Early 2018 Positional Rankings

Updated: November 8th 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.  Check back throughout the season as The Watch List will continue to update you on who is fantasy relevant and worth your draft capital next year. 

It may only be November but I think it’s time to start looking at positional rankings for 2018.  I did struggle at times with these rankings as to whether they should be based on my perceived fantasy value or in what order I believe players will be drafted.  Let’s say these rankings are a composite of both ideals.  I will separate out the two different mindsets in my future RSO and NFL mock drafts.  I have included brief notes on interesting players for each position.  For more detailed play analysis follow me on Twitter @robertfcowper or read my weekly The Watch List pieces which have, and will continue to, spotlight future fantasy relevant players.

Quarterbacks

Rosen is my QB1 because he is likely the most “pro ready” of the prospects since he is playing in a pro-style system with good size and stats.  Darnold looks likely to go back but if he does declare early he has hurt is stock with too many turnovers this year.  You may be surprised to see Finley and Litton on my list.  I have watched a bunch of NC State this year and have liked Finley’s ability to manage the game and limit mistakes.  Litton is a big (6’6″ 233lb) three year starter whose stats have been consistent through each season (including 590 yards and 4 TDs in his two games versus Power Five opponents); no guarantee he comes out but I’m intrigued.

Running Backs

The top of my list is pretty “chalk” for those who have been paying attention to the college season so far.  I did decide to put Chubb over Guice but they are so close it’s a pick’em.  Adams and Scarborough fall out of my Top 10 because I’m concerned about their size; few RBs at their height or taller (6’2″) have had sustained production in the NFL.  I sneak Jalin Moore in at RB15 because I think a team will take him for his pass protection skills as a great third down back; per Pro Football Focus he’s one of only a few RBs with a perfect “pass blocking efficiency.”

Wide Receivers

I have Ridley at WR1 even though he hasn’t put up huge numbers this season (or last).  I like his consistency because even though the offense focuses on the run, he still has three or more receptions in all but four of his 38 career games.  He also has a pedigree that few can match as he was the #1 receiver recruit in his class and had a breakout season as a freshman (89-1,045-7) in 2015.  He’s slight, just 190lb for his 6’1″ frame, which I have to acknowledge as a big negative because I am critical of guys like Pettis and Burnett for the same reason.  Read more about my Ridley opinion in my SEC season preview.  Sills, Cobbs and Burnett landed on my list because of seasons that beat my expectations so far.  I included two small school prospects in James and Wilson because I always need a sleeper to root for.  Watch for Wilson, he’s going to be a training camp riser for whatever team he lands on.

Tight Ends

The top four on this list may not quite compare to Howard, Engram and Njoku from 2017 but it is a very good group and I bet they will creep up fantasy draft boards given how barren the position has been this season with injury and ineffectiveness.  Jaylen Samuels is my favorite prospect in all of college football right now.  He has stat lines like no TE ever before (56-474-3 receiving and 39-209-7 rushing this season) and will likely project more as a FB or H-Back in the NFL.  Being position eligible at TE while getting goal line carries would be an incredible fantasy advantage.  If he lands with a creative offense he will be the ultimate third down weapon.  Never heard of Goedert or Yurachek?  Don’t worry I hadn’t either before I started my research but both are big and productive so I ranked them over some other smaller athletic types.


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
  • 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.

The Watch List: Week 9

Updated: October 25th 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.  Check back throughout the season as The Watch List will continue to update you on who is fantasy relevant and worth your draft capital next year. 

Storylines to Watch

  • Heisman Update: I am officially out of superlatives for Penn State RB Saquon Barkley. Barkley made mincemeat of the usually strong Michigan defense for 161 total yards and 3 TDs last week. As mentioned in this space last week, Stanford RB Bryce Love was off this past weekend and is questionable for their Thursday night game against Oregon State. I think the Heisman will be out of reach if he misses any time with injury. Lamar Jackson would likely be my number three vote at this point. Jackson had 334 yards and 2 TDs combined passing and rushing. USC QB Sam Darnold had another down game, he threw his tenth interception and lost his sixth fumble.  There are louder murmurs now about the possibility of Darnold returning for another year instead of coming out as a redshirt sophomore.  Maybe my Christian Hackenburg comparison was apt.  Sadly, I don’t see any strong defensive player candidates but somebody who needs your attention is Ball State DE Anthony Winbush.  I tried to get his name out there heading into Week 4 but I still never see him mentioned online.  He is leading the FBS in sacks (9.5) and adds 34 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss and 4 forced fumbles. Winbush may get one lone Heisman vote from some like-minded writer but I’m throwing his name out more for draft consideration instead.
  • AAC Battle: The three top teams in the AAC are battling it out to be the best Group of 5 team left standing at the end of the season. That is important because the best Group of 5 team will get a New Year’s Six bowl bid. Guessing whether that representative will be South Florida (#17), Central Florida (#18) or Memphis (#25) is a pointless endeavor at this point. USF and UCF are undefeated and will presumably stay that way until their late season matchup, but Memphis has the best out-of-conference win (UCLA).
  • Big 12 Standings are a Big Mess: The Big 12 has one team at 4-0 (TCU) and four tied at 3-1 (Iowa State, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and West Virginia); all five are ranked in the Top 25. Four of those five play this weekend in a pair of games that could completely throw the conference standings into chaos. Personally, I’m rooting for an Iowa State win over TCU and a West Virginia win over Oklahoma State – that would all but guarantee that no Big 12 team gets into the playoff (all the better for my Big 10 fandom).

Players to Watch

  • Courtland Sutton, WR, SMU: Sutton has not attracted as much attention this season as he did last year, at least per my Twitter feed.  Perhaps part of that is the incredible surge from junior WR Trey Quinn over the last three games.  In those three games, Quinn has 49 receptions, 458 yards and 3 TDs.  Sutton is no slouch, he went 24-353-4 in the same span, but he’s definitely not getting the same social media buzz as Quinn this month.  Don’t get it twisted: Sutton is still a top WR prospect.  On the season, Sutton has 37 receptions, 570 yards and 9 TDs (last year was 76-1,246-10).  Sutton has elite size (6’4″ and 216lb) which puts him on par with dynasty favorites like Michael Thomas and Allen Robinson.  If Sutton times faster than 4.50, it would put him in range of AJ Green.  Sutton ran a 4.75 as a recruit per ESPN and NFLDraftScout.com has him in the 4.55 vicinity.  I watched Sutton’s 2017 film against Houston.  There were two great plays that Sutton made that I noted.  The first came late in the second quarter where he caught one over his left shoulder while running towards the left sideline, a very difficult play that his body control made possible.  The second play was in the third quarter when Sutton took a screen pass and used his speed and open-field running skills to turn it into a 30+ yard play.  He got a great block from a teammate but still his juke and hesitation move froze a defender and allowed him to turn it into a big play.  There were a number of other times when Sutton made the first defender miss in an effort to pick up an extra yard or two.  Unfortunately, Sutton did have multiple drops in the first half and he followed up that great over the shoulder grab with an offensive pass interference in the end zone.  The DraftBreakdown.com film I watched only showed two plays when Sutton was called on to block and neither was very convincing.  Per Pro Football Focus, Sutton has a drop rate of 8.8% which is middle of the pack for somebody of his draft potential (for comparison, his teammate Quinn is 1.8% while James Washington is 5.6%).  Sutton clearly has elite size and ability and will be somewhere in my WR2-5 range for the 2018 draft which means he should end up with a first round RSO grade.
  • Josh Adams, RB, Notre Dame: I did a quick preview of Adams in the offseason and was nonplussed, however, at the rate that he’s producing it was time for a second look.  Adams went for 191 yards and 3 scores against USC last week which was impressive to say the least (that Trojan defense is full of NFL talent).  More impressive is that Adams is averaging 9.2 yards per carry on 105 carries.  Averaging 9.2 yards per carry is impressive if the sample size is 20, let alone 105.  One knock on Adams is that he is not a big part of the passing game, just 8 receptions in 2017.  Adams measures in at 6’2″ and 225lb.  For a running back that is quite tall.  Adams would be one of the biggest RB prospects since 2010 (5th biggest per my review of combine stats).  In his weight range, 220-230, he would be just the second to measure 6’2″ or taller (Alfred Blue).  If you increase the upper bound of the weight, you add in guys like Derrick Henry and Matt Jones.  Unfortunately, none of those are great comps.  Henry has a lot of potential but he has not yet been able to unseat Demarco Murray, has been average in his limited role (7 TDs is nice but just 4.4 yards per carry) and the biggest concern of his would be his height making him a bigger target for injury-inducing hits.  There are a number of elite comps who are about an inch or so shorter, so it may seem trivial to care about one inch.  I would argue though that one inch is significant because NFL RBs only measure between 66-75″ which is a range of 9 inches.  So, that one inch is an 11% difference.  Use that 11% difference in terms of weight and we would have a very different outlook on a RB prospect if he weighed 200, 225 or 250lb.  Unfortunately, DraftBreakdown.com does not yet have any 2017 film for Adams so I was stuck watching highlights.  While I don’t love watching highlight reels, I do think Adams’ three rushing scores against USC are instructive.  One the first, Adams shows some patience behind the line of scrimmage as he cuts right then left through the hole and dives forward for the goal line.  One the second, he simply runs past everybody untouched showing his straight line speed; the nearest defender didn’t get within five yards even as Adams ran 86 yards at a sprint.  On the third, he shows some vision and play strength as he finds his way through a narrow hole on the right side of the line and avoids a tackle at the five yard line with a half-hop, half-cut move that gets him into the end zone with the defender on his back.  I need to see way more of Adams to make an educated guess about his draft stock but I am ready and willing to revise my original opinion.  For now, let’s call Adams a 4th-5th round NFL prospect and a 3rd round RSO target pending the team fit.

Games to Watch

  • #11 Oklahoma State at #22 West Virginia, 12:00pm Saturday on ABC: This matchup features the 1st and 5th ranked offenses by total yards and the 41st and 112nd ranked defenses. This is the new normal in the Big 12 so embrace it.  I took a closer look at WVU QB Will Grier last week and will need to focus on WR David Sills in a future piece; he has 46 receptions for 737 yards and a FBS-leading 15 TDs.
  • Rutgers at Michigan, 12:00pm Saturday on BTN: I will be at this game, making my periodic pilgrimage to the Big House, so of course I need to include it here. Michigan has lost two of three (the win was a close one against Indiana) while Rutgers has won two straight conference games (albeit versus Illinois and Purdue). The Michigan offense has struggled mightily and it might be time to see former 4 star recruit Brandon Peters; Peters was the #3 QB recruit per ESPN in 2016. Rutgers’ freshman RB Raheem Blackshear has touchdowns in back to back games and is a big play guy (7.3 yards per touch).
  • #2 Penn State at #6 Ohio State, 3:30pm Saturday on FOX: This game gets my vote for the Game of the Year; it will not disappoint. I’ve talked a lot about Penn State in recent weeks, specifically about Barkley and QB Trace McSorley, so I’m going to focus on the Buckeyes here. I fear that casual fans may be sleeping on OSU after their early loss to Oklahoma because they have been passed over for nationally televised games. Since then they have dominated, outscoring opponents 266-49 (including three conference foes and a bowl-bound Army). QB JT Barrett started slow and there were calls for his job but he has played better recently; he has thrown for 872 yards, 11 TDs and 0 INTs over the last three weeks. Add in 185 yards rushing and 3 TDs and you have 2015 level Barrett under center. True freshman RB JK Dobbins stole the focus from NFL hopeful Mike Weber and hasn’t looked back (775-5). Forget the rankings, don’t sleep on Ohio State.
  • #4 TCU at #25 Iowa State, 3:30pm Saturday on ABC/ESPN2: I have been a fan of Iowa State RB David Montgomery since early in the season when I first heard about his personal story and first took note of his tackle breaking ability. Pro Football Focus tracks a stat they call “missed tackles forced” that Montgomery leads by a sizable margin. Montgomery has put a number of highlight plays on film this year and it will be interesting to track him in 2018 when he is draft eligible. As noted above, a Cyclones win would throw the Big 12 standings into, well, a whirlwind.
  • #15 Washington State at Arizona, 9:30pm Saturday on PAC-12: It’s time for east coasters like myself to watch Arizona QB Khalil Tate. Tate has started the last three games and is playing very well, especially as a runner. As a passer he is an efficient, if underwhelming, 31-41 for 468 yards, 4 TDs and 1 INT in those three starts. As a runner he is simply unstoppable. He’s racked up 694 yards and 7 TDs in those contests including 327 yards against Colorado. Those three starts for Tate ended up in three big Ws over Colorado, UCLA and Cal. Arizona is now 3-1 in the conference and could challenge for a spot in the PAC-12 Championship if USC falters.

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
  • 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.

The Watch List: Week 6

Updated: October 7th 2017

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

Storylines to Watch

  • Heisman Update:  With my non-existent vote, I am still taking Saquon Barkley.  He had just 107 total yards against Indiana but also added a passing touchdown and returned the opening kickoff for a score to set the tone.  QBs Mason Rudolph and Lamar Jackson held serve with 3 passing TD each and fill out my top three.  The two Pac-12 QBs, Sam Darnold and Josh Rosen, have fallen in my Heisman ranks but are still my top NFL prospects at the position.  I think we need to start considering Oklahoma State WR James Washington in the conversation because his numbers are fantastic, more on him below.
  • Sam is Sliding:  I have not been impressed by Darnold through the first five weeks of the season and have removed him from realistic Heisman consideration.  He will still be a top two NFL draft pick, barring catastrophic injury, but the bloom may be off the rose so to speak.  I have not been shy about my concerns of Darnold’s throwing motion.  One of my Twitter follows, who I can’t recall and I didn’t favorite it, had a good point: Darnold’s elongated throwing motion may be telegraphing his passes and leading to the turnovers.  What he means is that defenders have an extra fraction of a second to react to Darnold’s eyes because it takes longer for the ball to come up and be released.  So far he has 7 INTs which is third most in the FBS.  Whether that’s causation or just correlation I don’t know but it worries me.  In my Pac-12 preview, I comped Darnold physically to Christian Hackenberg, maybe I was right in more ways than one.
  • Nick Saban for President:  It’s Nick Saban’s world and we’re all just living in it.  Alabama is off to a 5-0 start and has outscored opponents 231-43.  The opponents don’t make up the country’s toughest starting schedule, but there are no true cream puffs in the bunch: Florida State with a healthy Deondre Francois, Fresno State, Colorado State, Vanderbilt and Ole Miss.  An amazing, if unsurprising, stat I found while researching Alabama for this piece: they are the only FBS team without a turnover.  Not a single giveaway in five games.  Another great stat is that the team has four 199+ yard rushers in QB Jalen Hurts and RBs Damien Harris, Bo Scarborough and Najee Harris.  The running backs are splitting carries relatively evenly and have combined for 11 TDs thus far.  It’s going to to take something special to beat the Tide this season.

Players to Watch

  • Rashaad Penny, RB, San Diego State:  I have used a number of superlatives to describe Penny on my Twitter.  There is no denying his skill and ability at the college level, what I want to find out is if he can cut it in the pros.  In 2016, Penny had just over 1,000 yards and 14 total TDs playing second fiddle to Donnell Pumphrey.  In 2017, he already has 823 yards and 9 TDs.  It will be telling to see if he can hold up over the course of a full 250+ touch season.  As far as physical comps go, I think fair ones for Penny would be Christine Michael or Devontae Booker.  Neither has realized much NFL success yet but I feel those two are also solid comps as far as draft stock: late 2nd to early 4th round.  Because of my man crush on Penny, I have already watched him more than most prospects this season.  I watched both the Stanford and Northern Illinois games in full and bits of the Arizona State and Air Force games.  My general perceptions are that Penny runs with power between the tackles, is quick but not fast, is average in pass protection, above average as a receiver and is a dynamic kick returner.  I was not taking copious notes while watching these games, that type of study will come in the offseason, but I cannot recall seeing a single negative run by Penny.  I’m sure there are a few of them there but they are few.  Right now I would rank Penny somewhere in the 5-7 range at running back for 2018.  He is definitively behind Barkley, Guice, Chubb and Ronald Jones for me.  He would be in the conversation with Bo Scarborough, Mike Weber, Sony Michel and Bryce Love.  For Penny to have moved up that high on my list that quickly was surprising but it’s impossible to deny what he’s doing for this undefeated Aztec team.
  • James Washington, WR, Oklahoma State:  Washington’s stats have been buoyed by Mason Rudolph’s success and the team’s system but still, Washington is impressing me.  He has 28 receptions, 647 yards and 5 TDs with a 23.1 average per reception.  If you look at Washington’s game logs, it isn’t dominated by one outlier as is the case for some other prospects this early in the season.  To date he has 145, 98, 124, 153 and 127 yards in each game; not bad when 98 yards is your lowest output.  He’s 6’1″ and 205lbs and is a burner.  A good recent NFL combine physical comp would be Torrey Smith.  Smith is known for his speed and breakaway ability but less so for his hands which is not a concern for Washington in my research.  I can’t find any primary source giving a 40 yard dash time for Washington but we can estimate.  NFLDraftScout.com has Washington projected 4.35-4.55.  I found an article discussing his high school track success which stated that he ran a 21.4 in the 200 yard dash.  I know the math doesn’t actually work this way but that would be a 4.28 pace over 40 yards.  Let’s round up and use the lower bound of the NFLDraftScout.com prediction and say he runs a 4.35, where does that put him?  It would be the second fastest time run by a WR in his size range (6’0″-6’2″ and between 200-210lb) since 2010 (seventh best if you go back to 2000).  Washington was a track star in multiple events so his athleticism is not at all in question.  During the offseason I will need to go back and watch some more film of Washington regarding his hand placement, tracking and route running but based on my research and what I’ve seen in limited exposure to Oklahoma State this season I am impressed.  Early gut call, Washington will end up as my WR2 heading into the draft process.

Games to Watch

  •  #17 Louisville @ #24 North Carolina State, Thursday 8:00pm on ESPN:  One of just two Top 25 matchups this week, this game will pose another good foil to the subpar NFL game on Thursday.  If any defense will stop Lamar Jackson, maybe it’s the Wolfpack.  NC State is 7th in rushing yards allowed per game and is led by DE Bradley Chubb and LB Jerod Fernandez (44 tackles, 14 last week vs Syracuse).  In the game last week against Syracuse, the Wolfpack defense held QB Eric Dungey to just 44 yards although they did allow him to score twice.  I’m in no way saying that Dungey and Jackson are on the same level but if they could limit a normal rushing quarterback, maybe they could at least slow down Jackson.
  • Wake Forest @ #2 Clemson, Saturday 12:00pm on ESPN2:  Wake Forest is 12th in the nation in points allowed (with games against BC, Utah State, App State and Florida State) and will look to be opportunistic against Clemson QB Kelly Bryant.  Bryant has been efficient this season (66.2% completion percentage) but has just 3 TDs to 3 INTs.  Where Bryant stands out is on the run where he has 7 TDs already.  As of this writing, I haven’t checked the lines but if it’s anything more than 17, I’m taking Wake to keep it close.
  • Eastern Michigan @ Toledo, Saturday 12:00pm on CBSSN:  No, this isn’t a misprint.  I will actually be checking into this one to see Toledo QB Logan Woodside.  Woodside has an outside chance at climbing up NFL draft rankings and could be a late round draft pick next Spring.  So far he has 1,346 yards with 11 TDs and just 1 INT, including 342-3-0 against a Miami team that is now ranked 13th in the AP Poll.
  • #23 West Virginia @ #8 TCU, Saturday 3:30pm on FS1:  This is the other Top 25 matchup this week.  Sadly, for us college football fans, I don’t predict that this one will be very close.  WVU is 108th in the FBS by total yards per game and is even worse (114th) against the run.  TCU’s sophomore running back Darius Anderson stood out last game against Oklahoma State (160 yards, 3 TDs) and will trounce the Mountaineers.  TCU is a complete team with a solid offense and a defense that ranks in the Top 30 in points, total yards and rush yards per game.
  • Michigan State @ #7 Michigan, Saturday 7:30pm on ABC:  As a Michigan fan, I am worried about this one.  Sparty is currently 3-1 but I don’t believe they can compete in the division title race so this game will be their “bowl game” and mean more than a typical regular season game.  MSU won a close one last week, 17-10, over an underrated Iowa team.  On the Wolverines’ side, they will be without starting quarterback Wilton Speight.  I’m not convinced that is a bad thing though.  Former Houston transfer John O’Korn filled in ably in relief last week throwing for 270 yards, 1 TD and 1 INT against Purdue.  This one will be a low scoring, physical affair and the Spartans will stay in striking distance.  Keep an eye out for one of Dantonio’s signature trick plays if it’s close and his team needs the momentum and a “shot” play.

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
  • 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.

The Watch List: Big Ten Preview

Updated: August 30th 2017

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

Players to Watch

  • Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State:  By now you’ve heard all about Barkley but I hope I can add to the narrative with a deeper dive into stats, measureables and film observations.  Let’s start with his stats.  In 2015, as a true freshman, Barkley rushed 182 times for 1,076 yards and 7 TDs; he added 20 receptions for 161 yards and a score.  In 2016, Barkley improved those numbers to 272 carries, 1,496 yards, a whopping 18 TDs, 28 receptions, 402 receiving yards and 4 receiving TDs.  Over his two seasons, Barkley has ten 100+ rushing yard games and five of at least 194 yards.  Before you dismiss these big games as box score stuffing outings versus FCS cupcakes, you should note that eight of the 100+ games came against Power 5 teams.  All five of the 194+ games came against Power 5 teams (Rutgers, Ohio State, Maryland, Purdue and USC).  That’s impressive, and in fact, Barkley has not played a single FCS team (I wish all FBS teams would take this approach).  So not only is Barkley productive but he’s productive against “real” teams.  For his career, Barkley has a 5.7 yards per rush average – good but not great.  After looking at his situational stats on CFBStats.com, I believe Barkley is about as clutch as a running back can be.  Most offenses turn to their passing game when losing, but in 2016 the Nittany Lions turned to Barkley who had 11 of his 18 TDs when losing (plus 2 of his 4 receiving TDs).  He’s also 16/32 on 3rd & Short in his career.  Compare that to recent 1.01 picks, Fournette was 16/31 and Elliott was a crazy 31/53 (bold prediction: Barkley will catch him).  Attentive readers may have noticed that Barkley had just 182 carries in 2015 (90 less than in 2016).  It wasn’t due to him sharing the load, it was because of injury.  Barkley injured his right ankle against San Diego State and missed the next two games.  He then injured the same ankle again in the 2016 regular season finale against Michigan State but he did not end up missing the Big Ten Championship (rushed for 19-83 against Wisconsin).  As far as measureables go, Barkley has a pretty good comp: Ezekiel Elliott.  Elliott is an inch taller but Barkley is a few pounds heavier.  Oh, I forgot to mention that Barkley is a tenth of a second faster though, at least.  During Spring practices in 2015, Barkley ran a 4.38 and in 2016 he ran a 4.33.  Since 2010, the only running back to run faster than 4.40 at 5’11” or taller and at over 220lbs was Knile Davis.  Barkley is a rare combination of size and speed that we have not seen recently.  Of course that does not mean he will automatically be a success (sorry Knile) but when you watch film of Barkley it is obvious that he will succeed at the next level.  I watched his film from Rutgers and Wisconsin.  No surprise here, Barkley looks like an NFL back.  He runs with balance, shows a quick jump cut, has above average vision, is not afraid of contact and is competent at the goal line.  As far as pass protection, it was a mixed bag but I would say he’s average at worst.  He had a number of positive blocks but allowed a crunching hit from TJ Watt that ended in a lost fumble.  Barkley would get his revenge against Watt though later in the game.  With Penn State losing in the 4th quarter, Barkley ran a wheel route from the 18 yard line, beat Watt by two steps and caught the ball beautifully over his shoulder while getting two or three feet in.  I had seen enough highlights of Barkley catching passes at or near the line of scrimmage so it was nice to see that he could be a threat further down field.  That touchdown catch ended up being the winning score, but it wasn’t the last time Barkley impressed me in the game.  With 52 seconds left, the Badgers were out of timeouts and the game was all but over.  Barkley took the 3rd down hand off, ran right for a few yards and slid like a quarterback to stay in bounds and keep the clock running.  It was a heady play that you don’t see that often in college.  I purposefully watched Barkley’s game against Wisconsin since it was after his second ankle injury – I wanted to see him managing an injury.  He was definitely a step slower than the film against Rutgers but he was still fast enough and explosive enough to make defenders miss.  Speaking of his speed, I noted that he seems to get faster the longer he is running so it will be interesting to see his 40 yard dash splits.  I’ll bet he starts slow but finishes the last quarter faster than anybody else.  Come April, Barkley will likely be a Top 10 pick in the NFL draft.  As for RSO drafts, I think he’ll be the consensus 1.01 much like Elliott was two years earlier.
  • Troy Fumagalli, TE, Wisconsin:  The nine-fingered Fumagalli has a long injury history but I’m still bullish on his prospects.  The missing finger was amputated after he was born due to a disorder and is not an “injury” but I think it’s an interesting story given that he has had two other hand injuries during his Wisconsin career.  It seems that Fumagalli can do more with seven or eight fingers than the rest of us with ten.  In addition to a broken thumb in 2015, Fumagalli suffered an ankle injury which combined to limit his production to 28 receptions, 313 yards and just a single touchdown.    In 2016, he nearly missed the first game of the season after a severe cut on his hand that required surgery; he also suffered a leg injury against Georgia Southern that forced him to exit early but he did not miss further time.  He ended 2016 with a line of 47-580-2.  I watched Fumagalli against Michigan because I thought their defense, chock-full of NFL talent, would be a good barometer for his blocking ability.  In the two seasons worth of film I have watched now, I can’t recall a better blocking TE.  At worst, I would grade him as an A, if not an A+.  He won’t be confused with a track star (DraftScout.com has him estimated at 4.84) but he’s not a “move tight end” so that shouldn’t hurt his draft stock.  He’s an old school tight end for sure.  If Fumagalli can stay healthy in 2017, a big if given the last two seasons, he should be one of the top two or three TEs drafted in the NFL but will be less desirable to fantasy owners.
  • Mike Weber, RB, Ohio State:  Weber will be a redshirt sophomore with more injuries than seasons played.  He tore his meniscus in 2015 and is battling a hamstring injury now.  I watched film of Weber against Rutgers and was impressed.  He looks like an NFL running back and could be the next great Buckeye back after Zeke Elliott and Carlos Hyde.  In that game against Rutgers, two runs stood out.  The first was a 50 yard gain where he burst through a wide open hole at the line, half-hurdled a defender and angled towards the sideline to try and get the most yards before the safety got to him; near the end of the run he had the presence of mind to change his ball carrying hand.  The second example showed his pure speed: two quick cuts and gone.  Weber carried 182 times in 2016 and gained 1,096 yards with 9 TDs.  He also contributed with 23 receptions (just 91 yards though).  I question it’s accuracy, but apparently Weber ran a 4.35 40 yard dash.  With that speed and his size, we’re looking at a very nice comparison to Lamar Miller.  There’s no certainty that Weber will come out after his sophomore season but if he does, based on what I see now, he should find himself with a 3rd-4th round NFL draft grade; if he comes out and officially runs a 4.35, we could be looking at somebody who would rise to the 2nd round.
  • Honorable Mentions:
    • Akrum Wadley, RB, Iowa:  Before starting my Big Ten preview research, I had not heard of Wadley to be honest.  I first came across his name while reviewing WalterFootball.com’s prospect rankings and decided to delve a little deeper.  Wadley is 5’11” and 190lbs which is worrisome.  If you look at combine history, since 2010, just a single running back has been 5’11” or taller and weighed less than 195lbs (Taiwan Jones).  Wadley’s stats from 2016 are impressive though: 1,081 yards, 6.4 yards per carry, 36 receptions, 315 receiving yards and 13 total TDs.  Wadley had considered going pro after 2016 but wisely chose to come back to the Hawkeyes.  I’ll keep an eye on him in 2017 to see if he repeats his two-way success.
    • JT Barrett, QB, Ohio State:  Interestingly, Barrett comps very closely, size-wise, to the three quarterbacks taken in the first twelve picks of the 2017 NFL draft.  He’s 6’2″ and 220lb, the same height and just a few pounds lighter than Trubisky, Mahomes and Watson.  Barrett should time faster than those three though.  Out of high school he was clocked at 4.79; a Sports Illustrated article about his backstory stated that he ran a 4.50; DraftScout.com has him estimated at 4.52.  If Barrett breaks the 4.50 barrier, he’ll be in the Tyrod Taylor realm (4.47).  Barrett has had a peculiar career arc to say the least.  He was the starter in 2014 as a true freshman before getting hurt and letting Cardale Jones steal the spotlight on the Buckeyes road to the National Championship.  Jones beat him out to start 2015, but Barrett eventually took the job back.  With Jones gone to the NFL, Barrett was free to start again in 2016, as he will in 2017.  While Barrett has had his share of adversity off the field battling for the job, once on the field he’s led a dominant team.  In his 36 career games, Barrett threw just 20% of his attempts while losing; just 9% of his passing TDs came while losing.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing but I think it will be cannon fodder for NFL scouts looking to knock him back.  He is the product of a great team and a productive system, with a major injury in his past, but he does have some potential if he continues to progress as a passer.  Barrett’s career completion percentage is 63%, he has 100 total career TDs and he has an impressive 3:1 TD:INT ratio.  Enjoy Barrett while you can this season because you likely won’t see too much more of him in the NFL.
    • Mike Gesicki, TE, Penn State:  Gesicki is a big target, QB Trace McSorley’s biggest, at 6’6″ and 255lbs.  He is the Nittany Lions’ top returning receiver by receptions, yards and touchdowns and set team records in 2016 for TEs in both yards and receptions.  I watched film of Gesicki against Indiana and liked what I saw in the limited exposure.  He is versatile and lines up all over the field: on the line, split out, in the backfield.  He was a plus blocker.  He’s also pretty quick.  On a 3rd & 20 deep in their own territory, Gesicki caught a 45 yarder where he outran the defender and the ball, he adjusted back to the ball well and caught it with his hands.  I don’t think Gesicki will be a sexy name for fantasy owners but his well rounded game should help him see the NFL field early.
    • Simmie Cobbs, WR, Indiana:  The Big Ten is surprisingly light on top end wide receiver talent.  I chose Cobbs to highlight because of his elite size: 6’4″ and 220lbs.  There are plenty of negatives surrounding Cobbs though.  After a great sophomore season (60 receptions, 1,035 yards, 4 TDs), Cobbs was suspended for the first game of 2016.  Then, in game two, Cobbs suffered a season-ending ankle injury.   In July 2017, Cobbs was arrested after failing to follow police orders at a concert; he declined to take a breathalyzer.  Because of the off-field and injury concerns I decided not to delve too deeply into Cobbs but we should all keep an eye on him since others have been drafted highly with worse rap sheets.
    • Sam Hubbard & Tyquan Lewis, DEs, Ohio State:  This one-two punch will be demoralizing opposing offensive lines all season long.  Hubbard has 74 tackles, 16.5 tackles for loss and 10 sacks in his career; Lewis has 92, 27.5 and 16.5.  Neither guy was a highly sought after recruit, both were just three star recruits, so they have worked for their success  Phil Steele has Lewis projected as his #1 draft eligible DE while Hubbard is #3.  If both come out, we could see both taken in the first round of the NFL draft and both taken in IDP drafts.
    • Marcus Allen, S, Penn State:  I wanted to like Allen more than I did when I watched film of his from a monster game against Minnesota from 2016 (22 total tackles).  Allen looks smaller than his 6’2″ 205lb frame and I did not note any highlight plays.  He’s often around the ball but that might be more a factor of where he lines up, close to the line of scrimmage, than his ball skills or instincts.  Right now, Allen is purely a run supporting free safety; he has zero interceptions in his 36 career games.  Allen had an impressive 110 tackles last year but needs to improve in coverage to get a true NFL look.  If he adds 10-15 pounds he could instead project as a linebacker-safety tweener similar to Jaylon Smith or Telvin Smith.  Best case, he improves or bulks up and finds a clear role on an NFL defense.  Worst case, he’ll be like TJ Green who was drafted by the Colts in the 2nd round out of Clemson in 2016 with a similar size and stat profile.  Not sure who TJ Green is?  Exactly.
    • Billy Price, G/C, Ohio State:  Price won’t be the highest player selected on this list in the 2018 draft but I’d bet that he is the first to contribute in a meaningful way in the NFL.  Price has good size for a guard or center at 6’4″ and 312lbs and could probably fill in at RT in a pinch.  He has 41 career starts combined at LG and RG.  In 2016 he was a Second Team All-American, improving on his Second Team Big Ten campaign of 2015.  For 2017 he’ll move inside to C, taking over the spot vacated by All-American Pat Elflein who was drafted by the Vikings.

Storylines to Watch

  • Versatile Big Ten OL Will Dominate Day Two of the NFL Draft:  It was interesting to find so many versatile Big Ten lineman at or near the top of the various rankings resources I consult.  At this point, I don’t think any of these guys will come out with first round grades but some could creep up as often happens with offensive lineman, quarterbacks and pass rushers as we get closer to April.  The aforementioned Billy Price should pace this group.  He’ll be joined by Michigan’s C Mason Cole.  Cole played at LT in 2014 and 2015 but moved to C for 2016 (a move you don’t often see).  Michigan State’s C/G Brian Allen is undersized at 6’2″ and 304lbs so he’ll project as a center at the next level.  Allen’s brother Jack is already plying his trade as a backup center with the Saints.  Wisconsin has a pair of junior guards in Beau Benzschawel and Michael Dieter who have starts at LG, C, RG and RT between them.  One, if not both, of them will emerge and hopefully follow in the footsteps of departed All-American Ryan Ramczyk, who snuck into the first round at pick 32.
  • Rowing the Boat in the Land of 10,000 Lakes:  PJ Fleck has moved on from Western Michigan to Minnesota where he will continue to “Row the Boat.”  Interestingly, he had to agree to donate $10,000 a year to WMU to continue to use the catchphrase which the school smartly licensed during his tenure.  Fleck has a ho-hum 30-22 career record but was a stellar 13-1 last season.  The Broncos perfect season ended in a close 24-16 Cotton Bowl loss to Wisconsin.  The good news for the Gophers is that Fleck’s squad beat two other Big Ten teams last year (Northwestern, Illinois) so he should be comfortable with the level of competition; both wins were on the road.  The non-conference schedule is easy (Buffalo, Oregon State, Middle Tennessee) so Fleck’s measuring stick will be conference wins.  Minnesota has not had six conference wins since 1973, so if he can get the Gophers to that mark (five in 2016) they’ll erect a monument in time for the 2018 season.
  • Indiana Will Win 8 Games:  This might not be the boldest of my predictions this preseason but it would be surprising for a lot of fans to look and see Indiana competing in the Big Ten East.  The Hoosiers, like the Gophers mentioned above, have not had too much success over the recent decades.  The last time Indiana won eight games was 1993 and it’s only happened three times since 1980.  Former defensive coordinator Tom Allen takes over as head coach.  Indiana had its best defense in years in 2016 (for example, they were 45th in the FBS by yards per game in 2016 versus 121st in 2015) so that continuity will be good for the team.  Speaking of continuity, BTN put out a stat that caught my eye: Indiana returns 93% of their defensive production from last year.  They don’t specify what exactly “production” means but I presume it’s at least counting tackles if not sacks and interceptions.  That huge percentage puts them first in the FBS; second best in the conference is Northwestern at 77%.  The biggest name on the defense is senior linebacker Tegray Scales, who had 126 tackles and 7 sacks last season.  The non-conference schedule is soft (Virginia, FIU, Georgia Southern) and two of their three conference crossover games are winnable (Illinois and Purdue; the third is Wisconsin).  I think the ingredients are there for the Hoosiers to win eight close, low scoring, games.

Games to Watch

  • August 31, Ohio State at Indiana:  I love seeing a conference game this early in the season.  If Indiana is to hit the heights I have predicted above, they will need to grab one big upset win against the likes of Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan or Wisconsin.  The Buckeyes are the best team of that bunch but if there’s ever a time for Indiana to steal a win against Ohio State it would be now.  I’m not predicting an upset here but I expect a closer game than the Vegas line will be and would not be surprised if Ohio State gets caught looking ahead to Oklahoma.
  • September 30, Iowa at Michigan State:  MSU is in full-on reboot mode.  They were a disappointing 3-9 last year and lost a lot of players.  Per Phil Steele’s experience research, Sparty is 117th in the FBS in terms of returning lettermen.  Maybe a fresh start is a good thing, but more likely it spells another long season for Mark D’Antonio.  This contest against Iowa will be a good early season test.  It’s the first conference game for Michigan State and they will be hosting an Iowa team coming off a tough game against Penn State.
  • September 30, Northwestern at Wisconsin:  Northwestern has the best chance of the rest of the West to topple the Badgers.  They are an experienced team that returns a solid nucleus on offense, including a 1,500+ yard rusher in Justin Jackson and a 3,000+ yard passer in Clayton Thorson.  I give Northwestern a shot over Nebraska based strictly on the experience – the Cornhuskers lose their top passer, rusher and receiver on offense as well as their top three tacklers.  Every conference game is technically a “must-win” if you want to win the division but the Wildcats don’t have a prayer if they don’t win this one on the road.
  • November 25, Ohio State at Michigan:  The Game has not been much of a rivalry lately despite its historic connotations.  Ohio State has won 14 of the last 16 games between the two giants since 2000.  Last year’s game was a classic which went to overtime; the Buckeyes were aided by a questionable 4th & 1 call that could have sealed the win for Michigan.  Admittedly I am a Michigan fan and will be rooting for the Wolverines in this one but I don’t think they stand a chance.  There’s a reason I haven’t mentioned Michigan much in this preview: they were decimated by the NFL draft.  Quarterback Wilton Speight returns but he’ll be surrounded by underclassmen on both sides of the ball.  By my count they lost at least ten key contributors from the last two 10-3 seasons.  If Michigan can pull off the upset it will be one that both fan bases will remember for years to come.  Ultimately, I don’t think it will happen and this game will simply be another stepping stone for Ohio State on their way to the CFP.

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

  • Stats: espn.com, sports-reference.com, cfbstats.com
  • Film: draftbreakdown.com, youtube.com (but be wary of highlight only reels)
  • Draft info and mocks: draftcountdown.com, nfldraftscout.com, walterfootball.com, mattwaldmanrsp.com, ESPN’s First Draft podcast, draftek.com
  • Draft history: drafthistory.com
  • Combine info: pro-football-reference.com, espn.com, nflcombineresults.com
  • Season preview magazines: Phil Steele, Lindy’s, Street and Smith’s

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