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: Spring Scouting, Group of 5 Gems

Updated: June 14th 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 Summer as The Watch List will preview the top prospects and let you know who is fantasy relevant and worth your valuable draft capital.

Each year when we evaluate the draft classes of individual NFL teams, it often comes down to the value they find in the middle rounds. After all, it’s not all that hard to identify the next Calvin Ridley, finding the next Michael Gallup is the real test. I don’t think it’s a coincidence then that we typically see the gems from the Group of 5 start going off the board in the third round right as teams are starting to look for players who will return big on their draft capital investment. Sure, the guys from the Group of 5 may not have been 5-star recruits or All-American talents but they produced at a high level on a consistent basis. Today, we will take a closer look at three players who I think will fall into that “safe bet” category of draft pick. Will they be rookie Pro Bowlers, probably not. Will they find an immediate role on an NFL team, definitely.

Jaret Patterson, RB, Buffalo

  • Measurables5090/195
  • 2018 Stats13 games, 174 carries, 978 rush yards, 5.6 ypc, 14 rush TDs; 7 receptions, 62 rec yards, 8.9 ypr, 0 rec TD
  • 2019 Stats13 games, 312 carries, 1,799 rush yards, 5.8 ypc, 19 rush TDs; 13 receptions, 209 rec yards, 16.1 ypr, 1 rec TD

Imagine the Oklahoma drills in the backyard of the Patterson household with RB Jaret facing off against LB James. The twins still face off in practice now that they are starring for the Buffalo Bulls. James may be a key part of the defense but today we are going to be focusing on Jaret who set the MAC on fire in 2019. Patterson set school records last year in rushing yards (1,799) and rushing touchdowns (19). His rushing total was good enough to lead the MAC and to finish 5th nationwide. Patterson is no one-hit-wonder either, his success as a rookie earned him the MAC Freshman of the Year title in 2018. I knew Patterson’s name from my 2019 preseason research but I don’t recall seeing him in any live game action last year so I was eager to jump into some tape.

I watched Patterson’s two available games, Penn State and Charlotte, which coincidentally bookended his season. I came away from my study thinking that Patterson is a well-rounded back who isn’t truly elite in any single area. By virtue of his stocky frame he has the power to overcome defenders and has the agility to utilize a number of specialty moves like a hurdle and spin move. I think he has more to offer as a receiver too, he just didn’t get too many targets coming out of the Bull’s preferred two-back shotgun set. One phrase I wrote down when watching Patterson was “want to.” As in, this “want to” run where he refused to go down without a first down while Buffalo was still within striking distance of Penn State.

Perhaps what will help make Patterson’s draft stock is his ability as a pass blocker. The Buffalo coaching staff clearly trusts him in that role because he was constantly in protection in the two games I watched. He acquitted himself quite well too even though he’s not a big back. He had a number of good blocks against Charlotte but this was by far my favorite. It’s not clear in the gif but you can see him reading the defense looking for his assignment. The player he originally spies twists inside which leaves him to get the blitzing nickel. He shuffles over, sets his feet and flips the corner over his shoulder.

Patterson’s stats are impressive but I would expect that he needs two more seasons to convince scouts that he’s worthy of an NFL draft pick. Although, he’ll have two good chances to make that case in 2020 with Power 5 matchups against Kansas State and Ohio State. Whether it’s 2021 or 2022, keep an eye on Patterson’s landing spot.

Damonte Coxie, WR, Memphis

  • Measurables6030/197
  • 2017 Stats11 games, 21 receptions, 323 rec yards, 15.4 ypr, 3 rec TDs
  • 2018 Stats14 games, 72 receptions, 1,174 rec yards, 16.3 ypr, 7 rec TDs
  • 2019 Stats: 14 games, 76 receptions, 1,276 rec yards, 16.8 ypr, 9 rec TDs

We’ve all heard the cliches of teams dubbing themselves “Linebacker U” or “DB U”, but what about “Dynamic Skill Position U?” I guess that doesn’t really roll off the tongue but it is a nickname that the Memphis Tigers should consider. The player we are going to highlight here, WR Damonte Coxie, is just one in a long list of current and future NFL players — including Kenny Gainwell, Antonio Gibson, Darrell Henderson, Tony Pollard and Anthony Miller — who all found success at Memphis under former coach Mike Norvell. New head coach Ryan Silverfield has history as an assistant head coach and offensive line coach, and had two stints with Norvell at Arizona State and Memphis. Hopefully Silverfield will be able to keep the magic alive.

On paper, Coxie’s numbers speak for themselves: he could feasibly finish his career with 250 receptions, 4,000 yards and 40 TDs. To get a better feel for his skillset, I turned to his available cuts and found a special treat: all-22 footage of his regular season matchup against Cincinnati. This type of footage is rare to find for amateur draft fans like myself but it gives a great perspective, especially for receivers. One thing that shows up on the all-22 versus regular highlights is just how physical Coxie is on every play. 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 can catch it all whether it’s one-handed, over the shoulder, in traffic. He’s also quick with explosive feet at the snap that were reminiscent of former teammate Anthony Miller. This endzone angle is all you need to see of Coxie to understand his playing style. He fends off the double team, then makes a lunging catch before absorbing a big collision. As he tries to break away, he has the presence of mind to cut it back past an oncoming tackler which nets him an extra ten yards. He may not have the flat out speed to convert that play into a score but few receivers would have made it as far as he did.

I’ve been a fan of Coxie for over a year now and I hope you’ll give him a close look this season too. I don’t think it’s fair to call Coxie a “sleeper” at this point, he has to be in the conversation on Day Two. I will not be surprised when he ends up drafted higher than some well-known Power 5 names.

Warren Jackson, WR, Colorado State

  • Measurables: 6060/219
  • 2017 Stats: 13 games, 15 receptions, 265 rec yards, 17.7 ypr, 2 rec TDs
  • 2018 Stats: 10 games, 32 receptions, 405 rec yards, 12.7 ypr, 4 rec TDs
  • 2019 Stats: 10 games, 77 receptions, 1,119 rec yards, 14.5 ypr, 8 rec TDs

It’s hard to hide somebody who is 6060/219 but it feels like that is what the Mountain West is doing to CSU standout Warren Jackson. I had honestly not heard of Jackson before I started my preseason research and that surprised me because I was a big fan of the last two star Ram receivers, Rashard Higgins and Michael Gallup. Apparently, Jackson was a big fan of those two also, because the dream of following in their footsteps caused him to change his commitment from Arizona and to ignore other P5 offers.

Jackson defied some of my preconceived notions because I assumed that he’d be a statuesque outside receiver. On the contrary, in the tape and highlights I watched, I saw that Jackson is a versatile receiver who also lines up in the slot and comes in motion frequently. That versatility of deployment is surely to highlight the matchup nightmare he can be — he’s too big for a nickel corner and he’s too fast for a linebacker. His release off the line of scrimmage is good for somebody his size. When he’s against close coverage, he can fight off the defender to free himself. When he has some space in the slot, he can stem inside or out and run a clever route. Jackson is a priority in the red zone where he can high point the ball above anybody on the field. In fact, 12 of his 14 career touchdowns have come from inside the twenty. If he bulks up a bit more he’ll be able to dominate. Check out this play that I found in a 2019 highlight package which perfectly sums up Jackson’s game. 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.

CSU starts the season with a great showcase game: a visit from Colorado. That game is surely going to be easy to find on the dial so I’m already looking forward to tuning in and seeing Jackson create some #DraftTwitter buzz for himself.

 

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

The Watch List: 2019 AAC Season Preview

Updated: July 28th 2019

Welcome to The Watch List, 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 Spring and Summer as The Watch List will preview the top prospects and let you know who is fantasy relevant and worth your valuable draft capital.

Storylines to Watch

Heisman Contender: D’Eriq King, QB, Houston.  King is likely to be the most debated prospect in the 2020 class.  He has some of the upside and athleticism that Kyler Murray possessed last season when he won the Heisman.  The only downside is that he also shares Murray’s body type.  If King stays healthy — he missed the last two games of 2018 — he could hit 4,000 total yards and 50 TDs.  He’s on the short list for top Heisman candidates and a good bet if you take “the field” instead of Tua Tagovailoa or Trevor Lawrence.

Underclassman to Watch: Desmond Ridder, QB, Cincinnati.  Ridder took over midway through the season opener and retained the job throughout.  He is a dual-threat quarterback with 6040/212 size.  He completed 62.4% of his passes, threw 20 TDs to just 5 INTs, and rushed for 583-5.  In the highlight package I watched, Ridder’s composure in the pocket and his ball placement impressed me.  A comp came to mind but I’ll withhold it for now until I see full game tape.  The Bearcats are poised to win the AAC West this season with a weakened UCF and Ridder will be a huge factor.

Newcomer of the Year: Brandon Wimbush, QB, UCF.  Wimbush transfers in from Notre Dame where he flashed his playmaking ability but was plagued by inconsistency.  In McKenzie Milton’s absence, Wimbush was expected to battle with Darriel Mack for the starting role, however Mack went down with a non-football injury.  Wimbush is dynamic as a ball carrier but struggles to complete 50% of his passes.  Head coach Josh Heupel is known as a quarterback-friendly coach so I expect he can structure the offense to highlight Wimbush’s strengths and maintain the Knights’ winning way.

Coaching Carousel: Dana Holgorsen is the biggest name among new coaches in the American this season.  He joins Houston from West Virginia, a rare move down in conference prestige for a big-name coach.  Holgorsen, at $4.0mil per year, becomes the highest paid Group of Five coach (Memphis coach Josh Norvell is second at $2.6mil).  Holgorsen spent ten years in Texas as an assistant at Texas Tech and at Houston so he should know the talent-rich state well.  I have no doubt that he will have successful and high-scoring teams at Houston but I don’t understand why you would willingly give up a shot at playing in the College Football Playoff.

Players to Watch

D’Eriq King, QB, Houston

As I mentioned above, King is likely to be the most debated prospect in this year’s class.  He’s undeniably talented but is he an NFL quarterback?  If not, can he make a move back to receiver and find a role?  King is the next undersized dual-threat quarterback who will wow fans on his way to Heisman votes.  Last year we had Kyler Murray, who ended up going first overall to the Cardinals.  I went into King’s study expecting to see Murray and that was a mistake on my part because he’s not (yet?) on that level.  Before we get into my observations, let’s check in on King’s stats and measurables.

For those who are new to King as a player, let’s start with a quick primer.  He was recruited as a 3-star athlete and chose Houston over offers from Power 5 schools like Baylor and TCU.  Switched to receiver in 2016 so he could get on the field and became the starter at quarterback midway through 2017.  As a receiver, King was a slot/screen type, averaging less than ten yards per catch.  He also earned rushing touches as well.  In 2016, he had the rare distinction of scoring in four different ways: passing, rushing, receiving and kick returning.  At just 5110/190, King is undersized to be a starting quarterback but his athleticism makes up for whatever he may lack in height.

When I dug into his game film against Texas Tech from 2018, I noted that King regularly reads the field and throws to his second or third option on numerous plays.  There are definitely some quick-hitting single-read throws but when he’s given time and freedom to scan the field, he does.  You’ll actually see this trait on all three clips below.

On this first clip, you’ll see that King throws to his second read.  He bombs it more than fifty yards and places it well, just shading the receiver to the sideline away from help coverage.  The receiver still has a lot to do before he scores — over the shoulder catch, avoid a tackle, stay in bounds — but King makes it possible by delivering a beautiful ball.

I was surprised that I didn’t see King on more designed runs.  I saw him play sporadically last season, mostly in highlights, and assumed he was more of a primary rushing option.  Instead, much of his ground game comes when he evades the pass rush and gets out of the pocket.  I’m actually glad to see that, because functional mobility from the pocket as a scrambler is more important to an NFL team than a speedy option quarterback; forcing a defense to spy on the quarterback helps open up the field for other players.  On this play, King senses the play breaking down and sprints out of the pocket, accelerating just enough to beat the defense to the first down marker.

King is able to improvise with the ball in his hands, a skill he shows on this last clip.  The initial read on this 1st and Goal play is a quick screen.  King decides not to throw the ball and instead looks to his second option, a slant from the blocking receiver, which is well covered.  King then tucks it, rolls out of the pocket to his left and is the first to the pylon.  It’s an illustrative combination of the two previous clips and shows how dangerous King can be.

There are some negatives I noted as well when watching King.  As I stated above, he has the arm strength to deliver a deep ball 50+ yards but I think he needs to be more selective about when he employs that zip.  He too frequently overpowers short and intermediate passes which sacrifices touch and accuracy.  He’s a multi-faceted player but his versatility means that he hasn’t spent that much time as a starting quarterback at a high level.

He may need more than just his senior season to gain the experience and consistency to become a viable professional quarterback, however King flashes enough upside that some team is likely to stash him on their roster and see if he continues to develop.

 

Michael Warren II, RB, Cincinnati

When I previewed the AAC in 2018, I chose Cincinnati as a team on the rise.  One of my observations was that the Bearcats had a number of options at quarterback and running back and that “if [head coach Luke] Fickell [could] juggle his myriad backfield options, Cinci could surprise in the East and get to eight wins.”  Little did I know that eight wins would turn into eleven and that the two to emerge would be the aforementioned Desmond Ridder and RB Michael Warren II.  Warren fell into the job due to an injury and didn’t look back, going for 35-142-3 in the season-opening win against UCLA.  Warren totaled 1,329 yards and 19 TDs, an impressive output for somebody elevated to the starting spot.

Warren is listed at 5110/218 and runs with a throwback, between the tackles style.  He’s fantastic in short yardage situations when he can use his power to pick up tough yards.  Late in the UCLA game, Cinci found itself with a tenuous two point lead in the red zone.  While trying to seal the victory, they came upon a 4th and 2.  Dare I say everybody in the stadium knew what was coming: a Michael Warren run.  The Bruins put five on the line of scrimmage and come with the rush.  Warren is able to churn and fight for the all-important first down.  By no means is it a flashy play but it illustrates what his NFL role could be.

Warren also excels in the passing game.  He finished 2018 with 25 receptions for 232 yards and a score.  I don’t think those stats do justice to his pass catching ability though.  When I was watching the UCLA game there were numerous times when he was lined up as a slot or boundary receiver, so the coaching staff trusts him in that role.  Speaking of trust, he was put in a lot of pass protection situations early in the UCLA game, his first as the starter.  He did well and clearly knows his assignments, even if he lacks pop in his blocks.  Warren has good hands, catching the ball away from his body, and isn’t fearful of contact over the middle.  This first down catch shows just how versatile he can be in the passing game.  He’s lined up in the slot and runs a quick slant on a 3rd and 6.  He extends and makes the grab; he knows the safety is closing so he quickly gets both hands on the ball to secure it.  So far in my offseason study, I can’t recall seeing another back make a similar play as a receiver.

I was a bit disappointed that the only game film currently available was the UCLA game.  I was hoping to see Warren later in the season when he was full entrenched and had a number of starts under his belt.  So, I turned on some highlight reels I found on Youtube.  I’m glad I did.  One of my original notes on Warren was that he lacked top-end speed and was probably a 4.55-4.60 runner.  What I saw on highlights contradicted that.  You can see here against Tulane that he clearly has another gear after he breaks through the second level.  I updated my notes now to say that Warren accelerates well but struggles to maintain his top-end speed, maybe topping out at about 4.50.

Cincinnati figures to be in the running for the AAC championship in 2019 so we’re likely to see a lot of Warren this season.  I’m grateful because I think there’s more to his game than I was able to see in his lone game tape.  At worst, it appears that Warren could be a solid short yardage specialist with receiving upside at the next level.

Honorable Mentions

Damonte Coxie, WR, Memphis: Coxie emerged in 2018 as the Tigers’ leading receiver, ending with more than double the receptions of the next best receiver (72 vs 33).  He’s listed at 6030/200 and plays with above average play strength and excellent hand strength.  His play strength allows him to body-battle with defenders for 50/50 balls and also makes him a difficult tackle after the catch.  His hand strength helps him rip the ball away from defenders and is the reason why he’s often able to snare balls well away from his frame.  Coxie is a redshirt junior and will earn draft buzz if he repeats his 1,172 yard output from last season.

Gabriel Davis, WR, UCF: I watched a highlight reel and a full game film of Davis and I’m honestly not sure which I should put more stock in.  The highlight reel showed a downfield threat who wins contested balls while the full film showed a possession receiver with the ability to break a big play.  Either would be valuable, it’s just a matter of what does he do well consistently.  He led UCF in receiving with a 53-815-7 line last year but I expect that to decline with Brandon Wimbush at the helm.  Whether Davis can regularly show us his playmaking ability, and not his counting stats, will ultimately determine if he comes out as a junior.

James Proche, WR, SMU: Proche led the AAC and finished fifth in the FBS with 93 receptions in 2018.  He averaged 12.9 yards per catch, finishing with 1,199 yards (and 12 TDs).  Proche (pronounced Pro-shay) also returned kicks and punts for the Mustangs which will increase his chances of making an NFL roster.  He’s listed at 5110/190, has about 4.50 speed and made some spectacular catches last season.  I love that Proche shows up in big games.  In two career games against conference-leading UCF, Proche totaled 19-273-3.  In five games against Power 5 opponents, he amassed 32 receptions for 453 yards and 3 TDs, including an 11-166-2 coming-out party against Michigan.  I’m expecting big numbers from Proche again in 2019.

Isaiah Wright, WR, Temple: Wright was the AAC Special Teams Player of the Year in 2018 but he offers much more than that to the team. He’s deployed in myriad ways: wildcat, jet sweep, option, traditional receiver. Wright has fantastic change of direction skills and has straight line speed to outrun most defenders. At 6020/220 he’s built well and is bigger that most players with his skill set. In 2018 he scored seven total touchdowns: three receiving, one rushing, one kick return and two punt returns. He may be a gadget player in the NFL but he could still have fantasy value.

Mitchell Wilcox, TE, USF: Mitchell Wilcox is an easy prospect to fall in love with. He has better than average size at 6050/245 and ample speed for the position. He’s versatile because he’s also a competent blocker, which gives him a leg up on big-slot tight end prospects. Most impressively, Wilcox is a natural when it comes to catching the ball. He adjusts well to the ball in midair and loves to make highlight reel diving catches. After watching his highlights, I also feel that he has the potential to be an emotional leader for his team. Wilcox is a lock to be a Top 10 tight end prospect in the class and may end up even higher in my rankings.

 

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.  When studying a player I rely on game film “cuts” which are most frequently found on Youtube. If game film is not available I will search for highlight reels.  Keep in mind these highlight reels are the best plays of that player. When I have the option, I will choose to watch a game versus the better defense. 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: 2020 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.

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