RSO Rookie Rundown: 2018 QBs, Part I

Updated: January 27th 2018

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

Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Draft Round Grade: 2nd Round

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

Recent NFL Comparison: Tyrod Taylor

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

Mason Rudolph, QB, Oklahoma State

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recent NFL Comparison: Ben Roethlisberger

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

Josh Allen, QB, Wyoming

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

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

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

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

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

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

Film Study:

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

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

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

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

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

Draft Round Grade: Early to Mid 1st Round

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

Recent NFL Comparison: DeShone Kizer

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

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

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

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

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

More Analysis by Bob Cowper

Championship Weekend Projections

Updated: January 20th 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More Analysis by Stephen Wendell

Divisional Round Predictions

Updated: January 12th 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More Analysis by Stephen Wendell

The Watch List: National Championship Preview

Updated: January 5th 2018

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

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

Quarterback: Alabama

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

Running Backs: Georgia

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

Receivers: Alabama

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

Defensive Line: Alabama

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

Linebackers: Georgia

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

Secondary: Alabama

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

Specialists: Alabama

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

Prediction: Roll Tide

 

 


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

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

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

More Analysis by Bob Cowper

RSO 2018 Off-Season Schedule

Updated: January 5th 2018

Welcome to the RSO off-season, where things can get even more interesting and exciting than during the season. Congrats to all of our 2017 league champions! Remember, it is never too early to start strategizing for 2018, and to help you better prepare for the upcoming season, please find some important dates and off-season rules/info below:

February 9th, 2017

February 9th, 2018 is the estimated official start of the 2017-18 RSO off-season. Last season, the NFL announced the 2017 salary cap in late February, and we expect them to do so again this year around the same time. The 2018 NFL salary cap is expected to rise to as much as $178 million. Since we will open the site before the NFL announces the 2018 salary cap, we will leave the cap at the 2017 level until the NFL announces the new salary cap for 2018. However, existing leagues will be able to commence the RSO off-season, meaning teams can make off-season trades and cuts. Additionally, new league creation will be available at this time.

April 26th, 2018 to April 28th, 2018 

These are the dates of the actual NFL Draft. Once the NFL Draft is completed, leagues will be able to conduct their RSO Rookie Drafts and Free Agent Auctions. The NFL Draft is set to end on Saturday, April 28th, 2018, and we expect to have all rookie information updated on the site by Monday, April 30th, 2018.

February 9th, 2018 to Three (3) Days Before Your League’s 2018 RSO Rookie Draft 

Different for every league depending on the date set for your 2018 RSO Rookie Draft, this is the “franchise tag designation period”. During this period, team owners must decide whether to place a franchise tag on a player whose contract expired in 2017 (the tagged salary for each player can be found by clicking the “Tag” button on the Team-Contracts tab). At the end of this period, players on expiring contracts will be removed from your Team Roster (unless you franchise tag a player). Additionally, at the conclusion of this period, team owners must have enough salary cap space to fill their respective rosters through the Rookie Draft and Free Agency in order to avoid having players automatically dropped from their rosters to create cap space. A Salary Cap Health Overview feature located on the Team-Overview tab contains all the information team owners need to ensure they have enough salary cap space. Note: no trades will be allowed during the three-day period between the end of the franchise tag designation period and your 2018 Rookie Draft. Trading will resume after the conclusion of your Rookie Draft.

*Remember, you can now finalize your franchise tag if you desire before the conclusion of the franchise tag designation period by clicking the “finalize franchise tag” button, which will in turn allow you to trade the tagged player if you want before your league’s 2018 Rookie Draft.

**Stay tuned for more details on how extending the contracts of franchise tagged players will work.

February 9th, 2018 to Three (3) Days Before Your League’s 2018 RSO Free Agent Auction

This period is the official duration of the RSO off-season for each league. The length of the off-season is important because of the rules surrounding off-season vs. in-season cuts. This is best explained by example. Assume you have Kirk Cousins under contract for $15mm in 2018 and $18mm in 2019. If you cut Cousins during the 2017-18 off-season (i.e. up and until 3 days before your Free Agent Auction), you will only owe him $7.5mm in 2018 and then $9mm in 2019. If you wait until the off-season concludes before cutting Cousins, you will owe him his full $15mm in 2018 in addition to the $9mm in 2019. Therefore, it is important to assess your roster and make desired cuts before your off-season concludes three days before your league’s 2019 Free Agent Auction.

September 6th, 2018

The first game of the NFL season will be held in the home of the Super Bowl Champion, which has a chance of being the same place the Super Bowl is played if the Vikings win it all…it will be here before you know it!

More Analysis by Stephen Wendell

RSO Staff Picks: Week 17

Updated: December 30th 2017

Week 16 Results

T1. Papson – 13-3

T1. English – 13-3

3. Wendell – 12-4

Overall Standings

1. Papson – 162-78

2. Wendell – 160-80

3. English – 159-82

Papson comes up with another solid week at 13-3 with his Jimmy G 49ers pick proving pivotal, giving him a two game lead over Wendell and a three game lead over English instead of being even with Wendell and one game ahead of English. Alas, 16 more games this week to decide the season long crown in what has been an extremely close race all year long. Papson trails only Mike Clay (165-75) out of the 11 ESPN experts. Here are our picks for the final week of the regular season. Happy New Year!

NFL Game Picks

Game

Wendell

English

Papson

DAL @ PHI

GB @ DET

HOU @ IND

CHI @ MIN

NYJ @ NE

WAS @ NYG

CLV @ PIT

CAR @ ATL

CIN @ BAL

BUF @ MIA

NO @ TB

JAX @ TEN

KC @ DEN

OAK @ LAC

SF @ LAR

ARI @ SEA

 

More Analysis by Stephen Wendell