The Watch List 2021: Early QB Tiers

Updated: November 18th 2020

Throughout the rest of the season 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.

Future Pro Bowlers

  • Justin Fields, Ohio State

  • Trevor Lawrence, Clemson

Almost everybody in the football world — NFL front offices, amateur draftniks like myself, fantasy football players — has had their eye on the 2021 NFL Draft for years. The crown jewel of the draft class, and the reason everybody has been talking about this draft for three years, is undoubtedly Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence. Between he and Ohio State’s Justin Fields, this quarterback class is top heavy with a sizable tier break between the top two and the field. Lawrence might have been the first overall pick out of high school, let alone after his successful freshman and sophomore seasons. So far in 2020, Lawrence has continued to play at a high level and has been even more efficient than the last two campaigns; his completion percentage, yards per attempt, TD:INT ratio and passer rating have all improved. Lawrence is a once-every-ten-year prospect who mixes supreme size, plus athleticism, and a quiet confidence. He has missed two games to date after testing positive for covid, but we have no reason to believe he won’t fully recover and star once again in the College Football Playoff.

It’s hard to believe, but Justin Fields is off to an even hotter start in 2020 than Lawrence. Through three games, Fields has accounted for more touchdowns (13) than he’s thrown incompletions (11). His college career started out a bit rocky at Georgia before transferring to Ohio State, but it’s clear the move worked out perfectly for Fields. Off the field — pun intended — Justin Fields is a leader who helped ensure the Big Ten played in 2020.

I fully expect Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields to be the top two picks in the 2021 NFL Draft and look forward to cheering them on for years to come.

Surefire First Rounders

  • Trey Lance, North Dakota State

  • Zach Wilson, BYU

Prior to the start of the season, Trey Lance was the consensus QB3 in this draft class. Unfortunately for Lance fans like myself, we only got to see him play once this season due to the patchwork nature of the FCS football season. That has opened the door for BYU’s Zach Wilson to be the next off the board.

If you looked up the term “passing efficiency” in the dictionary you’ll see an entry that says: See Lance, Trey. In seventeen games as a starter, Lance has thrown 30 passing TDs to just a single INT. For good measure he’s also added 16 rushing TDs. Two important notes, 1) Lance is playing against a lower level of opponent in the FCS, and 2) he has a small sample size of starts. But, his skill is apparent when you watch the tape. When I recently wrote about Lance I ended by saying, “Lance oozes natural talent, confidence and charisma that has me as excited as I was when studying Patrick Mahomes back in 2017.” Trey Lance still has a lot to prove during the draft process but he’ll be a first rounder and I predict he will climb back up overall rankings once teams start seeing him in person.

Zach Wilson came on strong midseason in 2018 and earned attention from #DraftTwitter. His 2019 season was a bit of a disappointment though, including missing some time to injury. 2020 has been a revelation for Wilson and the undefeated Cougars. When I previewed Wilson heading into Week 1, I quipped that “he has a bit of a ‘je ne sais quoi’ about him.” Wilson keeps plays alive, is a threat to pickup chunk yardage with his legs, and has a knack for making big plays. Like Lance, Wilson hasn’t faced the toughest competition this year but he’s been impressive nonetheless. I think there’s too much mustang in Wilson for him to be a day one NFL starter but his intangibles and raw ability will make him a late first at worst.

Preseason Shortlist Picks

  • Tanner Morgan, Minnesota

  • Jamie Newman, Georgia/Wake Forest

  • Brock Purdy, Iowa State

  • Kyle Trask, Florida

This next grouping comprises four players who I had high hopes for heading into the 2020 season and whose current draft value is all over the place now. Jamie Newman, a dual threat with great size who in 2019 led Wake Forest to one of its best seasons in recent history, opted out. He’ll need to wow NFL teams at the combine and throughout the predraft process. Perhaps Tanner Morgan should have opted out as well because it’s been a rough start to the season for him and the Gophers. After a strong sophomore season, Morgan was a popular pick for an under the radar pocket passer prospect but I suspect his stock is sliding now. I haven’t had a chance to watch much Brock Purdy this season, but from what I have seen it does not appear that he took the step forward that I hoped for. Purdy and the Cyclones are atop the Big 12 right now so he’ll have two more statement games remaining: one against Texas on Black Friday and again in the Big 12 Championship game.

Of the four prospects in this tier, Kyle Trask has clearly done the most to improve his 2021 draft stock. The Gators are currently the favorites to represent the SEC East in the conference championship. The reason they are in the driver’s seat for the division is that the unflappable Trask led Florida to a resounding 44-28 win over Georgia; Trask threw for a career-best 474 yards and tossed 4 TDs. He leads the NCAA in touchdown passes (28) and has not had fewer than four in a game this season. Against Arkansas last weekend, Trask threw for 6 TDs for the second time this season. His unmatched production this season surely has him in the hunt for the Heisman. I was critical of him in the spring, but after what I’ve seen this season Trask feels like a high floor prospect who has a shot at being a first rounder.

Regular Season Risers

  • Mac Jones, Alabama

  • Kellen Mond, Texas A&M

  • Desmond Ridder, Cincinnati

The three passers in this cohort are my picks to be the biggest risers when we compare their preseason and postseason draft values. Because of that, I thought it felt appropriate to place their tier here, just after the players we were talking about most in the preseason.

Mac Jones has lit the SEC on fire in his short stint so far as the starter. He’s leading the conference in a number of metrics including yards per attempt and passer rating. Sure, he has better targets than some NFL teams but he delivers them an accurate deep ball. Jones puts good touch on his ball and loves to pump fake (which is a skill I love seeing in college quarterbacks). Jones might also be the rare player who comes in bigger than his listed 6020/214 measurables. He is only a junior, and since this year won’t count against his eligibility, Jones could stay on at Tuscaloosa for another two seasons even with his trend line pointing due north.

Conversely to Jones, Aggies’ QB Kellen Mond is a veteran fourth year starter with 28 career wins. Mond has led A&M to a surprising 5-1 start and a #5 ranking. Unfortunately, the Aggies lost to Alabama earlier in the year so they would need a two-loss implosion from the Tide to win the division. Wins against LSU and Auburn would surely signal who is next-best in the division though. Kellen Mond’s arm, toughness and athleticism always jump off the screen when I watch him so I’m not sure why he isn’t rated higher by draft fans, maybe it’s something I’m not seeing with his mechanics. If there’s a “why the hell was this guy drafted that late” player on this list five years from now, it’ll be Mond.

I just recently wrote about Desmond Ridder and how he looks like “the whole package” to me. Since I published that, all Ridder did was account for four scores in a blowout 55-17 win over East Carolina. Don’t sleep on Desmond Ridder.

Winners with Question Marks

  • Ian Book, Notre Dame

  • Shane Buechele, SMU

  • Sam Ehlinger, Texas

  • D’Eriq King, Miami

This quartet is my biggest question mark when it comes to draft value. Somebody with the athletic gifts that D’Eriq King possesses could have a meteoric rise to the first round if he finishes strong and impresses at the combine (although I think it’s safe to say at this point that we’re not looking at another Kyler Murray-esque leap to first overall). His combination of deep ball arm, speed and elusiveness is rare but I’m sure teams will question his size and durability.

Shane Buechele and Sam Ehlinger, former teammates at Texas, are both flat out winners. Buechele found his forever home at SMU where he currently owns a 17-5 record as the starter. He currently leads the FBS in a number of passing stat categories. Buechele is a leader and has helped rehab the image of a school that’s long been associated with past transgressions. Ehlinger’s record of 28-15 isn’t as impressive but he’s led the Longhorns to so many victories by sheer force of will. I’ve never watched Ehlinger and thought “wow, he’s a great passer” but I have thought “wow, I’d love to have that guy on my team.”

Admittedly, I have been a debbie downer when it comes to Ian Book through the years. I haven’t quite come around on him as a pro prospect — I always feel like I’m waiting for a mistake — but I cannot argue with his performance in this upside down season. College football is better when Notre Dame is in the playoff hunt and we have Book to thank for that (along with Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah of course).

I’ve casually watched these four play in — and win — a lot of college football games. I will need to give them their due film study in the offseason to see if they have the skills to push into Day Two territory.

Transfers Forging a New Path

  • KJ Costello, Mississippi State

  • Feleipe Franks, Arkansas

  • Brandon Peters, Illinois

These three players are each starting for a different Power 5 squad than they started their career with. I’m always interested in closely watching big-name transfer quarterbacks to see how the change of scenery impacts their chance at stardom.

In the case of Brandon Peters, he’s probably wishing he had stayed at Michigan. The Wolverines are off to an awful start and a good portion of the blame rests on new signal caller Joe Milton who is not yet ready for prime time. That could have been Peters’ job if he had stayed. I’ve been a fan of Peters since I saw him live in his first game action in Ann Arbor and still think he has an outside shot at making an NFL roster. Unfortunately, we haven’t seen much of Peters yet this season because of a positive covid test.

Both KJ Costello and Feleipe Franks have caught my attention at different points this year. In his first game for Mississippi State, Costello completed 36 of 60 passes for 623 yards and 5 TDs. Things have gone down hill for Costello since then though: he has just one more touchdown pass to eight interceptions and missed the last game with a head injury. Costello has a prior history of concussions so that is a bit concerning. Feleipe Franks started the season with a middling outing against Georgia in the season opener but has been on a tear since (with the team going 3-3 in those six). In those six contests against some of the SEC’s best, Franks has 15 touchdowns and just one pick; he’s also adding important yards on the ground too.

All three of these guys were highly rated 4-star recruits with NFL size and above average physical traits. Some NFL team is bound to give them a shot as a late rounder as a project quarterback.

Riddle Wrapped Enigmas

  • Adrian Martinez, Nebraska

  • McKenzie Milton, UCF

  • Kenny Pickett, Pitt

If we were choosing up teams for a Thanksgiving day pickup game, the three guys on this list would be in the running for an early pick. Martinez has a ton of natural talent but has never put it together in Scott Frost’s offense. In fact, as I was working on this article, Martinez was sidelined in favor of Luke McCaffrey. If the Martinez era is officially over in Lincoln, I hope we see Martinez transfer somewhere else for one last hurrah. Speaking of Scott Frost, McKenzie Milton was his prolific quarterback during that magical undefeated 2017 season at UCF. Milton suffered a catastrophic leg injury in 2018 and is hoping to return to the field before he ends his college career. Between the injury and his small frame, it’s unlikely Milton gets any NFL Draft love but I’ll be rooting for him to complete his comeback. Kenny Pickett has a cult-like following and I’m one of those fans. He hasn’t truly shown us NFL-worthy traits but he’s a fun guy to watch and has been solid for Pitt. Pickett has a swagger and confidence that comes through whenever I see him play.

These three players may never see a regular season snap in the NFL but I’ll bet we see some preseason highlights from them whenever they attempt to make the jump to the pros.

Small School Sleepers

  • Zerrick Cooper, Jacksonville State

  • Aqeel Glass, Alabama A&M

  • Levi Lewis, Lousiana-Lafayette

  • Zac Thomas, Appalachian State

The four guys in this final tier should be priority free agents if not a seventh round flyer. If given the chance they just might be able to make an NFL roster. Although it would take some crazy dominoes to fall for them to be fantasy relevant any time soon, I think you should still file their names away.

Heading into 2019, I identified Zerrick Cooper as my pick to win the Walter Payton Award, the FCS equivalent of the Heisman. Cooper wasn’t named an award finalist but he did throw for over 3,400 yards and scored 34 total touchdowns. Against Florida State earlier this season, Jacksonville State held a lead at halftime and scared Seminoles fans half to death; Cooper completed 22 of 30 passes for 232 yards in the game, adding a score on the ground. Cooper has good size at 6030/225 and is a transfer from Clemson.

Unfortunately we did not get to see Aqeel Glass at all this season since the SWAC moved their season to the spring. I highlighted Glass a few months ago and chose him as my top small school quarterback sleeper (Cooper would be a close second). He’s tall (6050) with good pocket mobility. He was near the top of the FCS in key passing stats in 2019 and I’d expect the same in 2020 if he takes the field.

Levi Lewis and Zach Thomas are bound to be compared to each other. They are two of the Sun Belt’s best-ever quarterbacks. They will both end their careers with over 6,000 passing yards and 60 total touchdowns. Lewis and Thomas are both undersized dual threat quarterbacks who are comfortable outside of the pocket and can keep plays alive. Lewis is a lefty which is interesting because there are so few of them at the NFL level. Of the two, I would guess that Thomas has the better pro portfolio. A December 4th matchup will be fun to watch and could have Sun Belt Championship implications.

 

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: Week 2 Preview

Updated: September 10th 2020

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.

How good did it feel to watch some live college football these last few days? We saw the invention of the RPPO, the run-pass-punt option, by Austin Peay in the season’s first game after they lost multiple long snappers to Covid-related absences. We saw Kirk Herbstreit, Lee Corso and the gang return for a Zoom-based College Gameday premiere. We saw Memphis kick start the “should the AAC winner get the fourth playoff spot” conversation. As I write this, we’re about to hear Herbie and Rece Davis on the BYU/Navy broadcast which will give the game a gravitas that I’m excited for. Any ambivalence I had about the return of the college football season, after a trying spring and summer, was gone in a flash.

Week 2 sees the ACC, Big 12 and AAC return to play so we have a bevy of draft eligible prospects to watch. Heavy hitters like Trevor Lawrence and Chuba Hubbard start their season on Saturday but my goal in these weekly previews will be to focus your attention on players who may not yet be household names. Let’s get to it…

 

Thursday, September 10

Brevin Jordan, WR, Miami (FL)

I’m really excited for this UAB vs Miami (FL) matchup after the Blazers scored 45 in their opener. Instead of being a high-scoring but one-sided affair, I’m hopeful that UAB can stay competitive and make it a game for awhile against the Hurricanes. Miami will be unveiling their new starting quarterback, Houston transfer D’Eriq King. King is a dynamic playmaker and may be the steadying presence Miami needs after a few seasons of uncertainty at the position. I hope the game is close because I want to see four quarters of King throwing to tight end Brevin Jordan, Miami’s leading returning receiver. I highlighted Jordan in my Spring Scouting series and posited that if Jordan could stay healthy — he’s battled some nagging injuries during his short career — he would be in the running for TE1. Jordan has said that he’s “better than ever” after recovering from a foot injury and that gets me excited. When I watched Jordan I saw a supremely versatile player who can line up all over the formation and cause matchup issues for the defense. He’s small-ish compared to previous elite tight end prospects (6030/245) but is still deployed inline where he’s an instant mismatch against a linebacker. If Jordan can stay healthy for the full season and rack up a 40-600-6 type of season he’ll be on the shortlist come April. (An interesting note to consider in this strange 2020 season… a number of other top tight end hopefuls will not be playing this year, including Penn State’s Pat Freiermuth and Michigan’s Nick Eubanks. What that means will be a regular storyline in 2020 for NFL Draft fans.)
I was also hoping to see Jordan’s teammate DE Gregory Rousseau in this one but he recently announced that he was opting out of the 2021 season. Rousseau is a 6’7″ monster who is projected on some mocks to be the first non-QB drafted next year. He exploded as a redshirt freshman last year with 54 tackles and 15.5 sacks. After just one season Rousseau may be more potential than proven but he’ll be a high pick next year.

Friday, September 11

Shane Buechele, QB, SMU

After I started prepping for this piece, it was announced that the SMU vs TCU game on September 11 in Forth Worth was postponed due to a spate of positive coronavirus tests for the Horned Frogs. Since we already saw Buechele in action this season and will certainly see the Mustangs a bunch on ESPN, I thought it would be a good idea to keep him in this write-up. Buechele’s name is familiar to casual fans because he started as a true freshman for the Texas Longhorns back in 2016, before losing his job to Sam Ehlinger in 2017. He transferred to SMU for the 2019 season and set a ton of school passing records in his first year on campus. Heading into 2020, Buechele was on all the major award watchlists, so observers are expecting a big season from the fifth-year senior.

I watched much of the contest against Texas State and I was disappointed that Buechele didn’t carve up the Bobcat defense better than he did. The final stats look okay, 26-36 for 367 yards and a touch, but he also threw two picks. (He did also have a naked bootleg score called back where he had the entire defense fooled, so that’s a positive.) Buechele looks comfortable in the pocket and isn’t afraid to step into an onrushing defender to deliver a pass. That confidence led to the first pick though, where he tried to hit an opposite-hash out route against pressure. The pick led to a Texas State game-tying score that could have spelled disaster for SMU. When he has time and throws from structure, he can deliver a wonderfully placed ball for his receivers to feast after the catch. During the broadcast, the announcers repeatedly referenced Buechele’s leadership; I think that paired with his experience are going to factor into his NFL outlook, making him attractive to teams as a steady and trustworthy backup.

Saturday, September 12

Brock Purdy, QB, Iowa State

Regular readers of mine will remember how much I loved David Montgomery in 2017 when he was just a sophomore and had not yet fully made his case for being an NFL starter. So, when I tuned in to watch the Cyclones during the 2018 season I saw flashes of what Brock Purdy would become in 2019. As a true freshman in that 2018 campaign, Purdy took over the starting job in October and never looked back. He ended up with 21 total TDs, won the award for Big 12 Freshman of the Year, and was the unquestioned starter heading into 2019. Again, Purdy did not disappoint, setting eighteen school passing records as a sophomore. Expectations are even higher now for Purdy who is frequently mentioned as a must-watch quarterback prospect in the 2021 class. Brock Purdy is perhaps best when he’s able to improvise and is on the move. His highlight reels are littered with rabbit-out-of-the-hat evasive maneuvers that he punctuates with finding an open receiver downfield. When he’s throwing on schedule, usually after a zone-read fake, he’s often tossing quick hitting slants or screens with accuracy and timing. His pocket mobility means he’s a threat to keep it on those zone-read plays as well (he has 557 career rushing yards and 13 rushing TDs). At 6010/221 he doesn’t have prototypical QB1 size but he’s plenty big for the new era of quarterback in the NFL. I really like what I’ve seen so far from Purdy and I am looking forward to studying him more deeply in the offseason. If he leads Iowa State to another winning season in 2020, I don’t think it’s crazy to suggest that he plays his way into a late first round grade.

Tutu Atwell, WR, Louisville

Despite a memorable name, it’s likely that many readers are coming across Chatarius “Tutu” Atwell for the first time. Atwell was a dual-threat quarterback in high school who chose Louisville over Group of Five offers from the likes of Florida Atlantic and East Carolina. As a freshman in 2018, Atwell put up 24-406-2 in a complementary role. In 2019, he stole the show in the ACC, leading the conference in both receiving yards and touchdowns (69-1,272-11). He ended the season on Pro Football Focus’ All-American team. I was pleasantly surprised to see when researching him that Atwell has played in all 25 career games; you would expect somebody with his 5090/165 frame to get nicked up and miss time. Conversation about Atwell’s professional aspirations will certainly center on his size and relative inexperience at the position. I don’t argue that there may be some limitations to how he fits into an NFL offense but the old adage that “you can’t teach speed” is still true. Atwell is a sub-4.40 burner who can make defenders look silly and stuck in the mud. Louisville will continue to manufacture touches for him — jet sweeps, pop passes — and he will continue to put up gaudy numbers. I believe the Cardinals are going to be an ACC contender this year because they return their top two passers, rushers, receivers, tacklers and sackers: that experienced depth will be key in a season full of Covid-19 contact tracing. Tutu Atwell figures to be a large part of that success and I’m looking forward to seeing him shine again this year.

 

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
  • 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