The Watch List: Week 4

Updated: September 21st 2017

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

Storylines to Watch

  • Heisman Update: Mason Rudolph’s and Baker Mayfield’s stocks have risen while Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen and Lamar Jackson remain in the middle of the pack.  My favorite non-QB is still Saquon Barkley but he’ll struggle to earn anything more than third place votes if Rudolph and Mayfield keep up their pace.  If I had a vote, and I don’t, my pick right now would be Rudolph.  I do think that other positions should get Heisman love other than QBs but it’s impossible to ignore what Rudolph is doing right now.  If you’re looking for a defensive dark horse, follow FSU S Derwin James and Texas LB Malik Jefferson closely.  I expect James to expand on a solid performance against Alabama where he only had six tackles but was a constant presence on the field.  Jefferson had 11 tackles in the close loss to USC and is the heart and soul of that Longhorn defense.
  • Florida State Back in Action: The Seminoles’ season is off to a strange start.  It feels like their loss to #1 Alabama was two months ago but it’s only been three weeks.  In that span though, FSU has had a game cancelled (UL-Monroe) and another postponed (Miami).  They haven’t been on the field since QB Deondre Francois went down with a season ending injury.  Ultimately, Hurricane Irma could have been a blessing in disguise as it has removed the spotlight from freshman QB James Blackman and given him time with the “ones” in practice.  Blackman was not a very highly touted recruit, in fact he was ranked as the 52nd quarterback by Phil Steele in his recruiting class.  Blackman won the job though and will rely on fellow freshman Cam Akers.  Akers only had 30 yards against Alabama but don’t let that belie his potential.  If you play devy or are just a college football fan, keep an eye on him.  Blackman and coach Jimbo Fisher will have to rely on Akers if FSU is to compete in the ACC this season without Francois.
  • Vandy is on the Come: Vanderbilt is just on the outside of the Top 25.  In the AP Poll they received 83 votes while in the Coaches Poll they received 92.  One of Vandy’s three wins came against Alabama A&M, the second was against Middle Tennessee State (who beat their other Power 5 opponent, Syracuse) and the crown jewel was a close win against #18 Kansas State.  The Commodores have been led by their defense which, based on yards per game, is the 1st ranked pass defense, the 32nd ranked rush defense and the 4th ranked total defense.  In terms of points, Vandy is ranked 1st.  The offense is not prolific but it is lead steadily by junior quarterback Kyle Shurmur (his father is Pat Shurmur, the Vikings OC).  Shurmur has thrown 8 TDs and zero picks and his completion percentage is much improved thus far (71.0% vs 54.4% last year).  My preseason prediction was 8 wins which is looking pretty good right now but they face a huge test this week against Alabama.

Players to Watch

  • Mason Rudolph, QB, Oklahoma State: Rudolph’s production so far is off the charts.  Literally.  Rudolph’s completion percentage and yards per attempt would beat Baker Mayfield’s 2016 FBS-leading numbers by a significant margin.  Rudolph’s completion percentage so far this season is 72.3%, compared to Mayfield’s 70.9% last year.  Rudolph’s yards per attempt is 12.1, better than Mayfield by a full yard.  That YPA is just crazy so let me give you context.  From 2000-2015, no quarterback averaged more than 10.7 YPA (RGIII in 2011).  I didn’t go back further than 2000, but I think it’s a safe bet to assume that Mayfield’s 2016 mark was a record and the fact that Rudolph is on pace to best that by a full yard means he has to get my Heisman vote.  The biggest knock against Rudolph is the competition he has faced so far.  I agree it’s not great but the Big 12 is not home to strong pass defenses so I have no doubt that the success will continue.  Pitt’s passing defense allowed 311 yards to FCS Youngstown State but then they bottled up Penn State QB Trace McSorley to 164 yards, 3 TDs, 5.9 YPA and 53.6% on completions.  Compare that to Rudolph the following week who went for 479 yards, 5 TDs, 15.5 YPA and 71%.  Rudolph faces his toughest test yet this week in TCU, ranked 36th in pass defense, but the schedule softens over the four following games (against the 101st, 95th, 84th and 73rd best pass defenses).  My favorite Rudolph stat so far?  He has not yet thrown a pass attempt in the 4th quarter, that is how dominant he and the Cowboys have been.  I can’t wait for the November 4th matchup against the Sooners.
  • Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State: Like Rudolph, Barkley will be facing his strongest defensive opponent so far in the young season.  Barkley will be on the road in Iowa against their 26th ranked rush defense.  If you only look at the box score, last week’s game against Georgia Southern might be worrisome (just 10 attempts and 47 yards) but have no fear because Barkley contributes in the passing game too (4 receptions, 142 yards and a score).  There was no reason to load Barkley up with carries in a convincing win, he’ll be back to bell-cow status this weekend.  That receiving touchdown last week was great – go back and watch the highlight and just look at his acceleration thirty yards down the field, incredible.  Barkley has 548 total yards and 5 TDs and is still my 1.01.
  • Deontay Burnett, WR, USC: Burnett is moving his way up my WR ranks with a stellar start to 2017.  Burnett went for 7-142 in the opener against Western Michigan and followed that up with 9-121-2 against Stanford.  He really caught my eye against Texas (8-123-2) when he proved to be Sam Darnold’s favorite target yet again in the face of constant pressure.  For those counting at home that’s a 24-386-4 line which puts him halfway to his 2016 numbers already.  My only concern for Burnett is his slight frame and subsequent injury risk.  At 6’0″ and 170lb, he is just too lean.  Since 2010, no WRs have come into the combine at 5’11” or taller and less than 175lbs.  His closest body-size comp would be the Seahawks’ Paul Richardson who has potential but has been hampered by injuries.
  • Lorenzo Carter, OLB, Georgia: Carter is new name for me but grabbed my attention because he is leading a stout Bulldog defense.  He has 14 tackles so far along with 3 sacks, 2 forced fumbles and 2 fumble recoveries.  Carter is big (6’6″) and fast (possibly in the 4.60-4.65 range if you go by his Hudl and DraftScout.com profiles) and could end up with a first round grade like former Georgia star Leonard Floyd who was taken 9th overall by the Bears in 2016.
  • Anthony Winbush, DE/DT, Ball State: I don’t have any extensive research or film study of Winbush to share but I came across his name and figured I would share it with you dear reader.  Winbush is leading the NCAA in sacks at 6.5 and also has 20 tackles and 3 forced fumbles.  If you’re a big NFL Draft fan, file the name away and see if he keeps it up.

Games to Watch

  • Temple @ #21 South Florida, Thursday 7:30pm on ESPN: The NFL’s Thursday night games are pretty bad so I will definitely find myself checking into this game.  South Florida ended up winning convincingly against Illinois last Friday.  Both teams are coming off short rest after playing Friday so neither team is at a disadvantage in that department.  USF somehow held off San Diego State as the highest ranked Group of 5 team and another win keeps them in the driver’s seat for a New Year’s Six bowl game.
  • NC State @ #12 Florida State, Saturday 12:00pm on ABC: This is the best game of a pretty blah 12:00pm slate on Saturday.  I am interested in seeing how QB James Blackman assimilates so at least I won’t be tempted to flip channels too often.  I had high hopes for NC State to start the season but am not encouraged by the early results; they are 2-1 with a loss to South Carolina and they gave up too many points to Tulane and Furman in their victories.
  • #1 Alabama @ Vanderbilt, Saturday 3:30pm on CBS: #AnchorDown.  By now you know I’m a fan of Vanderbilt but not even I am predicting the upset here.  Alabama has too many horses and will overrun Vanderbilt.  Between QB Jalen Hurts and RBs Bo Scarborough and Damien Harris, the Tide will amass at least 200 yards rushing.  If Vanderbilt can keep it close, I think they jump into the Top 25 even with a loss.
  • #16 TCU @ #6 Oklahoma State, Saturday 3:30pm on ESPN: I used a lot of superlatives to describe Mason Rudolph above so it should be no surprise that I’m taking the Cowboys.  Keep an eye on WR Jalen McCleskey who had a humongous outing against Pitt (7-162-3) and thrived with focus on James Washington.  Despite the added attention that he inevitably receives, Washington is averaging an insane 28.2 yards per reception.  The Oklahoma State offense cannot be stopped.  Take the over.
  • #17 Mississippi State @ #11 Georgia, Saturday 7:00pm on ESPN:  This will be some back-to-back comparison for ESPN viewers.  The 3:30pm game between TCU and Oklahoma State will feature at least 70 points, meanwhile we will be lucky if either set of Bulldogs hits 7.  This one will be a knock down, drag out, SEC battle and not for the squeamish.  State is led by safety Mark McLaurin while Georgia is led by the aforementioned Lorenzo Carter.   Take the under.
  • #4 Penn State @ Iowa, Saturday 7:30pm on ABC: This is a good Saturday night to see family and friends.  Barkley, et al. will be facing a tougher defense than they have seen in 2017 but it won’t matter.  I don’t expect this one to be particularly close and it’s probably not worth scheduling your weekend around.  Check in for the Saquon highlights on College Football Final.
  • East Carolina @ UCONN, Sunday 12:00pm on ESPNU: It’s so rare to get a college game on a Sunday after Week 1 so I just had to include this on my Watch List.  There’s potential for 14 hours of consecutive football on Sunday.  Start with Baltimore and Jacksonville at 9:30am from London, switch over to this one at 12:00pm and then head back to the NFL for the 1:00pm kickoffs.  If you’re quick you can squeeze in dinner and a shower before SNF.

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

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

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

2018 RSO Rookie Mock Draft v1.0

Updated: September 6th 2017

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

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

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

1.03, Nick Chubb, RB, Georgia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.01, Sam Darnold, QB, USC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.10, Antonio Callaway, WR, Florida

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

Honorable Mention, Adam Breneman, TE, UMass

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

The Watch List: Pac 12 Preview

Updated: August 10th 2017

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

Players to Watch

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

Storylines to Watch

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

Games to Watch

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

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

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

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