2021 Pre-Draft Rookie Best Fits – Running Backs

Updated: April 20th 2021

This is the second part of our Rookie Best Fit series where we look to fit the player to the best team for their skillset based on the expected range for where the player will be drafted. In the first part, we looked at the quarterbacks which can be found here. This section will examine the running back class which has a strong top-end but lacks depth when compared to other recent classes. An overall suggestion if you are targeting a need at the position this year would be to try and be in the top 4 for standard leagues or top 8 in Superflex to secure one of the three biggest names. Otherwise, build some capital in the second or third round to take a couple of shots at the next tier of options. With that said, let us begin.

Michael Carter – North Carolina

DLF Ranking – 23rd (29th SF)

NFL Draft – 3rd Round

Best Fit – 3.71, Denver Broncos

Michael Carter lacks the overall size to be an every-down, 20+ carry NFL running back, but he does have quick feet and long speed to be an excellent 1b in just about any offense. Tarik Cohen comes to mind when watching him and if the Bears wanted to get younger Carter would be an excellent 1-for-1 transition. However, I do not think he will be there late in the third round and a team like Denver would be a great landing spot. Melvin Gordon has one more year left on his deal to share the backfield with Carter for now and the weapons on the outside would always leave favorable numbers on the line for him to use his short-area quickness.

Travis Etienne – Clemson

DLF – 2nd (5th SF)

NFL Draft – Late 1st/2nd Round

Best Fit – 2.35, Atlanta Falcons

The Todd Gurley experiment only lasted one season in Atlanta and currently, the Falcons only have Mike Davis as their most reliable runner. They also released Ito Smith leaving the depth chart wide-open for them to take a running back high in the second round. Etienne would immediately take control of the backfield and see between 200-250 touches in Atlanta’s offense. Coming from just down the road in Clemson would also give a big boost to his transition to the NFL.

Kenneth Gainwell – Memphis

DLF – 14th (18th SF)

NFL Draft – 3rd Round

Best Fit – 3.65, Jacksonville Jaguars 

On the surface, this would probably seem like a terrible landing spot as the team enjoyed a surprise breakout season from undrafted rookie James Robinson just last season. But the coaching staff has changed over which gives no player, especially a former UFA, any guarantee for touches. Gainwell draws immediate comparison to Antonio Gibson as both played the same dual-threat role at Memphis. If Urban Meyer is looking to bring more offensive collegiate flare like past coaches making the jump to the NFL then Gainwell would give him as much flexibility at the running back position with another RB/WR hybrid.

Najee Harris – Alabama

DLF – 3rd (6th SF)

NFL Draft – Late 1st/2nd Round

Best Fit – 1.24, Pittsburgh Steelers

Picking a running back in the first round is always a trade-off to taking other more impactful positions that a team could be drafting. Especially when it is the Pittsburgh Steelers who are one of the smarter organizations in the NFL when it comes to drafting and who might want to wait on the position till at least day two and take either a replacement for Bud Dupree or Ben Roethlisberger with their first selection instead. Still, the need at running back was a major focus all last season and taking a guy like Harris would give them a player that fits the Steelers RB model. He would immediately be considered the 1.01 for most rookie drafts and would be a good bet to lead the rookie class in rushing yards in 2021.

Khalil Herbert – Virginia Tech

DLF – 39th (53rd SF)

NFL Draft – 5th-7th Round

Best Fit – 6.194, San Francisco 49ers

Khalil Herbert will not have the draft capital to immediately take a backfield over but his talent should make him more likely to breakout than running backs taken around him. Landing in San Francisco on day three would be as great an opportunity as any due to the 49ers often using a platoon of runners but also are willing to feature a single runner if they showcase the skillset. Kyle Shanahan had a similar player while offensive coordinator in Atlanta with Devonta Freeman, who was also a later-round steal, and Herbert could play a similar role to Freeman in 2021. Like Freeman, Herbert has good zone-read ability and enough receiving capabilities to one day develop into a three-down back.

Kylin Hill – Mississippi State

DLF – 30th (30th SF)

NFL Draft – 5th-7th Round

Best Fit – 6.203, Houston Texans /6.223, Arizona Cardinals

Hill, like Herbert, will not have the draft capital to supplant a well-established veteran but could rise to the top in an offense with “meh” or aging talent. Houston does not have the draft capital to invest in a luxury position like running back early but with three (3) sixth-round picks could be looking to have younger options behind David Johnson and Mark Ingram. The same goes for Arizona who has no mid-picks and would either need to look at taking one of the first running backs off the board in the first/second round or go bargain shopping with one of their fifth through seventh-round selections. Hill may not be anything more than a backup for whatever team he ends up on but with the capital it would take to acquire him he only room to rise in value.

Chuba Hubbard – Oklahoma State

DLF – 25th (25th SF)

NFL Draft – 4th-6th Round

Best Fit – 5.156, Miami Dolphins

Chuba Hubbard lost a lot of value between 2019 and 2020 where he was being discussed in the top 3 with players like Etienne and Harris. Nevertheless, he still can develop into a primary ball carrier if he finds the right offensive scheme. There have been speculations that Miami could be in the market for a day two running back, one of which I will also recommend later, but if they either do not get their guy or prioritize other positions, Hubbard could be a fifth-round steal. Miami showed their commitment to the run game once Tua Tagovailoa took over last year and had success with guys like Myles Gaskin and Salvon Ahmed. Hubbard could easily compete for the starting role in an emerging offense with a “chip on his shoulder” mentality.

Jermar Jefferson – Oregon State

DLF – 31st (35th SF)

NFL Draft – 5th-6th Round

Best Fit – 6.185, Los Angeles Chargers 

Truthfully, I would like to see Jefferson in Seattle and their heavy draw and zone run offense but they have such low draft capital in 2021, as well as might not be ready to give up on former first-round pick Rashaad Penny, that they will likely pass on running back this year. The consolation would be the LA Chargers to compliment Austin Ekeler with the chance to take over in 2022. With Justin Herbert and his cannon arm to go with Jefferson’s first step speed, he would feast in yards per carry without defenders crowding the box.

Trey Sermon – Ohio State

DLF – 22nd (20th SF)

NFL Draft – 3rd Round

Best Fit – 3.66, New York Jets

The Jets are among the most wide-open depth charts for a rookie running back to come in and immediately take over a heavy workload. They are locked in for quarterback with their first of their two first-round picks and then will likely address the defense with their next two selections. At the top of the third round though if Ohio State’s Trey Sermon is still there, he could be an ideal fit for the Jets’ new regime. Sermon already showed that he could handle a heavy workload in Columbus and would move from a mid-second round rookie pick to a potential end of the first selection for those that prioritize RB opportunity when drafting.

Rhamondre Stevenson – Oklahoma

DLF – 36th (31st SF)

NFL Draft – 4th-5th Round

Best Fit – 4.123, Philadelphia Eagles

The Eagles love their hammer RBs from LeGarrette Blount to Jordan Howard so why not go back to the well for another big back in Rhamondre Stevenson. Stevenson has even been compared to Blount so it would make plenty of sense. While Miles Sanders would cap his ceiling as a fantasy prospect, Stevenson would give the Eagles an immediate upgrade over Jordan Howard right now and would receive his share of goal-line work. Like Blount, he has deceptive speed for being 230lbs so he could be the benefactor of a tired defense rotating in for Miles Sanders.

Javonte Williams – North Carolina

DLF – 7th (10th SF)

NFL Draft – 2nd Round

Best Fit – 2.36, Miami Dolphins

As I mentioned earlier with Chubba Hubbard, the Dolphins running back room is one of the more lacking in the NFL and they are a strong candidate to take one of the first rookies off the board, likely as early as the second round. The team appears to be doing everything they can to align the stars for Tua Tagovailoa to have success in his second year and taking Javonte Williams would go a long way to doing that. Williams has prototypical size and speed to be an every-down back and landing in Miami would likely cement him in the 1.03-1.05 range in standard leagues and a late first-round steal in Superflex leagues.

More Analysis by Nick Andrews

2021 Pre-Draft Rookie Best Fits – Quarterbacks

Updated: April 19th 2021

The best part about being a dynasty player during the pre-draft offseason is the wishful guessing of where top prospects will go. While not always the case a perfect match between a player’s skills and team’s need/coaching philosophy can solidify their spot as an early first-round selection or present the opportunity for them to shoot up the rankings in the post-draft landscape. We only have to look back to last year’s draft where Clyde Edwards-Helaire was projecting as a mid-first to early second-round selection in most rookie drafts but soared to 1.01-1.02 levels when Kansas City scooped him up with their first pick.

For this article series, we will put our rose-colored glasses on for the top prospects at each position in 2021 to see who could be this year’s CEH. I want to give a big shout-out to Matt Waldman and his yearly Rookie Scouting Portfolio (RSP) for giving in-depth analysis on all of these players and being a huge influence on this article. I will not be giving any specifics directly from his work but if you want to know more than you could imagine on any given rookie each year, I highly suggest you check out his work here. As well, the average rankings for rookies provided will be coming from Dynasty League Football (DLF) so for the full list of player rankings go check them out.

Not every perfect landing spot I will suggest coincides with an immediate starting spot being open. Rather I am also looking to the future to see where openings may present themselves in the future based on other player’s contracts or overall fit with the team. Time as the understudy to a veteran may be more beneficial long term than just being thrust into the lineup as the immediate answer.

In the first part, we will look at the quarterbacks. For the interest of time-saving, I am going to skip Trevor Lawrence who is 99.9% locked into Jacksonville and therefore would be unlikely to project him anywhere else.

Justin Fields – Ohio State

DLF Ranking – 15th (2nd SuperFlex)

NFL Draft – Top 10 Selection

Best Fit – 1.03, San Francisco 49ers

Justin Fields is the player to watch if you like drama in the draft as there appears to be an open competition between Mac Jones, Trey Lance, and himself for the third (3rd) quarterback off the board. The 49ers should take Fields as his ability to move around the pocket better than Jones and is more pro-ready than Trey Lance at this point. This would give defences nightmares with their current offensive weapons trying to also account for the running abilities that Fields can bring. The only thing stopping Kyle Shanahan from taking Fields would be his hesitancy for Fields’ mobility to create more ad-lib plays. Following the script and following exactly Shanahan’s guidelines is really what is keeping Jones in the conversation at third overall.

Mac Jones – Alabama

DLF – 29th (14th SF)

NFL Draft – Top 15 Selection

Best Fit – 1.04, Atlanta Falcons

While maybe not the sexiest pick ever, the similarities in Mac Jones and Matt Ryan would be a perfect mentor-to-peer transition for the Falcons. The team still has solid talent around the quarterback position but is stuck as a bottom feeder roster overall. The talk of trading Matt Ryan was also rumored throughout the start of the offseason which likely means that his days in Atlanta are left between one and two more seasons tops. Like the 49ers, I think giving 10-17 games of watching a veteran would do more for Mac Jones to learn the game the right way with Arthur Smith and be able to take the job fully by 2022 than to try and move him directly into a starting role with minimal offseason coaching or lesser talent around him.

Trey Lance – North Dakota State

DLF – 24th (12th SF)

NFL Draft – Top 15 Selection

Best Fit – 1.15, New England Patriots

This move would likely require a trade-up from New England as other teams like Denver, Detroit, and maybe still Carolina or even Minnesota at 12 would take him before New England is on the clock. If they were to get Trey Lance though it would be everything that we saw for the first two (2) games of 2020 with Cam Newton without the collapse from the final 14 games. Though Lance played against lower competition at NDSU, he was calling his own checks and audibles which is a big bonus to learning the Erhardt-Perkins offense that the Patriots use. The old Patriot system left with Tom Brady and if they were to take Trey Lance they would be fully embracing the new-aged mobile pocket NFL.

Davis Mills – Stanford

DLF – 65th (64th SF)

NFL Draft – 2nd/3rd Round

Best Fit – 2.51, Washington FT / 2.55, Pittsburgh Steelers

A project quarterback, Davis Mills is likely to be a day two selection by a team that has a veteran already but is looking to the future. Both Washington and Pittsburgh will need new starters in 2022 and neither team projects to be able to draft a top prospect in the top 10 next year so why not take a shot at developing a second-round talent. Mills can learn behind Ryan Fitzpatrick or Ben Roethlisberger, who both are more traditional pocket passers now but could move around the pocket and take off as needed in their younger days like Mills. While he might not turn into a top-10 quarterback, Mills could follow in the footsteps of a player like Derek Carr to become a staple QB2 who also came out of day two of the draft.

Kellen Mond – Texas A&M

DLF – 55th (45th SF)

NFL Draft – 3rd Round

Best Fit – 3.74, Washington FT / 3.87, Pittsburgh Steelers

Whichever team does not get Mills a round earlier between Washington and Pittsburgh I could also see them pivoting and waiting for another round to take Kellen Mond out of Texas A&M. Truthfully, I am not as sold on Mond being anything more than a practice squad/3rd string option but he would have the ability to again learn behind either veteran. Especially behind Ryan Fitzpatrick, who was a former seventh-round selection, Mond could learn how best to keep his NFL dream alive longer than many would project him to.

Kyle Trask – Florida

DLF – 46th (19th SF)

NFL Draft – Late 1st/2nd Round

Best Fit – 1.28, New Orleans Saints

Before diving more into Kyle Trask and only watching him casually I thought he was going to be a steal for teams that were not in the top 10 already. His last collegiate game left a bitter taste in some mouths but that should not be a reason for him to slip into the second round. The Saints are in cap hell and should be looking for a cheap quarterback option to have over the next four/five years, even with Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill on the roster. Michael Thomas can play the Kyle Pitts role of “big man over the middle” and then Micky Loomis can look for a complementary receiver in the mid-rounds to fill out the offense. It always helps to have a superstar running back, Alvin Kamara, who can both run and catch for big plays out of the backfield too.

Zach Wilson, QB – BYU

DLF – 21st (4th SF)

NFL Draft – Top 10 Selection

Best Fit – 1.09, Denver Broncos

Zach Wilson is almost as guaranteed to go second overall to the Jets as Trevor Lawrence is to go first. While he could fit in New York with Robert Saleh and OC Mike LaFleur I think he would develop better in the smaller market and with the better offensively talented Denver Broncos. Wilson has a Baker Mayfield level of swagger that if it works in New York will make him one of the poster-QBs for the NFL. History tells us though that bright lights burn out quicker in New York and a slow start to his career could wreck an otherwise talented player. Wilson is everything that Drew Lock is but better as a quarterback prospect and clearly would be a player that John Elway would race his card up to the podium if he was to be available. Wilson with Courtland Sutton, Jerry Jeudy, Tim Patrick, Noah Fant, and KJ Hamler would give him all the tools he needs to succeed.

More Analysis by Nick Andrews

The Watch List 2021: Early WR Tiers

Updated: February 12th 2021

Throughout the offseason I will be compiling early positional tiers for the 2021 NFL Draft. In past years I’ve done early rankings but in hindsight those feel counterproductive to my ultimate goal of creating RSO’s rookie rankings that are used in the draft room. Frankly, it’s hard to change a ranking because it feels “locked in” once I put it out into the world. When I would create my early rankings I would always start by grouping the players into themed tiers first, so that’s what I will be sharing in this series. Each tier includes players whose potential and plot line feel similar to me; the sequence of tiers is indicative of a general order of expected draft value. I’ll repeat though: these are not rankings. Within each tier players are sorted alphabetically. (Note: this article was written on February 7th.)

Dear reader, today we come to the end of my positional tiers series. I hope you have found these loose rankings as instructive as I have while I prepare to create the rookie rankings for the RSO rookie draft room. I saved the receivers for last because it was the hardest group for me to nail down my expectations. The top of this receiver class is stronger than last year: we may end up with three WRs off the board by the 12th pick which is where last year’s WR1 (Henry Ruggs) went. Things stay strong into the second round but then it feels like there is a drop and leveling off after the top 6-7 names. Would I love for my NFL team to add Seth Williams? Definitely, but he’s not on par with Chase Claypool or Denzel Mims who were similarly ranked in last year’s class. I am interested to see if NFL teams start to reach in the late second or early third rounds, worried that they need to get their receiver now or they may be on the wrong side of a run. You may encounter the same phenomenon in your RSO rookie draft so be prepared. Enough stutter-stepping, let’s get to it…

First Round Locks

  • Ja’Marr Chase

  • DeVonta Smith

  • Jaylen Waddle

Do you know the popular gif of a raggedy looking Elmo seemingly summoning a wall of flame? That’s what I envision in my mind’s eye when I think of #DraftTwitter arguing over the order of these three wide receivers. You could make an argument that any of them will be the first receiver off the board in April because they all have elite talent but some perceived “knock” against them. Unless you’re hosting your rookie draft before the NFL Draft (please don’t, unless you’re a devy league) there’s no need to settle on an order just yet. Scheme and team fit will be huge in determining their fantasy prospects. Ja’Marr Chase was last seen on the field in 2019 when he led the NCAA in receiving yards (1,780) and touchdowns (20) on his way to consensus All-America honors. I’ve wondered what impact Chase’s decision to opt-out of the 2020 season will have on his draft stock — it’ll be an interesting case study for future studs who might want to preserve themselves for the pros. I last profiled Chase when I was writing about potential rookie draft 1.01 picks and I heaped on the praise. His short-area quickness, leaping ability, and hands are all fantastic. Plus he’s physical on his route and doesn’t shy away from a battle with a corner. There were moments though when I wanted to see more from Chase, specifically when he wasn’t the primary target of a play. He’s a superb talent, is just 20 years old, and has a crazy high ceiling; Chase will be the top receiver for most heading into the draft. If I had to choose today, I would rank DeVonta Smith just a hair higher than Chase. Smith, the Heisman winner, had a superlative-laden season that even eclipsed Chase’s standout campaign last year. Smith’s eye-popping line was: 117-1,856-23. He’s a technician who is consistently open, has ridiculous body control and has go-go-gadget arms to snag balls that other receivers could never reach. Smith is a bit slight (listed 6010/175) and is two years older than Chase so I can understand why some discount his future production.  Until Smith shows otherwise he’s my favorite in the class. If Jaylen Waddle didn’t suffer a midseason injury he would have been in the WR1 conversation as well (and some might still have him there). Waddle is a singular talent as an athlete with the ability to break any play for a score. Waddle is small (5100/182) and has a small-ish sample size (just 106 career receptions) but speed sells. Like Henry Ruggs last year, Waddle may end up going higher than expected because an NFL team fell in love with his gamebreaking nature. To recap, these three guys are essentially locks to be first rounders in your rookie draft as well as the NFL Draft; don’t get too hung up on their order just yet.

Fringe Firsts

  • Rashod Bateman

  • Terrace Marshall

  • Rondale Moore

I envision “Number of First Round Wide Receivers” being an oft-discussed prop bet in April. Last year’s class saw six go in the first round; 2015 was the only other year in the last decade that we had that many. The 2018 and 2019 drafts had just four receivers combined go in the opening round. If I was the book, I would probably set the line at 4.5 this season. I believe the three players mentioned above are locks to go in the top twenty so squeezing in two or three of these fringe firsts feels about right. Terrace Marshall was a beneficiary of Ja’Marr Chase’s decision to sit out the year. Marshall led a mediocre Tigers team with 48 receptions and 10 TDs, his 731 receiving yards was just barely bested by freshman Kayshon Boutte. It was hard for me to distill what Marshall does well into one or two sentences: put simply, he’s a dude. He has perfect size at 6030/200, isn’t easy to bring down, has super strong hands, has a keen sense of timing, and knows when to check back to his quarterback to make himself an easier target. I really liked what I saw out of Marshall and I’m sure NFL scouts will too. Back in early 2019, we were talking about the wrong Golden Gophers receiver (hmm, interesting transition after talking about Terrace Marshall [thinking emoji]). Instead of ruminating on Tyler Johnson, we should have been paying more attention to Rashod Bateman. Bateman originally opted out of the 2020 season but ended up playing after the Big Ten reversed course. He leapt off the screen during the opener against Michigan (9-101) and again against Illinois (10-139-1). Bateman is a contested catch king; I have previously called out his timely leaping and strength at the catch point. Bateman is also dangerous on slants and crossing patterns where he can leverage his acceleration, fearlessness and shiftiness to great effect. Rondale Moore started his career as the most exciting player in college football as a true freshman back in 2018. Disappointingly, things have mostly been downhill from there for Moore though. His sophomore season was cut short due to injury and his junior year was delayed by an undisclosed injury. Those two shortened years combined for seven games and a 64-657-2 line. Moore’s 2020 highlights were encouraging but his medicals will be more important to monitor. Moore is a dynamic playmaker whose talent is worthy of a first round pick when he’s fully healthy. After writing this blurb, I would guess that Marshall is the most likely of this bunch to land in the first round, with Bateman right there behind him, and Moore lagging behind pending his medical evaluations. (Mocking Kadarius Toney, see below, in the first has also become en vogue so he may be due for a jump up to this tier soon.)

Day Two Targets

  • Amon-Ra St. Brown

  • Tylan Wallace

  • Seth Williams

I’m happy I was able to squeeze these three into a tier together because they are my favorites as compared to their expected draft value. Said another way, I would draft these guys higher than they inevitably will be in both the NFL Draft and your rookie drafts. St. Brown averaged 7-80-1 in the shortened season and continued his high-floor run. By my rough PPR math, St. Brown has had 8+ fantasy points in 37 of 41 career games. I love how physical he is and can’t wait to see him in the NFL, dominating nickels as a strong slot. Tylan Wallace came back strong after an injury-shortened 2019 season, tallying a respectable 59-922-6. Wallace is a consensus pick for the All Catch Radius team and has ample speed and acceleration to make him a threat to stretch the defense. Seth Williams is probably my favorite receiver in the class to root for. He’s a bit boom-and-bust but when he’s on, I relish watching his hands-catching, toe-tapping, defender-hurdling style. Williams plays bigger than his sizeable 6030/211 frame so I’ll be interested to see how he measures in officially. It’s looking like St. Brown, Wallace and Williams have Day Two written all over them and will be solid investments for your fantasy team.

Regular Season Risers

  • D’wayne Eskridge

  • Elijah Moore

  • Kadarius Toney

The three players in this tier have seen a Gamestop-esque rise in their value the last few months. Using data from www.mockdraftdatabase.com, here’s how their overall ranking has gone to the moon: Eskridge from 300th to 125th, Moore from 292nd to 68th and Toney from 121st to 29th. It’s not crazy to say that these three guys might go from off the radar in the preseason to first rounders. I owe each of these three rocketing risers a closer study because I did not delve into them at all during the 2020 season. Toney is the freakiest of the bunch and cannot be stopped by single man coverage. Many of his touches are manufactured (screens, sweeps, returns) so I expect he’ll need some work to refine himself as a receiver but it’s hard to argue against somebody who can move like he can. Elijah Moore had possibly the quietest 86-1,193-8 season ever (especially when you realize that line was compiled in just eight games). He has some of the same speed and shiftiness that Toney offers but looks like a bonafide receiver in the highlight packages I viewed. The buzz around Eskridge is growing; a recent CBS mock draft had him going at 28th overall, meanwhile one from SI had him as a second rounder. Eskridge looks smaller than both Toney and Moore (or at least is about the same) and put up worse numbers (33-768-8) against lesser competition. I’ll be jumping into his tape soon because it must be spectacular. Let’s continue to monitor these guys throughout the draft process to ensure they offer some return on investment.

Undervalued, Underdrafted

  • Dyami Brown

  • Dazz Newsome

  • Ihmir Smith-Marsette

The players who land in my “Undervalued, Underdrafted” tier are Power 5 players who are solid yet unsexy prospects. Brown and Newsome were the primary targets of Sam Howell and the Tar Heels prolific passing offense in 2020. I wrote about the dynamic duo back in September ahead of their season opener. I noted that Brown is a “home run hitting downfield threat” and that proved true: 47% of Brown’s receptions went for 15+ yards and 25% went for 25+. He was most successful downfield on first down which highlights just how much their dominant rushing game opened up the passing game. Newsome, on the other hand, is more of a make-a-man-miss receiver and punt returner. Newsome has superb balance, no surprise given his punt return prowess, and succeeds in the open field. In addition to Brown and Newsome, draftniks will also be considering running backs Javonte Williams and Michael Carter: this Tar Heel fatigue is why I think the pair may end up undervalued for fantasy purposes. Ihmir Smith-Marsette may be the most underappreciated Power 5 receiver coming out this year. Smith-Marsette looks like the new wave NFL receiver to me: he’s long (6020) and fast (4.40) and can be deployed on screens or jet sweeps (he does need to put on some pounds though). He’s also a great kick returner who owns the modern Big Ten record for career kick return average (28.7). I’ll bet Smith-Marsette goes undrafted in all but the deepest leagues but I’d also bet that somebody picks him up midseason after he makes a big play. If you have an extra late rookie draft pick try to snag one of these guys to stash before they make a name for themselves in camp.

Spacey Satellites

  • Tutu Atwell

  • Amari Rodgers

  • Anthony Schwartz

The aforementioned axiom that “speed sells” returns for this tier of receivers. Chatarius “Tutu” Atwell is a sub-4.40 burner who led the ACC in receiving in 2019 (69-1,272-11) and followed that up with a solid junior year (46-625-7 in nine games). Atwell is tiny at 5090/165 but if you can get him in space he’s a big play waiting to happen. Amari Rodgers, Clemson’s leading receiver at 77-1,020-7, isn’t much taller than Atwell (5100) but packs on an extra 20+ pounds on his compact frame. Rodgers is an A-1 punt returner who could make you miss in a phone booth. He’s often typecast as an underneath receiver but he also shows the ball tracking, lower body control and strong hands to be a downfield receiver too. I would want Rodgers on my football team, I have a feeling he’ll be one of those players we realized we were sleeping on because he was outshone by his teammates. My love for Seth Williams might have created a blindspot for his teammate Anthony Schwartz. I didn’t have any preconceived notions about Schwartz when I started researching this article so I had to do a quick dive into his stats and Youtube clips. Schwartz is taller than Atwell and Rodgers, an even 6000, and looks more durable than his 179 listed weight would indicate. When he has the ball in his hands, Schwartz moves like an upright running back with the vision to utilize his blockers and make the most of his angles. Admittedly I have only watched highlights of Schwartz so I can’t say with certainty but he looks promising in those snippets. When this playmaking trio finds space, good things will happen for your fantasy lineup.

Known Unknowns

  • Nico Collins

  • Damonte Coxie

  • Sage Surratt

  • Tamorrion Terry

At one time or another over the last two years, I valued these four players higher than the consensus. Now, however, their value is at its nadir. Collins, Coxie and Surratt all opted out of the 2020 season; Terry played in six games but played through injury and ineffective quarterbacking before deciding to leave the team early. I think Terry’s was a good decision because I still believe in his size/speed combination — nothing positive would have come out of catching passes from a rotating quarterback while hobbled by a wonky knee — but the other three may have allowed others to pass them in scouts’ minds. Collins, like Terry, never realized his potential because of the poor passers the Wolverines trotted out. He has prototypical size (6040/215) and the attributes to be a starting possession receiver at the next level. Coxie, on the other hand, has shown us how dominant he can be with back-to-back seasons with 70+ receptions and 1,100+ yards. He played in two games in 2020 before ending his year early (16-175-1). I love the description I wrote for his physical play when I profiled him last spring: “he reminded me of a skilled heavyweight boxer: constantly throwing jabs to set up a future haymaker and using his size to lean on his opponent to gain leverage.” Coxie has fallen out of favor on #DraftTwitter but I’m still a believer. Sage Surratt had a surprising 2019 which ended with him eking out a 1,000 yard season before going down with a shoulder injury (66-1,001-11). He’s not fast or elusive but his size and play strength make for a good redzone receiver (10 career redzone scores). These four “known unknowns” will probably go late-ish in the NFL Draft, but don’t be surprised when they pop up on our fantasy radars and remind us of why we loved them a year or two ago.

Small School Sleepers

  • Marlon Williams

  • Marquez Stevenson

  • Warren Jackson

As I mentioned in my RB Tiers article, I would typically highlight some FCS and DII hopefuls in this section. However, most FCS teams did not play in the fall and the impending spring season is full of question marks. Instead, I’ll hit a few guys here who have excelled at the Group of 5 level. I wrote about Williams back in Week 9 and was a fan of his all-around skillset. UCF featured him frequently on screens from a stack formation and otherwise he showed up all over the formation. Williams played out in 2020 and easily eclipsed last year’s totals in four less games (71-1,039-10). He’s likely a late rounder but should catch on if given a chance. Contrary to a few of the risers listed above, Marquez Stevenson saw a precipitous drop in his NFL Draft value in 2020. Per the www.nflmockdraftdatabase.com, Stevenson was a target as high as 28th overall in mocks in the fall. Lately, he’s been all over the place, from the third round all the way down to the seventh. Houston had a strange covid-riddled season so I don’t put too much weight on Stevenson’s disappointing output (20-307-4 in five games). Stevenson will win the workout — on his most recent Freaks List, Bruce Feldman predicted 4.30 speed — and as such I expect he’ll be drafted ahead of current predictions. Warren Jackson is bound to be the next small school guy who breaks my heart. Jackson caught my eye last spring after a 77-1,119-8 junior season but unfortunately opted out of 2020 to prepare for the NFL. I fell in love then, writing “backed up deep in their own end, the Rams take a deep shot. Jackson, forty yards downfield, times his jump well and rips the ball out of the air. He lands, keeps his feet, avoids contact with the colliding defenders and gallops off. None of the pursuing tacklers make it within five yards.” I also felt that his versatility belies his stature (6060/215) and thought he could be more than just a redzone target. I’m unsure what the future brings for Jackson but I’ll be watching closely, the same goes for Williams and Stevenson.

 

Notes: Heights listed are using a notation common among scouts where the first digit corresponds to the feet, the next two digits correspond to the inches and the fourth digit corresponds to the fraction, in eighths.  So, somebody measuring 5’11” and 3/8 would be 5113.  This is helpful when trying to sort players by height. Full disclosure, I am not watching film of every single game any player plays, instead I am looking for a representative sample.  There are a lot of analysts out there who have a deeper depth of knowledge about certain players but I pride myself in a wide breadth of knowledge about many players.  When researching my articles I use a number of valuable resources. I would recommend bookmarking the below sites:

  • Stats: espn.com, sports-reference.com, pro-football-reference.com, cfbstats.com, herosports.com, fcs.football, mcubed.net, expandtheboxscore.com, washingtonpost.com
  • Recruiting: 247Sports.com, espn.com, sbnation.com, rivals.com
  • Film: 2021 NFL Draft Database by Mark Jarvis, youtube.com
  • Draft info and mocks: draftcountdown.com, draftscout.com, mattwaldmanrsp.com, draftek.com, thedraftnetwork.com, nfl.com, nflmockdraftdatabase.com
  • NFL rosters, depth charts and contract info: ourlads.com, spotrac.com
  • Draft history: drafthistory.com
  • Combine info: pro-football-reference.com, espn.com, nflcombineresults.com, mockdraftable.com
  • Season preview magazines: Phil Steele, Lindy’s, Street and Smith’s, Athlon Sports
  • Podcasts: ESPN’s First Draft, The Audible by Football Guys (specifically episodes w/ Matt Waldman), UTH Dynasty, Draft Dudes, Saturday 2 Sunday, Locked on NFL Draft, Cover 3 College Football
  • Logos & Player Media Photos: collegepressbox.com
  • Odds & Gambling Stats: vegasinsider.com

Robert F. Cowper is a freelance writer who lives in New Jersey.  He is a proud member of the Football Writers Association of America and the Fantasy Sports Writers Association.  Robert works as a certified park and 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 2021: Early RB Tiers

Updated: January 14th 2021

Throughout the offseason I will be compiling early positional tiers for the 2021 NFL Draft. In past years I’ve done early rankings but in hindsight those feel counterproductive to my ultimate goal of creating RSO’s rookie rankings that are used in the draft room. Frankly, it’s hard to change a ranking because it feels “locked in” once I put it out into the world. When I would create my early rankings I would always start by grouping the players into themed tiers first, so that’s what I will be sharing in this series. Each tier includes players whose potential and plot line feel similar to me; the sequence of tiers is indicative of a general order of expected draft value. I’ll repeat though: these are not rankings. Within each tier players are sorted alphabetically.

(Note: This article was written between January 7-13. By the time you read this it’s likely that many players will have made official announcements about whether they will enter the NFL Draft, transfer or return to school. Rumors abound about each player’s decision but we’ll know for sure by the time you read this.)

1.01 Contenders

  • Travis Etienne

  • Najee Harris

  • Javonte Williams

Two of the names in this cohort should not surprise you. Both Travis Etienne and Najee Harris would have been 1.01 contenders in the 2020 class if they came out after their junior years; and they did nothing to dispel that potential for 2021. Etienne has been my favorite running back in this class since I first saw him as a true freshman. He has speed to spare and has grown as a player to become a better pass catcher and blocker. Etienne had a good but not great season — his yards per carry was down to 5.4 while his first three seasons were all over 7.2 — but he really showed up as a receiver with 48-588-2. Harris had a fantastic season and likely edges out Etienne in most 1.01 conversations but their final order will come down to their landing spot. Harris is a beast at 6020/230 and yet is nimble on his feet and is a plus pass catcher. He had nearly 1,900 yards from scrimmage and scored 30 TDs this season. Get ready for a vociferous debate all winter long about which is the better back. If one player has a chance at upsetting the proverbial 1.01 applecart, I would say it’s Javonte Williams. He had solid production his first two years as a Tar Heel but exploded onto the national radar with a crazy six-week midseason run in 2020. In those six games, all against ACC opponents, Williams rushed for 754 yards and 11 scores. He has average or better size, speed and pass catching ability. Every season there seems to be one player who catapults themselves into the conversation for the top rookie pick and Williams might have done enough this season that a successful offseason will jump him up fantasy draft boards.  (All of this 1.01 talk is assuming you’re not playing superflex. If you are, please take Trevor Lawrence. If you’re playing in a 1 QB league the value changes so you should go RB or WR, but if I’m being honest, I’d still find it hard to pass on Lawrence and the value he could bring in the RSO format.)

Day Two Targets

  • Kenny Gainwell

  • Kylin Hill

  • Chuba Hubbard

  • Zamir White

If recent history is any indication, Day Two is typically when the running back run happens in the NFL Draft. The guys taken in that range are destined to become the late 1st and early 2nd rounders in your rookie drafts. Like a few other players featured in this article, Kenny Gainwell decided to opt out of the 2020 season and get ready for the NFL Draft. He does so with the confidence that his stellar 2019 season at Memphis will be enough to land among the top handful of prospects at the position. Memphis has had a tremendous run of producing NFL running back talent and it seems that Gainwell may be the best of the bunch. His 2019 highlights and totals are eye popping: 231 carries for 1,459 yards and 13 TDs combined with 51 receptions for 601 receiving yards and 3 receiving TDs. Gainwell is an excellent receiver and can accelerate into the secondary in a blink. He should test well which may quiet concerns about him being a one-year wonder. Kylin Hill has been on the cusp of breaking out for awhile now. His production crescendoed in 2019 as a junior when he put up a 1,350-10 season. Hill opted out after an injury in 2020 so we didn’t get to see much of him and will be relying on that 2019 tape to evaluate him. For whatever reason I never studied Kylin Hill closely so I need to fix that ASAP. Chuba Hubbard did play in 2020 and it’s likely that his average performance will cost him in terms of draft capital. Before the season I had predicted that Hubbard, a solid all-round back who can run with nuance, would be in the 1.01 conversation. He’s probably still a first round rookie pick but in terms of NFL value he may be better off returning for another season. Zamir White just can’t catch a break. The kid earned a near-perfect score as a recruit from 247Sports but endured back-to-back ACL tears which delayed the beginning of his college career. He contributed late in the 2019 season and was expected to star in 2020. He led the Bulldogs with 779-11 rushing but the season was off-kilter from the start between covid and a revolving door in the quarterback room. White will be a coveted early down runner at the next level whenever he decides to leave Athens.

Regular Season Risers

  • Michael Carter

  • Khalil Herbert

  • Jaret Patterson

The three backs I slotted here helped their NFL Draft stock immensely with their production in 2020 (ironically they are all also almost the exact same size at 5090/200). They may have started the season as being on the fringe of being draftable but now it’s possible they may have elevated themselves over some of the better-known names below. Let’s not fall too hard for recency bias though, these players will need to prove it throughout the pre-draft process as well. Michael Carter was the second head in the two-headed monster that was UNC’s rushing attack this season. In addition to 1,245-9 on the ground, Carter added 25-267-2 as a receiver (keep in mind that is in just eleven games). At 5080/199 he has a low center of gravity, and thick tree trunk-like legs, that make him a tough tackle. Carter has experience as a kick returner so I can easily see him earning a roster spot on special teams in training camp and then working his way into the offense. Admittedly, I have a blind spot for Khalil Herbert and am including him here based on his 2020 stats (1,183-8) and highlights (a very direct runner with 4.40 top end speed). Until I have a chance to study him further take Herbert’s placement with a grain of salt. The MAC played a six game season in 2020 so you’d think that Jaret Patterson didn’t have much time to wow amateur scouts like myself. You’d be wrong because he made the most of those opportunities. In mid-November he had back-to-back games with 301-4 and 409-8. That’s incredible, regardless of what level you’re playing at. Patterson led the MAC’s second-best running back, his teammate Kevin Marks, by a whopping 331 yards. His success was no fluke either: Patterson has fifteen career games with 100+ rushing yards. Patterson is small-ish, probably smaller than he’s listed, but he finds a way to get it done. A high draft pick and instant fantasy relevance may elude Patterson but I’m not going to bet against a guy who showed he can be a wildly productive high-volume running back.

Riddle-Wrapped Enigmas

  • Journey Brown

  • Jermar Jefferson

  • Trey Sermon

  • Stephen Carr

Journey Brown opted out of the 2020 season, a decision surely motivated by the 2021 NFL Draft. As a sophomore in 2019, Brown excelled down the stretch when he was the lead runner. In those last five games he averaged 118 yards per game and scored 9 TDs. Brown ticks a lot of boxes — ideal measurables at 5110/217, 4.40 speed, sublime contact balance — but he has just one game in his career where he handled 20+ carries and only three with 15+ carries. Brown has talent but I’m wary to project him too high in my rankings. After his 1,380 yard freshman season I assumed we would be talking highly of Jermar Jefferson in 2021 but an injury plagued sophomore season slowed his progress. His 6.5 yards per carry in 2020 was his best yet so maybe I should be feeling more bullish on his future fantasy value. Jefferson is a balanced back who has above average speed, elusiveness, power and balance. I wrote about Trey Sermon heading into the championship game and was looking forward to a big game to cement his rising draft stock. Sadly he got hurt on his first carry of the game and didn’t return. I still think Sermon’s slashing running style will find a home in the NFL. Oh, Stephen Carr. I gushed about this guy way back in 2017 when he was a highly touted true freshman but injuries and ineffectiveness limited his touches in the intervening years. He popped up with two scores in the Trojans’ first two games in 2020 and then had just 24 carries in the last four games. I refuse to give up on him, even if USC has.

Pass Catching Playmakers

  • Max Borghi

  • Deon Jackson

  • Isaih Pacheco

Heading into the 2020 season I was very excited about Max Borghi. I thought he could be the NFL’s next great pass catching back because he has the ability to stretch the defense horizontally before punishing would-be tacklers when he turns upfield. Unfortunately a back injury sidelined him for all but one game so it seems unlikely he makes the jump for 2021. Deon Jackson is my current pick for the out-of-nowhere fantasy relevant rookie running back in 2021. He was an unheralded 3-star recruit back in 2016 and averaged just 4.3 yards per carry in his career on some middling Duke teams. When I watched him for my Week 7 preview, I noted that he is patient but decisive. I saw fantastic skills as a receiver and saw him trusted in pass protection. I’ll be following Jackson closely in the pre-draft process to see if he starts to earn any plaudits from draft pundits. I root hard for my hometown Rutgers Scarlet Knights (although the Michigan Wolverines were my first love) so it’s exciting to finally highlight one of my favorite “choppers.” Isaih [sic] Pacheco has super lateral quickness and deploys a deadly horizontal cut at the line of scrimmage that sets him up for big runs off the edge. He’s a plus receiver and I think he’ll test well athletically. Unfortunately there’s literally zero cut-ups out there for Pacheco so I’m going off memory here and can’t wait for him to receive some well deserved exposure.

Spacey Satellites

  • Javian Hawkins

  • Pooka Williams

Hawkins and Williams are both smaller prospects who are likely to be seen as “space” players at the pro level. Both players feature blazing speed and quickness. Hawkins, listed at 5090/196, runs with a ferociousness that belies his frame. I doubt he himself is convinced he can’t be between-the-tackles runner in the NFL. I watched Hawkins against Miami back in September and was impressed with how he ran against the 17th ranked ‘Canes. Hawkins, whose nickname is Playstation because of his video game-like moves, had a career-high 16 receptions in 2020 and will need to continue to develop as a receiver as that’s likely to be a part of his role in the NFL. Pooka Williams, 5100/170, isn’t afraid of a little contact either but his game is predicated on his impressive ability to stop and change direction on a dime. He’s also an angle buster when he breaks through the second level which makes it even harder for safeties and corners to catch him. Williams played in just four games this season before opting out for family reasons; those four performances were lackluster and didn’t help his draft stock if I’m being honest. He also has a domestic violence arrest in his past so Williams comes with baggage that teams will need to unpack. I think Williams may be best served by returning to Kansas and reminding us once again why we loved watching him.

Undervalued, Underdrafted

  • Keaontay Ingram

  • Brian Robinson

  • Larry Rountree

  • CJ Verdell

The four players in this tier are Power 5 guys who I feel may be undervalued right now, and as such, will be underdrafted when it comes to your 2021 rookie drafts. Keaontay Ingram was a big cog in the Longhorns’ offense in his first two seasons on campus, coming in as a heralded 4-star recruit. Unfortunately, an ankle injury cut his 2020 season short. Ingram runs with a suddenness and forward pad lean that I think will translate to the pros. He also has excellent hands out of the backfield. If Brian Robinson were on any other team than Alabama he’d probably be an All-Conference player and find himself high atop these rankings. I’ve highlighted him a few times on The Watch List, always waiting for his breakout that never quite came. Robinson has great size at 6000/226 and I have previously noted that he runs with vision. I’ll take an educated guess that more than one team will see him as ready-made for the NFL. Perhaps most undervalued on this list is Larry Rountree. He was the main reason that recent iterations of the Mizzou Tigers weren’t even more irrelevant in the SEC. Rountree is trending upward at just the right time: in 2020 he increased his per-touch numbers, and set a career-high for both rushing touchdowns (14) and receptions (15). Rountree may not be a sexy name but to me he looks like the type of back who can stick around. I watched CJ Verdell’s opening match against Stanford this year and was impressed with his brute force running style. His signature play from the game, and the one sure to feature on his NFL Draft coverage, is a bone crunching hit he delivers to two Cardinals at the goal line to force his way in for the points. He caught two balls in that game and I thought he should have been featured more as a receiver (he did have 27 receptions as a frosh). I’m not sure that Verdell has reached his potential yet and that’s saying something for somebody who has two 1,000 yard campaigns under his belt.

Short Yardage Specialists

  • Rakeem Boyd

  • Stevie Scott

  • Master Teague

These three backs were difficult for me to place in my running back hierarchy. It’s not that these guys didn’t catch any passes in college — Boyd and Scott each have a 20+ reception season in their past — it’s that I feel their future role will be limited to a situational runner. They may get drafted above some of the aforementioned players but in terms of fantasy value they will be lacking. Vulturing some touchdowns is nice but touchdowns are difficult to predict and as such I would often lean towards a player with a better chance at reliable touches. Stevie Scott is the biggest of the bunch here (6020/231) but is likely the most limited of the trio. I liked what I saw of Boyd when I did a quick study of him early in the season, however he struggled for much of 2020. I coined a phrase to describe him: a wallop-gallop runner. I didn’t watch the season on which he was featured but he was a star on Last Chance U if you’re interested in seeing some of his back story.  I think Teague has the most natural talent of these later round options and has a chance to transcend a situational role. He has a small-ish sample size and has dealt with a number of serious injuries throughout his career (concussion, Achilles, foot) so I would actually expect him to return to Ohio State for his senior season and hopefully put together a full season.

Small School Sleepers

  • Spencer Brown

  • Brenden Knox

  • Elijah Mitchell

  • Trey Ragas

My “Small School Sleepers” would usually include some solid FCS players to watch, however we largely missed out on an FCS season. Side note: doesn’t it feel like those early season games featuring teams like Central Arkansas and Campbell were played three years ago? 24 of the 26 players featured above are all Power 5 prospects so I figured this was the spot to share some Group of Five love. Trey Ragas and Elijah Mitchell were mainstays for the Ragin’ Cajuns for the last four years. Ragas accumulated 4,001 career yards from scrimmage and 43 touchdowns; meanwhile Mitchell totaled 3,864 and 46. That’s a hell of a duo. Ragas and Mitchell popped up on The Watch List back in 2018 and 2019 but I have not recently watched them so they deserve some closer attention this offseason. Spencer Brown dazzled as a true freshman but fell out of favor with #DraftTwitter after a lackluster junior season. In a shortened 2020 senior season he put up good totals — 10 TDs, six games with 100+ yards — but I recall that he looked pedestrian for the most part in his showcase game against Miami. I’m not sure that Brown has NFL-level ability when it comes to power, speed or receiving but there’s something to be said for dur-ability and avail-ability. Way back in 2018 and 2019 I had said that Brown could be “a star in the making” and surmised that he could “find a role in the NFL as an early down runner.” I may have missed the mark there but I have a soft spot for Brown and hope he gets a shot in the NFL. Brenden Knox always makes me question my spell checker — that’s two Es and no As please. Knox capitalized on the increased attention at the beginning of the season when most of the Power 5 was still idle, averaging 112 yards per game and scoring nine times in his first six games. I see a back with the jump and the juice to get the edge and the power to move the pile. As a junior with two more years of eligibility we may not see him hit the draft in 2021 but he’s somebody we should study closely when he does.

 

Notes: Heights listed are using a notation common among scouts where the first digit corresponds to the feet, the next two digits correspond to the inches and the fourth digit corresponds to the fraction, in eighths.  So, somebody measuring 5’11” and 3/8 would be 5113.  This is helpful when trying to sort players by height. Full disclosure, I am not watching film of every single game any player plays, instead I am looking for a representative sample.  There are a lot of analysts out there who have a deeper depth of knowledge about certain players but I pride myself in a wide breadth of knowledge about many players.  When researching my articles I use a number of valuable resources. I would recommend bookmarking the below sites:

  • Stats: espn.com, sports-reference.com, pro-football-reference.com, cfbstats.com, herosports.com, fcs.football, mcubed.net, expandtheboxscore.com, washingtonpost.com
  • Recruiting: 247Sports.com, espn.com, sbnation.com, rivals.com
  • Film: 2021 NFL Draft Database by Mark Jarvis, youtube.com
  • Draft info and mocks: draftcountdown.com, draftscout.com, mattwaldmanrsp.com, draftek.com, thedraftnetwork.com, nfl.com, nflmockdraftdatabase.com
  • NFL rosters, depth charts and contract info: ourlads.com, spotrac.com
  • Draft history: drafthistory.com
  • Combine info: pro-football-reference.com, espn.com, nflcombineresults.com, mockdraftable.com
  • Season preview magazines: Phil Steele, Lindy’s, Street and Smith’s, Athlon Sports
  • Podcasts: ESPN’s First Draft, The Audible by Football Guys (specifically episodes w/ Matt Waldman), UTH Dynasty, Draft Dudes, Saturday 2 Sunday, Locked on NFL Draft, Cover 3 College Football
  • Logos & Player Media Photos: collegepressbox.com
  • Odds & Gambling Stats: vegasinsider.com

Robert F. Cowper is a freelance writer who lives in New Jersey.  He is a proud member of the Football Writers Association of America and the Fantasy Sports Writers Association.  Robert works as a certified park and 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 2021: Championship Game Preview

Updated: January 10th 2021

Welcome to The Watch List for the 2021 NFL Draft season, a resource to help RSO owners identify the players from the college game that deserve your attention.  To view my observations, follow me on Twitter @robertfcowper.  Check back throughout the season as The Watch List will preview the prospects you should be watching each week so you know who will be fantasy relevant and worth your valuable draft capital.

Well, we made it. The 2020 college football season was an interesting ride from start to finish, full of unexpected hurdles and plenty of last minute gameplan changes. It’s fun to debate the merits of a 4-team playoff but I think it’s fair to say that we got two deserving teams in the championship. Alabama, as usual, stood out among the SEC and added another chapter to the story of Nick Saban’s dynasty. Ohio State, controversially, has played half as many games as Alabama but proved they belong with a convincing win against Clemson in the semi-finals. Both teams are loaded with NFL talent on both sides of the ball. As is my custom on The Watch List, below I am sharing the draft-eligible offensive skill position players you should be keeping an eye on in the game. Much of these players are “name brand” guys so I have also included a few under the radar honorable mentions at the end. (In true 2020 style I’ll share a familiar caveat: it’s possible that players mentioned in this preview are ruled out of the game for covid-related reasons between writing and publication.)

Mac Jones, QB, Alabama

Mac Jones started the 2020 season mostly as an unknown quantity to fans like myself. He played well enough in relief of Tua Tagovailoa in 2019, but it was a small-ish sample size and he lacked the recruiting pedigree of typical Alabama stars. So, it was fair to question whether he could lead the Tide to greatness. Jones put the questions to rest quickly after a second game statement win over Texas A&M. He ultimately ended with 4,036 passing yards and 36 TDs to just 4 INTs. Jones came in third in Heisman voting but received the consolation prize of seeing his favorite target, DeVonta Smith, win the trophy. Jones reads the field well and throws a tremendous deep ball that is accurate and perfectly placed. If he comes out he’ll probably end up being a late first rounder but another season on campus might elevate him even higher.

Najee Harris, RB, Alabama

For non-superflex leagues, Najee Harris has made the best case this season for the 1.01 pick. Harris is a bear to bring down, fully utilizing his 6020/230 build in goal line and short yardage situations. Harris led the nation in rushing touchdowns this season (24) and was near the top in attempts (229) and yards (1,387); he is also a big part of the passing game (36-346-3). Based on his size and his dominant performance this season, it’s easy to compare Harris to former Alabama star Derrick Henry but Harris is a more balanced back than Henry. I have a years-long love of Clemson’s Travis Etienne but even I need to admit that it may be time to put Harris atop the 2020 running back class. Ohio State had the nation’s second-best rushing defense (just 89.0 yards per game) so we’ll get a great showcase game for Harris to end on.

DeVonta Smith, WR, Alabama

DeVonta Smith racked up the end-of-season accolades: SEC Offensive Player of the Year, AP Player of the Year, Biletnikoff Award, Maxwell Award, Walter Camp Award, Heisman Trophy, etc. Let me be the first last to tell you that DeVonta Smith is good. Smith is an innate route runner, he has great body control at the boundary, and he is quick and shifty after the catch. If Smith was twenty pounds heavier, he would probably be the highest rated receiver prospect in a decade. The biggest question about Smith is whether his size (6010/175) will reduce his impact in the NFL. #DraftTwitter is full of hot takes but I won’t add to them because Smith has been dominant for 2+ years and has never missed a game in college. Until he proves otherwise, Smith is my WR1 over LSU’s Ja’Marr Chase who sat out this season. We should relish the chance to watch DeVonta Smith in crimson one last time.

Jaylen Waddle, WR, Alabama

When I started writing this preview I did not include Waddle on my list because I didn’t think there was any shot he would play after suffering a fractured ankle earlier in the season. As of Sunday morning, word is that he may play though so he’s a necessary inclusion on this list. If Waddle does see the field it might only take one touch for him to make a difference. Waddle is the ultimate low-volume, high-impact player. For his career he averages just 4.75 touches per game (receptions, rushing attempts and returns) but an impressive 88.75 all-purpose yards per game. Like Smith, Waddle is undersized at 5100/180 but he’s a dynamo when he has the ball in his hands. He’s a true track star in football pads. Speed sells in the NFL and as such I expect Waddle to be a late first rounder at worst come April. If Waddle is able to play and prove he’s fully healthy it will only further improve his draft stock.

Justin Fields, QB, Ohio State

Whether he’s drafted 2nd or 3rd overall on April 29th, the team that drafts Justin Fields will be getting a cornerstone for their franchise for years to come. Fields is still my QB2 in this class and the toughness he showed in the semi-final against Clemson only solidified that for me. Sure, the six passing touchdowns were gaudy but it’s not the first time this season that he’s put up eye-popping numbers. In just seven games, Fields has scored 26 total TDs. Fields is listed at 6030/228 but looks even bigger than that on the screen. He’s a smart runner, reads the zone-read well and is a leader on and off the field. I love watching him sling it and that’s tough to admit as a lifelong Michigan fan.

Trey Sermon, RB, Ohio State

Leading into the 2019 season I was high on Trey Sermon. I thought he was the better of the two backs for the Sooners, over Kennedy Brooks, but he found himself on the wrong side of the time share. Sermon moved to Ohio State as a grad transfer for this season and now that he’s more comfortable in the offense he’s excelled. In the last three games against Michigan State, Northwestern and Clemson, Sermon has compiled 636 rushing yards and 4 TDs. His 331 yards against Northwestern were the second-most in a single game this year in the FBS. Sermon is a bit lanky at 6010/215 so he may not have the prototypical dimensions for a three down back in the NFL but I don’t think that will be his role. I believe Sermon can be a successful change of pace back in a zone running scheme where he can use his first-step quickness to get upfield. In past studies, I thought Sermon could also be a decent pass protector and pass catcher too. Sermon’s year-one role may only translate to a late round rookie draft flyer but I’d be interested in taking the chance because I think Sermon is better than he’s ever gotten credit for.

Chris Olave, WR, Ohio State

Between Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson, Justin Fields has a powerful one-two punch at receiver. Wilson, a sophomore, isn’t draft eligible yet so we’ll focus on Olave here. Olave is a crafty route runner who inevitably finds a way to get open for his quarterback. He’s not really a yards-after-catch threat but that doesn’t matter if he catches it on the run with his straight line speed. I noticed that Olave seems to modulate his momentum well as he tracks a deep ball, allowing him to slow down and get under the ball to catch it in stride. Receivers will often outrun the ball and then come back to it, but Olave manages to catch most of his deep balls while still moving forward which translates to more touchdowns. I don’t think I’ve ever noticed that by a receiver and am now excited to watch that closely during the championship game. Olave is just a junior so we don’t know yet if he’ll declare early but if he comes out ESPN’s Todd McShay predicts he’ll be a first rounder.

Jeremy Ruckert, TE, Ohio State

I recently wrote about Jeremy Ruckert in my TE tiers article and described him as underused in the Buckeyes attack. Between drafting that sentiment and publishing my article, Ruckert went out and scored twice against Clemson in the semi-finals. He’s undoubtedly a block-first tight end but he does have a knack for the red zone. I foresee Ruckert getting drafted ahead of some recognizable pass-catching tight end names because he will have an instant impact as a blocker.

Honorable Mentions

  • Brian Robinson, RB, Alabama: Robinson has been a four-year contributor for the Tide who should get a look in the NFL. He’s been in Harris’ shadow this season but shined when given the chance against Arkansas with 17 touches for 76 yards and 3 TDs. I profiled Robinson heading into the season and wondered if he could have a Josh Jacobs-esque rise after being a bit player for three years.
  • Miller Forristall, TE, Alabama: I hear Brad Nessler saying “Miller Forristall” in my dreams. It feels like he’s been around forever (actually, just since 2016) and yet had his best season in 2020 with 23 grabs for 253 yards. About half of his production has come in the last three gotta-have-them games so I’m thinking he’ll figure in this one too. Forristall may not have the fantasy upside as recent ‘Bama tight ends like OJ Howard or Irv Smith but he’ll be playing on Sundays.
  • Master Teague, RB, Ohio State: Master Teague, all All-Name Team nominee, started the season as the Buckeyes’ bellcow. Teague racked up 380 yards and 6 TDs in the first four games. He got hurt in the Big Ten Championship game trying to hurdle a defender and it’s unclear if he’ll suit up for this one. Teague is a former 4-star recruit with a bowling ball body at 5110/225. He’s a straight ahead runner who pairs well with the aforementioned Trey Sermon. If he goes pro I would expect Teague to get some attention as an early down runner.

 

Notes: Heights listed are using a notation common among scouts where the first digit corresponds to the feet, the next two digits correspond to the inches and the fourth digit corresponds to the fraction, in eighths.  So, somebody measuring 5’11” and 3/8 would be 5113.  This is helpful when trying to sort players by height. Full disclosure, I am not watching film of every single game any player plays, instead I am looking for a representative sample.  There are a lot of analysts out there who have a deeper depth of knowledge about certain players but I pride myself in a wide breadth of knowledge about many players.  When researching my articles I use a number of valuable resources. I would recommend bookmarking the below sites:

  • Stats: espn.com, sports-reference.com, pro-football-reference.com, cfbstats.com, herosports.com, fcs.football, mcubed.net, expandtheboxscore.com, washingtonpost.com
  • Recruiting: 247Sports.com, espn.com, sbnation.com, rivals.com
  • Film: 2021 NFL Draft Database by Mark Jarvis, youtube.com
  • Draft info and mocks: draftcountdown.com, draftscout.com, mattwaldmanrsp.com, draftek.com, thedraftnetwork.com, nfl.com, nflmockdraftdatabase.com
  • NFL rosters, depth charts and contract info: ourlads.com, spotrac.com
  • Draft history: drafthistory.com
  • Combine info: pro-football-reference.com, espn.com, nflcombineresults.com, mockdraftable.com
  • Season preview magazines: Phil Steele, Lindy’s, Street and Smith’s, Athlon Sports
  • Podcasts: ESPN’s First Draft, The Audible by Football Guys (specifically episodes w/ Matt Waldman), UTH Dynasty, Draft Dudes, Saturday 2 Sunday, Locked on NFL Draft, Cover 3 College Football
  • Logos & Player Media Photos: collegepressbox.com
  • Odds & Gambling Stats: vegasinsider.com

Robert F. Cowper is a freelance writer who lives in New Jersey.  He is a proud member of the Football Writers Association of America and the Fantasy Sports Writers Association.  Robert works as a certified park and 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 2021: Early TE Tiers

Updated: January 5th 2021

Throughout the offseason I will be compiling early positional tiers for the 2021 NFL Draft. In past years I’ve done early rankings but in hindsight those feel counterproductive to my ultimate goal of creating RSO’s rookie rankings that are used in the draft room. Frankly, it’s hard to change a ranking because it feels “locked in” once I put it out into the world. When I would create my early rankings I would always start by grouping the players into themed tiers first, so that’s what I will be sharing in this series. Each tier includes players whose potential and plot line feel similar to me; the sequence of tiers is indicative of a general order of expected draft value. I’ll repeat though: these are not rankings. Within each tier players are sorted alphabetically.

Surefire First Rounders

  • Pat Freiermuth

  • Kyle Pitts

Calm down, calm down. The order of Pat Freiermuth above Kyle Pitts is not a hot take. Remember: these are not rankings. Kyle Pitts is BY FAR the top tight end prospect in this class. He was one of three in the conversation at the beginning of the season and is the last man standing now atop the 2021 tight end class. Back in Week 5, I wrote that “nobody did more for their professional prospects in Week 4 than Florida TE Kyle Pitts.” Well now we can extrapolate that even further to say that nobody improved their NFL draft stock as much as Pitts did in 2020. He went from a borderline first rounder to having a shot at a Top 10 pick come April. Pitts is the quintessential receiving tight end for the current NFL metagame. He can be dominant at the catch point, has solid hands, good body control and separation speed. His 43-770-12 line in eight games played is fantastic and does not even fully illustrate what a beast he’s been. I think Pitts will be a late first rounder in your 2021 rookie drafts and could sneak up a few spots depending on landing spot. Pat Freiermuth probably would have been my pick as the TE1 before the season started. In the Spring, I called him a “zone buster” as a receiver who makes himself an easy target for his quarterback. I didn’t see much of him during that study as an in-line blocker but I liked what he did to seal running lanes from the slot. Unfortunately we only got four games of Freiermuth in 2020 which turned out to be a lost season for the Nittany Lions for a litany of reasons. Freiermuth had surgery in November so we’ll need to check on his recovery leading up to the NFL Combine. If he’s healthy, he’ll be a late first rounder in the NFL Draft and a second rounder in your rookie draft.

Preseason Shortlist Picks

  • Matt Bushman

  • Jake Ferguson

  • Brevin Jordan

  • Charlie Kolar

Matt Bushman has been a crush of mine dating back to the spring of 2018 when I first wrote about him. It’s a shame he suffered an Achilles injury before the 2020 season started, it would have been so much fun to watch him ascend alongside QB Zach Wilson. I last studied Bushman heading into the 2019 season and at that time I described him as a a “versatile tight end” who was “one of the best blockers I’ve seen as an underclassman” and who was also “a good route runner.” I’ve seen conflicting information on the interwebs about whether Bushman has declared as of early January. I expect he’ll go pro but keep an eye on his status and his pre-draft workouts because Achilles injuries typically require a lengthy recovery. Jake Ferguson’s status for 2021 has just been announced as I write this: he’ll be returning to Madison for another season with the Badgers. I watched both of Ferguson’s first games of the season versus Illinois and Michigan and was very impressed with his 11-123-4 output. Those initial games ultimately were his best of the season though, so perhaps it’s not a surprise he’ll be back. I had originally included Ferguson on this list because I felt he was going to be one of the most balanced tight end prospects in the class. Speaking of balanced tight ends, I was encouraged by just how often Brevin Jordan featured as an in-line blocker when I studied him this past spring. I didn’t watch enough Miami ball this season to have a feel for whether his blocking improved to an NFL level. He was the team’s leading receiver on a yards per catch basis (15.2) and receiving scores (7); his 576 receiving yards and 38 receptions were second-best on the squad. Jordan ended the season on a high note: torching the Oklahoma State defense for 8-96-2 during a furious comeback attempt. Brevin Jordan is a bit undersized (6030/245) to be a blocking tight end in the NFL but there’s surely no question about his ability to be a playmaking receiver. Charlie Kolar, a junior, has been QB Brock Purdy’s favorite target over the last two seasons. During that span, Kolar has an impressive 95 receptions for 1,188 and 14 TDs which lead the Cyclones. Kolar stood out in the Big 12 Championship against Oklahoma. He had two great downfield catches where he went up and snagged the ball away from his body with soft-strong hands. He’s got a huge body at 6060/257 and looks ready for the NFL but he’s yet to declare. If he does come out, I’d expect Kolar to be a Day Two consideration.

Regular Season Risers

  • Cary Angeline

  • Hunter Long

  • Kenny Yeboah

The three guys on this list were not on my tight end radar to start the season but it’s time for that to change. Angeline is a transfer from USC who never recorded a catch for the Trojans. In 26 career games with the Wolf Pack, Angeline has 11 games where he scored or had at least four receptions. That’s solid, reliable production for a low-volume target. (I bet you NFL fantasy players would kill for that consistency from every tight end not named Travis Kelce or George Kittle.) In highlights it looks like Angeline, who is listed at 6070, has the wingspan of a pterodactyl so it’ll be fun to see his combine measurements. Hunter Long played eleven games for BC in each of the last two seasons. In 2019, he posted a solid 28-509-2 stat line. In 2020, he burst out of the gates and eclipsed those totals with a 57-685-5 tally. In those first four games — against Duke, Texas State, North Carolina and Pittsburgh — Long had 31 grabs for 363 yards. Surely that must have been the second best start to the season among tight ends, except for the aforementioned Kyle Pitts. The clips I watched showed Long solely as a big slot receiver rather than an in-line blocker so I’m not yet sure if he’s the complete package but will study him further this offseason. Last up in this section is Ole Miss TE Kenny Yeboah. Yeboah is a grad transfer from Temple. In his four seasons as an Owl he was only an occasional target so his 27-524-6 output in 2020 is a positive outlier. I watched Kenny Yeboah’s film against Alabama and I came away very impressed. He looked like a rare combination of an athletic yards-after-catch receiver who is also an able blocker. Like Long, he’ll warrant a deeper dive over the winter.

Underutilized, Underdrafted

  • Nick Eubanks

  • Peyton Hendershot

  • Jeremy Ruckert

This trio from the Big Ten were tough to categorize. I wanted to include them but didn’t feel that they fit into my other categories. I felt the through line of their stories were being underutilized or underappreciated in college, leading to them being underdrafted at the NFL level. Eubanks (Michigan) and Ruckert (Ohio State) were both 4-star recruits according to ESPN; both are also 6050 and 250+. Unfortunately, both are similar in another way: they have played a limited number of college games and have just 72 combined receptions. Eubanks had a strong 2019 season where he grabbed 25 passes for 243 yards and 4 scores but he was outshone at times this year by redshirt frosh Erick All and ended with just 10-117-1. As a Michigan fan I have been pulling for Eubanks to become a star but it just never happened; I hope he gets a shot at the next level. Jeremy Ruckert is a block-first red zone threat who has just 27 career receptions. Much of Ruckert’s production, including 8 of his 9 career touchdowns and half of his receptions, have come from within twenty five yards of paydirt. Ruckert had just 9 grabs in the 2020 regular season but added 3-55-2 in the semi-final against Clemson. If he comes out early, ending on an upswing will be good for his pro portfolio; if he returns, a bigger role in the offense would help us solidify his evaluation. Indiana’s Peyton Hendershot lands on this list because he’s underappreciated by #DraftTwitter more so than because he’s underutilized by his team. Hendershot has significantly more career receptions than Eubanks and Ruckert (90 vs 45 vs 27) and yet there’s no film out there to watch to give him the look he deserves. The 2020 version of the Hoosiers’ offense really undercut Hendershot’s downfield targets. In 2019 he averaged 12.0 yards per reception but in 2020 he’s notched barely half that (6.6).  Regardless, Hendershot was a productive piece of a surprisingly successful Indiana squad in 2020, catching 23 balls for 151 yards and 4 TDs. Last year that 12.0 average turned 52 catches into 622 yards and four scores. Underappreciated plus underdrafted could equal late round rookie draft steal.

Small School Sleepers

  • Trae Barry

  • Zach Davidson

  • Cole Turner

Well, it wouldn’t be a draft preview article by yours truly without some deep sleeper suggestions. I first introduced my readers to Central Missouri’s Zach Davidson back in May when I shined the spotlight on some FCS and DII sleepers. Davidson’s size is what caught my eye first (6070/245) but I was further impressed by his stats and the limited highlights I was able to find. Davidson was a frequent downfield target and also served as the team’s punter (trick play possibilities!). Davidson has announced that he is ready to move onto the pros so watch him closely. Two years ago I fell in love with Stetson TE Donald Parham who went onto lead the FCS in receiving yards per game (as a tight end!). This year, I will include Jacksonville State’s Trae Barry on my list as an FCS hopeful to monitor. As of this writing, Barry leads the FCS in receiving yards per game for the position (60.0) and has a career line of 80-1,316-5. Barry is listed at 6070/245, identical to Davidson; and like Parham, Barry is lanky with a looping gait that doesn’t look fast but covers ground. I watched some film of his matchup against North Alabama and I think Barry’s upside is being a situational red zone target. He’s unlikely to become fantasy relevant but when he scores a random touchdown in Week 9 next year you’ll remember this article! My last small school sleeper, Cole Turner of Nevada, is a bit of a unicorn. The only easily searchable clips on Youtube for him, as of early December, are two highlights uploaded by his uncle and a number of high school profiles. Luckily for us, Turner is active on Twitter retweeting clips of his best catches. This I do know: he’s a converted receiver with a big body (6060/240) who has contested catch skills. Turner has just nine games of experience at tight end so let’s not jump to conclusions yet but he excites me. Ending the season with a five game streak of 4+ receptions and 1+ touchdown also excites me. Since he is just a junior, and this year doesn’t count against eligibility, we could see Turner for another two years before the NFL Combine comes calling.

 

Notes: Heights listed are using a notation common among scouts where the first digit corresponds to the feet, the next two digits correspond to the inches and the fourth digit corresponds to the fraction, in eighths.  So, somebody measuring 5’11” and 3/8 would be 5113.  This is helpful when trying to sort players by height. Full disclosure, I am not watching film of every single game any player plays, instead I am looking for a representative sample.  There are a lot of analysts out there who have a deeper depth of knowledge about certain players but I pride myself in a wide breadth of knowledge about many players.  When researching my articles I use a number of valuable resources. I would recommend bookmarking the below sites:

  • Stats: espn.com, sports-reference.com, pro-football-reference.com, cfbstats.com, herosports.com, fcs.football, mcubed.net, expandtheboxscore.com, washingtonpost.com
  • Recruiting: 247Sports.com, espn.com, sbnation.com, rivals.com
  • Film: 2021 NFL Draft Database by Mark Jarvis, youtube.com
  • Draft info and mocks: draftcountdown.com, draftscout.com, mattwaldmanrsp.com, draftek.com, thedraftnetwork.com, nfl.com, nflmockdraftdatabase.com
  • NFL rosters, depth charts and contract info: ourlads.com, spotrac.com
  • Draft history: drafthistory.com
  • Combine info: pro-football-reference.com, espn.com, nflcombineresults.com, mockdraftable.com
  • Season preview magazines: Phil Steele, Lindy’s, Street and Smith’s, Athlon Sports
  • Podcasts: ESPN’s First Draft, The Audible by Football Guys (specifically episodes w/ Matt Waldman), UTH Dynasty, Draft Dudes, Saturday 2 Sunday, Locked on NFL Draft, Cover 3 College Football
  • Logos & Player Media Photos: collegepressbox.com
  • Odds & Gambling Stats: vegasinsider.com

Robert F. Cowper is a freelance writer who lives in New Jersey.  He is a proud member of the Football Writers Association of America and the Fantasy Sports Writers Association.  Robert works as a certified park and recreation professional, specializing in youth sports, when he isn’t acting as commissioner for his many fantasy sports leagues.

More Analysis by Bob Cowper