2018 NFL Mock Draft: Part IV, Picks 49-64

Updated: April 11th 2018

Are you starting to suffer from #DraftTwitter mock draft fatigue?  Honestly, I am.  There are so many mock drafts out there that I’ve actually found myself tuning out and avoiding those tweets, articles, blog posts, etc.  Instead, I started to work on my own NFL mock draft.  Mocking is a great way to force yourself to do some research and make qualitative decisions about specific players.  It’s also the best way to define your own opinions on the players, rather than relying on the #DraftTwitter groupthink.

Here’s the method to my madness… I started out by creating positional rankings and tiers for each position, concentrating on players who could potentially be drafted in the Top 100.  Next, I consulted my preferred team needs resource which was a community effort on the r/NFL_Draft subreddit.  The spreadsheet collects info about primary and secondary team needs, scheme, draft strategy and character risk tolerance.  While it may not be perfect, I think it’s more useful than most similar sites and is far better than I could compile on my own.  Next, I referred to Our Lads depth charts which are my favorite (you should also bookmark their glossary).  For some teams I also visited Spotrac to get invaluable information about contracts and free agency.  To keep track of my picks, I am using the mock draft spreadsheet created by Reddit user Mbrr1214, to which I made a few slight tweaks.  Team names are color coded for quick recognition; colored pick numbers correspond to the pick’s original owner.

A few notes before we get started…

  • This mock draft was compiled predominantly on March 30-31 with some edits in the following days.  It will be posted in pieces over the three weeks leading up to the NFL Draft so please keep in mind the dates in which it was first created should there be any breaking news in the interim.
  • My knowledge of offensive skill players far outpaces that of offensive linemen and defensive players.  That’s not to say I haven’t seen the other players play, it’s just that my analysis is more shallow.  I covered many of these linemen and defensive players during the season and during my bowl previews but I have admittedly not done a deep study.
  • I did not include any trades which can obviously turn this mock draft on its head.  Personally, I think mock drafts that include trades are a cop-out and a way for the author to skirt around tough decisions.  Real GMs may not always have the option of trading out of a pick and must make a decision on whether they go BPA (Best Player Available) or reach to fill a team need.  For a mock draft author to say “well, Quenton Nelson is the best player on the board, let’s trade this pick to a team that needs a guard” is missing the point of the exercise.

What Did I Learn?

I’ve done mock drafts before but never a full two rounder with “honorable mentions.”  I walked away with a few insights:

  1. More quarterbacks will be drafted than you think and they will be drafted earlier than you hoped.
  2. Solid offensive tackle prospects are becoming less common and, as such, teams will have to reach for them nearly as often as they do for quarterbacks.
  3. If I had to build my own team, I would rarely use a top 75 pick on a running back or wide receiver.  Offensive skill players, aside from the quarterbacks, fell much further down my mock than anticipated.

Honorable Mentions

These players did not get selected in my mock but I had originally listed them as potential targets when I started my research.  Since I considered them while working on this project, I thought I should share their names as they could be some of the top targets in Rounds 3 and 4.  They are ordered by position then by last name – they are not ranked.

 

 

Welcome to the 2018 NFL Mock Draft…

#64 – Browns – Kemoko Turay, EDGE, Rutgers

Homer pick alert.  With my last pick in my two-round mock, and the first one that you’re reading, I have the Browns taking Kemoko Turay.  As a Rutgers season ticket holder, I have been both enticed by and disappointed by Turay.  His blocked field goal against Michigan in 2014 remains one of my favorite football moments ever experienced in person at the stadium.  The “Kemoko Dragon” performed well at the Senior Bowl and became a darling of one of my favorite draft resources: NDT Scouting.  NDT had numerous pieces highlighting Turay around the Senior Bowl but I feel like his name has fizzled a bit as of late.  Turay’s career stats are marred by injuries and ineffectiveness but he has raw ability that teams covet.  I use the word raw on purpose because he definitely needs some work.  His senior season at Rutgers was a pretty good one: 60 tackles, 6 tackles for loss, 3 sacks.  Edge rusher is not a position of immediate need for the Browns, but when you five of the first 64 picks, you can afford a luxury pick or two.  The depth chart ahead of him is why I would love to see Turay taken by the Browns.  He can come in and learn while he bulks up.  Given time, I think that Turay will be a starting end in the league.

#63 – Patriots – Kyle Lauletta, QB, Richmond

Rumors are swirling that the Patriots might take a quarterback late in the first round.  I think it’s more likely that they take one here at pick #63 (mostly because I doubt they hold onto both of those late first rounders).  If the Patriots pull the trigger in the first round, it would be for Mason Rudolph, whereas if they wait until the second I think it would be Kyle Lauletta.  Lauletta played at Richmond in the Colonial Athletic Association in the FCS.  Lauletta threw for 3,737 yards and 28 TDs last season, adding 4 rushing TDs.  Lauletta has a career completion percentage of 63.5% and improved his accuracy each year as the starter.  He does throw too many interceptions though, 35 over the last three seasons.  My first look at Lauletta came in the lead up to the Senior Bowl when I read Benjamin Solak’s “Contextualized Quarterbacking” piece about the Senior Bowl quarterbacks.  He went on to win the MVP award at the Senior Bowl, moving himself up draft boards.  I went back and re-read Lauletta’s section and two words confirmed for me that the Patriots would target him: “mechanically pure.”  In case you were wondering, the Pats took Jimmy Garoppolo, an FCS quarterback who thew too many interceptions but had a quick release, with pick #62 in 2014.

#62 – Vikings – Braden Smith, G, Auburn

The most immediate need that I identified for the Vikings was their offensive line.  I wanted to address the line with both of their first two picks, hopefully ensuring that new QB Kirk Cousins can last for the duration of his fully guaranteed contract.  Smith is my highest rated lineman on the board at this point so it was an easy pick.  He was an AP All-American in 2017 and starred at the combine.  Smith came in as the biggest guard (6’6″ and 315lbs) in the class.  He also had the highest vertical jump and came in second in the bench press and broad jump.  He’s big enough and athletic enough to hold his own across the line so he could prove to be a valuable addition to the Vikings offense.

#61 – Jaguars – Michael Gallup, WR, Colorado St

I was surprised when the Jaguars let Allen Robinson leave in free agency and then cut Allen Hurns.  I figured they would at least hold onto one of them.  Instead, they decided to re-sign Marqise Lee and add Donte Moncrief from the Colts.  Moncrief is now the highest paid receiver on the team, but they must not be too convinced because they only gave him a one year deal.  Michael Gallup has an interesting personal story which I wrote about a few weeks ago.  He had numerous Power 5 scholarship offers but his test scores were not good enough so he had to go the JUCO route and then ended up at Colorado State.  If he had played at a school like Missouri originally, we could be talking about the top receiver in the class.  Some experts still feel that way about Gallup and trust his pedigree over his route to the pros.  I like Gallup but he has a few negatives that bump him down for me.  Primarily, he lacks elite measureables and is prone to losing focus.  There’s a lot to like though so that seems like nit-picking.  Gallup plays faster than his 4.51 forty indicates.  He is good with the ball in his hands after the catch, utilizing his all-around athletic ability (he earned sixteen varsity letters in high school).  I believe Gallup’s play strength is better than advertised which will be a useful trait as he adds weight for the NFL.  If Lee continues to ascend as he did in 2017, and Moncrief proves he’s not a bust, the Jaguars could be looking at an under the radar receiving corps this year.

#60 – Steelers – Darius Leonard, LB, South Carolina St

Similarly to the 49ers below, the Steelers brass would not have expected to need to spend draft capital on an inside linebacker if you had asked them a few months ago.  Unfortunately, though, that is the reality after Ryan Shazier’s frightening spinal injury.  Shazier says he’ll play again but I think it’s safe to say that that will not be any time soon.  You’re forgiven if you have never heard of Darius Leonard.  Leonard is a fifth year senior from South Carolina State, a 3-7 MEAC side.  I had heard the name a few months back but never did any research so I decided to watch one of his 2017 game films and a highlight reel as a quick primer.  Against FCS foe NC Central, he often looked like the best player on the field, showing good speed, especially to the sideline.  He is effective in coverage and plays a great QB spy because he has the quickness to shadow the passer and then meet him at the edge.  Leonard tallied 100+ tackles each of the last two seasons and is an adept pass rusher despite his coverage responsibilities (20 career sacks).  Leonard will likely compete with free agent signing Jon Bostic for a starting role.  Bostic is on his fifth team in five years so I’d put my money on the rookie.

#59 – 49ers – Malik Jefferson, LB, Texas

The thought of the 49ers drafting a linebacker in the second round of the 2018 draft would have seemed a little crazy eleven months ago.  Fast forward though and it’s possible that San Fran needs to plan for a future without MLB Reuben Foster.  Foster was arrested twice this offseason and missed six games due to various injuries in 2017.  When researching his off-field issues, I also came across a story about him getting sent home from the combine last year which I had forgotten all about.  Jefferson would be a good pick for the 49ers because he could fill the MLB slot until Foster returns from an anticipated suspension.  Jefferson’s best position, according to Charlie Campbell and Lance Zierlein, may end up being at WLB.  The projected starter at that spot for the 49ers is Malcolm Smith who missed all of 2017 with a torn pectoral.  Either way, whether it’s in the middle or on the weak side, Jefferson will prove valuable from Day One.

#58 – Falcons – Tim Settle, DT, Virginia Tech

This feels a little early for Settle because I had at least one other DT ranked above him, however, he fits a more immediate need for the Falcons at NT.  The Falcons signed Dontari Poe to a one year deal in 2017 and let him move on to division rival Carolina this offseason.  Settle is big at 6’3″ and 329lbs and would be a space eater for the Falcons.  Settle is a former 5-star recruit who was ranked by ESPN as the 19th best overall recruit in his class and the second best at the position.  In college, he never really “settled” in.  He’s a redshirt sophomore so maturity and experience are a concern, as is his low level of production.  Settle has just four career sacks, all coming in 2017, and 53 career tackles.  The Falcons are a pretty complete team so I think it’s best for them to address a need, even if it may be a bit of a reach.

#57 – Titans – Taven Bryan, DT/DE, Florida

Any time somebody draws comparisons to JJ Watt, you should take note.  When researching Bryan, I came across multiple sources running with the comp, including the NFL Research Twitter account.  Bryan’s production continued to increase in 2017, when he finished with career highs in snaps, sacks, quarterback hits and hurries.  Bryan played as a DT in a 4-3 at Florida and will likely play DE in 3-4 sets with the Titans.  I expect the Titans to use multiple sets though so Bryan could move inside when they switch to a 4-3.  I also envision Bryan playing inside of the 3-4 on passing downs to give offenses a different look and increase pass rush pressure.  Bryan blew away the DT class with his explosiveness and agility at the combine, leading in four drills: vertical jump, broad jump, shuttle and 3-cone.

#56 – Bills – Billy Price, G/C, Ohio State

This is Buffalo’s fourth pick in the first two rounds.  Earlier I have them address quarterback, wide receiver and linebacker.  With #56, I wanted the Bills to make a value pick for the future.  If Billy Price didn’t tear a pectoral muscle at the combine, he would have been a late first round prospect.  Price can play at either guard position or center, as he did for the Buckeyes, but I’d expect him to find a home as an NFL center.  Sadly, starter Eric Wood was forced to retire after last season due to an injury so the Bills could use a long term solution at the position.  They did sign Russell Bodine from Cincinnati last month but it’s just a two year deal with a potential out after 2018.  That would be perfect timing to give Price time to recover before becoming the permanent starter in 2019.

#55 – Panthers – Anthony Miller, WR, Memphis

Miller is my favorite player in this draft class.  His measureables don’t stand up to others in the class, which is why we find him at #55 and not at the top of the second, but I’m not deterred.  Miller’s release is superb and he makes the spectacular catch look routine with excellent body control.  In addition to his playmaking ability, Miller has repeatedly impressed me with his toughness and determination.  There were times when he willed the Tigers to comeback or to victory, often exhausted or banged up.  He has the versatility to line up anywhere and was Pro Football Focus’ sixth ranked slot receiver in 2017.  With Devin Funchess and Torrey Smith on the field with him this season, I would anticipate seeing Miller in the slot.  In terms of Miller’s long term projection, this fit works well because I doubt that either Smith or Funchess stick around long.

#54 – Chiefs – Josh Sweat, EDGE, Florida State

I was of two minds when considering the Chiefs first pick of the 2018 draft (they traded their first rounder in the deal to land Pat Mahomes last year).  My first thought was that the Chiefs should be cautious, opting for a sure thing since they are missing a first rounder.  My second thought was that because they were missing that first rounder that they should be more aggressive and make a high risk, high reward pick.  My id won out and here we have Josh Sweat.  Sweat is a complicated prospect because he has a history of knee injuries that make him a risk.  Those injuries though are the only reason that Sweat would be available to the Chiefs at this pick.  A player with Sweat’s combine measureables (4.53 40 yard dash at 6’4″ and 251lbs) and production (29 career tackles for loss and 14.5 career sacks) would not normally be available here.

#53 – Bills – Josey Jewell, LB, Iowa

It’s startling how little draft capital the Bills have invested in the linebacker position.  Only two of the seven backers currently on the roster were drafted, the rest were all college free agents.  Those two who were drafted, Matt Milano and Tanner Vallejo, were fifth and sixth rounders last year.  The Bills drafted the position this high twice before in recent memory, in 2013 and 2016, but both Reggie Ragland and Kiko Alonso were traded away.  Jewell is the next up in my linebacker rankings and he would be a good fit at MLB in the Bills system.  It’s fun reading scouting reports on Jewell and seeing how the author tries to tiptoe around the fact that Jewell is simply unathletic.  However, he is quite productive: he recorded 124 or more tackles each of the last three years.  In his write up about Jewell, Matt Miller said that “all those hyperbolic cliches like ‘tackling machine’ actually apply to Jewell.”  If history is any indication, Jewell may not be long for Buffalo but I’m confident that he would make an impact before his subsequent trade.

#52 – Ravens – Martinas Rankin, T/C, Mississippi State

The Ravens offensive line ranked 18th in 2017 according to Pro Football Focus.  Perhaps that should come as a surprise given that the Ravens spend the 28th most, on a per player average, on the offensive line.  The team spends even less at center where they rank 29th in spending.  Rankin is a versatile lineman who played tackle in college but could end up playing center in the pros.  The Bulldogs tried him out at center last Spring but kept him at tackle instead.  Drafting a player like Rankin would give the Ravens a lot of flexibility and could help solidify the line both at tackle and center, wherever the immediate need is.

#51 – Lions – James Daniels, C, Iowa

The Lions need a center and James Daniels is a damn good one.  Last year’s starting center, Travis Swanson, has signed with the Jets.  The Lions did sign G/C Wesley Johnson, ironically from the Jets but he doesn’t really satisfy the team need.  Johnson is a former tackle who moved inside for the NFL, he’s not a true center.  Neither is guard Graham Glasgow who would project as the starting center for Detroit this year if they don’t address the position.  While doing some research on Daniels, I came across this highlight where he owns a BC linebacker and I couldn’t help but watch it a number of times.  Daniels came in smaller than some of the other top center prospects but he showed his supreme agility by owning the competition in the shuttle and 3-cone.

#50 – Cowboys – D.J. Moore, WR, Maryland

There’s been a number of rumors that the Cowboys are considering a wide receiver with their first pick, specifically Calvin Ridley  I think that would be a mistake, even though Ridley is my highest rated receiver, and sincerely hope they continue to add to their already-strong offensive line instead.  I’d much rather see the Cowboys wait, full disclosure that I’m a fan, and grab a receiver at this pick.  I have Anthony Miller ranked higher in my rankings at the moment but I think that Moore is the more likely selection for the ‘Boys.  Per WalterFootball.com, Moore has met with the Cowboys on multiple occasions.  Moore was not on my watch list to start the season but by the end of it he had worked his way into my positional rankings.  Moore is quick (4.42 speed) and explosive (first among WRs in the broad jump, second in the vertical) and runs with purpose once he has the ball in his hands.  He had awful quarterback play at Maryland so the fact that he performed as well as he did at times is impressive.  In my preview of Moore, I called him a “trick play master” which could come in handy when the Cowboys offense becomes predictably run-heavy.

#49 – Colts – Nick Chubb, RB, Georgia

I believe there’s zero chance that the Colts head into training camp with just Marlon Mack, Christine Michael, Josh Ferguson, Robert Turbin and Matt Jones competing for running back reps.  They are a lock to add a running back in the first few rounds.  Mack should be the favorite to come out of that group but I don’t think he’s able to be a bellcow and none of the journeyman inspire confidence.  Chubb was pegged as the top back of this class years ago as a freshman but he has since fallen down the rankings due to an ACL injury and sharing the spotlight with Sony Michel.  I still prefer Chubb to Michel as a pro prospect but I do admit that Chubb’s running style likely means he’ll serve a shorter career.  Chubb had three 1,000+ yard seasons and averaged 6.3 yards per carry over 47 games.  His 44 career rushing TDs are fourth most in the SEC since 1956, per Sports-Reference.  Chubb is not a receiving back but that’s okay because that’s Mack’s strength.  The biggest knock on Chubb is his ACL injury from 2016.  I’m not that concerned because he returned and completed two full seasons since then, even if he has lost some of his pop.  Having a formidable running back duo will help Andrew Luck get back into form because the team will not have to rely solely on him to move the offense.


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

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

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

More Analysis by Bob Cowper

Updated 2018 Positional Rookie Rankings

Updated: March 15th 2018

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

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

Quarterbacks

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

Running Backs

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

Wide Receivers

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

Tight Ends

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


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

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

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

More Analysis by Bob Cowper

RSO Rookie Rundown: 2018 RBs

Updated: March 30th 2018

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

Rashaad Penny, RB, San Diego State

Rashaad Penny put up incredible production in 2017, largely against inferior opposition though.  He’s a fantastic kick returner which will help insulate his value and ensure he earns a role out of training camp.  I also believe he’s an underrated pass catcher because he proved to be a factor in the passing game when his team needed it against the biggest opponents (see the Stats & Accolades section for details on this point).  Penny does not have any injury concerns to report, nor any character concerns.  Penny decided to stay in school for his senior year despite a 1,000+ yard 2016 season when he was the second fiddle to FBS leading rusher Donnel Pumphrey.  Coming back to school ended up being a great decision for Penny.  At the Senior Bowl, Penny actually measured taller and heavier than I expected which is a good thing.  He is officially being listed at 5’11” and 224lbs on the Senior Bowl roster (some sites estimated 5’10” and 220lbs”).  We don’t have a 40 yard dash time for Penny yet but NFLDraftScout.com estimates he’ll run in the 4.52 range – good but not great.

Stats & Accolades:  I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know when I tell you that Penny was a standout this season: his 2,248 rushing yards led the FBS.  He started with a limited role as a sophomore in 2015 but still managed 5 TDs from scrimmage and added three more as a returner.  In 2016 he took on a bigger role and ended with 1,242 yards from scrimmage and 14 TDs; he also returned a pair of kickoffs for scores too.  In 2017, he exploded.  Despite being the bellcow on his way to that FBS leading rushing total, Penny still managed to add 2 receiving TDs, and 3 return TDs.  All told, he has 52 career TDs.  What may be even more impressive is that Penny has a 7.5 yards per carry average for his career.  Penny’s game logs don’t disappoint either.  He has 15 career games with over 100 rushing yards.  He’s gone over 200 yards in seven games, including a streak of five straight to end 2017.  One knock on Penny is his competition playing in the Mountain West.  To get a feel for his production against Power 5 teams I delved deeper into his 2015, 2016 and 2017 game logs.  He played five games in those three years against Power 5 opponents (Arizona State, Stanford, Cal twice, Penn State).  In those games, Penny rushed 64 times for 508 yards (an average of 7.9 yards per carry) and 2 TDs.  He added 11 receptions, 97 yards and 2 receiving TDs.  But wait there’s more… he also totaled 3 kickoff return TDs.  Interestingly, 26% of his career receptions came against Power 5 opponents which made up just 12% of his games from 2015-2017.  That’s a good sign in my opinion as it shows he can be a receiver when needed.  Let’s recap, in five games against Power 5 teams, Penny averaged over 8 yards per touch, not counting the kick return yards, and scored seven touchdowns.  Sign me up.  Not only is Penny clutch against better teams, he’s also clutch when his team is behind the sticks.  On 3rd downs, Penny’s yards per carry average jumped to 11.79 in 2017; on 39 such carries, he converted 20 of them for a first.  I checked Pro Football Focus’ Signature Stat Guide to see if their stats backed up the traditional stats that show below and discussed above.  Unsurprisingly, they do.  PFF ranked Penny as the 3rd highest in their Elusive Rating stat.  Elusive Rating takes broken tackles and yards after contact into account to help control for uneven offensive line play.  The two backs ranked higher than Penny, Damien Harris and Bryce Love, both decided to return to school for their senior seasons so Penny reigns supreme as the most elusive back in the draft.  Over his career, Penny fumbled the ball seven times, losing five.  In 2017, Penny had an incredible number of long runs.  He had 58 over 10 yards and 29 over 20 yards.  For comparison, the other two backs in this profile were well behind: Michel had 33/11 while Jones had 41/16.

Rushing & Receiving Table
Rushing Receiving Scrimmage
Year School Conf Class Pos G Att Yds Avg TD Rec Yds Avg TD Plays Yds Avg TD
*2014 San Diego State MWC FR RB 10 2 22 11.0 0 0 0 0 2 22 11.0 0
*2015 San Diego State MWC SO RB 14 61 368 6.0 4 8 120 15.0 1 69 488 7.1 5
*2016 San Diego State MWC JR RB 14 136 1018 7.5 11 15 224 14.9 3 151 1242 8.2 14
2017 San Diego State MWC SR RB 13 289 2248 7.8 23 19 135 7.1 2 308 2383 7.7 25
Career San Diego State 488 3656 7.5 38 42 479 11.4 6 530 4135 7.8 44
Provided by CFB at Sports Reference: View Original Table
Generated 1/22/2018.
Kick & Punt Returns Table
Kick Ret Punt Ret
Year School Conf Class Pos G Ret Yds Avg TD Ret Yds Avg TD
*2014 San Diego State MWC FR RB 10 20 500 25.0 0 0 0 0
*2015 San Diego State MWC SO RB 14 24 804 33.5 3 0 0 0
*2016 San Diego State MWC JR RB 14 20 624 31.2 2 0 0 0
2017 San Diego State MWC SR RB 13 17 521 30.6 2 2 70 35.0 1
Career San Diego State 81 2449 30.2 7 2 70 35.0 1
Provided by CFB at Sports Reference: View Original Table
Generated 1/22/2018.

Film Study: Boise State (2017), Stanford (2017)

I remember watching the San Diego State vs Stanford game earlier in the season so that was my first choice.  I wanted to revisit that game and see if, with the benefit of hindsight, I was still impressed with Penny now as I was then.  The answer is yes.  That doesn’t mean I didn’t see some negatives though.  Against Boise State, a film I picked because of the Broncos’ above average defense, Penny mostly struggled but there was one highlight play I’ll touch on (including one awful play in pass protection that luckily didn’t end worse for his quarterback).

My overall impressions were that Penny is quicker than he is fast, cuts well, has excellent vision and is a versatile player who can be utilized in numerous ways.  I would say he is an average pass blocker.  I counted ten pass protection situations in the two games where I felt I could either grade Penny as a plus or a minus to the play’s protection; of those ten, I counted three negative plays.  Something that I had read about Penny and was interested to see on film is his tackle breaking ability.  He breaks some tackles (I counted twelve in the two games) but much of his yardage comes when he makes tacklers miss rather than breaking their tackle.  When reviewing PFF’s Elusive Rating stat, I have previously thought to myself, “why do they list it as ‘missed tackles’ rather than ‘broken tackles’?”  Now I realize why.  When Penny has the lane and the open space to make defenders miss, he does.  When he runs into contact at, or near, the line of scrimmage he is often bottled up for little gain.  He’s not the type of back that you can run into the defensive line on three successive plays and expect to move the chains before fourth down.  Penny is much more adept at pressing the line of scrimmage and waiting for his cut-back hole to open up.  He’s also good at bouncing the play outside but since he lacks elite speed he’s better off cutting it inside.  He’s not very good at lowering his head and ramming the ball downhill.  He does not keep his feet well and is often susceptible to low tackles that other stronger backs may shrug off.  Penny was heavily involved in the passing game against Stanford (5 passes) but not at all against Boise when he struggled.  He is utilized all over the field through different positions and motions.

There were a few good examples I found of Penny’s running style that I’ll describe here.  I would highly recommend checking out the links to these plays so you can see them in action.  I have linked them to the corresponding Youtube video right to the specific play.  The first prototypical example I’ll show comes early in the second half on first down.  Penny angles to the right, running right up the back of his guard.  The line gets such good push that he actually ends up cutting into the other A gap between the LG and C as they finish their blocks.  It’s an effortless run for 15 yards.  Later in the third, Penny shows an even better example of his vision.  Penny starts left as the RG and RT combo block the end before the guard moves to the LB on the second level.  The TE helps seal the hole and Penny cuts twice, first to the right and then back to the left through the hole.   The next play shows how Penny can adapt and use his elusiveness as a play breaks down.  He takes the pitch eight yards deep, sheds the first defender.  Just past the line another defender squares up to take Penny down.  As he runs towards the sidelines, with his shoulders parallel to the sideline, he cuts back towards the line of scrimmage and away from the defender.  It buys him just enough space to beat the tackler.  He then turns on his speed and makes it to the first down before two pursuing defenders.  It was a key play that came late in the upset over #19 Stanford.  Against Boise, Penny again shows his ability to get the edge, this time after his intended cut back lanes are clogged.  He bounces it outside and the defense, which was stacking the box all game, doesn’t have anybody with an angle to get Penny in time.

The last play I’ll discuss is the bad pass protection play against Boise.  Ultimately the play didn’t matter as it came in a big loss and the fumble that was caused was overturned but it’s still instructional.  Penny finds himself momentarily staring down two pass rushers.  He’s probably unsure about who he should block and hesitates.  The tackle ends up taking the inside rusher but by then it’s too late for Penny to get to the outside rusher.  The defender gets to the quarterback just as he is throwing the ball.  If he got there a split-second sooner, as the rusher probably would in the pros, it would have been a big hit right to the chops of the unprepared quarterback.

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

Strengths: Durability, lack of an injury history, versatility as a kick returner, elusiveness, production vs Power 5 teams.

Weaknesses: Lacks elite speed, played lesser competition in the Mountain West, not very active in the passing game.

Opportunities: Can earn an instant roster spot in training camp as a kick returner.  Would be a great partner to an established veteran, a la Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara in New Orleans.

Threats: The lack of success by former teammate Donnel Pumphrey as a rookie may sour some on his potential (i.e. the “system” tag some QBs get).  Some teams may see him more of a kick returner than a feature back in the NFL and may not be willing to spend a high enough draft pick on him.

Draft Round Grade:  Mid to Late 3rd Round

I’d love to put Penny higher because he’s a favorite of mine but I don’t think NFL teams will bite.  Penny isn’t elite so he won’t see the 1st round and there are so few 2nd round running backs in recent history (just five in the last three drafts) that I think it’s inevitable he falls to the 3rd.  If Penny falls out of the 3rd round, he’ll be a prime trade up candidate to start Day 3.

Recent NFL Comparison: CJ Prosise

I struggled to find a comparison for Penny that ticked all of the boxes I usually seek.  I feel most comfortable with a comparison when they 1) have similar size and speed, 2) have a similar playing style, 3) produced similarly in college and 4) had a similar draft grade.  I was first leaning towards Boston College’s Andre Williams as his production somewhat mirrored that of Penny, especially in their senior seasons (down to receiving Heisman votes), but when you watch the two play they are of a totally different style.  Of all the other possibilities I considered, I thought Prosise was the best fit for playing style even if their production was not comparable.  Like Prosise, Penny gains most of his yards because of his vision, change of direction and elusiveness rather than by sheer strength and tackle breaking ability.  Prosise was a more accomplished receiver at Notre Dame but as I’ve outlined, I have faith in Penny’s receiving ability.  Prosise is conspicuously missing any kick or punt return experience so Penny has a huge advantage there.

 

Sony Michel, RB, Georgia

Sony Michel has been rocketing up fantasy rookie draft boards lately after his success against Oklahoma in the College Football Playoff semi-finals.  With good reason too: Michel totaled 202 yards from scrimmage and 4 TDs in that game.  It was the best of his career and it was extremely well timed.  Like many of the young men we’ll meet this draft season, Michel has an interesting story.  He’s the son of Haitian immigrantsHis parents and sister ended up getting jobs at his high school to help improve their meager means, an opportunity most certainly offered due to his standing and on-field success at the school.  As positive as my character notes are about Michel, my injury notes are quite negative.  In my opinion, there’s enough here to dent Michel’s draft stock.  In 2014 he broke his collarbone which forced him to miss multiple games.  In 2016 he broke his arm in what could have been a much more serious ATV accident; the injury occurred in the Summer and Michel ended up missing the season opener.  In 2017 Michel suffered two injuries: 1) a minor ankle injury against Notre Dame that led the coaches to hold him out against Samford and 2) a knee injury that forced him to leave the SEC Championship game early.  These injuries aren’t debilitating or impossible to come back from, obviously, but I fear it may signal missed time in the pros.  Michel has decent size for the position (5’11”, 215lbs) and has about 4.50 speed.  As a senior, Michel is a bit older than many prospects.  DLF lists him as 22.9 years old which is almost a full year older than Rashaad Penny and nearly 2.5 years older than Ronald Jones.  There’s a lot to like about Michel but armchair draftniks have to be careful that they avoid the recency bias and look at Michel’s full profile rather than his most recent stats.

Stats & Accolades: By now we all know the underlying story of Michel’s production.  For most of his time in Athens, he was the second option behind Nick Chubb (side note: I loved reading that Michel and Chubb are best friends, that’s awesome).  The only time that Michel got to shine as the lead back was in 2015 after Chubb had gone down with a serious knee injury.  In that season Michel had seven double digit carry games while he had just one combined the last two years.  You’ll notice that his per carry averages are lowest in that season (5.2) than the other seasons when he had the benefit of sharing the load (6.4, 5.5, 7.9).  I don’t necessarily think that Michel cannot handle a starter’s load but I am merely pointing out that he typically has not and when he has, his performance per carry has declined.  As I mentioned above, Michel had the best game of his career this postseason against Oklahoma (11 carries, 181 yards, 3 rushing TDs; 4 receptions, 41 yards, 1 receiving TD).  He has four other 150+ rush yard games in his career so he does have the ability to go-off.  Michel found lots of success running the ball this season on a championship quality team.  He hit career bests in rushing yards, rushing TDs and yards per carry.  He led the SEC in yards per carry and ranked fifth in the FBS overall.  Pro Football Focus ranked him as the 7th back in their Elusive Rating category (interestingly, one spot behind Chubb).  Michel was most effective as a receiver as a sophomore and junior and then showed that ability again against Oklahoma this season.  In those two seasons, Chubb combined for a solid 29 receptions, 419 yards and 4 receiving TDs.  He’s far from the best pass catching back in this class but it does add to his value.  Michel has issues with ball security.  He has 12 career fumbles, five of which were lost to the defense.

Rushing & Receiving Table
Rushing Receiving Scrimmage
Year School Conf Class Pos G Att Yds Avg TD Rec Yds Avg TD Plays Yds Avg TD
*2014 Georgia SEC FR RB 8 64 410 6.4 5 7 106 15.1 1 71 516 7.3 6
*2015 Georgia SEC SO RB 13 218 1136 5.2 8 26 270 10.4 3 244 1406 5.8 11
*2016 Georgia SEC JR RB 12 152 840 5.5 4 22 149 6.8 1 174 989 5.7 5
2017 Georgia SEC SR RB 14 156 1227 7.9 16 9 96 10.7 1 165 1323 8.0 17
Career Georgia 590 3613 6.1 33 64 621 9.7 6 654 4234 6.5 39
Provided by CFB at Sports Reference: View Original Table
Generated 1/22/2018.

 

Film Study: Auburn (2015), Notre Dame (2017), Alabama (2017)

I started with a film from 2015 so I could see Michel when he was the lead back with Chubb out.  The game that was available was against Auburn.  I was not impressed with Michel’s running in this one for the most part.  Most carries have him running right up the gut for little to no gain.  The first outside run I noted was a sweep in the middle of the third that gained 9 yards.  His best run came late in the third.  He takes a pitch right up the middle, uses his blockers well, breaks two tackles and collides with the defensive back.  He churns his feet and tries to push the defender forward.  He ultimately fails and is short of the first but it was still a good effort.  Michel had two attempts inside the five yard line in the game and failed on both.  One of those attempts was actually a fumble where he missed the pitch; it could have been equally the quarterback’s fault but ultimately it was charged to him (Georgia recovered it which led to his second failed attempt).  I counted five broken tackles, two of which came on that one play highlighted above, and that might have been generous.  Most times when Michel is contacted near the line of scrimmage the play ended shortly after.

I was encouraged by the progress that I saw in Michel in the 2017 film against Notre Dame.  His third run of the game was reminiscent of the run in the Auburn game where he failed to push the defender back.  This time, he nails the safety with a lowered shoulder and falls forward for the first.  In this game he looked much more explosive and patient than he did as a sophomore.  His best successes came when running inside of LT Isaiah Wynn (an NFL prospect himself).  The explosiveness and patience was evident in this late fourth quarter run.  It’s a 3rd and 1 when Georgia was down 19-17.  Michel takes the pitch left, the end is unblocked and it’s up to Michel to make him miss.  He does just that after a hard plant with his left foot and an explosive cut to the right.  He easily brushes past the arm tackle.  This happened in the backfield though so Michel still has yards to gain to get the first.  He sees WR Javon Wims blocking a corner and heads towards him rather than cutting upfield where he wouldn’t stand a chance.  He runs right at Wims which makes the defender decide if he wants to try and beat the block to the inside or the outside.  Michel calculates he won’t be able to make it around the outside so he waits for Wims to angle his block as the defender leans outside.  By that point Michel easily gained the first.  It was a great play that illustrated a number of traits that Michel improved between his sophomore and senior seasons.

Like you, I watched the Georgia vs Alabama game a few weeks ago but I wanted to watch the film once more.  I ended up not taking a single note about any of Michel’s runs because I was so impressed with his pass protection.  There were a number of plays where he excelled but there are two I’ll highlight, both blocking potential first round NFL talent.  I’ll show the later one first.  On this play, Michel is responsible for the blitzing safety, Ronnie Harrison.  Michel patiently waits for Harrison to hit the line and picks up the blitz to give QB Jake Fromm enough time to deliver a deep pass which ended up going for a score.  Michel does not show the best blocking mechanics on the play, it looks like he sets his base too soon and may get beat inside if the play extended but it was enough to let Fromm get the ball out.  An even better pass protection play came earlier when Michel stood up 308lb DT Da’Ron Payne.  The DTs run an inside stunt and Payne ends up with what would be a free rush at the QB if Michel did not stay home on the play.  Wynn, the LT, pushed his rusher inside but before he can come back outside for Payne, he falls.  Michel was in good position and actually initiates contact with Payne driving a shoulder right under his chin, which momentarily pushed Payne back.  Michel keeps Payne in front of him with good hand placement.  Of all the good runs I saw Michel make while watching these three games, this was the single most impressive play I saw.

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

Strengths: Personality, pass catching ability, pass protection, flashed in biggest games of his career this postseason, is a good teammate as evidenced by his friendship with starter Nick Chubb.

Weaknesses: Injury history, ball security, was rarely used as the RB1 except for in 2015 after Chubb’s injury, age.

Opportunities: Teams will view Michel as a solid third down back because of his pass catching and pass blocking abilities.  He’ll be a good locker room guy as coaches will not have to worry about him complaining about playing time.

Threats: Teams may hesitate to draft Michel as their lead back which could hurt his draft stock – it’s hard to draft a situational player in the second round.  The combination of his injuries, age and usage in college could be just enough to scare off teams.

Draft Round Grade:  Mid to Late 3rd Round

Since he played behind Nick Chubb for most of his career, there’s a chance we haven’t seen Michel’s full potential.  Unfortunately, he does have numerous injuries in his history.  When I started this profile, I was anywhere between early 3rd and 5th round.  After studying his stats and history, I was leaning towards the 4th round.  However, after seeing how adept at pass protection Michel was against Alabama, I’m willing to bump him into the middle of the 3rd round.

Recent NFL Comparison: Marlon Mack

Mack and Michel are nearly identical prospects when you consider their size, speed and production.  Mack measured at 5’11” and 213 whereas Michel is estimated at 5’11” and 215lbs.  Mack ran a 4.50 whereas NFLDraftScout.com estimates Michel will run a 4.52.  Mack rushed for 3,609 yards, a 6.2 yards per carry average, 32 rushing TDs and added 65 receptions; Michel’s line is 3,613 yards, a 6.1 average, 33 rushing TDs and 64 receptions.  Mack was drafted in the 4th round so the draft grade is reasonably close too.  When I watch highlights of Mack, he looks to run with a more upright style but there’s enough similarity there for me to make the comparison, especially compared to Michel’s Notre Dame tape.

 

Ronald Jones, RB, USC

I was low on Ronald “RoJo” Jones to start the 2017 season but I have come around in a big way.  My biggest concern about Jones was his weight.  At approximately 6’0″ he needs to weigh in at at least 200lbs.  Looking back at NFL Combine measurements since 2010, you’ll notice a bad trend for somebody Jones’ size: only three backs have measured 5’11” or taller and less than 200lbs.  Unfortunately, those players don’t exactly inspire confidence as they are Taiwan Jones, CJ Spiller and Joe McKnight.  Luckily, Jones has increased his weight year-over-year and I expect him to get near 210lbs when he officially weighs in.  I checked USC media guides for the last three years and his weight progression was 185-195-200; an LA Times article from July said that Jones was already up to 205lbs at that point.  If Jones weighs in at less than 200lbs, I plan on dropping him down my board.  A benefit of not carrying too much bulk is that Jones is lightning quick.  NFLDraftScout.com estimates he’ll run a 4.39.  Jones has a few minor injury nicks on his resume.  The first being a 2016 rib injury that he played through but limited his touches (just 36 carries in the first five games).  The second being a 2017 injury that kept him out of the game against Cal; the injury was reported as both an ankle and a thigh injury so I’m not sure which it truly was but I expect the ankle.  Thankfully that injury did not linger as he gained 128 yards the next week against Washington State.  Even though he was a three year starter, Jones is exceedingly young.  Per DLF, Jones is the youngest prospect in the class at 20.5 years old.  When I was researching Jones’ personality and character I did not find much of note.  I found an interview prior to the Cotton Bowl where he said “I like to play silently” which ultimately explained the dearth of articles out there.  There were two funny things I came across in my character research… 1) teammate Stephen Carr said that Jones has “horse legs” which made me actually laugh out loud and 2) “Ronald Jones” was apparently a character in both The Hunt for Red October and Halloween: H2O.  If the NFL doesn’t work out for Jones, maybe he has a future as a vanilla background character in Hollywood!

Stats & Accolades:  In addition to showing a good progression with his weight, Jones has a good progression with his base stats.  His carries, yards and touchdowns have all increased year-over-year, as have his receptions and receiving yards.  Jones is not a big pass catching threat with just 32 career receptions but his huge 13.4 average per catch this season is encouraging.  Jones’ yards per carry average has decreased each season, however it was still a strong 5.9 at it’s lowest so I’m not that concerned.  Jones had two huge games in 2017 with 216 rushing yards and 2 TDs against Arizona State and then following it up with a 3 TD and 233 scrimmage yard outing against Arizona.  Jones’ biggest game of 2015 came against Arizona too (177 yards) so maybe he just has a personal vendetta against the state?  I like that the Trojans gave Jones 261 carries this year (14th most in the FBS) which shows me they were less concerned about his durability this season than in the past, likely a factor of him bulking up.  In the aforementioned PFF Elusive Rating statistic, Jones ranked 15th.  He also shows up in their Pass Blocking Efficiency table with a 94.2% efficiency.  Per their stat tracking, Jones had 67 snaps in pass protection and allowed just five hurries and no sacks.  Jones has the best ball security by far of this trio of running backs.  He has just two career fumbles and lost just one.  He was perfect in 2017 without a single fumble.

Rushing & Receiving Table
Rushing Receiving Scrimmage
Year School Conf Class Pos G Att Yds Avg TD Rec Yds Avg TD Plays Yds Avg TD
*2015 USC Pac-12 FR RB 14 153 987 6.5 8 7 39 5.6 1 160 1026 6.4 9
*2016 USC Pac-12 SO RB 13 177 1082 6.1 12 11 76 6.9 1 188 1158 6.2 13
2017 USC Pac-12 JR RB 13 261 1550 5.9 19 14 187 13.4 1 275 1737 6.3 20
Career USC 591 3619 6.1 39 32 302 9.4 3 623 3921 6.3 42
Provided by CFB at Sports Reference: View Original Table
Generated 1/27/2018.

Film Study: Texas (2017), Colorado (2017)

Jones was mostly held in check against Texas as a rusher (just 47 yards on 18 carries) but he still made a huge impression.  Two of the first three plays of the game for USC featured Jones split out blocking on wide receiver screens.  That tactic continued throughout the game when Jones was often utilized as a blocker in the open field.  This play is a good example of Jones blocking downfield.  He starts in the backfield but motions out to the right, to the wide side of the field.  He runs up field with a tight end to form a perfect lane for WR Steven Mitchell to run through after he catches the screen.  Due to the strength of the Longhorn defense, Jones was often called on to help in pass protection too.  I counted nine positive pass pro plays and no negative plays; he’ll need more size, experience and improved technique to stand up to NFL defenders but it’s a good start.  Jones only had one reception in the game but he made it count.  It was late in the second quarter with just 0:05 left with the score tied 7-7.  Jones stays in to protect at first but then leaks out as a safety valve for QB Sam Darnold.  Darnold is forced to scramble and finds Jones who had stopped his route in the open field to make an easy target for Darnold.  Jones turns up field, jukes the first defender, and then uses his speed (and a great block from Mitchell) to beat the defenders to the pylon.  At one point there are eight pursuing defenders in the frame and none of them can get an angle on Jones.  Without the momentum, and the points, that that play provided USC likely would have been upset by Texas.  Jones had two goal line carries and was stopped just short on both; the second came on 4th down so it was also a costly turnover.

Against Colorado’s softer defense, Jones was able to show me more as a runner.  Right from the start, his vision was apparent as he made three straight runs that impressed me (and the commentators too, who must have been the Colorado home game crew).  Jones is not a big broken tackle runner, similar to Penny he makes his yards by eluding defenders rather than overpowering them.  There were a few plays though that I noted key broken tackles by Jones, especially this 4th and Inches in the second quarter.  The linebacker has a free shot at Jones behind the line but he breaks the tackle and gets the first.  Two traits that Jones showed in the second half of the Colorado game were his jump cut and his patience.  This replay angle shows just how much ground his jump cut can cover which is almost unfair.  He later showed his patience on two plays as the Trojans were trying to run out the clock.  On the first, he slowly considers three separate potential holes before finally bouncing it to the sideline and nearly getting the first down.  It’s like watching him play real-life Frogger, making it up the field and toward the sideline a little at a time.  Shortly after that run, he takes a stretch handoff to the right, hesitates behind his blockers and then cuts it all the way back across the field for a score.  During my research, I came across many analysts who doubt Jones’ patience but I’m not nearly as concerned after watching those two plays.  Again, it’s not the main part of his game but Jones showed good play strength on this off tackle run in the third quarter.  A defender ends up on his back, which he shrugs off, and then he fights through a leg tackle to fall forward for a few extra yards.

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

Strengths: Ball security, pass protection, speed, jump cut, age.

Weaknesses: Weight, lack of passing game activity, age.

Opportunities: Because of Jones’ ball security and pass protection, teams will trust him to be their back in all situations.  Teams can spin age either way, in this case they may feel that since he’s so young he hasn’t hit his full potential yet.

Threats: Due to the lack of receiving game work, teams may feel that Jones is not a great fit on third down or in the two minute drill even though he’s a good blocker.  Teams can spin age either way, in this case they may feel that since he’s so young he will be immature.

Draft Round Grade:  Late 2nd Round

I think that Jones is the perfect mix of known and unknown which will entice NFL scouts.  He has enough on tape to warrant being a Top 60 pick and the fact that he is so young will surely make a team want to take a chance on him becoming even better.  As I mentioned in the Opportunities section above, teams will feel that they can trust Jones.

Recent NFL Comparison:  Jamaal Charles

I vacillated between Lamar Miller and CJ Spiller for Jones’ comparison at first but then extended my search of combine measureables back further and found an even better comp in Charles.  Charles averaged 6.2 yards per carry at Texas to Jones’s 6.1 average.  Charles was a little more active as a pass catcher but not by much.  Both had two sub-200 carry seasons to start their career and then ended with 250+ in their junior season before coming out early.  Assuming Jones comes in at about 200lb they should match up near identically when it comes to measureables plus they run with a similar elusive, cutting style.  Charles was picked in the early 3rd round which is probably the worst case scenario for Jones.

 


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

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

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

More Analysis by Bob Cowper

2018 RSO Rookie Mock Draft v2.1

Updated: January 27th 2018

My first 2018 rookie mock draft was published back on Sept 6 and while some things have changed, I am actually quite pleased with how my mock draft held up throughout the season.  I followed the same guidelines here as I did back in September.  Namely,  I used two base assumptions: 1) a standard one QB roster setup and 2) any junior good enough to be considered will declare early (the deadline is Jan 15 so by the time you read this we may already know that some guys are not going into the draft).  Players are broken down into tiers and I have noted where they were mocked last time to show their movement from version to version.  To view version 1.0, click here.  Version 2.0 never saw the light of day as Bryce Love, Damien Harris and Myles Gaskin decided to return to school before publishing (for what it’s worth they were at 1.09, 2.06 and 2.09 respectively).  I also compile mock draft information for the /r/DynastyFF sub Reddit which you can view here.  Share your thoughts with me on Twitter @robertfcowper.

1.01, Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State (last: 1.01)

Barkley is in a tier all by himself.  He’s a supreme athlete (possibly sub-4.40 speed) with good vision and is a good pass catcher.  He’ll be the consensus first pick in just about every fantasy rookie draft and could be a Top 5 NFL Draft pick.  Don’t overthink it.

1.02, Nick Chubb, RB, Georgia (1.03)

1.03, Derrius Guice, RB, LSU (1.02)

(Note: this was written prior to Nick Chubb’s poor performance in the championship game.  In hindsight, I am less confident about placing him at 1.02.  One game does not a career make but still he played poorly against a defense full of NFL talent.  I will re-visit this in the offseason)  I now have Chubb and Guice flipped compared to where I had them to start the season.  Heading into the season, Chubb’s 2015 knee injury felt like more of a concern than it does now since he has completed two full seasons since.  Their stats this season were similar but Chubb had a slight edge as a rusher (1,320 yards and 15 TDs for Chubb, 1,251 and 11 TDs for Guice).  Neither is a receiver like Barkley.  Both backs have a career high of 18 receptions in a season – Guice did so in 2017 while Chubb did so as a freshman in 2014.  The margin between the two for me is razor thin.  I lean towards Chubb since we have a bigger sample size.

1.04, Calvin Ridley, WR, Alabama (1.04)

1.05, James Washington, WR, Oklahoma State (1.08)

1.06, Ronald Jones, RB, USC (2.07)

I still have Ridley as my WR1 even though 2017 was not a great season (just 59 receptions, 935 yards and 4 TDs prior to the championship game).  To my eye, he is just the most skilled WR in the class, regardless of his production.  He is very fast (4.35 40 yard dash in the Spring), jumps well enough to out play his 6’1″ height and is a good route runner.  Washington is pretty quick himself but he just doesn’t seem as polished as Ridley.  It’s hard to argue against Washington’s production but I think he’ll be drafted later than Ridley and won’t be as good of a pro in the long run.  Washington is this high though because I think he will make an early impact in the league if he lands on the right team.  Jones makes a huge jump from 2.07 to 1.06.  I questioned his size to start the year, I thought he was too tall for his weight, but am no longer as concerned because he put on some weight.  He’s such a quick and fast runner and was very productive this year (1,550 yards, 19 TDs).  If he was a little more “squat” but just as fast and nimble he’d be challenging for the 1.02.

1.07, Rashaad Penny, RB, San Diego State (undrafted)

1.08, Courtland Sutton, WR, SMU (1.07)

Rashaad Penny made a huge impression on me this season.  I noticed Penny in August but thought he was more of a returner than a running back.  He proved his worth as a rusher (his 2,248 yards led the FBS) but still managed to contribute as a return man (3 return TDs).  Penny will probably be an early Day Three draft selection but I think his value as a return man will help him see the field earlier.  Bryce Love originally found himself in this tier before deciding to return to school.  Conversely to the ascending Penny, Sutton’s stock is falling for me.  Sutton has the best size of the top three receivers (6’4, 215lbs) but I have some concerns.  In my past research, I found that he mostly beat up on bad defenses; against the best defense he played this year (TCU), he was held to one catch for zero yards.  It also bothers me that Sutton was not the leading receiver on his team this year (Trey Quinn had more receptions, yards and touchdowns).  Sutton likely saw extra defensive attention but if he’s to be an NFL star, he must be able to dominate even against double coverage in games against lesser defenses.  Interesting stat for Sutton, 8 of his 31 career receiving touchdowns came in three games against North Texas.  I want to see him at the combine – if he comes in smaller than advertised he could fall out of my first round.

1.09, Royce Freeman, RB, Oregon (1.07)

1.10, Anthony Miller, WR, Memphis (2.02)

2.01, Sony Michel, RB, Georgia (2.06)

2.02, Christian Kirk, WR, Texas A&M (1.05)

This tier features some of my favorite players in the draft in terms of value.  I was high on Freeman to start the season before he came out on fire (10 TDs in the first four games).  His pace slowed in the middle of the season but he finished strong too with 6 TDs in the games against Arizona and Oregon State.  He decided to skip the bowl which was disappointing because I wanted to see him against Boise State’s defense.  Despite the positive impression he made on me, I do have him a little lower now because he was jumped by Ronald Jones and Rashaad Penny at the position.  Two players who did not skip the end of their seasons are Anthony Miller and Sony Michel.  Miller is an absolute gamer who I want on my team.  He’s not that big or that fast but he’s just productive.  He runs routes well and has possibly the best hands in the class.  He could have broken his leg in the AAC Championship game and he would have still finished the overtime.  It may be a bit of a reach but I’m willing to take Miller at the end of the first to guarantee I get him.  Michel is sometimes overshadowed by Chubb but he’s just as good in his own right.  He has two 1,000+ yard seasons to his name and a career 6.1 yards per carry average.  He is a better receiver than his 9 receptions in 2017 show.  In 2015 and 2016 he had 48 combined.  The hype on Michel is growing so you may not be able to get him at 2.01 but let’s not overreact to two nationally televised games.  Michel will be a solid pro but I’m not willing to jump him over Chubb.  Kirk dropped because I was probably too high on him originally but I still like him.  He’s a great return man but so many of his receptions come at the line of scrimmage that I worry his NFL role may be limited.

2.03, Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA (2.08)

2.04, Sam Darnold, QB, USC (2.01)

This is where my RSO mock will diverge slightly from a true dynasty mock.  I strongly believe that going quarterback early in the second round of your rookie mock is the way to go.  The salary paid will be less than $2mil per season which is a fantastic bargain for a starting quarterback, especially considering that most quarterbacks taken in the first round of the NFL Draft will see game action sometime in the first season.  The return on investment here is so high when you “hit” that it’s worth taking a chance on a “miss.”  Readers will notice that 1) Rosen has jumped Darnold and 2) I am taking the QBs a little later now.  Neither guy had a great season and they both come with some warts so I think this spot feels right.  Even if Darnold gets drafted higher, barring some crazy trade that lands him on a good team, I would go with Rosen first as I feel he is more NFL-ready and will realize more value during his four year RSO rookie contract.

2.05, Equanimeous St. Brown, WR, Notre Dame (2.03)

2.06, Akrum Wadley, RB, Iowa (undrafted)

2.07, Michael Gallup, WR, Colorado State (3.07)

This was a very tough stretch for me to rank.  I originally included Myles Gaskin and Damien Harris in this tier but they are now removed as they seek a higher grade next year.  St. Brown dropped between mocks because he only had 33 receptions.  Like Calvin Ridley, he was the leading receiver on a run-heavy offense.  I didn’t count that against Ridley but I do against St. Brown because it’s tough to invest highly in a guy with just 92 career receptions.  St. Brown would have dropped further if it weren’t for the decisions of Love and Harris ahead of him.  Wadley and Gallup mostly stayed under the radar this season but move up in my rankings even though their per-touch averages decreased.  They both significantly increased the number of touches they handled this season and played well in their biggest games.  Gallup totaled 21 receptions and 282 yards in three games against Power 5 defenses (Oregon State, Colorado, Alabama); Wadley had 158 total yards versus Ohio State in what was ultimately the death blow for the Buckeyes’ playoff chances.

2.08, Dante Pettis, WR, Washington (2.04)

2.09, Bo Scarborough, RB, Alabama (1.06)

2.10, Josh Adams, RB, Notre Dame (undrafted)

Bringing up the rear of the second round are three Power 5 players that I would be willing to take a shot on despite my concerns about their size.  Pettis is a dynamo and can change a game with one touch.  He had four punt return touchdowns this year and led the FBS in punt return average.  He managed to increase his receptions this year but his per-touch averages decreased.  He’s 6’1″ but about 195lbs so he’s a little too light.  The fact that his former teammate John Ross was such a bust as a first rounder last year probably hurts Pettis even if it’s not fair.  Scarborough and Adams were both productive in college but at 6’2″ they might be too tall to play running back effectively in the NFL.  The comps in that size are not favorable.  The best is Derrick Henry but other than that it’s a lot of no-name players over the last decade.

3.01, Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma (undrafted)

If it makes RSO salary cap sense to take a quarterback near the top of the second, it stands to reason you should at the top of the third.  Mayfield is currently my QB3 after an incredibly efficient season but I want to watch more tape.  Heading into the season I had both Mason Rudolph, Lamar Jackson and Luke Falk ranked higher.  Right now Rudolph would be the only one I consider putting here instead of Mayfield.

3.02, Mike Gesicki, TE, Penn State (undrafted)

3.03, Allen Lazard, WR, Iowa State (3.01)

3.04, Hayden Hurst, TE, South Carolina (3.05)

3.05, Mark Andrews, TE, Oklahoma (2.10)

Let the tight end run begin!  I think everybody would agree that this year’s tight end class pales in comparison to last year but when is the right time to take one?  I’m having trouble valuing them so I’ll bet others are too.  My guess is that once one goes in your RSO draft, two or three will follow shortly after.  Gesicki gets the nod as the top prospect because he’s bigger than both Andrews and Hurst and at least as athletic, if not more.  Hurst is more of a traditional TE than the other two as he blocks better but he’s also fast enough and a good pass catcher.  I had Hurst above Andrews in my early 2018 positional rankings and will stick with my gut.  It takes time for tight ends to develop, Evan Engram notwithstanding, so I’ll knock Andrews down a peg because he so rarely lined up as a tight end in college.  Lazard isn’t a TE but he’s a big-bodied receiver who I am a fan of.  He was a key part of Iowa State’s miracle run (71-941-10).  I wish I was able to find him a spot higher because it feels like I’m down on him compared to start the season but that’s not the case.

3.06, Auden Tate, WR, Florida State (undrafted)

3.07, Simmie Cobbs, WR, Indiana (undrafted)

3.08, Kalen Ballage, RB, Arizona State (3.04)

3.09, Jaylen Smith, WR, Louisville, (undrafted)

3.10, Deon Cain, WR, Clemson (1.10)

Similarly to how I ended the second round, I will end the third round with a group of Power 5 players who I will take a flyer on.  Tate has elite size, ball skills and body control but has just 65 career receptions.  Cobbs also has elite size but he concerns me.  He was suspended to start the 2016 season for “not living up to the responsibilities of the program,” and then subsequently suffered a season ending injury in his first game that year.  In the summer of 2017 he was arrested at a concert.  He didn’t face any discipline so it’s probably nothing but still I would worry about a pattern of negative behavior.  Ballage is a bowling ball at 6’3″ and 230lbs.  He is an effective receiver but averages just 4.4 yards per carry in his career.  His size concerns me too.  It’s hard to find a back with receiving stats like he had in 2016, so with a late third, what the heck.  I don’t know enough about Jaylen Smith to properly evaluate him yet but our friends at the Dynasty Command Center are very high on him so I’ll trust their analysis.  Smith had a crazy 22.9 yards per reception average in 2016 which was unsustainable (in 2017 it was still a solid 16.3).  Deon Cain is another player who concerns me off the field.  After a failed drug test, Clemson suspended him in 2015 for both of their College Football Playoff games and continued to hold him out through Spring practice.  He lead the Tigers in yards (734) and TDs (6) this season but I was hoping for more now that he was out of Mike Williams’ shadow.

Honorable Mentions

4.01, Richie James, WR, Middle Tennessee State (undrafted)

4.02, Mike Weber, RB, Ohio State (undrafted)

4.03, Mason Rudolph, QB, Oklahoma State (undrafted)

4.04, Adam Breneman, TE, UMass (undrafted)

4.05, Kerryon Johnson, RB, Auburn (undrafted)

4.06, Deontay Burnett, WR, USC (undrafted)

4.07, Jalin Moore, RB, Appalachian State (undrafted)

4.08, Dallas Goedert, TE, South Dakota State (undrafted)

4.09, Jaylen Samuels, TE, North Carolina State (undrafted)

4.10, Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville (undrafted)

Guys who I like but couldn’t find space for yet: Ryan Finley, Ito Smith, Jordan Chunn, Cedric Wilson, Antonio Callaway, Troy Fumagali


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

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

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

More Analysis by Bob Cowper

The Watch List: National Championship Preview

Updated: January 5th 2018

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

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

Quarterback: Alabama

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

Running Backs: Georgia

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

Receivers: Alabama

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

Defensive Line: Alabama

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

Linebackers: Georgia

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

Secondary: Alabama

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

Specialists: Alabama

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

Prediction: Roll Tide

 

 


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

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

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

More Analysis by Bob Cowper

The Watch List: Bowl Game Previews, Part VI

Updated: December 30th 2017

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

Monday, Jan. 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LSU was an enigma to me this season.  Midway through the year, I was honestly surprised to see that 5-2 LSU was ranked #24.  One of those losses was to Troy from the Sun Belt which would seem to be disqualifying.  Of the other Power 5 teams in the Top 25, only Stanford (vs San Diego State) has a loss to a Group of 5 team; and that is without a doubt a stronger loss than LSU’s.  I guess the committee felt that LSU’s win over then #10 Auburn more than made up for the bad loss (but by that logic Ohio State should have been in over Alabama).  LSU has two players who will go at the top of drafts: DE Arden Key in the NFL Draft and RB Derrius Guice in your rookie draft.  Guice has been as under the radar as the soon to be 1.02 can.  Saquon Barkley has, deservedly, received a ton of attention this season but second tier backs like Ronald Jones and Bryce Love have stolen some of the shine that should be on Guice.  He has confirmed that he will play in the Citrus Bowl which is good because I figured he might follow former teammate Leonard Fournette’s lead and skip the bowl.  Guice had a solid season but was not as dominant as he was last year when sharing the backfield with Fournette.  This year Guice finished with a 1,153-11 line.  He’s not a big receiving threat (just 29 career receptions, 15 of which came this year) which could limit his utility at the start of his NFL career.  It turns out that my feelings about Guice from August were spot-on: “I’m very interested to see how Guice does without Fournette…in 2017.  If he can repeat even 75% of his production from 2016 he’ll be a first round NFL back.  What I saw in Guice’s tape was not enough for me to push him to RB1 over Penn State’s Saquon Barkley, but at worst, Guice will be your 1.02 for 2018.”  Injuries derailed Arden Key’s season and will cause him to miss the bowl.  He still has an elite size and speed combination plus enough production to guarantee he finds the Top 10 in the NFL Draft.  WR DJ Chark had 47 touches for 874 total yards and 4 TDs; his production is undraftable but his 6’4″ height could get him a look.  CB Donte Jackson is WalterFootball.com’s 3rd ranked corner.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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