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