The Watch List: Week 3

Updated: September 12th 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: After two strong games to start the season, Josh Rosen will be climbing up ballots.  More on Rosen below.  Lamar Jackson, the reigning winner, will have to move up my personal ballot even though I am not a fan.  Through two games he has 771 passing yards, 5 TDs and zero INTs; plus 239 yards rushing and 3 TDs.  I can’t knock Jackson for his opponents either: both of those big games came against Power 5 teams in Purdue and North Carolina.  Darnold redeemed his Heisman hopes with a solid Week 2 outing against Stanford (316 yards, 4 TDs, 2 INTs) after a disappointing opener against Western Michigan (289-0-2).
  • Brian Kelly on the Hot Seat: The Irish kept it close against Georgia (20-19 final score) but the final score belies the situation.  Georgia was forced to start a true freshman at quarterback (Jake Fromm in for injured Jacob Eason) and should have taken advantage.  The more damning thing for Kelly might be the photos of the sea of red clad fans that peppered social media.  Georgia showed up en masse.  SB Nation tried to play it down but I think it will be tough for the administration to ignore the fact that fans may be turned off and staying home, whether or not it’s Kelly’s fault.  Landing on Deadspin with stories about his handling of the media won’t endear himself to university decision makers either.  I believe Kelly must win the next four games, and compete against USC in the fifth, in order to keep his job.  The opponents in that stretch are: Boston College, Michigan State, Miami of Ohio and North Carolina.  None of those teams should scare Notre Dame so a bad loss could mean Kelly doesn’t make it out of October.
  • Matt Rhule on a Hotter Seat: It’s odd to write that somebody is on the hot seat after coaching just two games but that must be the case for Rhule.  Baylor lost in Week 1 to Liberty of the FCS.  And to answer your question, no they are not some FCS powerhouse.  Liberty was 6-5 last year and was ranked 28th in the FCS heading into 2017.  After the win over Baylor they are just 19th in the FCS poll.  Baylor couldn’t possibly follow up that loss with a worse game, could they?  The Bears put up just 274 total yards in Week 2 against UTSA.  UTSA was 55th in total defense last year by yards, allowing 392 per game.  Between the two games Baylor also had 17 penalties.  So, not only are they losing but they are also undisciplined.  If Baylor doesn’t look better this week against Duke, I fear that Rhule might not even make it out of September (up after Duke in September are #2 Oklahoma and #18 Kansas State).

Players to Watch

  • Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA: There has been a lot to love so far about Rosen.  By now everybody has seen highlights of, and heard all about, the miraculous Week 1 comeback over Texas A&M.  If you were paying attention, you would have seen that Rosen followed that up with a 5 TD game against Hawaii.  Through two weeks, Rosen’s totals are eye popping: 820 yards, 9 TDs, 0 INTs and a 67.9% completion percentage.  I am most impressed with the improvement of his TD:INT ratio (just better than 2:1 in his career) and his completion percentage (60% in 2015, 59.3% in 2016).  It’s not all rainbows though as I did take note of some concerning things during that miracle against the Aggies.  Two of Rosen’s late touchdown tosses were bad throws that should have been intercepted.  If either was picked off it likely would have spelled the end of the comeback attempt.  There were also three penalties down the stretch that were costly, but not killer.  One was a delay of game and the other two were false starts because he called for the snap before the team was set.  These negatives make me question his awareness and will hopefully be corrected with experience.  If he limits mental mistakes, keeps his completion percentage north of 63% and his TD:INT ratio above 3:1, Rosen will be the top pick come the NFL Draft.
  • Royce Freeman, RB, Oregon: Staying within the Pac-12, let’s take a look at Freeman thus far…  He started off strong with 150 yards and 4 TDs against FCS squad Southern Utah.  Freeman kept it up against Nebraska last week with 153 yards and 2 TDs.  He’s a workhorse that had 23 and 29 carries in the two games respectively.  If you happen to be in a devy league, Freeman should be on your radar right now because his stock is bound to skyrocket over the next two months due to the weak rush defenses he will be facing.  The next time he faces a team that is currently ranked 70th or better is October 28 against Utah.  Up next are: Wyoming (83rd so far in rushing yards allowed per game), Arizona State (108th), Cal (96th), Washington State (71st), Stanford (114th), USC (110th) and UCLA (128th).  The Stanford and USC rankings are thrown off a bit by their matchup against each other but still, the schedule is very favorable.  Freeman is a big back who runs upright and looks like he’s running downhill.  He doesn’t show much wiggle but he doesn’t need it.  I’m looking forward to watching a ton of film of his in the offseason.
  • Rashaad Penny, RB/KR, San Diego State: In the preaseason, I predicted that the Aztecs would steal a Power 5 win because of their special teams play.  In addition to kicker John Baron going a perfect 3/3 on field goals against Arizona State, Penny contributed with a kick-off return touchdown to start the second quarter when the game was tied 7-7.  Penny has also been a huge factor on offense with 451 combined rushing and receiving yards and 4 combined TDs.  He’s a multi-dimensional player that is fun to watch.  SDSU is a contender for a New Year’s Six bowl berth and a win against #19 Stanford this week should get them into the Top 25 and cement those chances.  If Penny keeps it up he’ll follow former Aztec Donnel Pumphrey to the NFL (a 4th round pick by the Eagles, although he was much more accomplished as the NCAA all-time leading rusher).
  • Michael Gallup, WR, Colorado State: Gallup is leading the NCAA in receptions with 26 (he played an extra game than most) but he has just 304 yards and a single score.  Gallup will need to step it up over the next few weeks to keep his draft prospects high.  In Week 3 he will go up against the stout Alabama secondary which is full of future NFL talent, so let’s see how he does.

Games to Watch

  • Illinois @ #22 South FloridaFriday 7:00pm on ESPN: USF is currently the only Group of 5 team ranked in the Top 25.  Their non-conference schedule is laughably weak, with Illinois as the only Power 5 team.  Phil Steele had their strength of schedule ranked 110 out of 130 teams heading into the season.  Regardless, an undefeated campaign would likely land the Bulls in a New Year’s Six bowl game so there is some cash on the line this Friday night.
  • #23 Tennessee @ #24 Florida, Saturday 3:30pm on CBS: The Gators are off to a rough start.  The team suspended a number of players, including their leading rusher (Jordan Scarlett) and receiver (Antonio Callaway) from 2016 for the opener.  Subsequently, their offense was horrible with both Feleipe Franks and Malik Zaire versus Michigan.  Last week’s game against Northern Colorado, which would have been a good “get right” game was cancelled due to Hurricane Irma.  To make things even worse, word is that the suspensions may be extended and force Scarlett and Callaway to miss this matchup as well.  I’m not sold on either Franks or Zaire after seeing them against Michigan so I fear this may already be a lost season for Florida.  Tennessee’s offense is lead by RB John Kelly who started strong with 208 yards and 4 TDs; he also has added 10 receptions in two games.
  • #18 Kansas State @ Vanderbilt, Saturday 7:30pm on ESPNU: In my SEC preview, I predicted that Vandy would win 8 games this year.  They are off to a 2-0 headstart with convincing wins over Middle Tennessee State and Alabama A&M.  In order to hit my 8 win mark, the Commodores will likely need to steal a game against a ranked opponent.  Kansas State will be an easier get than #1 Alabama and #13 Georgia who they have coming up over the next three weeks.
  • #3 Clemson @ #14 Louisville, Saturday 8:00pm on ABC:  The quarterback matchup here will be an interesting contrast.  Lamar Jackson’s numbers are about as good as they can be (see above) while Kelly Bryant’s have been nowhere near those of the departed Deshaun Watson.  Bryant did show his toughness last week when he came back from injury to lead the team to a W.  Bryant has just one passing touchdown but does lead the team in rushing with 136 yards and 3 TDs.  If any defense can slow down, notice I didn’t say stop, Lamar Jackson, it will be Clemson’s.  The Tigers have 16 tackles for loss through two games and 11 sacks.  DE Austin Bryant outshined Christian Watkins and Dexter Lawrence last week with 7 tackles and 4 sacks.
  • Texas @ #3 USC, Saturday 8:30pm on FOX:  Texas is in turmoil at quarterback.  Sophomore Shane Buechel was supposed to be the starter after a decent freshman season but he bruised his shoulder during the upset to Maryland.  Apparently, head coach Tom Herman is now saying that even if he is healthy, there is no guarantee that Buechel starts over freshman Sam Ehlinger.  It might just be coach speak but it’s a mess already and not a good way to head into the biggest game of the young season.  Texas isn’t doing great on defense either where they are 79th against the run and are facing a Trojans team averaging 269.5 rushing yards a game so far.  Ronald Jones and Stephen Carr have caught my eye, specifically against Stanford, and have combined for 463 rushing yards and 7 TDs thus far.  They will continue to roll against the Longhorns.  Of course you should also keep an eye on Sam Darnold.
  • #19 Stanford @ San Diego State, Saturday 10:30pm on CBSSN: Not sure that I’m willing to call the straight-up upset here but I will definitely be taking SDSU with the points, especially since they are at home.  Rashaad Penny is quickly becoming one of my favorite players and I am looking forward to seeing him against another Power 5 team this week.

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: September Heisman Ballot

Updated: September 6th 2017

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

The Heisman should be the greatest trophy in all the land but it often leaves me wanting. I typically enjoy watching parts of the ceremony since it’s a great celebration of college football but all too often there is no drama and the hours drag. My biggest issue with the award is that it’s essentially become the “best quarterback” trophy. Since 2000, there have been fourteen quarterbacks who won and two running backs (but Reggie Bush’s was technically vacated). Charles Woodson is the only defensive player to win (1997) while Desmond Howard is the last receiver (1991). I strongly believe that receivers and defensive players should get more recognition in the Heisman balloting. Just going with the most eye-popping passer is lazy and voters should take the time to review all the positions for difference makers. If I were a voter, and I’m most certainly not, here is how my ballot would look (not necessarily how I think voters will vote) if I had to cast it on September 1st when this article was written.

1. Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State

Barkley is my clear-cut 1.01 pick for 2018 fantasy drafts and I think his numbers will be good enough to warrant winning the Heisman too despite not being the expert’s’ favorite. Barkley has two 1,000 yard rushing seasons and should get a third this year. In order to make a Heisman push he’ll have to add to his 22 total TDs from 2016 and bump his total yards over 2,000 – both of which should be attainable if he stays 100% healthy. For comparison, Derrick Henry had 2,300 total yards and 28 TDs in his Heisman campaign. Being a part of a productive offense with QB Trace McSorley will help Barkley’s odds, as will lots of national television exposure.

2. Sam Darnold, QB, USC

Darnold will likely be the favorite for most voters heading into the season. If I was a betting man, and getting even odds, Darnold would be my bet. My concern with Darnold, as I mentioned in my Pac-12 preview, is his throwing motion. It may be an overreaction but he could end up being more like Christian Hackenberg, with a draft stock ruining sophomore season, than any of the recent young Heisman winning QBs. Please don’t read that as a prediction, I’m just saying I don’t think he is as bulletproof of a prospect as he is being hyped. That uncertainty has me bumping him to #2 on my ballot. Darnold is clutch and will shine in some big time games so it’ll be tough not to have a knee jerk reaction every time the Trojans win – more telling will be Darnold’s performance in his bad games.

3. Derrius Guice, RB, LSU

The numbers that Guice put up last year were electric. He averaged 7.58 yards per carry (5th in NCAA) and 115.6 yards per game despite playing second fiddle to Leonard Fournette for part of the season. I don’t know if he’ll be able to keep up the rate stats now that he’s the BMOC but if he does he will be in the Heisman conversation. Of the offensive guys on this list, Guice may the widest range of outcomes and will see his Heisman odds fluctuate wildly so I’ll put him right in the middle of my Top 5.

4. Ed Oliver, DT, Houston

It didn’t take long to get to our first curveball, huh? Oliver is not draft eligible after this season so I only briefly mentioned him in my AAC preview but he is definitely somebody to keep an eye on. Oliver is a great example of a defensive player that should get a ton of attention from voters but won’t. Oliver is a big boy, 6’3″ and 290lbs, and had an impressive 2016 stat line. He totaled 65 tackles, 22 tackles for loss, 5 sacks, 6 passes defended and 2 forced fumbles. That’s a lot of production for an interior defensive lineman. Don’t forget he was also just a freshman last season. A year older, and probably bigger, I expect Oliver to eclipse last season’s totals. 75 tackles and 10 sacks are not out of the question and should at least land him on some ballots but definitely not as high as I’d like to see him.

5. Mason Rudolph, QB, Oklahoma State

Rudolph will likely find himself behind Josh Rosen and Josh Allen in my quarterback draft rankings but his numbers will be so huge in 2017 that it will be hard not to put him on the Heisman ballot. Another 4,000+ yard season will impress me if he can keep his completion percentage and td:int ratio low.

6. Derwin James, S, Florida State

James missed most of 2016 but is still projected to be a top NFL prospect at his position and will be the defensive leader of a strong Seminole team. 100 tackles, 5 sacks and 3 INTs would put him on the national radar.

7. Calvin Ridley, WR, Alabama

I’m higher on Ridley than most because I believe his pedigree will overcome an offense that has not highlighted him fully the last two seasons.

8. Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA

The red-headed stepchild of the Pac-12 quarterback race, Rosen deserves a place on the ballot but I don’t think he really has a chance to win it because his pro-style offense will limit his production.

9. Harold Landry, DE, Boston College

If Landry played on a CFP contender, he would be higher on this list. He had 16.5 sacks last year and could make a run at the single season record of 20 this year.

10. Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville

I am not a fan of Jackson as an NFL prospect but as the reigning recipient he deserves a spot in my Top 10. His completion rate is too low for me to excuse. I think he and Louisville take a step back this season.

Others receiving votes:

  • JT Barrett, QB, Ohio State
  • Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma
  • Nick Chubb, RB, Georgia
  • Royce Freeman, RB, Oregon
  • Christian Kirk, WR, Texas A&M

2018 RSO Rookie Mock Draft v1.0

Updated: September 6th 2017

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

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

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

1.03, Nick Chubb, RB, Georgia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.01, Sam Darnold, QB, USC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.10, Antonio Callaway, WR, Florida

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

Honorable Mention, Adam Breneman, TE, UMass

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

The Watch List: Pac 12 Preview

Updated: August 10th 2017

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

Players to Watch

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

Storylines to Watch

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

Games to Watch

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

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

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

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