2018 NFL Mock Draft: Part III, Picks 33-48

Updated: April 17th 2018

If you have not already read Part IV of my mock draft, please start there so you can start at the bottom and follow through to the beginning.  Part IV includes detailed notes about my methodology and process.  Once they are posted, you can then move on to Part II and then finally to Part I.  An important note to remind readers is that this mock draft was compiled on March 30-31 so please keep the timing in mind as you read in case there are trades or free agent signings in the interim.

#48 – Chargers – Justin Reid, S, Stanford

My primary need for the Chargers was on the offensive line.  I addressed that with their first round pick to give Phillip Rivers and Melvin Gordon some protection.  For the next pick, I wanted to target the defense. Last year’s starting free safety, Tre Boston, has not yet been resigned.  Boston led the team in defensive snaps so it’s telling that they didn’t resign him right away.  Former undrafted Texas Longhorn Adrian Phillips is the next up at the position, so the Chargers could use an upgrade through the draft if they don’t bring Boston back.  Justin Reid is the next best safety available, either free or strong, and could start from Day One.  Reid ran the second fastest forty of any safety (4.40) so he has the speed to avoid getting beat deep and he has good ball skills.  He also plays well closer to the line of scrimmage (he had 94 tackles and 6.5 tackles for loss in 2017) and would give the Chargers defense some flexibility with how they align the secondary.

#47 – Cardinals – Mason Rudolph, QB, Oklahoma State

I firmly believe that Rudolph will be taken in the #30-40 range and that he won’t actually make it this far, but I’m not mocking any trades so I had to find a home for him.  Most of the teams starting the second round don’t, or won’t, need a quarterback (i.e. the Browns and Giants who I expect to draft one earlier or the Bears and Bucs who have their own young QBs).  A team may decide to jump up to get him late in the first round to get the extra fifth year of control.  Or, a team may trade up to start the second round and guarantee they get the top of their second tier of passers.  I am higher on Rudolph than most – he started the year as my QB2.  He is a pocket passer with elite size.  He has underrated mobility in and around the pocket but he’s certainly not a dual threat.  I believe he has a high floor as a quiet locker room leader with a ton of experience and and big arm.  The Cardinals signed Sam Bradford to start in the short-term so this would be a good landing spot for Rudolph.  He would not be pressured into starting on Day One but he also wouldn’t be stuck behind an entrenched starter for years (i.e. AJ McCarron).

#46 – Bengals – Brian O’Neill, T, Cincinatti

At pick #21, I also had the Bengals going tackle.  That’s how badly I think the Bengals need to upgrade their offensive line.  I’ll go into more detail at that pick.  O’Neill started his career at Pitt as a tight end before transitioning to RT and then to LT.  O’Neill led all offensive lineman in the 40 yard dash and the 3-cone drills, by significant margins.  He’s tall at 6’7″ but light at 297lbs so he doesn’t really have the frame or the strength to be a starting left tackle in the league.  He’s most likely looking at a transition back to the right side or possibly even inside to be an athletic pulling guard where his athleticism could be utilized.  Watch out for O’Neill on trick plays: he has three career rushing attempts for 39 yards and 2 TDs.

#45 – Packers – Isaiah Oliver, CB, Colorado

Do you feel a sense of deja vu with the Packers drafting a tall corner near the top of the second round?  Last year they took 6’3″ corner Kevin King and this year I have them taking the 6’1″ Isaiah Oliver from Colorado.  The Packers finished 28th or worst in numerous passing defense categories last year, including: completion percentage, yards per attempt, passer rating and touchdowns.  Oliver is not strong in run support, making just 60 tackles over the last two years, but he does use his length to break up passes (3 INTs and 19 passes defended over the same span).  Adding two potential starters to a beleaguered secondary, plus the return of Aaron Rodgers, could make the Packers a Super Bowl contender.

#44 – Redskins – Ronnie Harrison, S, Alabama

According to most experts, Harrison is a first round talent but I just didn’t find the right fit for him in the 25-35 range like I thought I would.  He’s the type of player who might get “trade up” attention if he makes it into the second round.  If Harrison makes it this far, or if the Redskins decide they want to try and trade up a few picks, I think Ronnie Harrison would be a good target for their defense.  Aside from free safety DJ Swearinger, the Redskins have barely any cap tied up in the safety position.  The current projected SS is Deshazor Everrett.  While Everrett has a great first name, he is a converted corner who went undrafted coming out of Texas A&M.  Replacing him with a hard hitting safety like Harrison, who tallied 157 tackles and 5 INTs over the last two seasons, would seriously improve a defense that ranked 28th in points last year.

#43 – Patriots – Jamarco Jones, T, Ohio State

I knew that I wanted the Patriots to take a tackle with this pick after passing on the position at #31 but it was really hard deciding on which tackle.  Former starting LT Nate Solder has moved on to the Giants so there’s a big hole to fill on Tom Brady’s blindside.  The other players I was considering at this pick were Martinas Rankin, Brian O’Neill and Chukwuma Okorafor.  I decided against Rankin and O’Neill because they are less likely to make it as a LT at the next level.  Okorafor has the size to be a LT but he’s raw and can’t start right away.  Jones is undersized at just 6’4″ and 299lbs but he played well at LT in 2017 against a highest level of competition.  The length of Jones’ arms stood out to me.  He has longer arms than most of the taller tackle prospects.  Of the remaining tackles, I felt that Jones has the best chance to start for the Patriots on Day One.  However, if I’m being honest, I fully expect them to trade this pick and take somebody like Jones later.

#42 – Dolphins – Hayden Hurst, TE, South Carolina

What are the Vegas odds on two players named Hurst going back-to-back in the NFL Draft?  Hayden Hurst started the season as my top choice at tight end because I believe he is the best combination of blocker and receiver in the class.  I predict he’ll start right away because the Dolphins wouldn’t need to hide him on rushing downs.  In 2017, Julius Thomas and Anthony Fasano combined for 53 receptions, 495 yards and 4 TDs.  Both players are gone, however, and the leading candidate for the starting job would be former college quarterback MarQueis Gray who had just one reception last year.  The Dolphins addressed the defense with the Robert Quinn trade, and earlier in this mock, so I think it makes sense to give QB Ryan Tannehill another target.

#41 – Raiders – Maurice Hurst, DT, Michigan

I’ve seen Hurst play in person a number of times against my hometown Rutgers team.  When I saw him play the Scarlet Knights out in Ann Arbor this past season he stood out like you wouldn’t believe.  He ended up with 8 tackles, 2 tackles for loss and a sack.  If possible, his impact seemed even bigger than that from the stands.  I was really rooting for Hurst to go high in the draft but those hopes were dashed with the news that he had a previously undiagnosed heart condition.  Hurst has since been cleared but not without denting his NFL Draft stock.  Hurst is a smaller tackle with good quickness and will fit in well in as a 3-technique in the Raiders 4-3 defense.

#40 – Denver – Frank Ragnow, C/G, Arkansas

According to Spotrac.com, the Denver Broncos have six offensive linemen hitting free agency in 2019 (two each at tackle, guard and center).  That means they need to bring in reinforcements now to avoid having to over-spend next offseason.  It’s also important to solidify the line considering that they used the #5 overall pick on a QB in this mock.  Ragnow was PFF’s top ranked center in both 2016 and 2017.  He played guard in 2015 so he has some versatility as well.  According to PFF’s stat tracking, Ragnow did not allow a single sack over the last three years.  In fact, in 2017 he did not even allow any hits to the quarterback.  That’s impressive.  Ragnow is the type of player that will elicit groans from fans attending the Draft but will be a franchise cornerstone for a decade.

#39 – Bears – Arden Key, EDGE, LSU

Key was projected to go much higher than #38 early in 2017, however, he has since fallen due to injury and off the field concerns.  Key had shoulder surgery in the Spring of 2017 while away from the team for “personal reasons.”  What those personal reasons are, I have no idea.  Since Key has not come out and fully explained why he stepped away from the team, I can only guess that it’s a negative story.  I’ll bet NFL personnel are thinking the same.  Key also suffered a hand injury which limited his playing time in 2017.  When he was on the field, he recorded just four sacks in eight games (after eleven in eleven in 2016).  At the combine, Key declined to participate in the 40 yard dash, citing a knee injury.  He also did not do the bench press.  Of the events he did complete, the shuttle was the only one where he finished in the top five among DE/EDGE.  Key is a high risk, high reward player who will need time to adapt to a OLB role in a 3-4.  If he pans out, even as a situational rusher, he’ll be a steal for the Bears at #39.

#38 – Bucs – Jaire Alexander, CB, Louisville

The Bucs signed 34 year old Brent Grimes to a one year extension this offseason but they need a young option to line up alongside Vernon Hargreaves.  Alexander missed significant time in 2017 with leg and hand injuries, but when he was on the field he allowed just a 17.7 passer rating against.  That’s incredible.  Per Pro Football Focus, Alexander was about 20 points better in that metric than Joshua Jackson, the second best.  Alexander also tested well at the combine, running a 4.38 and performing well in the 3-cone and shuttle.  I’m higher on Alexander than most so maybe I’m reading too much into his stats and potential but I’d like to give him a shot.  If it weren’t for the injury riddled 2017, Alexander would have ended up even higher.

#37 – Colts – Carlton Davis, CB, Auburn

Davis measured in as one of the biggest corners at the combine (6’1″ and 203lbs) and has long arms which helps his ball hawking ability (10 pass break ups each of the last two years).  Davis would be a solid addition to a secondary that the Colts front office has been trying to build through the draft.  In the last three years, the Colts have used six picks on defensive backs, five of those coming in the first four rounds.  Having four picks in the Top 50 means you can concentrate less on immediate need here and instead build a strength.

#36 – Colts – Courtland Sutton, WR, SMU

With the first of back-to-back picks, I have the Colts going WR which is a big position of need.  Aside from the flashy TY Hilton, they don’t have much at receiver.  Donte Moncrief is gone, as is veteran journeyman Kamar Aiken.  The Colts signed former Redskins WR Ryan Grant in free agency to a one-year deal but he’s nothing to get excited about.  Sutton is a big bodied receiver with great body control along the sidelines.  He can use his height and length to high point the ball and make contested catches.  He doesn’t have the best straight line speed but he did surprise at the combine in the 3-cone and shuttle agility drills.  Sutton’s skill set compliments that of Hilton so Colts fans should look forward to this pairing for the returning Andrew Luck.

#35 – Browns – Tyrell Crosby, T, Oregon

I still don’t think any of the remaining tackles are worth the pick here at #35 but the Browns don’t pick again until #64 and they need a long term replacement for the retired Joe Thomas so they’ll have to pull the trigger on Crosby.  I also considered Pitt LT Brian O’Neill here but Crosby projects more like a LT rather than a RT or G like O’Neill.  Crosby’s combine performance was mostly forgettable but he did measure in heavier than O’Neil with longer arms and bigger hands, despite O’Neill’s height advantage.

#34 – Giants – Derrius Guice, RB, LSU

The Giants would have considered going RB at #2 overall with Saquon Barkley on the board, but instead they went for a QB.  Being able to get the second ranked running back at #34 is a great opportunity for the Giants.  They did sign 31 year old Jonathan Stewart this offseason but they also invested big money in two offensive linemen in Nate Solder and Patrick Omameh.  In my opinion, the Giants wouldn’t have spent that money if they didn’t intend on replenishing their offensive weapons.  An opening day offense featuring Eli Manning, Stewart, Guice, Odell Beckham Jr, Sterling Shepard, Evan Engram and a re-worked offensive line would set this team up for success in 2018.

#33 – Browns – Da’Ron Payne, DT, Alabama

The Browns have addressed their secondary in free agency by signing three players so I don’t think they will target a CB with the 33rd pick.  I also don’t think they will go with a offensive tackle because none truly warrant this pick.  Instead, I think they will use another high pick on a defensive lineman.  They already have two great ends in Myles Garrett and Emmanuel Ogbah, but they could use some help on the interior.  In comes Da’Ron Payne from Alabama.  Payne weighs in at 311lbs and is a pure run stopper (he has just 3 career sacks and 5 tackles for loss).  He would make for a good anchor for the Browns’ defensive line.


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

The Watch List: Bowl Game Previews, Part V

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.

Friday, Dec. 29

Hyundai Sun Bowl, Arizona State (7-5) vs. #24 North Carolina State (8-4), 2 p.m. (CBS)

  • Arizona State: 40th scoring offense, 49th passing offense, 50th rushing offense; 88th scoring defense, 119th passing defense, 82nd rushing defense
  • NC State: 47th scoring offense, 29nd passing offense, 51st rushing offense; 50th scoring defense, 97th passing defense, 29th rushing defense

Both of these teams have endured some coaching carousel drama over the last month.  NC State’s Dave Doeren was an early target in Tennessee’s never-ending coach search but ultimately he spurned the Vols to stick with the Wolfpack.  Doeren has NC State playing in their fourth straight bowl and should the team stay competitive next year he’ll probably be in the running for an even bigger job at the end of 2018.  Arizona State made the odd, in my opinion, hire of Herm Edwards.  Herm is a master motivator for sure but Herm has not been involved with the college game since 1989.  Even more odd is that outgoing coach Todd Graham is sticking around to coach the bowl.

Arizona State’s offense is led by two NFL hopefuls in senior RB Kalen Ballage and sophomore WR N’Keal Harry.  Ballage is a big back at 6’3″ and 230lbs.  His size concerns me because few backs have been successful in the NFL at that height.  Since 2010, only four backs have measured 6’2″ and 225lbs or bigger at the combine: Derrick Henry, Matt Jones, Dominique Brown and James Wilder.  Henry has potential but he has not yet earned the starting role in Tennessee and teams may be hesitant to roll the dice on a big back like Ballage.  Ballage has not handled a full load in any of his four seasons but he is a productive pass catcher (44 receptions in 2016, 19 this year).  His high number of carries came this year with 153.  He has under 2,000 yards in his career.  I’m just not able to get that excited about him, honestly.  I have read comparisons to David Johnson but I think that is crazy: Johnson was more than twice as productive in most stat categories in college.  Ballage will get drafted in fantasy leagues but it won’t be by me.  The other big name for the Sun Devils is WR N’Keal Harry.  Harry is not draft eligible so it’s not worth a deep dive yet but you will hear his name constantly next season.  He has elite height (6’4″) and has been very productive as a young receiver on a mediocre team (career line of 131-1,659-12).  Add Harry to your 2019 short list now!

North Carolina State has three draft prospects that I will touch on.  First and foremost is DE Bradley Chubb.  I mentioned Chubb a few times in the middle of the season when NC State was looking like it could challenge Clemson for the conference title.  He has 25 sacks and 54.5 tackles for loss in his career.  Chubb is relentless and should be a Top 5 pick in the NFL Draft.  Sadly, he’s banged up and may miss the bowl game.  On offense, QB Ryan Finley and TE Jaylen Samuels are the two to watch.  Samuels is one of my favorite players of the season because he transcends position.  He is listed as a TE but he’s really too small to play the position in the NFL.  Instead he’ll probably factor in as a hybrid RB, FB, TE who lines up all over the field.  To give you an idea of Samuels’ versatility, look at his 2017 stats: 68 receptions, 547 receiving yards, 4 rushing TDs, 72 rushing attempts, 387 rushing yards and 11 rushing TDs.  Samuels was the only player in the FBS with more than 65 receptions and rushing attempts.  More so than any other prospect, Samuels’ 2018 fantasy value relies heavily on his landing spot.  If he gets drafted by a team with a creative offense he could turn into the ultimate third down and short yardage weapon.  Finley is a late round quarterback prospect that is hard for me to get excited about.  He should add a few pounds to his 6’4″ frame because he’s listed at just 210lbs and may be lighter.  He’s efficient and does not turn the ball over often.  Finley does have another year of eligibility so we could see him come back for another season to improve his draft stock.  WalterFootball.com has him as QB16 for 2018 while NFLDraftScout.com has him as QB14 in his 2019 class.  If he can show a more prolific side to his game in 2018, he could become a mid-rounder next year.

Even if it weren’t for the Sun Devils coaching distractions, I would have gone for NC State because Arizona State’s defense is so bad.  Prediction: North Carolina State

Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic, #8 USC (11-2) vs. #5 Ohio State (11-2), 8:30 p.m. (ESPN)

  • USC: 24th scoring offense, 19th passing offense, 36th rushing offense; 61st scoring defense, 98th passing defense, 57th rushing defense
  • Ohio State: 5th scoring offense, 28th passing offense, 13th rushing offense; 22nd scoring defense, 18th passing defense, 7th rushing defense

I don’t care what the name of this bowl is, it’s the Rose Bowl to me.  I hate the fact that with the new CFP we lose the historical tradition of some of the biggest games.  The folks running the Cotton Bowl got themselves a doozy of a matchup with two Power 5 conference champions and a slew of NFL prospects.  Covering each and every one of the draft hopefuls in this game is impossible – I will touch on a few but by no means is this a comprehensive list.

Let’s start with Ohio State.  By now, we have all heard and participated in the debate about whether or not Ohio State should have been in the playoff.  I fear that topic will be prominent during the telecast and will overshadow some of the great players on the field for the Buckeyes.  QB JT Barrett improved on a number of stats this season but probably hurt his chances of playing quarterback in the NFL after poor performances in three big games (against Iowa, Michigan [before the injury], and Wisconsin).  I don’t have an opinion yet on whether Barrett should enter the draft process as a QB but my gut says he will.  The RB duo of freshman JK Dobbins and redshirt sophomore Mike Weber was very productive (nearly 2,000 combined rushing yards and 17 TDs).  Dobbins took advantage of an early, and lingering, injury to Weber to steal the lead role.  If Weber comes out for the 2018 draft, I think his stock is less now than it was four months ago.  He could return but it’s clear he won’t be the first choice back.  Maybe he transfers, sits out a year, and dominates at a lower level Power 5 school in 2019.  I listed Weber as my RB13 in November so if he does come out he’s a mid-rounder at best.  The strength of Ohio State’s team lies outside of the offensive skill positions.  Drafttek.com has six Buckeyes ranked in their Top 10 NFL draft prospects from the Big Ten: three defensive linemen (Sam Hubbard, Tyquan Lewis, Dante Booker), one corner (Denzel Ward) and two offensive linemen (Jamarco Jones and Billy Price).  I’ll venture a guess that four of the six go in the first round (Ward, Hubbard, Price, Jones) with the other two following on Day Two.  The best prospect on the defense, sophomore DE Nick Bosa, is not yet draft eligible but he’d be a first rounder too if he were.

The biggest name on USC’s team is QB Sam Darnold but he has really hurt his draft stock this season.  Darnold was a walking turnover in 2017: 12 INTs and 10 fumbles (7 of which were lost).  Elite quarterback prospects just can’t turn the ball over that often; for comparison, Rosen (13) and Mayfield (5) combine for fewer turnovers than Darnold.  Darnold is only a redshirt sophomore so he is young and still has two more years of eligibility should he decide to return to college for further seasoning.  Ultimately, I think Darnold comes out and is a Top 3 pick because of the potential the he has shown.  Despite his turnovers, the yardage, scoring and efficiency are all above average.  He’s also an above average runner with enough speed to earn first downs when flushed from the pocket.  What Darnold has that doesn’t show up in the box score is his confidence and swagger.  If I had to pick one college QB to lead my team in a comeback, I would take Darnold because he wouldn’t shrink from the challenge.  One negative: Darnold’s throwing motion.  I noticed this in the offseason and plan on watching more film before the draft to see if it’s improved.  Darnold’s favorite receiver is WR Deontay Burnett.  Burnett is undersized (6’0″ and 170lbs) so he likely won’t garner early round attention but I’ve raved about him numerous times this season.  A close size comp for Burnett would be Travis Benjamin who was a 4th round pick back in 2012.  Burnett was good, but not great, this season going for 74-975-9.  I started the season low on RB Ronald Jones but I came around by mid-September.  He is just so quick and agile that it’s almost not fair to defenders.  I was previously concerned about his size but no longer.  Even though he missed a game due to injury, Jones totaled 1,486 yards and 18 rushing TDs; he added 13 receptions for 165 yards and another score.  After a down game against Notre Dame, Jones ended the season strong with over 800 yards and 10 TDs in the last five games.  He’s fun to watch and I am so happy he won’t be skipping the Cotton Bowl.  On defense, the Trojans have a number of prospects including Cameron Smith and Porter Gustin.  Gustin missed most of the season, and is doubtful for the bowl, but could get drafted based on a solid sophomore season if he comes out (68 tackles, 13 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks).  Smith is a prototypical MLB who has 263 career tackles and has been a big part of the USC defense for three years; according to WalterFootball.com he is looking at a mid-round grade.

Ohio State’s defense will be the best unit on the field and is strong enough to limit Darnold and Jones.  I expect the Buckeyes to win in a game where they beat USC in time of possession.  Prediction: Ohio State

Saturday, Dec. 30

TaxSlayer Bowl, Louisville (8-4) vs. #23 Mississippi State (8-4), 12 p.m. (ESPN)

  • Louisville: 13th scoring offense, 15th passing offense, 14th rushing offense; 71st scoring defense, 77th passing defense, 52nd rushing defense
  • Mississippi State: 38th scoring offense, 109th passing offense, 15th rushing offense; 24th scoring defense, 13th passing defense, 24th rushing defense

As far as the NFL Draft prospects go this matchup is all about Louisville, let’s touch on Mississippi State first though.  QB Nick Fitzgerald could be an interesting study in 2019 but I don’t think he has enough of a resume to warrant coming out for 2018, especially after a season-ending ankle injury sustained on Thanksgiving.  NFLDraftScout.com has him as the QB6 in his 2019 draft class.  Fitzgerald will need to improve on his efficiency in 2018 because he doesn’t complete enough passes (55.6%) and throws too many INTs (15:11 ratio this season).  He’s a tremendous rushing threat with 33 career rushing TDs and nearly 2,500 yards but that won’t matter to scouts if he’s missing throws.  The backup QB is freshman Keytaon Thompson.  I don’t think I have seen any of Thompson play this season but I am intrigued by the combination of his size (6’4″ 222lbs) and rushing ability (he played in nine games this season totaling 299 yards and 3 TDs rushing).  Thompson played significant snaps in the Egg Bowl vs Ole Miss after Fitzgerald went down so at least he’s not coming in cold.  He rushed for 121 yards and a score but only completed 13 of his 27 passes for 195 yards.  I came across the name of DB JT Gray on NDT Scouting’s website while researching potential draft prospects from Mississippi State.  He has played at both linebacker and safety and his listed measureables are similar to those of Jabril Peppers who was a first rounder last year; maybe he could be a poor man’s Pepper in the late rounds.  Per Pro Football Focus, Gray did not allow a single TD in coverage this year and the passer rating against him was 70.4 which is above average.

Louisville has their own DB, Jaire Alexander, who excels in those same metrics.  Alexander has also shut out opposing receivers and, this is not a typo, has allowed a passer rating against of just 17.7.  For comparison, a QB who had one completion for negative nine yards would have a rating of 16.  Alexander allowed just five receptions on the season and ranks 5th in PFF’s “Cover Snaps per Reception” stat, meaning he is in coverage a lot and allows few receptions.  Alexander declared for the 2018 draft already and is skipping the bowl so you won’t get to see him play against Mississippi State but you’ll see him playing on Sundays soon.  You may be thinking to yourself, how has he not mentioned Lamar Jackson yet?  You’re right I may be burying the lede but Jackson has been talked about ad nauseam on every platform this season.  That includes me too: I tagged Jackson in eight of my weekly The Watch List pieces and focused on him in my preseason preview.  Talk of Jackson changing position is useless, in my opinion, because Jackson will go into the NFL as a quarterback.  If anything, the brief spark of Deshaun Watson this season shows NFL teams that a lightning quick deep-ball thrower with accuracy issues can still lead a team to victory.  Some team will take Jackson in the first round but I don’t think I’ll be taking him in any of my fantasy drafts.  Jackson’s top target is junior WR Jaylen Smith.  Smith is 6’4″ and 219lbs which is great size for a receiver but it’s his speed and deep-ball ability that makes him a threat to the defense.  To illustrate this, despite his size, only three of his 53 receptions came in the red zone; meanwhile he had seven receptions of 25+ yards.  He totaled 873 yards and 6 TDs (he missed three games due to a wrist injury).  I’m not as high on Smith as some, including our friends at Dynasty Command Center who have him as their WR5 for 2018 rookies.  Jackson and Smith versus the stout Bulldog defense will be fun to watch, regardless of what you think of their NFL chances.

Defense wins championships, sure, but offense wins college bowl games.  Take the Cardinals.  Prediction: Louisville

AutoZone Liberty Bowl, Iowa State (7-5) vs. #20 Memphis (10-2), 12:30 p.m. (ABC)

  • Iowa State: 53rd scoring offense, 32nd passing offense, 112th rushing offense; 28th scoring defense, 81st passing defense, 31st rushing defense
  • Memphis: 2nd scoring offense, 8th passing offense, 31st rushing offense; 104th scoring defense, 123rd passing defense, 100th rushing defense

Iowa State had a whirlwind of a season.  Get it?  The Cyclones had a whirlwind…. okay, okay I’ll stop.  Seriously though, Iowa State was a surprisingly fun team to watch this season.  They had a number of interesting story lines throughout the season including 1) an up-and-coming head coach in Matt Campbell, 2) jack-of-all-trades Joel Lanning playing at both LB and QB in a number of games, 3) the continued emergence of RB David Montgomery, 4) the revolving door at quarterback including underclassmen, walk-ons and transfers and 5) the upset of #3 Oklahoma and #4 TCU.  Montgomery is fantastic.  He has good speed, is amazing at breaking tackles and gaining yards after contact and is a reliable receiver.  He is just a sophomore so he’s not coming out in 2018 but there’s a chance he is my top RB next year.  Leading receiver Allen Lazard is a 6’5″ red zone monster (15 of his 25 career touchdowns came inside the twenty).  I think Lazard is underappreciated as far as draftniks go.  I had him as WR13 a few weeks ago but will likely move him up into the WR10 range.  The Iowa State defense has played well most of the season and is led by emotional leader Joel Lanning (the aforementioned former QB).  As much as I enjoy rooting for Lanning, I don’t think he’ll be considered by NFL teams.

Memphis has an incredibly efficient and high scoring offense that will be fun to watch against the solid Iowa State defense.  QB Riley Ferguson is a former Tennessee transfer who has played exceptionally well in his two seasons at Memphis.  Ferguson throws a lot of touchdowns, completes more than 63% of his passes, has never thrown more than 10 INTs in a season and has 10 career rushing touchdowns.  He’s also 6’4″; like Ryan Finley at NC State he is just 210lbs so needs to add some weight for the NFL.  I think Ferguson sneaks up NFL draft boards and gets taken on Day Two.  Ferguson’s top target was undoubtedly WR Anthony Miller.  I fell in love with Miller in the preseason when I jokingly compared him to Antonio Brown.  In hindsight that comp may have been more accurate than I could have guessed.  Miller caught 92 balls for 1,407 yards and 17 TDs.  Miller has unreal hands, great body control and is tough.  If you watched the AAC Championship game you might recall how exhausted and banged up he was yet he was on the field and still making plays when it mattered the most.  I want him on my NFL team and my fantasy team and I don’t care what pick it takes.  In September, I had him at 2.02 for 2018 rookie drafts but now I would even be willing to part with a late first for him.

By the rankings this may not be the best game of the day but I bet it’s the most entertaining.  The Tigers offense is just too good to stop.  Prediction: Memphis

PlayStation Fiesta Bowl, #11 Washington Huskies (10-2) vs. #9 Penn State (10-2), 4 p.m. (ESPN)

  • Washington: 17th scoring offense, 73rd passing offense, 39th rushing offense; 6th scoring defense, 19th passing defense, 2nd rushing defense
  • Penn State: 7th scoring offense, 26th passing offense, 62nd rushing offense; 7th scoring defense, 43rd passing defense, 17th rushing defense

This PAC-12 vs Big Ten matchup definitely has less going for it than the Ohio State vs USC matchup but it’s still a game with some key NFL prospects to keep an eye on.  Thankfully, Penn State RB Saquon Barkley confirmed back in November that he planned to play in the team’s bowl game.

Penn State was looking like a favorite to make the playoff when they were ranked #2 in late October but back-to-back losses to Ohio State and Michigan State put an end to that.  Even the most casual of fan knows about Barkley and I have covered him exhaustively for RSO.  In fact, I tagged Barkley in thirteen different articles this season.  My deepest dive on Barkley came in the preseason in my Big Ten conference preview.  At some point you just run out of things to say but he was so dominant at points he just demanded to be discussed.  Barkley ran the ball less this year but he increased his yards per attempt (5.5 to 5.7) and became more involved as a receiver (47 receptions, 594 yards and 3 TDs).  He’ll likely be a Top 5 NFL Draft pick and will be the unanimous 1.01 pick in fantasy rookie drafts.  QB Trace McSorley is also draft eligible but he will probably return for another season.  He won’t be able to improve on his size (just 6’0″ and 202lbs) but he can continue to improve his efficiency and yards per attempt.  The pass catcher with the highest draft grade in my opinion will be TE Mike Gesicki.  Gesicki went for 51-501-9 this season and had one of my favorite highlights of the season when he hurdled McSorley after a touchdown.  Penn State keeps track of some combine-like measureables and supposedly Gesicki ran a 4.54 40 yard dash – that is crazy good for somebody his size.  I expect that number to increase at the combine, it must be the benefit of some “home cooking,” but still he’s looking at a favorable size/speed comp to the likes of Jimmy Graham and Travis Kelce.  The first round may be too early for Gesicki realistically but he’s a Day Two guy at worst.  The Nittany Lions’ top defensive prospect is senior safety Marcus Allen.  I researched him in the preseason and was nonplussed.  I felt he needed to show scouts that he was equally as good in coverage as he is in run support.  He still succeeded in run support (just two missed tackles against the run per Pro Football Focus) but he only had one interception (the first of his career) and had just two pass break-ups (just ten in his career).  He’ll probably start his career as a situational player and won’t be an IDP factor right away unless he can prove he should stay on the field for every snap.

Washington QB Jake Browning finished 6th in Heisman voting in 2016 after a huge 43 TD season.  Unfortunately for Huskies fans, that season was the outlier for Browning as he returned to his 2015 levels with just 18 TDs this year.  His completion percentage did increase significantly this year (62.1% to 68.8%) but all of his other rate stats decreased.  One of my favorite plays in football is the quick kick from a quarterback and Browning excels at that: he has 11 career punts, averaging about 35 yards per kick.  The two offensive standouts are WR Dante Pettis and RB Myles Gaskin.  I’ve never been a huge fan of either and I am willing to admit it is probably an east coast bias since I don’t see them play that often.  I previewed Pettis in the preseason and expressed concerns that his size would limit him in the NFL.  Pettis played in thirteen games each of his first three seasons so he’s avoid any long-term injuries but he is currently hurt (but probabl for the bowl game).  He is a good receiver (averaging 40 receptions, 500 yards and 6 TDs per year over his four year career) but a better punt returner (9 career punt return TDs, including 4 in 2017).  He’s currently my WR8 and should find himself drafted in the late second round.  RB Myles Gaskin is ranked a little lower in my positional rankings (RB13) but he’s somebody that I definitely need to revisit.  Gaskin’s numbers are great and if they were attached to a different name I would probably be higher on him.  He rushed for 1,282 yards this season and rushed for 19 TDs.  He also added 18 grabs for 228 yards and 3 receiving scores.  He has been consistent, and healthy, throughout his three year career.  He’s gone over 1,300 total yards each year and has 47 career TDs.  He’s slightly undersized (think Theo Riddick) but not so small that he can’t play a heavy role in an NFL offense.  On defense, LB Azeem Victor and DT Vita Vea are both likley Day Two prospects.  Victor’s college career has been marred by injuries and off-field issues (he was suspended to start 2017 for a failed drug test and was suspended late in the season after a DUI arrest).  In 2015, his only full season, Victor had 95 tackles, 9 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks and an interception.  Vea is an agile, space-eating DT who could end up going in the late first if he dominates the combine.  Chris Trapasso of CBS Sports had Vea going 19th overall in his December 5th mock; Trapasso thinks that Vea may be the most physically strong prospect in the entire draft class.

Given the strength of the two defenses, I expect this one to be a low scoring affair.  I’ll take the team with the best player on the field.  Prediction: Penn State

Capital One Orange Bowl, #10 Miami (10-2) vs. #6 Wisconsin (12-1), 8 p.m. (ESPN)

  • Miami: 58th scoring offense, 50th passing offense, 73rd rushing offense; 21st scoring defense, 52nd passing defense, 44th rushing defense
  • Wisconsin: 31st scoring offense, 95th passing offense, 21st rushing offense; 4th scoring defense, 4th passing defense, 1st rushing defense

The Orange Bowl may feature two Top 10 teams but I’m just not finding the matchup all that intriguing.  I was down on Miami for most of the season before the team imploded against an unranked Pitt team and laid an egg against Clemson in the ACC Championship game.  At least Wisconsin was competitive in their conference championship and proved that they belonged in the playoff conversation despite a weak schedule.

Hurricanes QB Malik Rosier was overrated, in my opinion, during Miami’s unbeaten run to start the season.  He ranks 89th in adjusted completion percentage according to Pro Football Focus; that metric is meant to give a better picture of a quarterback’s accuracy by not counting spikes/throwaways against them and by giving them credit for drops.  Per their stats, the Miami receivers dropped 22 passes, which is about average, but even after factoring those back in he is still at the bottom of the list (there are only twelve worse qualifying QBs).  Rosier did rush for 427 yards and 5 TDs which helps make up for his negative plays but it’s not enough in big games.  Case in point: Rosier was pulled late in the Pitt game to give redshirt sophomore backup Evan Shirreffs a shot.  Shirreffs had five career passing attempts at that point so in that moment the coaches though he gave them a better shot than Rosier (predictably, Shirreffs did nothing and was replaced by Rosier).  Miami lost RB Mark Walton early in the season but sophomore Travis Homer has emerged in his stead.  Homer has over 1,100 total yards and scored 8 TDs.  He had a big game against #3 Notre Dame (18 rushes for 146 yards) but had just 55 combined rushing and receiving yards in the late losses to Pitt and Clemson.  If Miami is to stand a chance against Wisconsin’s great defense it will fall on Walton.  Senior DE Chad Thomas had 30 total pressures per PFF and finished the year with 3.5 sacks.  Safety Jaquon Johnson improved his stats in 2017 to end with 85 tackles, 2 forced fumbles, 2 fumble recoveries and 4 INTs.  Miami’s defense did get better in 2017 but gone are the days when the NFL Draft was littered with Hurricane defenders; Thomas and Johnson could be mid-round picks but I doubt anybody goes higher than that.

Speaking of defense, Wisconsin’s is a juggernaut.  They are 4th in scoring, 4th against the pass and 1st against the run.  They don’t have a weakness and it’s unfortunate we did not get to see them play a stronger schedule.  We may never know if this was a historic unit or just a product of a soft schedule.  Their leader, LB TJ Edwards, is good in both run support (27th ranked in run stop percentage per PFF) and in coverage (4 INTs).  According to DraftTek.com, he’s the 11th ranked prospect in the conference and according to WalterFootball.com he’s looking at a 3rd-5th round grade.  Edwards may not be a Watt brother but he’s keeping up the tradition of productive Wisconsin linebackers with initials instead of first names!  The Badgers offense is all about freshman RB Jonathan Taylor.  Taylor had 1,847 rushing yards and 13 TDs this season and he finished 6th in Heisman voting.  Those rushing yards ranked him first in the conference and third in the FBS.  Not bad for a three star recruit.  Taylor still has two more seasons before he’s draft eligible so we have to wait and see what he develops into but he’ll probably be on my Heisman watch list for next season.  Aside from offensive tackle Beau Benzschawel, the best offensive prospect is TE Troy Fumagalli.  Fumagalli has a long injury history that I discussed in my Big Ten preview, but I still like his chances in the NFL.  He’s more of a traditional TE than the “move TE” that is en vogue right now so that may lower how high he is drafted.  Regardless of where he is drafted, he will be on the field from day one because of his above average blocking ability.  Fumagalli led the team with 43 receptions, 516 yards and 4 TDs.  He has already declared for the NFL Draft but Fumagalli has confirmed that he will play in the bowl.    Fumagalli may not be a fantasy factor in his rookie season but he’ll still be worth a third round pick.

I don’t have a doubt in my mind that Wisconsin will win this one.  Prediction: Wisconsin

 


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

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

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

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