece. The biggest difference makers on that unit are DT Maurice Hurst and DE Rashan Gary. Hurst has 58 tackles, 13 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks; Gary has 55-10.5-4. Gary is the better pro prospect, don’t be surprised if he’s a Top 3 pick in 2018, but the stats belie his skill because of how often he’s double teamed. This Youtube video is a good cut-up of 2016 highlights for a number of 2017’s key defensive players, including LBs Chase Winovich and Mike McCray.

It’s a shame Deebo Samuel won’t be back for the bowl after a broken leg. Reports earlier in the season were that he could return but he has not practiced. Samuel is draft eligible but he should probably return for another year. He has fifteen career touchdowns (7 rushing, 5 receiving, 3 returning) and is an explosive game breaker. Sophomore QB Jake Bentley regressed in 2017 in terms of his rate stats and efficiency. I have not watched much of Bentley so I’m not able to provide much analysis here but I’ll bet that there’s a good chance he doesn’t start 2018 as the starter. TE Hayden Hurst is the team’s best NFL prospect. He had 41 receptions for 518 yards and 2 TDs this year. He has not been a high volume scorer (just 3 career TDs) but he is a good pass catcher and at least an average blocker in my film study. Hurst was my TE2 when I did 2018 rookie positional rankings in November; he’ll probably come in a little lower than that but he’s still a possible rookie pick in many fantasy leagues. LB Skai Moore is a four year contributor who has 346 career tackles, 5 career sacks and 14 career interceptions. Moore is WalterFootball.com’s 12th ranked OLB. His versatility in pass coverage should earn him a Day Two draft pick.

Michigan’s defense, without a doubt, will be the most dominant unit on the field in this one. I’ll make the homer pick and take my Wolverines. Prediction: Michigan

Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, #7 Auburn (10-3) vs. #12 Central Florida (12-0), 12:30 p.m. (ESPN)

  • Auburn: 25th scoring offense, 68th passing offense, 22nd rushing offense; 10th scoring defense, 17th passing defense, 32nd rushing defense
  • UCF: 1st scoring offense, 7th passing offense, 34th rushing offense; 53rd scoring defense, 111th passing defense, 66th rushing defense

What a game this one is going to be.  We all know the story surrounding outgoing UCF head coach Scott Frost so let’s not beat the proverbial dead horse because the spotlight should be on the players.

Auburn had a roller coaster of a season.  Heading into SEC play they were 2-1 but with two poor wins and a close loss to #3 Clemson.  They made it up to #10 but a loss to LSU bumped them all the way down to #21.  From there they worked their way into the playoff picture with wins over #2 Georgia and #1 Alabama (both of whom are playing in the playoff despite their losses to Auburn).  A poor showing in the rematch against Georgia sealed their outside-looking-in fate.  Throughout the season they were led by two players on offense: QB Jarrett Stidham and RB Kerryon Johnson.  I was lukewarm regarding Stidham for most of the year but he won me over against Alabama.  I wrote him up that week and compared him favorably to Alex Smith.  He’s an efficient and athletic game manager which sounds like an insult but it’s actually high praise (don’t forget that Smith was taken first overall in 2005).  Stidham threw just one INT in SEC play but has a mixed bag of results in the year’s biggest games (good games against Georgia and Alabama, bad games against Georgia and Clemson).  UCF has a poor passing defense so I expect Stidham to put up big numbers.  Kerryon Johnson has battled some injuries this season but he was still very productive in eleven games (1,320 rushing yards, 23 rushing TDs, 23 receptions, 188 receiving yards, 2 receiving TDs).  I did not rank Johnson in my Top 15 for 2018 rookie RBs but his success in November has me re-thinking that: over 700 totals yards and 15 total TDs.  As far as non-offensive skill positions go, the Tigers have three NFL talents.  At corner, Carlton Davis could land near the end of the first round.  According to Pro Football Focus, Davis was the 50th ranked player in “Cover Snaps per Reception” and was average in passer rating against.  Still, my preferred draft sources (WalterFootball.com and NFLDraftScout.com) favor him over guys I like more like Josh Jackson or Jaire Alexander.  OG Braden Smith will be a second tier option for teams who miss on the elite prospects in a guard-heavy draft.  K Daniel Carlson will end up getting drafted before the 6th round by some team desperate to end their kicking woes; he has played in 52 career games and hit on 90 of his 111 attempts (plus a perfect 195-195 record on PATs).  In a game destined to come down to who has the ball last, Carlson could be a factor.

The UCF offense is all about QB McKenzie Milton.  I have been praising him for a few weeks now because he is one of the purest passers I remember watching in recent memory.  His deep ball looks effortless and he’s not afraid to throw it – he can just spin it.  Milton played as a freshman in 2016 but exploded in 2017.  He threw for 3,795 yards and 35 TDs and completed 69.2% of his passes.  The biggest knock on Milton is his size.  He’s listed at 5’11” and 177lbs and that might be soaking wet with two sets of shoulder pads on.  I don’t think there is any way we talk about Milton as a pro prospect next year so enjoy him now as a fun to watch college QB.  WR Tre’Quan Smith is the biggest benefactor of Milton’s prolific passing.  He only caught 54 balls but went for 1,082 yards (an outstanding 20.0 yards per reception) and 13 TDs.  Per PFF, Smith is fourth in the FBS in “Deep Receiving Catch Rate” by catching 68.4% of his deep attempts.  Smith has 50+ receptions in each of his three seasons so who knows maybe another solid 2018 gets him drafted.  UCF does not have any high level NFL hopefuls but you should read up on LB Shaquem Griffin.  He was the conference’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2016 after finishing with 92 tackles, 20 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks.  His stats all decreased this year but that doesn’t make him any less fun to watch.  Griffin’s left hand was amputated in 1999 and against all odds he is pushing for a shot in the NFL.  I envy people like Griffin who can overcome their physical limitations to do great things, I’m not sure I would have the strength to do so myself, and I don’t doubt for a second that he’ll make an impression on NFL scouts.

I’m not a gambler but if I were, I would avoid this one.  I’m picking with my heart and not my head here: I love watching UCF and am rooting for them to show the playoff committee that they deserved a chance.  Prediction: Central Florida

Citrus Bowl, #17 LSU (9-3) vs. #14 Notre Dame (9-3), 1 p.m. (ABC)

  • LSU: 72nd scoring offense, 86th passing offense, 30th rushing offense; 16th scoring defense, 20th passing defense, 22nd rushing defense
  • Notre Dame: 22nd scoring offense, 104th passing offense, 7th rushing offense; 32nd scoring defense, 51st passing defense, 49th rushing defense

LSU has earned some headlines over the last 24 hours as reports have come out that offensive coordinator Matt Canada is leaving the team.  Canada’s offense is famous for its pre-snap shifts and movement.  Ironically, Canada’s career is famous for its movement too because he can’t stick around anywhere too long (six different schools since 2010); maybe the gimmick just isn’t worth all of the effort and time it must take to learn.  Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly is always surrounded by rumors too because half the fan base hates him.

LSU was an enigma to me this season.  Midway through the year, I was honestly surprised to see that 5-2 LSU was ranked #24.  One of those losses was to Troy from the Sun Belt which would seem to be disqualifying.  Of the other Power 5 teams in the Top 25, only Stanford (vs San Diego State) has a loss to a Group of 5 team; and that is without a doubt a stronger loss than LSU’s.  I guess the committee felt that LSU’s win over then #10 Auburn more than made up for the bad loss (but by that logic Ohio State should have been in over Alabama).  LSU has two players who will go at the top of drafts: DE Arden Key in the NFL Draft and RB Derrius Guice in your rookie draft.  Guice has been as under the radar as the soon to be 1.02 can.  Saquon Barkley has, deservedly, received a ton of attention this season but second tier backs like Ronald Jones and Bryce Love have stolen some of the shine that should be on Guice.  He has confirmed that he will play in the Citrus Bowl which is good because I figured he might follow former teammate Leonard Fournette’s lead and skip the bowl.  Guice had a solid season but was not as dominant as he was last year when sharing the backfield with Fournette.  This year Guice finished with a 1,153-11 line.  He’s not a big receiving threat (just 29 career receptions, 15 of which came this year) which could limit his utility at the start of his NFL career.  It turns out that my feelings about Guice from August were spot-on: “I’m very interested to see how Guice does without Fournette…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.”  Injuries derailed Arden Key’s season and will cause him to miss the bowl.  He still has an elite size and speed combination plus enough production to guarantee he finds the Top 10 in the NFL Draft.  WR DJ Chark had 47 touches for 874 total yards and 4 TDs; his production is undraftable but his 6’4″ height could get him a look.  CB Donte Jackson is WalterFootball.com’s 3rd ranked corner.

The strength of Notre Dame’s team, stop me if you’ve heard this before, is their offensive line.  I would not at all be surprised for Notre Dame to have both the first tackle and the first guard drafted, both likely in the Top 15.  T Mike McGlinchey (6’8″ and 315lbs) and G Quentin Nelson (6’5″ and 330lbs) were both first team All-Americans.  They pave the way for RB Josh Adams and QB Brandon Wimbush to rack up rushing yards.  Adams finished with 1,386 yards and 9 TDs while Wimbush had 766 and 14.  I am not a fan of Wimbush because he is such an inaccurate passer but you can’t deny his ability as a runner.  I have waffled on Adams throughout the season but I remain concerned about his size at the next level (he’s too tall – click the link for my analysis).  In Week 9, I predicted he’d be a 3rd round rookie draft pick and I’ll stand by that now.  It’s a shame that Wimbush has struggled to complete passes because WR Equanimeious St. Brown (my vote for the first player to break RSO’s draft software because of the length of this name) has such potential.  St. Brown is long and lean (he really needs to add about 10lbs to make it in the NFL) with a good pedigree (4 star recruit, offers from a number of big schools).  If he comes out he is going to have to dominate the combine because his production is below average (90-1,437-13 in two seasons as a starter).  LB Nyles Morgan considered coming out after his junior year (88 tackles, 6 tackles for loss, 4 sacks) but returned to school; unfortunately for Morgan, 2017 probably hurt his stock more than helped it (82-6.5-1).  Both WalterFootball.com and NFLDraftScout.com have him as either a 7th rounder or undrafted.

I struggled to pick this one because I’m not a fan of either team.  I’ll take LSU because of Guice and the strength of their defense (even without Key).  Prediction: LSU

College Football Playoff Semifinal #1, Rose Bowl Game Presented by Northwestern Mutual, #3 Georgia (12-1) vs #2 Oklahoma (12-1), 5 p.m. (ESPN)

  • Georgia: 23rd scoring offense, 111th passing offense, 11th rushing offense; 3rd scoring defense, 2nd passing defense, 12th rushing defense
  • Oklahoma: 4th scoring offense, 3rd passing offense, 27th rushing offense; 52nd scoring defense, 87th passing defense, 39th rushing defense

And here we are, finally the College Football Playoff, 39 games later.  The Georgia vs Oklahoma matchup may lack the familiarity of the Alabama vs Clemson matchup but it will be equally entertaining featuring a great matchup of Oklahoma’s offense against Georgia’s defense.  Baker Mayfield is apparently sick but there’s no way that it keeps him off the field.

Oklahoma’s season was momentarily disrupted by their Oct 7 loss to Iowa State but they went on to win eight straight including three wins against teams ranked #8, #10 and #11.  Coming into the season, I had serious doubts about whether Baker Mayfield was going to 1) win the Heisman and 2) become a top NFL prospect.  Turns out that I was wrong on both accounts.  Mayfield has been exceptional this season.  Who would have thought it would be possible to improve on his 2016 numbers, but he did.  Mayfield finished with 4,340 yards (2nd in FBS), 41 passing TDs (2nd) and completed 71.0% of his passes (1st).  His interceptions went down, his yards per attempt went up, and on and on.  There just aren’t enough superlatives for what Mayfield accomplished on the field this season, especially considering that he is a former walk-on at Texas Tech.  Mayfield does have some “character” question marks but I don’t think any of them are enough to ding his draft stock.  I had Mayfield as my QB6 when I ranked potential 2018 rookies but I think he’ll likely be in the QB4 range by moving ahead of Luke Falk and Lamar Jackson.  I expect Mayfield to be drafted in the first half of the first round in April; depending on his landing spot he could be a factor in fantasy leagues as a rookie.  Mayfield is surrounded by a strong supporting cast composed mostly of underclassmen.  That includes sophomore RB Rodney Anderson (960 yards, 11 TDs), freshman RB Trey Sermon (710-5) and freshman WR CeeDee Lamb (40 receptions, 741 yards, 7 TDs).  Aside from Mayfield, the best pro prospect is TE Mark Andrews.  Andrews is 6’5″ and 254lbs and often plays in the slot to maximize his size advantage over smaller corners and safeties.  Andrews is certainly not the most well-rounded TE in the class but he will likely be the first drafted in 2018 rookie drafts for his receiving ability.  In my early 2018 mock rookie draft I had Andrews as the 2.10 pick and the first TE off the board.  Andrews led the team in receptions (58) and receiving TDs (8) and was second in receiving yards (906).  LT Orlando Brown seems to be a polarizing player in mock drafts as I have seen him as high as the 2nd overall pick to the 18th overall pick to all the way down to 59th overall.  The Sooners defense is led by DE Ogbonnia Okoronkwo.  Okoronkwo has two straight 70+ tackle and 8+ sack seasons.  He landed on numerous second team All-American lists and was the Big 12’s Defensive Player of the Year (shared with Malik Jefferson).

Georgia had some quarterback controversy very early in the year when freshman Jake Fromm took over for the injured Jacob Eason in the season opener.  Regardless of how well Eason played in 2016 as a freshman, there was no way he was getting the job back from Fromm once he took over.  By virtue of their strong rushing game, Fromm is not counted on to throw the ball much (he had six games with fewer than ten completions) but when he does he is efficient.  He ended the season with 21 TDs and 5 INTs and had rate stats significantly higher than those of Eason in 2016.  The run game is a three-headed monster featuring Nick Chubb, Sony Michel and D’Andre Swift.  Chubb led the way with 1,175 yards and 13 TDs; Michel had 948 yards and 13 TDs; Swift had 597 yards and 3 TDs.  Neither Chubb nor Michel are pass catchers but Swift did have 15 receptions.  Swift is a true freshman and a name to watch for next season after Chubb and Michel leave for the NFL.  Both Chubb and Michel were drafted in my 2018 early mock draft (Chubb at 1.03, Michel at 2.06).  Chubb has an injury history which may trouble some NFL teams but he’s been mostly healthy since his 2015 knee injury.  Swift closed out the SEC Championship game against Auburn and had 94 total yards on 10 touches – look for a similar output here in the bowl because Georgia will need to get the ball out quick to neutralize the pass rush.  The Georgia defense is led by two LBs who are bound to be IDP considerations in 2018.  The lesser prospect is DE/OLB rusher Lorenzo Carter.  Carter had 48 tackles, 8 tackles for loss, 4 sacks, 3 forced fumbles and 3 fumble recoveries this season.  I researched him back in Week 4 and guessed he could end up as a first rounder – that may be a little high but he could still get picked on Day Two.  Roquan Smith is an elite prospect.  He was named SEC Defensive Player of the Year and is a first team All-American.  In 2016 he had 95 tackles with no sacks, this year he improved to 113 tackles and 5 sacks.  He’s the top draft eligible player at the position and will be a Top 10 draft pick.

I’m taking Oklahoma purely because of Baker Mayfield.  If the game is close, he’ll find a way to win it.  I worry that Georgia could get an early lead and milk to clock with their run game but if they start slow they’ll struggle to keep up with Mayfield, et al.  Prediction: Oklahoma

College Football Playoff Semifinal #2, Allstate Sugar Bowl, #4 Alabama (11-1) vs #1 Clemson (12-1), 8:45 p.m. (ESPN)

  • Alabama: 12th scoring offense, 83rd passing offense, 10th rushing offense; 1st scoring defense, 7th passing defense, 3rd rushing defense
  • Clemson: 21st scoring offense, 52nd passing offense, 33rd rushing offense; 2nd scoring defense, 8th passing defense, 13th rushing defense

How often is the third installment of a trilogy the best?  Probably never unless you’re a big Return of the Jedi fan.  I don’t think this one will have the juice of the last two matchups because we’re missing the star that is Deshaun Watson.  Don’t get me wrong it’ll be entertaining but we won’t be seeing this one on ESPN Classic in ten years.

Alabama snuck into the playoff in my opinion.  If it were up to me, I would have taken Ohio State because they won their conference and did not have any FCS wins.  Sure, Alabama has one less loss but in my mind they also have two less wins.  Alabama is full of familiar names so we’ll go through them quickly.  QB Jalen Hurts feels like he’s been around for half a decade but he’s just a sophomore.  He is a run-first quarterback (he led the team in rush attempts with 137) who really improved as a passer this year.  His yards per attempt went up to 9.0 from 7.3 and he threw just one INT (he also only lost one fumble).  He didn’t run as much in 2017 as he did in 2016 but he also increased his yards per rush this year.  Nick Saban trusts him with the ball in his hands and you can see why.  In the preseason, my preferred Crimson Tide RB was Bo Scarborough; he disappointed this year with just 549 yards and 8 TDs.  I will be lowering him in my 2018 rookie rankings (assuming he comes out).  The best back this year was Damien Harris who is also draft eligible; he leapfrogged Scarborough in my early 2018 positional rankings.  Harris ran for 906 yards and 11 TDs but added just 8 receptions.  He’ll probably be an early 2nd round rookie pick for me next year.  WR Calvin Ridley is still my WR1 despite the fact that many draft analysts disagree with me.  Ridley’s production has been hampered by a run-heavy offense so of course we aren’t going to see production like Amari Cooper or Julio Jones.  Ridley is a little too light so I would like to see him add about 10lbs in the offseason to approximate Cooper’s size.  Ridley has a pedigree that few prospects can match: he was ESPN’s #1 recruit in his class and was the leading receiver for Alabama in three straight seasons in which they contended for the national championship.  I’m not scared off by his decreasing production and will keep him as my WR1 until he proves me otherwise.  Alabama has a number of defensive prospects including LB Rashaan Evans, S Ronnie Harrison and DT Da’Shawn Hand but the number one guy is DB Minkah Fitzpatrick.  Fitzpatrick has played both corner and safety so he offers versatility in both pass coverage and run support.  His stats decreased from 2016 (66 tackles vs 55, 6 INTs vs 1) but he was battling a hamstring injury so that could have been the cause.  He has four career interception return touchdowns so when he has the ball in his hands he can change a game too.  Fitzpatrick is likely to go in the Top 3 in the NFL Draft and will instantly makeover a struggling defense.

I put out my first playoff ranking in Week 7 and had Clemson as the #1 team (I also had Alabama and Georgia, three out of four ain’t bad) and am happy to see them ascend back to the #1 spot after that loss to Syracuse.  Like Alabama, the strength of the team lies on defense.  There might be fix or six guys from the defense drafted this Spring.  DT Christian Wilkins started the season with some preseason hype, played well and increased his stats in 2017 (52 tackles, 5.0 sacks).  Wilkins will be a first rounder but challenging him to be the first pick from Clemson will be DE Clelin Ferrell.  Ferrell is just a redshirt sophomore but he broke out in 2017 for 62 tackles, 17 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks.  The defense also has two tackle machines in Kendall Joseph and Dorian O’Daniel.  The Clemson offense is similar to that of Alabama in that it features an efficient rush-first quarterback.  That quarterback is Kelly Bryant.  Bryant managed to play in each game despite an ankle injury and a concussion (he left that loss to Syracuse early due to the concussion).  Bryant only threw for 13 TDs but rushed for 11 more.  Freshman RB Travis Etienne is a burner who came on early in the season with some big plays to close out blowout wins.  He finished strong too: he had six scores over the last four games.  Etienne only had double digit carries twice so he’s not a high volume player but his speed means he’s only one missed tackle away from a touchdown.  WR Deon Cain (55-659-6) is a top receiver prospect for many analysts but I’m not sold.  He does not have elite size or production; I’ll wait and see how he does at the combine but I’m not sure his speed will make up for the other aspects.  Cain was suspended for the semi-final and championship games in 2015 after a failed drug test which will factor into his draft evaluation too.  WRs Hunter Renfrow and Ray-Ray McCloud are undersized but trustworthy possession receivers.

I’m not sure they deserve to be here based on their resume but the Tide deserve to be here based on their roster.  Save for the defensive line, Alabama arguably has better players at every position than Clemson.  Roll Tide.  Prediction: Alabama

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

The Watch List: Bowl Game Previews, Part I

Updated: December 7th 2017

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.

Saturday, Dec. 16

Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl, North Carolina A&T (11-0) vs. Grambling State (11-1), 11 a.m. (ABC)

The Celebration Bowl, you ask?  The Celebration Bowl is a relatively new invention that features the SWAC and MEAC champions.  When researching this bowl, I learned that neither conference participates in the FCS playoffs for financial reasons.  Their teams often did not compete with other FCS mainstays and traveling for playoff games can cost a lot of money.  Instead, the Celebration Bowl lets the best of each conference compete in a centrally located neutral site game to cap off the season.  While it’s not one of the FBS bowl games, I decided to preview the game for two reasons: 1) it’s a national broadcast leading into the start of the FBS bowl season and 2) because I wanted to do some research on Grambling RB Martez Carter.  Carter is short at 5’9″ but he is solidly built at 205lbs; NFLDraftScout.com estimates his speed in the mid 4.40 range.  He has three straight 800+ rushing yard seasons, averages 5.7 yards per carry, has four career kick return touchdowns and is a factor in the passing game.  In 2016, Carter caught 28 balls for 376 yards; in 2017 he upped that to 30 for 402.  He has eight career receiving touchdowns.  Based on my limited study, I would throw out Shane Vereen as a reasonable size, speed and production comp.  Carter appears to be the type of player who will latch on to an NFL team for his special teams skills and could be an injury away from a role.  North Carolina A&T has a mountain of an offensive tackle named Brandon Parker.  He’s 6’8″ and 310lbs.  Based on size alone, I would guess he’s at least a third round NFL prospect.  I won’t pretend to have a good feel for this game but if nothing else it’ll be a good chance to watch two under the radar draft prospects and a great way to get your football Saturday started early.  Prediction: Grambling State

R + L Carriers New Orleans Bowl, Troy (10-2) vs. North Texas (9-4), 1 p.m. (ESPN)

  • Troy: 52nd scoring offense, 34th passing offense, 85th rushing offense; 11th scoring defense, 69th passing defense, 15th rushing defense
  • North Texas: 20th scoring offense, 21st passing offense, 53rd rushing offense; 106th scoring defense, 64th passing defense, 107th rushing defense

I’m cautiously optimistic that the first bowl of the season will be an entertaining one.  Troy is on a six game winning streak with the closest game being by 8 against bowl-bound Arkansas State.  North Texas is coming off a loss to Lane Kiffin’s red hot FAU team but prior to that they had won five straight, including two close wins to bowl-bound Louisiana Tech and Army.  North Texas’ 20th ranked scoring offense was previously led by RB Jeffery Wilson (1,215 yards, 16TDs) but he has missed the team’s last two games due to an ankle injury.  In his stead, undersized freshman Nick Smith will get the lion’s share of the carries.  In the last two without Wilson, Smith went for 178 yards against Rice but just 50 against FAU.  Since Troy has a strong rush defense, I’m hoping we get to see Wilson at full strength in the bowl.  North Texas QB Mason Fine is just 5’11” and 180lbs but has been prolific with 3,749 yards (9th in the FBS) and 28 TDs.  In the preseason, I called Troy RB Jordan Chunn “the player from the Sun Belt most likely to end up on your fantasy team next Spring.”  He underwhelmed this season with just 978 total yards and 10 TDs but he did miss two games due to a leg laceration.  A good showing from Chunn would help his draft stock but he should be off your board as a fantasy owner for now.  Put this one one while you eat lunch, flip over to Oregon vs Boise State when it starts and then come back at 4:00 to see if the ending is worth your time.  Prediction: Troy

AutoNation Cure Bowl, Western Kentucky (6-6) vs. Georgia State (6-5), 2:30 p.m. (CBSSN)

  • Western Kentucky: 83rd scoring offense, 9th passing offense, 130th rushing offense; 69th scoring defense, 36th passing defense, 77th rushing defense
  • Georgia State:  119th scoring offense, 31st passing offense, 117th rushing offense; 55th scoring defense, 92nd passing defense, 47th rushing defense

The Hilltoppers struggled through the back half of the season, losing four of their last five.  At 5-2, they may have thought they were on their way to repeating their recent history of double digit wins but alas they came crashing back to earth.  Georgia State similarly ended on a sour note with two bad losses to Appalachian State (by 21) and Idaho (who finished at 4-8 and is moving down to the FCS next year).  Chances are this is going to be a game to miss but the lone bright spot will be Western Kentucky QB Mike White.  White is a fringe QB prospect that I introduced to my readers in the offseason.  White is a former USF transfer who has prototypical size at 6’4″ and 225lbs.  He excelled last season with Taywan Taylor (who was drafted by the Titans) with a 37:7 TD:INT ratio.  In 2017, White regressed in ratio (24:7), completion percentage and yards per attempt.  His stats are still good enough to warrant a late look in the NFL Draft.  Amazingly, Georgia State managed to be bowl eligible despite finishing 119th in scoring offense.  Don’t expect this one to be pretty.  Prediction: Western Kentucky

Las Vegas Bowl, Boise State (10-3) vs. Oregon (7-5), 3:30 p.m. (ABC)

  • Boise State: 36th scoring offense, 44th passing offense, 91st rushing offense; 35th scoring defense, 44th passing defense, 20th rushing defense
  • Oregon:  18th scoring offense, 97th passing offense, 8th rushing offense; 76th scoring defense, 75th passing defense, 26th rushing defense

The Las Vegas Bowl is the crown jewel of the early bowl games.  Sure, Oregon had a disappointing year at 7-5 (and a losing 4-5 record in conference) and just lost head coach Willie Taggart to Florida State but they will still be fun to watch.  Oregon’s offense was less potent than in recent memory but still averaged 36.7 points per game.  Most of those points were scored by RB Royce Freeman who had 16 rushing TDs.  Freeman has 5,621 career rushing yards and 60 rushing TDs.  He’s good.  I wrote about Freeman in the preseason and in Week 3 – I still love him today.  He’s a battering ram at 230+ pounds.  My biggest complaint about Freeman this year would be that he did not progress as a pass catcher; he had just 14 receptions compared to 23 and 26 the previous two years.  In order to consider him a true three down back I would have loved to see him hit the 30 reception plateau.  He has been on fire as of late, finishing the season with six straight games with 122 or more yards.  Freeman will face a stiffer test though in Boise’s rush defense.  They held six opponents to less than 100 yards, including the nation’s 12th ranked rushing offense in San Diego State and Rashaad Penny.  Sophomore QB Justin Herbert will get a lot of attention over the next year or two from NFL scouts.  He is very tall at 6’6″ and efficient with the ball (64.7% completion percentage and just 7 INTs in his two season career).  WR Cedrick Wilson is my favorite player on Boise State.  He is a former JUCO transfer with 129 receptions, 2,419 yards and 17 TDs in his two years at Boise.  He’s 6’3″ and a good blocker which will help get him drafted.  Per Pro Football Focus, Wilson has a very high contested catch completion percentage.  I have Wilson as my WR15 for 2018 rookie drafts.  This game is a must-watch so be sure not to miss it.  I’m torn but will pick against Oregon after the news that Taggart is leaving.  Prediction: Boise State

Gildan New Mexico Bowl, Marshall (7-5) vs. Colorado State (7-5), 4:30 p.m. (ESPN)

  • Marshall: 81st scoring offense, 58th passing offense, 104th rushing offense; 17th scoring defense, 47th passing defense, 19th rushing defense
  • Colorado State: 29th scoring offense, 23rd passing offense, 29th rushing offense; 73rd scoring defense, 96th passing defense, 86th rushing defense

The Thundering Herd and the Rams combined for just two wins in November (one each) so neither is hot at the moment.  I’m still looking forward to this one though because it will be a chance to see Colorado State WR Michael Gallup against a decent defense.  Gallup improved on a successful 2016 season by finishing 2017 with a 94-1,350-7 line.  Those stats helped him finish first in the conference in receptions and receiving yards (he was 3rd and 4th respectively in the FBS overall).  Gallup does not have elite measureables (6’1″, 200lbs, 4.50 speed) but has elite production so he’ll be considered at the NFL level and in most fantasy leagues.  I watched some of Gallup early in the season against Oregon State and Alabama; both were pretty good games from him but I want to see more from Gallup and would like to re-watch the Alabama tape.  Gallup resides in a no-man’s land of draft prospects size-wise.  Of the twenty-six similar size/speed combine participants from 2010-2o17, the best comps would be Josh Doctson, Allen Hurns and Robert Woods.  If you drafted Gallup in the third round of your rookie draft you’d be happy with that return but chances are he’s going in the second round based on his production.  There’s another draft prospect in this game to keep an eye on: Marshall TE Ryan Yurachek.  Yurachek is undersized for a TE; he’s about the same weight and an inch shorter than last year’s vogue undersized TE Evan Engram.  And no, please do not take that as a comp to Evan Engram because Yurachek is far from the athlete Engram is.  In my early 2018 positional rankings, I included Yurachek because I honestly didn’t have another guy I wanted to include; he was my TE8.  He did have 47 receptions and 9 TDs which ranks him 6th and 3rd in the FBS at the position.  I would not be surprised to see a position change for Yurachek or to see him lineup off the line of scrimmage as is becoming more common for “move” tight ends.  Having an offensive draft prospect on both sides of the ball makes the New Mexico Bowl a “must-DVR” and a maybe-watch.  Prediction: Colorado State

Raycom Media Camelia Bowl, Arkansas State (7-4) vs. Middle Tennessee State (6-6), 8 p.m. (ESPN)

  • Arkansas State: 15th scoring offense, 6th passing offense, 79th rushing offense; 51st scoring defense, 91st passing defense, 35th rushing defense
  • Middle Tennessee State: 92nd scoring offense, 45th passing offense, 90th rushing offense; 45th scoring defense, 46th passing defense, 34th rushing defense

If it weren’t for the Cure Bowl, this would be the dud matchup of the day.  I am finding myself nonplussed, especially considering MTSU WR Richie James has an injured collarbone and is out for the year.  If nothing else, this matchup will be Exhibit A as to why the bowl season needs to contract rather than expand.  Arkansas State does have a late round draft prospect in TE Blake Mack and a very good quarterback in junior Justice Hansen.  Like Yurachek, Mack is an undersized TE who likely figures to be a possession WR or maybe an H-back in the pros.  Mack is 6’3″ and 231lbs with speed in the 4.70 range.  Mack’s line in 2017 finished at 46-609-7, landing him in the Top 10 of most stats among TEs.  I researched Mack in the preseason for my Sun Belt preview and at that time I said, “He was very versatile, lining up in the slot, on the outside and in the backfield.  He was not on the line often and I did not see a single highlight of him blocking (possibly more a feature of what constitutes a highlight, but my gut tells me he doesn’t block much).  He has the speed to beat safeties and linebackers in coverage, which he did on a number of plays.”  Hansen is a former Oklahoma and JUCO transfer so he’s had a circuitous route to success in the Sun Belt.  He is a dual-threat QB who has thrown for 3,635 yards and 34 TDs this season and added six more scores on the ground.  Hansen completes a high percentage of his passes (63.7) but has thrown too many INTs (15).  He has good size so who knows maybe a good game puts him on the late round radar for 2019.  Despite the injury, Richie James will still get drafted if he comes out.  He started his career with 212 receptions, nearly 3,000 yards and 20 TDs combined as a freshman and sophomore.  In eight career games against Power 5 opponents (against Alabama, Illinois, Missouri, Syracuse, Minnesota and three times against Vanderbilt), James totaled 65 receptions, 849 yards and 5 TDs.  That’s a better season, in eight games, than somebody like Clemson WR Deon Cain had this year and he’s in the mix as a Top 10 rookie WR for 2018 fantasy drafts.  Unfortunately we won’t see James in this one but you should definitely be paying attention to whether he declares or not for the NFL.  I’m leaning towards the Red Wolves in this one due to the strength of their passing game and their quarterback.  Prediction: Arkansas State

Tuesday, Dec. 19

Boca Raton Bowl, Florida Atlantic (10-3) vs. Akron (7-6), 7 p.m. (ESPN)

  • Florida Atlantic: 9th scoring offense, 81st passing offense, 6th rushing offense; 44th scoring defense, 93rd passing defense, 67th rushing defense
  • Akron: 103rd scoring offense, 74th passing offense, 118th rushing offense; 60th scoring defense, 82nd passing defense, 98th rushing defense

I’m not a gambling man, given my horrible record of weekly picks this season that is a good thing, but if I were I would bet big on this one.  This game is the lock of all locks this bowl season, in favor of the Owls and Lane Kiffin playing at home in Boca Raton.  One caveat: that’s if Kiffin is still on campus.  With the coaching carousel still spinning there is no guarantee Kiffin is still in Boca come December 19th.  I predict he’ll stay unless Florida State comes calling.  In the offseason, I called it a rebuilding year for Kiffin and he has done just that after a surprising 10-3 season.  Both Phil Steele and Lindy’s had FAU projected as the 5th place team in C-USA’s East division.  Not only did they win the division, and the conference, but they went undefeated (8-0) and finished three games ahead of second place FIU.  I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention FAU’s sophomore RB Devin Singletary.  Singletary’s rushing numbers this season are literally unbelievable: 275 carries, 1,794 yards and 29 TDs.  He ranks Top 5 in just about every relevant running back stat in the FBS.  The one that impressed me most is the number of carries; 275 carries is good for 5th overall and is twice as much as he handled last season.  He’s short at 5’9″ but stout enough at 200lbs (think Ameer Abdullah if he adds a few pounds).  Singletary was not on my draft prospect radar previously but luckily I have another season to delve deeper since he’s just a sophomore.  One of the reasons I am so sure that FAU will beat Akron is that Akron’s 7-6 record isn’t even as good as it looks.  They have two one-point wins, one three-point win and a win against a 2-9 FCS team.  I’ll say one good thing about Akron though, they have a hell of a tackling machine, and a great name, in Ulysees Gilbert III (yes, that is Ulysees not Ulysses).  Gilbert is a junior who has two back-to-back 120+ tackle and 4 sack seasons.  WalterFootball.com has him as the 13th ranked OLB for 2019 while NFLDraftScout.com has him as 10th in the class.  He might not factor in for you IDP players in 2018 but go ahead and impress your friends by dropping some Zips knowledge now.  Bet it all on Boca.  Prediction: Florida Atlantic

Wednesday, Dec. 20

Frisco Bowl, SMU (7-5) vs. Louisiana Tech (6-6), Frisco, 8 p.m. (ESPN)

  • SMU: 8th scoring offense, 16th passing offense, 45th rushing offense; 113th scoring defense, 121st passing defense, 113th rushing defense
  • Louisiana Tech: 63rd scoring offense, 64th passing offense, 55th rushing offense; 66th scoring defense, 59th passing defense, 81st rushing defense

By the time you read this preview, there is a very good chance that Chad Morris is no longer SMU’s head coach and is instead at either Arkansas or Tennessee.  Don’t these ADs know how difficult it is to write a good bowl preview when you don’t know who the head coach will be?  Woe is me, we’ll press on.  The biggest draft prospect of this early slate of games is undoubtedly SMU’s WR Courtland Sutton.  I am an active member in Reddit’s dynasty fantasy football subreddit called r/DynastyFF.  The sub runs bi-weekly rookie mock drafts and I have been compiling the results for you, dear reader.  As of the mock started on 11/29, Sutton was the 1.03 pick and was in a clear tier with Derrius Guice, Nick Chubb and James Washington just behind Saquon Barkley.  In that forum, Sutton is the WR1, has been picked as high as 1.02 and has never gone later than 1.05.  I have written extensively about Sutton this season so I won’t go into detail here but here’s a short summary: Sutton has elite size, good speed and fantastic body control but has feasted mostly on subpar defenses and saw a reduced role in 2017.  SMU has an awful defense and is coming off a poor end to the season (a close win against Tulane kept them from losing their last four games); Louisiana Tech on the other hand ended with two wins (albeit one against 0-12 UTEP).  Aside from Sutton, there is somebody else worth rooting for in this game: Lousiana Tech RB Boston Scott.  Scott is a 5’6″, former walk-on, fifth year senior who suffers from a rare muscular disorder.  He earned a scholarship last season and has gained over 1,000 total yards and 9 TDs this season as Tech’s primary ball carrier.  I expect this one to be high scoring and surprisingly fun to watch.  SMU’s defense and the flux in the program will be factors.  Prediction: Louisiana Tech

Thursday, Dec. 21

Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl, Temple (6-6) vs. Florida International (8-4), 8 p.m. (ESPN)

  • Temple: 118th scoring offense, 107th passing offense, 116th rushing offense; 83rd scoring defense, 6th passing defense, 126th rushing defense
  • Florida International: 74th scoring offense, 56th passing offense, 65th rushing offense; 79th scoring defense, 95th passing defense, 79th rushing defense

Butch Davis, much like Lane Kiffin, sought the sunny shores of Florida to rehab his career.  Davis also succeeded, although to a lesser degree than Kiffin.  FIU finished 8-4 which is just the second time the team has won eight or more since they joined the FBS in 2004.  It’s also just the team’s third bowl, although it’s not the most ridiculously named bowl the Golden Panthers will have played in.  That ignominious award goes to the 2011 Beef O’Brady’s Bowl (named for a restaurant I predict I will never patronize).   Temple disappointed this year at 6-6 after back-to-back ten win seasons under former coach Matt Rhule.  Temple’s QB Logan Marchi battled injuries, inefficiency and turnovers which may account for the downfall.  As far as I can tell, neither Temple nor Florida International have any worthwhile offensive NFL draft prospects.  Temple’s strong pass defense is led by CB/S Sean Chandler and CB Mike Jones.  Jones is a graduate transfer from North Carolina Central University where he totaled 114 tackles and 11 INTs; this year at Temple he had 38 tackles, an INT and 7 passes defended.  Chandler had 74 tackles, 2 INTs and 3 passes defended this season.  Chandler is the more likely of the two to get drafted: in the preseason, Phil Steele had him as the sixth ranked FS.  FIU’s mediocre defense is led by LBs Anthony Wint and Treyvon Williams, both of whom have 180+ tackles each over the last two seasons combined.  Aside from the Cure Bowl, this one has the worst combination of offenses and might prove unwatchable.  Prediction: Temple

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

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.

More Analysis by Bob Cowper

The Watch List: ACC Preview

Updated: August 6th 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

  • Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville:  My grandmother once told me that “if you don’t have anything nice to say, then don’t say anything at all.”  So… onto Deon Cain.  Just kidding, I have plenty to say and plan on sharing with you, my fellow RSO owner.  Let’s start with Jackson’s statistics.  He had some gaudy numbers in 2016 like 3,543 passing yards, 1,571 rushing yards and 51 total TDs (hence the Heisman).  My concern lies in his completion percentage: 56.2 in 2016.  It was even lower in limited action in 2015 at just 54.7%.  To get a better feel for when Jackson was completing his passes, I used CFBStats.com’s situational stats.  In the red zone, his completion percentage falls even lower to 50.7% (albeit with 19 TDs).  When the score is tied or worse, it was 54%.  I was really hoping that when it counted most that Jackson’s accuracy would improve but it did not; in fact it is buoyed by less important game situations.  Using Sports-Reference.com’s play index, I was able to find a strange, but possibly telling stat for Jackson: he led the NCAA in games with 300+ passing yards but with a completion percentage below 60% (4 games).  When he completes a pass, it’s often for a chunk of yards but there are many negative plays in between.  It’s also important to notice that 15 of his 51 total TDs (or nearly 30%) came against Charlotte and Marshall who were the 102nd and 107th worst defenses last season.  Maybe it’s unfair to pick out his best games but I’d be less worried if they came against stronger teams.  My accuracy concerns were borne out in the film I watched of Jackson against Marshall.  Early in the first half I counted four consecutive plays where the ball was behind his receiver.  He does not appear to be great at leading a receiver.  There were two very poor decisions that Jackson made while scrambling – both balls should have been thrown away but were instead lofted up and one led to an interception.  His lack of pocket presence showed in the Clemson game too.  In fairness the Clemson defense victimized the Louisville offensive line (5 sacks, 10 tackles for loss) but Jackson did not adjust and was consistently rattled by the rush.  Want some good news?  Okay fine.  Jackson is an electric player when he has the ball in his hand and he’s rushing.  DraftScout.com has him in the 4.32-4.52 range and it would not surprise me to see him hit the top end of that (in March, Louisville announced he ran a 4.34 at Spring practice).  If he ran that at the combine, it would make him the second fastest QB since 2010 (RGIII).  Hopefully Jackson measures in true to the listed 6’3″ and 205lb but I’m not so sure.  Don’t let the accolades and awards fool you, Jackson does not warrant consideration as a top prospect in this year’s class.  If I had to guess now, I would probably have him as my 7th or 8th quarterback and likely undraftable in most RSO formats.
  • Deon Cain, WR, Clemson: In 2015, when Mike Williams was out with injury and Deon Cain was a freshman, Cain caught 34 balls for 582 yards and 5 TDs.  In 2016, in Williams’ shadow, Cain caught about the same number of balls (38) but improved to 724 yards and 9 TDs.  In both seasons he led the team in yards per reception (17.1 and 19.1).  Because of his second-fiddle status, I feared that most of Cain’s production would have been against FCS and weak non-conference foes.  Per CFBStats.com, Cain had 34 of his 38 receptions and 7 of his 9 TDs against Power Five teams in 2016.  The only caveat is that a plurality of his yards and 4 of his TDs came in garbage time when the Tigers were up by 15+ points.  Cain’s biggest game of 2016 came against Syracuse when he had 5-125-2.  I watched film of that game and came away impressed.  Cain blew past corners with straight line speed on multiple occasions, one of which went for a score.  I was most impressed by his concentration and focus at the catch.  At the end of the first half, he had a play where he went over the corner on a fade, managed to find the ball, and got his toe down in the end zone.  Unfortunately his heel came down out of bounds and it was called back.  He had a similar concentration grab later in the game near the sideline.  He let the ball come over his shoulder, stopped the ball with his right hand, secured it with both hands and then managed to get both feet in bounds.  It was an NFL worthy catch and he was pretty nonchalant about it after the fact.  I was even more encouraged about Cain when I checked his combine size comps: Amari Cooper, Sammy Watkins, Justin Blackmon, Davante Adams and DeAndre Hopkins.  That’s quite a group of talented players to be compared to (with varying levels of success in the NFL of course).  I’m bullish on Cain and am thinking he will be a 3rd-4th round NFL selection if he comes out this year and should be a target late in your RSO draft.
  • Mark Walton, RB, Miami:  Walton is a small back with quick feet and a penchant for bouncing off tackles.  In the clips package I watched, there were multiple plays against both FAU and Pitt where Walton showed supreme patience at the line.  He would shuffle his feet either left or right, keep his pads parallel to the line of scrimmage and wait for his hole.  Once he hits the hole he has the speed (DraftScout.com predicts him in the 4.49 range which is exactly what Dalvin Cook ran) and bounce-off ability to break big plays.  In 2016, as a sophomore, Walton rushed for 1,117 yards and 14 TDs.  He also added 27 receptions which will be a necessary skill in the NFL given his smaller size.  The good news for Walton is that Miami has 100 OL starts returning which is the 6th best in the NCAA per Phil Steele.  The bad news for Walton is that 2018 will be a crowded RB class (Barkley, Guice, Chubb, Scarborough to name the top four) so even if he improves this season he should stay put and wait for his senior season.
  • Honorable Mentions
    • Deondre Francois, QB, FSU:  I fell in love watching Francois during one of FSU’s nationally televised games last year (can’t remember which).  He was getting battered but took the hits and kept getting up.  He looks bigger than his 6’2″ and 205 lb frame to my eye.  He’s just a redshirt sophomore, with a lot to improve on, so I don’t think he comes out but he could be in the Heisman race.
    • Max Browne, QB, Pitt: Browne has one more shot to prove his potential.  Per Rivals.com he was a five star recruit and the #1 QB recruit in the 2013 class.  He landed at USC where he threw 112 career passes, most coming last year before he lost the job to Sam Darnold.  Browne has the pedigree and the size (6’5″) to force NFL scouts to take a look.
    • Derwin James, S, FSU:  Don’t know the name?  Don’t worry I didn’t either.  James missed most of 2016 with a knee injury but will still be a top IDP prospect if he comes out as a junior.  As a true freshman he had 91 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, 4 passes defended, 2 fumbles forced and 2 fumble recoveries.  He has linebacker type size and would be one of the bigger safeties in recent classes (a close combine comp is former FSU LB Telvin Smith).
    • Christian Wilkins & Dexter Lawrence, DTs, Clemson: This dynamic duo of disruptive DTs combined to put up 110 tackles, 21.5 tackles for loss, 10 sacks, 10 passes defended and 4 fumble recoveries last year.  Lawrence did so as a true freshman and won the ACC Rookie of the Year award (unfortunately that means he isn’t draft eligible until 2019).  Coach Dabo Swinney even likes to use Wilkins on trick plays – in 2016 he rushed for a first down on a fake punt and also caught a TD pass.
    • Harold Landry, DE, Boston College:  Landry is a rising senior who could have come out after a tremendous 2016 campaign.  He had 50 tackles, 22 tackles for loss, 16.5 sacks, 4 passes defended and 7 forced fumbles.  As a sophomore, before fine-tuning his pass rushing ability, he had 60 tackles.  Landry is WalterFootball.com’s 6th ranked DE for 2018 and is projected to be a 1st or 2nd round pick right now.  He’s a bit undersized for a 4-3 end but could be a valuable IDP if he lands in a productive 3-4 scheme.

Storylines to Watch

  • Clemson Let Down:  There’s simply no way that Clemson can stay in the national title picture for a third year in a row.  The Tigers lost first round talents in QB Deshaun Watson and WR Mike Williams and also lost other offensive contributors (including one of my favorites, RB Wayne Gallman).  Per Phil Steele’s experience charts, Clemson is ranked 128th in returning offensive yards.  The only team worse that played in the FBS last year?  Conference foe North Carolina.  If Dabo can keep Clemson in the division race and finish the season at 9-3 or better it would do more for him in my eyes as a head coach than winning last year’s title.
  • Heisman Distractions Abound:  The ACC has two of the top five Heisman hopefuls, according to an ESPN study of the Vegas odds, in Lamar Jackson and Deondre Francois.  The shadow of expectations, will follow those two and their teammates throughout the season.  Jackson has to carry the burden of trying to repeat as the winner – a feat only accomplished by Archie Griffin.  Francois will likely be faced with paint-by-numbers comparisons to former FSU QB Jameis Winston who won the Heisman and national championship in 2013.  Also on the list of Heisman candidates are Mark Walton, Derwin James and Deon Cain (albeit all at 100:1 odds).
  • Wolfpack Lurking: Repeat readers know that I highly value Phil Steele’s annual experience charts.  I think they are a great tool to help identify teams who will outperform expectations.  What caught my eye was how high Steele had North Carolina State ranked – 8th in the NCAA – so I did a bit more research.  The Wolfpack ended 2016 on a high note winning 3 of 4, including a 41-17 domination of Vanderbilt in the Independence Bowl.  They lost leading RB Matt Dayes but they return the top four receivers, QB Ryan Finley and eight defensive starters.  WR Nyheim Hines is switching to RB so technically they have a returner there as well.  Finley is a transfer from Boise State, where he also worked with current NC State OC Eliah Drinkwitz (great name, by the way).  He threw for just over 3,000 yards last year with 18 TDs and 8 INTs and should improve further in 2017.  Three of the toughest games for NC State come at home: Louisville, Clemson and the rivalry game against UNC.  I won’t go as far as to say that they will win the tougher Atlantic Division, but they will finish above two of FSU, Clemson and Louisville.

Games to Watch

  • September 2, Alabama vs Florida State:  What a doozy to end the first true Saturday of the college football season.  Both teams are preseason championship contenders and whoever wins this game will probably be the favorite.  There will be plenty of NFL talent on display, including Dondre Francois, Derwin James, Bo Scarborough, Calvin Ridley, and as usual most of the Crimson Tide defense.
  • September 16, Clemson at Louisville:  This is pretty early in the season to get such a meaningful in-conference game.  Beating Louisville would go a long way to proving whether Clemson will stay relevant or if they will collapse after hemorrhaging all of their top players to the NFL.  For Louiville’s Lamar Jackson and his Heisman hopes, the consecutive games against UNC and Clemson will be vitally important to overcome the let down of finishing September against Kent State and Murray State.
  • November 4, Virginia Tech at Miami:  If second year Hurricanes coach Mark Richt wants to aspire to more than the Russell Athletic Bowl he’ll have to hold off the Hokies who won the Coastal last year.  The Hurricanes are more experienced and have an easier schedule so they likely have the edge this season but this game will be a must-win.  It’ll be in Miami and it’s been designated as their homecoming game – maybe there’s a mind game at work.
  • November 25, North Carolina at North Carolina State and Florida State at Florida:  These in-state rivalry games will make for a fun post-Thanksgiving Saturday.  One of the two will end up as the 8pm showcase game on ABC because Ohio State/Michigan will be at noon and Alabama/Auburn will likely be the CBS 3:30pm game.  The North Carolina game will feature teams fighting for their respective division titles, or at least bowl eligibility.  The Florida game will feature teams looking to stay in the CFP bracket.  The “last” button on your remote will be your friend if they both end up in primetime.

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.

More Analysis by Bob Cowper