The Watch List: 2018 SEC Preview

Updated: August 28th 2018

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

Storylines to Watch

  • Heisman Favorite:  Tua Tagovailoa, QB, Alabama.  Get used to hearing Tua’s name because you are going to hear it a lot.  He became a household name when he replaced Jalen Hurts at halftime in the national championship and led Alabama to victory against Georgia.  Tagovailoa won’t be the running threat that Hurts was but he’ll add enough to keep defenses honest.  Picking a quarterback from a championship favorite with instant name recognition is a safe Heisman bet to make, even if he’s just a sophomore.
  • Darkhorse Heisman Candidate:  Jordan Ta’amu, QB, Ole Miss.  The Rebels will struggle as they are still dealing with the fallout from the recent recruiting scandal but I have a feeling that JUCO transfer quarterback Jordan Ta’amu will impress this year.  College football fantasy players are bullish on his potential which makes me think he could sneak into the Heisman conversation with big passing and rushing numbers.  Ta’amu has the luxury of throwing to the best receiving corps in the country which will make him look good on a regular basis; the team is also returning four starting offensive linemen which should keep him upright.
  • Offensive Player of the Year:  Drew Lock, QB, Missouri.  Lock led the NCAA in TDs last season (44) and threw for nearly 4,000 yards.  He loses his offensive coordinator this year but the Tigers will still put up points.  Lock will top the charts of most conference passing stats.
  • Defensive Player of the Year:  Devin White, LB, LSU.  White was a stat-stuffing force last season.  He led the conference in tackles per game (10.2; 133 overall).  He also added 14.0 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks.  Since Alabama has much turnover on their defense, White should be able to steal the spotlight on defense in the SEC.
  • Newcomer of the Year:  Demetris Robertson, WR, Georgia.  Robertson is transferring in from Cal and was granted immediate eligibility so he will see the field in 2018.  As a true freshman in 2016, Robertson snagged 50 balls for 767 yards and 7 TDs.  Robertson was the top ranked receiver in his recruiting class per 247Sports so he comes with high expectations.  Georgia has lacked a true difference maker at the position in recent years so it will be fun to see how much QB Jake Fromm is able to grow with Robertson as a target.
  • Underclassman to Watch:  D’Andre Swift, RB, Georgia.  Swift takes over the reigns with Nick Chubb and Sony Michel on to the NFL.  Swift got involved as a true freshman, rushing for 618-3 and adding 17 receptions.  He’ll earn 1,200+ total yards and double digit scores this season.
  • Best QB-WR Tandem:  Jordan Ta’amu and AJ Brown, Ole Miss.  As I’ve mentioned, Ole Miss has a stellar group of receivers which is led by Brown.  He may the best of the bunch in the conference, although South Carolina’s Bryan Edwards may disagree (more on both below).  Ta’amu was efficient in limited duty in 2017 and will give the offense a boost as the full-time signal caller in 2018.
  • Best RB Corps:  Alabama.  The Crimson Tide have two #1 running back recruits on their roster according to Phil Steele: senior Damien Harris and sophomore Najee Harris (no relation).  The Harris brothers combined for nearly 1,400 yards and 14 TDs.  Josh Jacobs is the best receiver of the bunch (14 receptions last year) and would probably start for most other teams.  Alabama had the conference’s second-best rushing attack in 2017.  Even though they lost Bo Scarborough, the Tide will continue to dominate on the ground.  Keep on eye on Georgia’s backfield as well, they are just as deep but younger (Editor’s note: UGA freshman RB Zamir White tore his ACL and is out for the year).
  • Coach on the Hottest Seat:  Jeremy Pruitt, Tennessee.  Judging by the vim and vigor that Vols fans ran off Greg Schiano before he was even offered the job, I fear for Pruitt’s safety if Tennessee fails to be bowl eligible again in 2018.  In reality there’s no way he would lose the job after one season, barring some off-field scandal, but I figure he’s probably the odds-on favorite to be the next to lose a job in the SEC.  Other new guys like Dan Mullen, Jimbo Fisher, Matt Luke and Chad Morris each have a longer rope (for different reasons, of course).  Hopefully the Pruitt family decided to rent rather than buy.

Teams to Watch

 South Carolina (9-4 in 2017)

The Gamecocks finished the regular season at 8-4 in 2017 and tacked on an Outback Bowl win over Michigan to get to nine victories.  I am predicting South Carolina to finish the season with the same record as last year so why are they on my Teams to Watch list?  Because there’s a non-zero chance they come out atop the SEC East and steal a conference championship appearance.  At this point it’s safe to pick Georgia to win the division but these two skirmish in Week 2.  It’s rare to have such a heavyweight divisional game that early and it could be South Carolina’s shot to shock the college football world.  As Tom Luginbill recently pointed out on XM radio, South Carolina lucks out in their cross-over games.  They avoid Alabama, Auburn and LSU and instead get Missouri, Texas A&M and Ole Miss.  The offense returns all of its productive skill position players except for TE Hayden Hurst.  Thanks to NFL prospect receivers Deebo Samuel and Bryan Edwards, QB Jake Bentley should be able to keep the offense moving.  The defense will be missing a number of key pieces from the 2017 unit (which held opponents to just 20.7 ppg), but they have gone into the last two seasons with just six returners and should fare fine.  I don’t think I’m willing to bet the over with any significant amount but I would not be surprised to see USC contending late in the season.

 Florida (4-7 in 2017)

I am certainly no Gator fan but they are an easy pick as a team to improve.  New head coach Dan Mullen comes to Gainesville with the luxury of 19 projected returning starters.  RB Jordan Scarlett returns after his season-long suspension for participating in a credit card fraud scheme.  Scarlett rushed for 1,070 yards in 2016 so he’s a valuable piece to get back and add to last year’s leading rushers Lamical Perine and Malik Davis.  The quarterback position is a big question mark.  I would not be surprised to see Mullen reboot and start freshman Emory Jones under center at some point this season.  Like South Carolina, Florida’s schedule sets up nicely for 7-8 win potential.  They only play four true road games and get their hardest cross-division opponent, LSU, at home.  I won’t be rooting for Florida to become bowl eligible but it’s going to happen.

Players to Watch

Honorable Mentions

  • Jarrett Stidham, QB, Auburn: My opinion of Stidham fluctuated throughout the 2017 season. I questioned him early but was impressed with him late. In the Georgia and Alabama games, Stidham made a positive impression on me as a smart runner with the ball. This may be damning with faint praise but I likened him to Alex Smith at one point last season (you may remember, Smith was the first overall pick in 2005 so that comp is actually saying a lot). In 2017, Stidham gained 3,158 yards through the air; he added 153 on the ground.  That rushing total belies his true impact though.  Per Phil Steele’s stats, Stidham gained 383 yards on the ground but lost 230 of them to sacks.  Stidham scored 22 combined TDs which I’d like to see increase to 30 this time around. He’s in the conversation for the first quarterback off the board at the 2019 NFL Draft so I’ll be monitoring him all season long.
  • Nick Fitzgerald, QB, Mississippi State: A number of college football minds that I listen to and read love Fitzgerald.  Admittedly, I have not watched much of him so this is a speculative addition to my preview based on what I’ve heard elsewhere. Fitzgerald is a dual-threat quarterback who rushed for 984 yards and 14 TDs.  He threw for 1,782 yards and 15 TDs with 11 INTs.  Fitzgerald missed the end of the 2017 season with a dislocated ankle but he’ll be fine for 2018.  Hopefully the injury does not hamper his rushing ability in any way.  Fitzgerald has an NFL-ready body at 6050/230 so if we see passing game improvement he could land on the draft radar.
  • Benny Snell, RB, Kentucky: Throughout his first two seasons on campus, Snell has been supremely productive. Over those 26 games, he has 2,424 yards and 32 TDs.  He added ten receptions in 2017; that’s a nice addition to his resume but in 2017 he should strive for twenty. I have limited exposure to Snell but from what I have seen he appears to have patience and vision at the line and enough size and speed for the next level. I have a feeling that Snell will be a sneaky fantasy rookie come 2018 if he lands in a good spot.
  • Trayveon Williams, RB, Texas A&M:  Williams is an interesting running back prospect to me because his height and running style don’t seem to match.  I’m not quite sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.  I watched some 2016 highlight videos and his 2017 game against Auburn.  He’s an upright runner who appears to always be running downhill.  He’s listed at 5090/200 but he looks smaller on film.  I didn’t see a ton of wiggle and tackle breaking ability but he has the speed to hit a hole and gain the necessary yardage.  What was most interesting was seeing that he’s such a good receiver that the Aggies trust him to line up split out.  Let’s see how he rates as a pass blocker but after a quick glance I think Williams will project as a valuable passing down back in the NFL.
  • Damien Harris, RB, Alabama: Harris was in the running for a first round fantasy draft grade last season but decided to return to Alabama for his senior season. I’m not quite sure that was the right decision because the Tide backfield is crowded. Harris is a durable 5110/221 runner with speed and elusiveness to break off big runs. He has averaged over 7.0 yards per carry the last two seasons which is impressive for anybody, but especially for a back who is 220+. I’ve seen Harris labeled as “under the radar” but I find that narrative hard to believe. He’s a former top recruit who has two back-to-back 1,000 yard seasons at Alabama. That’s about as “on the radar” as you can get.
  • DK Metcalf, WR, Ole Miss: Metcalf has elite size (6040/225) and measureables. He made Sports Illustrated’s 2017 “Freaks List” because of his past exploits as a high school track star. Metcalf reportedly ran a 4.46 last offseason which would instantly make him a first round NFL Draft prospect. Before we jump to conclusions though, let’s see how Metcalf does in 2018, sharing the wealth again with a stacked receiving corps. In 2017, he ended with a respectable 39-646-7 line; it really is a shame that Metcalf is competing for targets instead of being a no-brainer WR1 for his squad.
  • Deebo Samuel, WR, South Carolina: It’s so disappointing as a college football fan that somebody as talented as Deebo Samuel has struggled with injuries. Samuel has played in just 18 career games in three years at South Carolina. His career totals of 86-1,194-5 receiving and 17-128-7 rushing and 3 return TDs are encouraging. I’ll be rooting for Samuel to get through a full season so we can fully evaluate his NFL Draft stock come the Spring.
  • Albert Okwuegbunam, TE, Missouri: The man of many nicknames. My favorite so far might be “A-Ok” but it’s going to be a long draft season of pronunciation jokes directed at Mr. Okwuegbunam. He’s going to be a redshirt sophomore this season so there is no guarantee he comes out, especially considering how long it usually takes tight ends to develop. If Okwuegbunam does come out, he’ll be highly sought for his potential. As a redshirt freshman, Okwuegbunam had 29 receptions, 415 yards and 11 TDs. His touchdowns will regress in 2018 but I expect his other totals to improve. He has size similar to that of Dallas Goedert from the 2018 class.  To reach that level though he will need to prove he’s a good blocker and all-around athlete.
  • Isaac Nauta, TE, Georgia: Nauta’s fantasy potential took a hit last season because of a significant decrease in production. He put up a great 29-361-3 line in 2016 which earned him Freshman All-American honors by a number of publications. In 2017, however, Nauta caught just nine balls despite playing in all fifteen games. Improving as a blocker in the dominant Bulldog rushing offense is important in NFL terms, but it won’t help Nauta’s fantasy draft stock. Hopefully we see more balance from Nauta this year as Georgia moves to a more balanced attack.
  • Josh Allen, LB, Kentucky: The “other” Josh Allen might just end up being the better professional prospect. This Josh Allen is a pass rushing outside ‘backer at Kentucky. He has led the Wildcats in sacks each of the last two seasons (7, 7) and topped 60 tackles in both campaigns. His size, speed and statistical profiles remind me of Lorenzo Carter who I was very high on last season. I’m looking forward to watching some tape of Allen’s this year to see if that comp holds true.
  • Devin White, LB, LSU:  The aforementioned White is a productive MLB who I frequently see popping up as a first rounder for next year’s NFL Draft.  White appears to have more than enough speed to get to the edge and has the ability to fight off blocks and chase down runners.  He is an impact player who gets into the backfield and is constantly disruptive.
  • Greedy Williams, CB, LSU: Is there a better nickname for a cornerback? Williams lived up to the moniker in 2017 by snatching 6 INTs. He added 38 tackles and 10 pass breakups as well. Williams is long at 6030 and will be coveted for his size and ball skills.

Drew Lock, QB, Missouri

Lock, who has started since early in his freshman season, is another name to remember come April.  He’s currently in the running for the QB1 spot and if history is any indication he could creep into first round consideration.  Lock nearly eclipsed 4,000 passing yards last season (3,964) and threw an FBS best 44 TDs.  He threw 13 INTs which was worst in the conference but you can excuse that when he puts up the points he does.  In fact, Missouri led the SEC in scoring with 37.5 points per game.  Lock loses offensive coordinator, and quarterback whisperer, Josh Heupel, who took the UCF job.  For Lock’s future, it’s less about whether the offense keeps moving and more about working on his consistency.

While watching Lock, I felt that both the speed and touch on his balls was average to above average but inconsistent.  To borrow a cliche, he has the “arm talent” but he doesn’t display it on every rep.  I have to admit that he can throw a beauty of a ball, dude can spin it.  Lock needs to improve his accuracy and I’d also like to see him anticipate his receiver’s movements a bit more.  He has enough speed and athleticism to escape the pocket but I did not see him complete a single pass after being flushed against South Carolina.  Lock is listed at 6040 but I bet he’ll measure in smaller than that; at times he seemed to disappear behind the offensive line.

Lock isn’t my QB1 at the moment but he’s flirting with the top five in my rankings.  I was encouraged enough by what I saw to know that I need to keep a close eye on him this season.  He’s going to be a prospect whose value relies heavily on which games you choose to watch.  (Film watched: South Carolina 2017, Highlights 2017)

AJ Brown, WR, Ole Miss

As I have mentioned elsewhere in this preview, Brown is one cog in a mighty Ole Miss receiving machine.  He led the team in receptions, yards and TDs in 2017 (75-1,252-11).  One knock against Brown would be that his stats are inflated by three huge games against subpar opponents.  Against South Alabama, he went for 8-233-2; the following week against Tenn-Martin he totaled 8-156-2.  Later in the season, versus Louisiana-Lafayette, he hauled in 14 balls for 185 yards and two scores.

Brown is a 6010/225 slot receiver who makes his hay after the catch.  He is a bear to bring down and creates extra yardage while defenders try to drag him down.  He has enough speed to break free when he is able to shrug off a would-be tackler.  In addition to power moves, he has some finesse moves as well; against South Carolina he executed a fantastic juke that literally may have broken the defender’s ankle.  I was not able to devote the time to fully study Brown’s route running so I will need to check back on that.  In the Kentucky game he ran a lot of short and intermediate routes.  I’d love to see him used outside and on more varied routes in 2018.  I did not observe Brown in any high point contested catch situations but I don’t doubt his ability to win in those situations with his strength.

Because he feasted on lesser defenses, it will be vitally important to track how Brown does in 2018 versus top competition.  If he shows that he can play against the big boys too, he’ll be near the top of my 2019 receiver rankings.  Ironically, he might be fighting off teammate DK Metcalf for the top spot on my list.  (Film watched: Kentucky 2017, Highlights 2017)

Bryan Edwards, WR, South Carolina

Surprise, another wide receiver who is vying for the pinnacle of the position.  Have I mentioned that 2019 will be a good year for rookie wide receivers?  Through two years as a starter, Edwards has 108 receptions, 1,383 yards and 9 TDs.  His stats are not eye-popping but against tough SEC opposition it’s understandable.  Similarly to Brown, Edwards best games came outside of the Southeastern Conference.  His two best totals, 122 and 90 yards, came against Louisiana Tech and Wofford, respectively.  Edwards is listed at 6030/215 which puts him in a sweet spot of talented NFL wide receivers.  I’d like to see his speed and acceleration improve but even if he runs in the 4.55-4.60 range, at that height, he could draw comps to Michael Thomas or Allen Robinson.  Edwards certainly has some ways to go though before we truly bestow that comparison upon him though.

Unfortunately, there is not much tape yet available for Edwards.  I was stuck with just a single game to choose from.  In that game, against NC State, I noted that Edwards is violent out of his route breaks, whipping his head towards the quarterback and looking for the ball.  He also showed that he’s not afraid to go over the middle to make a catch.  It’s important to keep an even keel when scouting highlight videos, after all they are by definition the player’s best moments, but I came away very impressed with Edwards.  In those highlights he showed an ability to win both at the catch point and after the catch.  There were a number of circus grabs that showcased his tracking, concentration and body control.  In a few close-up replays I even got a glimpse of his footwork at the line of scrimmage which looked positive.

At no point while watching highlights did I feel “this is the best we’ll ever see from Edwards.”  Instead, I thought to myself, “there’s so much potential for Edwards to show us more.”  I’m glad South Carolina has such a big game early in the season (Week 2 vs Georgia) because it will give me a chance to study him even further.  (Film watched: NC State 2017, Highlights 2017)


Notes: In an effort to standardize the description of key positional traits, I frequently use the following adjectives: elite, good, above average, average, below average, poor.  My experimental grading system uses a Madden-like approach by weighting position relevant traits on a 100-point scale; bonus or negative points are awarded based on production, size, injury history and character.  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 watching film for a player, I typically pick two games at random to watch.  For top prospects I may add a third game, while for long shots I might only devote the time for one. If game film is not available I will search for highlight reels, but keep in mind these are the best plays that player had all season so they really need to jump off the screen. I do not necessarily want to watch games where they did very well or very poorly as that may not be a great illustration of their true ability. If possible, when comparing players at the same position I also like to watch film against common opponents. Full disclosure, I am not watching film of every single game any player plays, instead I am looking for a representative sample.  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 college players I use a number of resources, I would recommend bookmarking the below sites…

  • Stats: espn.com, sports-reference.com, cfbstats.com, herosports.com, fcs.football, foxsports.com
  • Recruiting: 247Sports.com, espn.com, sbnation.com, rivals.com
  • Film: 2019 NFL Draft Database by Mark Jarvis, youtube.com (but be wary of highlight only reels)
  • Draft info and mocks: draftcountdown.com, draftscout.com, walterfootball.com, mattwaldmanrsp.com, draftek.com, ndtscouting.com
  • Draft history: drafthistory.com
  • Combine info: pro-football-reference.com, espn.com, nflcombineresults.com
  • Season preview magazines: Phil Steele, Lindy’s, Street and Smith’s, Athlon Sports
  • Podcasts: ESPN’s First Draft, Strong as Steele with Phil Steele, The Audible by Football Guys (specifically episodes w/ Matt Waldman), UTH Dynasty, Draft Dudes, 247Sports College Football, College Fantasy Football: On Campus, Underdog Pawdcast, Saturday 2 Sunday, Locked on NFL Draft
  • Logos & Player Media Photos: collegepressbox.com, the media home for FWAA members

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 recreation professional, specializing in youth sports, when he isn’t acting as commissioner for his many fantasy sports leagues.

More Analysis by Bob Cowper

2018 Post-Draft Rookie Rankings

Updated: May 11th 2018

I’m feeling a bit bittersweet today.  After months of research, statistical analysis and film watching this will be my last post about the 2018 rookie class.  You’ll be in capable hands with the rest of our RSO writing crew but I can’t help but feel sad about losing “my guys.”  I’m looking at you Anthony Miller and Rashaad Penny.  I had been a casual college football writer for years, and a fan for much longer, but the 2018 class was the first that I went truly deep on.  Alas, I will probably feel the same about the 2019 class this time next year.  Speaking of the 2019 class, expect to see content rolling out starting in June.  I have compiled a watch list of 150 players from the FBS to Division III.  I will release conference previews in the Summer, along with a way-too-early mock draft.  I will also unveil a Madden-like grading system I devised as a way to quantitatively compare players across levels and positions.  Before all of that though, let’s take one last look at my 2018 rookie rankings.  These were updated after the NFL Draft and I have also included a write-up about some noteworthy players.  Enjoy!

#3 – Nick Chubb, RB, Browns

I have vacillated on Chubb’s ranking more than anybody else at the top of my rankings. Earlier in the year I had Chubb and Derrius Guice alternating as my RB2/RB3. Immediately after the draft I bumped Chubb down to RB4 (1.04), behind Ronald Jones, due to concerns about playing on a poor Browns team that has a crowded backfield. The more I thought about it though, I decided I’d rather have Chubb because I think he’s a better player and will earn ample opportunity early enough in his career to warrant the 1.03 pick.

#5 – Rashaad Penny, RB, Seahawks

It was hard not to have Penny rocket up my rankings after he went 27th overall to the Seahawks. It felt like a confirmation of everything I saw and loved during the 2017 season. I tempered my excitement though for two reasons. First, Penny’s struggles as a pass protector are well known and I fear this could limit his touches to start his career. Second, the Seahawks have a weak offensive line (ranked 27th by PFF after 2017) that will test even Penny’s elite evasion. I was also building some return game work into Penny’s valuation but now that he’s a first round draft pick I doubt there’s any chance he gets to return kicks.

#6 – Calvin Ridley, WR, Falcons
#7 – DJ Moore, WR, Panthers

I’m sticking to my guns here. I have had Ridley as my WR1 throughout the season and I still don’t feel he has done anything to change that for me. Moore certainly impressed at the combine more so than Ridley but it’s not like Ridley looked like Orlando Brown out there. Moore was a victim of a poor passing game at Maryland, but you could say the same about Ridley who was rarely featured. Moore will get a lot of early targets as the lead receiver in Carolina but I’d rather have Ridley’s fit in Atlanta with a top passing offense. Julio Jones will dictate coverage which should leave Ridley and his superb separation and route running skills wide open.

#20 – Bradley Chubb, DE, Broncos
#21 – Josh Rosen, QB, Cardinals

Chubb and Rosen come in as the first of their position in my rankings. IDP and QBs are always tough to rank because they are so heavily dependent on league settings and scoring. In general, for a typical RSO IDP league, I think that taking your first IDP near the second turn is a good bet; same with quarterbacks in a 1QB league. If you’re in a league featuring high IDP scoring or in a Superflex or 2QB league, you’ll need to push these guys higher by about a round. Similarly to Ridley, Chubb joins a unit where he won’t be the focus and can prosper. I’d be buying shares of the Broncos in team defense leagues, boy are they going to rack up the sacks. Rosen was the fourth quarterback taken in the NFL Draft but I think he should be the first off the board in your fantasy draft because he has the best combination of short-term opportunity and supporting cast in my opinion. Darnold and Allen may see the field just as soon but they won’t be throwing to Larry Fitzgerald, David Johnson and Christian Kirk. Mayfield is the wildcard if he beats out Tyrod Taylor, who the Browns spent a 3rd round pick on in a trade, because the Browns skill position players look intriguing if they all stay healthy and out of trouble.

#39 – Lorenzo Carter, OLB, Giants

I have a man crush on Lorenzo Carter. He’s a quick and lanky edge rusher who also showed the ability to drop into coverage late in the season. He’ll probably start as a situational pass rusher but the Giants will soon find that they found a gem in Carter. If you’re playing in an IDP league you can probably get Carter later than 39th overall but I wouldn’t chance it. Take him in the third round, stash him on your bench and be the envy of your league this time next year.

#45 – Ito Smith, RB, Falcons

Like Carter, Smith is a sneaky late round pick to stash on your bench. He’ll be lucky to find 50 touches in 2018 behind Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman but once Coleman leaves in free agency, Smith will fall into a fruitful timeshare. Smith ran for 1,100+ yards each of the last three years while catching 40+ passes. Smith is strong and thick with powerful leg drive. I rated him as a B+ blocker in his class so despite his short stature he isn’t a liability in pass protection. Smith will be the type of back who earns 75% of his fantasy production in the last two minutes of each half. He’ll come on the field for his mix of receiving and protection and stay on the field while the team runs the hurry-up.

#48 – Equanimeous St. Brown, WR, Packers
#49 – J’mon Moore, WR, Packers

I’m not very high on either of these Packer receivers but one of them is going to emerge, it’s just a matter of which one does. There were rumors that St. Brown fell in the draft because of his “diva” personality which shouldn’t really come as a surprise to anybody who has done any research about his family. That pedigree and promise is what garnered St. Brown buzz the last two years – it certainly wasn’t his on-the-field production. Moore is shorter, lighter and slower but put up two solid seasons at Mizzou in 2016 and 2017 (60+ receptions, 1,000+ yards, 8+ TDs). I wouldn’t recommend drafting either player, you’re better off waiting to see which one hits and then scramble to the waiver wire, but if I had to pick I would go with St. Brown for his superior physical attributes.

#50 – Mason Rudolph, QB, Steelers

I like Rudolph as a speculative third round pick in Superflex and 2QB leagues. While Ben Roethlisberger has been squawking about the Rudolph pick, let’s not forget that just a year ago he was considering retirement. I don’t think it’s a mistake that the Steelers brass decided to draft James Washington and then pair him with his college quarterback. There’s also a chance that Rudolph gets playing time in the short-term due to an injury to Big Ben. Ben has only played a full 16 game season three times in his 14 year career. If you happen to get two games out of Rudolph in 2018 when your own starter is hurt or on bye you’ll already be ahead of the game value-wise.

#64 – Josh Sweat, DE, Eagles

Josh Sweat is another IDP sleeper of mine. Sweat may not get much opportunity early in his career but he had first round talent and physicals but was available later due to his injury history. The stories about his knee injury are pretty gnarly so I would not recommend spending much draft capital on him but if you’re in a deep IDP league and looking for a long shot, he’s your guy.

#80 – Richie James, WR, 49ers

So you’re saying there’s a chance? The 49ers offense is an enigma at the moment. As a Jimmy G owner, I’m excited for what he showed late last year but I am concerned about who he’ll be targeting this year. Pierre Garcon will be back from injury but he’s old. Marquise Goodwin is back too but he’s nothing more than a complementary player in my opinion. The door is open for somebody to emerge and Richie James has as much of a chance as anybody else on the roster. James had two uber productive seasons to start his career: 107-1,334-8 and 105-1,625-12. He lost most of 2017 to injury but is healthy now and reports are that he played well at the team’s first mini camp. You’d have to be in a pretty deep league to consider drafting James but once you get past WR15 it’s a crap shoot anyway.


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

  • Stats: espn.com, sports-reference.com, cfbstats.com, herosports.com, fcs.football, foxsports.com
  • Film: 2019 NFL Draft Database by @CalhounLambeau, youtube.com (but be wary of highlight only reels)
  • Draft info and mocks: draftcountdown.com, draftscout.com, walterfootball.com, mattwaldmanrsp.com, draftek.com, ndtscouting.com
  • Draft history: drafthistory.com
  • Combine info: pro-football-reference.com, espn.com, nflcombineresults.com
  • Season preview magazines: Phil Steele, Lindy’s, Street and Smith’s
  • Podcasts: ESPN’s First Draft, Strong as Steele with Phil Steele, The Audible by Football Guys (specifically episodes w/ Matt Waldman), UTH Dynasty, Draft Dudes
More Analysis by Bob Cowper

2018 NFL Mock Draft: Part I, Picks 1-16

Updated: April 24th 2018

If you have not already read Part IV of my mock draft, please start there so you can start at the bottom and follow through to the beginning.  Part IV includes detailed notes about my methodology and process.  You can then move on to Part III and then to Part II before continuing below.  An important note to remind readers is that this mock draft was compiled on March 30-31 so please keep the timing in mind as you read in case there are trades or free agent signings in the interim.

#16 – Ravens – Calvin Ridley, WR, Alabama

The Ravens have been desperate for a WR1 for what feels like a decade.  Sadly, I don’t think free agent signing Michael Crabtree is the answer nor are there are any true standout WR prospects in the class.  Despite my criticism, I believe that Ridley is the best of the bunch.  Aside from a solid 40 yard dash, Ridley mostly hurt his stock at the combine.  I previously had him as a Top 10 player but have dropped him because of lingering doubts.  Ridley is quick, shows good hands and is an excellent route runner.  When I watch him on film he just pops, damn the stats or the combine results.  I’m less convinced about his chance to become a team’s WR1 now than I was a year ago but I still think he can be a productive NFL receiver.

#15 – Cardinals – Denzel Ward, CB, Ohio State

Denzel Ward at #15 is an absolute steal.  In real life, I believe Ward will go higher because some team will either trade their pick to a team looking for a corner or some team will just go BPA and snag him.  He very likely could go a spot earlier to Green Bay but instead I have him falling to the Cardinals.  Unfortunately for the Cards, none of the top quarterbacks have made it this far so they’ll be the ones to go BPA and take Ward.  While researching Ward, I came across a telling stat: opposing quarterbacks completed just 32% of their passes when targeting Ward.  He had a very positive combine to go with the tape.  He tied for the fastest 40 yard dash by a corner (4.32), had the longest broad jump and the second highest vertical.

#14 – Packers – Derwin James, S, Florida State

James started the year in Top 5 consideration with Minkah Fitzpatrick but slipped a bit during a disappointing season for the Seminoles.  Long time starting safety Morgan Burnett is gone to the Steelers so Green Bay has a vacancy in their defensive backfield.  James excels in run support and near the line of scrimmage which would fit perfectly with Ha Ha Clinton-Dix at free safety.  The Packers did draft a safety last year in the second round, Josh Jones, but I don’t think that would be enough to make them pass on James.  Even though he and the team struggled at times, James still put up good totals (84 tackles and 2 INTs) in his comeback season from 2016’s knee injury.  Corner may be a more immediate need for the Packers but something about Derwin James in Green Bay felt right.

#13 – Redskins – Vita Vea, DT, Washington

The Redskins need a NT for their 3-4 scheme and there is none better in this class than Vita Vea.  He has refrigerator like size: 6’4″ and 347lbs.  He ran a 5.10 which sounds slow since we’re so conditioned to the times for RBs and WRs so let me put it into context.  Since 2010, he ran the second fastest of any defensive lineman 345lbs or more.  The only player faster was Dontari Poe who went 11th overall to the Chiefs in 2012.  Vea’s stat line isn’t overwhelming (43 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks in 2017) but that’s because you can’t measure his impact with the boxscore.  Lining him up alongside 2017 first rounder Jonathan Allen will create a stellar one-two punch for years to come.

#12 – Bills – Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville

In my preview of Lamar Jackson this offseason, I comped him to then Bills QB Tyrod Taylor so it’s ironic that I have him landing here after Taylor’s trade to the Browns.  Jackson is an incredible runner as we all know.  There was rumors that he should switch to WR but that was ridiculous – he’s a good quarterback.  He may have a smaller frame than you would want from a run-first QB but he played 38 games in college and is not injury prone like the narrative suggests.  Could he sustain a freak, season-ending injury?  Of course, just ask Tom Brady.  Jackson’s accuracy needs to improve to truly make it in the NFL (57% career completion percentage).  I think he will start his career as an inefficient, big-play-waiting-to-happen type of quarterback.  It’ll come down to the timing of those big plays.  One last thought, can you imagine Lamar Jackson and LeSean McCoy running the read option together?  My god.

#11 – Dolphins – Roquan Smith, LB, Georgia

If you had asked me a few months ago, I would have said that Smith would be the first linebacker off the board.  Fast forward to April and Tremaine Edmunds has leapfrogged him but the Dolphins would still be getting a Pro Bowl caliber player here.  Smith is slightly faster than Edmunds (4.51 vs 4.54) but is smaller at 6’1″ and 236lbs.  Over his final three games, under the brightest of spotlights in the SEC Championship and the College Football Playoff, Smith totaled 37 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss and 2 sacks.  Pairing Smith with returners Kiko Alonso and Cameron Wake, the newly acquired Robert Quinn, and a hopefully-healthy Raekwon McMillan would give the Dolphins a fearsome front seven.

#10 – Raiders – Mike McGlinchey, T, Notre Dame

Much like how I picked Nelson for the 49ers to help protect their big money quarterback, I have done the same for the Raiders with McGlinchey.  Incumbent LT Donald Penn is 34 years old and coming off a season-ending foot injury in 2017 which could cause him to miss some offseason time.  Penn also has a huge roster bonus due in 2019, the last year of his deal, so I’ll bet that the Raiders are planning to move on from him regardless of his injury status.  The Raiders offensive line was already a strength of the team (they allowed just 24 sacks, tied for third best in the league) but adding somebody like McGlinchey would solidify the position long term.

#9 – 49ers – Quenton Nelson, G, Notre Dame

I was surprised to see that Nelson didn’t fit anywhere earlier for me.  He’s probably a Top 5 talent but teams rarely draft a guard that high.  A guard has only been taken this high four times since 1985 (coincidentally, twice in 2015; one of which is the much maligned Ereck Flowers from the Giants).  Nelson has some fantastic highlights and I love watching them whenever they show up on my Twitter timeline.  I’m not convinced the 49ers truly need to draft a guard this high but I figured that they just invested a ton of money in Jimmy Garappolo so they might as well add a piece to protect that investment.

#8 – Bears – Tremaine Edmunds, LB, Virginia Tech

Tremaine Edmunds has climbed up draft boards since the start of 2017 and finds himself at #8 in my mock now.  He ran very well at the combine (4.54) and has fantastic size as well (6’5″ and 253lbs).  He was very productive in 2017: 108 tackles and 5.5 sacks.  Pair that production with his size and speed and you have a can’t miss linebacker.  He will feature as an ILB in the Bears 3-4 defense but because of his speed and explosiveness, he can get to the quarterback too so he’ll have value as a situational pass rusher as well.

#7 – Bucs – Minkah Fitzpatrick, S, Alabama

Tampa has thus far only re-signed one of their four free agent DBs, and have not signed any from other teams, signaling to me that it is a position they plan to target in the NFL Draft.  What better player to target than Fitzpatrick who played both CB and S at Alabama.  He likely factors more as a safety in the NFL but could see time as a strong nickel.  Depending on the matchup, I would expect to see him in shadow coverage against a dominant tight end.  Fitzpatrick struggled through a hamstring injury in 2017 but still managed to play 13 games.  Don’t overthink it.

#6 – Colts – Bradley Chubb, EDGE, NC State

Before the Colts traded the #3 pick to the Jets, Chubb was a common pick for them in mock drafts.  The fact that the Colts traded back, adding multiple second round picks, and still land Chubb is awesome.  Chubb put together back-to-back seasons with at least 10 sacks and 20 tackles for loss.  He finished the year as the ACC’s Defensive Player of the Year and a consensus All-American.  Like Barkley, he’s a better player than his draft slot would lead you to believe.

#5 – Broncos – Josh Allen, QB, Wyoming

The Broncos traded QB Trevor Siemian and signed journeyman Case Keenum in free agency.  Keenum is 30 years old and his deal is only for two years so they’ve created a perfect situation to bring in a project QB like Allen.  Keenum can start in 2018 and possibly even into 2019 if necessary.  Allen’s accuracy issues are well documented and I am personally not a fan because of them.  Many who know more than I, however, think he has the tools to be a star in the league.  Coming in behind an established veteran would be the best thing for Allen’s future prospects.

#4 – Browns – Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State

Barkley is possibly the best true football player in the class, at worst he’s second to Bradley Chubb.  However, the quarterback run and general hesitance to draft running backs high lowers Barkley’s stock.  He’s an absolute stud and will be a fantasy monster from Day One.  He has an uncommon combination of size and speed and is a great receiver.  He did struggle at times in 2017 as a runner but when he did, he made up for it in the passing game.  If the Browns do go the direction I have planned for them, they would end up with a formidable offense in 2018.

#3 – Jets – Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma

The run on quarterbacks continues!  I have read a lot of Mayfield/Jets connections in the last few months and when there is smoke, there is fire.  Mayfield is hyper-accurate and just plain hyper.  His personality has undoubtedly taken him off some teams’ draft boards but I would want him on my team.  My favorite part of the Senior Bowl might have been watching Mayfield on the sideline.  It was a non-competitive all-star game but there he was living and dying with each play, hyping up teammates and helping his fellow quarterbacks.  The only thing that makes me question this pick is the fact that the Jets brought in Teddy Bridgewater.  I have never been a Bridgewater fan so I still think the Jets should go for a QB here.

#2 – Giants – Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA

I have previously compared Rosen to Giants QB Eli Manning so this seems like a great fit.  In my opinion, Rosen is the most NFL ready quarterback of this class.  He does have injuries in his past and some like to question his “love for the game” but that’s not factoring into my analysis.  He’s a prototypical pocket passer who will have a long NFL career.  It’s not often that you get a chance to draft a franchise quarterback so the Giants need to just make this pick and stop pretending that Manning is anything more than a stopgap option at this point in his career.

#1 – Browns – Sam Darnold, QB, USC

I don’t believe that Darnold is the best quarterback of this class, but I do think that he will be the first overall pick.  Darnold is a confident passer which results in turnovers just as often as it does spectacular plays.  He has an ability to extend the play with athleticism in the pocket and he is a team leader and motivator.  I noticed that he has a long throwing motion which worries me and might be the explanation for the high number of interceptions (the window closes before he actually gets rid of the ball) and the fumbles (because the ball dips so low, it’s a target for rushing defenders).  He has a high ceiling but also has a low floor – a high risk, high reward pick.


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

  • Stats: espn.com, sports-reference.com, cfbstats.com, herosports.com, fcs.football, foxsports.com
  • Film: 2018 NFL Draft Database by @CalhounLambeau, youtube.com (but be wary of highlight only reels)
  • Draft info and mocks: draftcountdown.com, nfldraftscout.com, walterfootball.com, mattwaldmanrsp.com, draftek.com, ndtscouting.com
  • Draft history: drafthistory.com
  • Combine info: pro-football-reference.com, espn.com, nflcombineresults.com
  • Season preview magazines: Phil Steele, Lindy’s, Street and Smith’s
  • Podcasts: ESPN’s First Draft, Strong as Steele with Phil Steele, The Audible by Football Guys (specifically episodes w/ Matt Waldman), UTH Dynasty, Draft Dudes

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

More Analysis by Bob Cowper

Updated 2018 Positional Rookie Rankings

Updated: March 15th 2018

Back in November, I released the first draft of my 2018 positional rookie rankings. Today, I will revisit the rankings and go deeper than before (TWSS?). Before we get started, please remember that we are still early in the draft process. All of these players just completed the combine and as of this writing, none have yet had a pro day or an individual workout. We’ll likely learn more about some prospects before this article even gets published; we’ll surely know a lot more a month from now. As in November, I did struggle at times as to whether the rankings should be based on my perceived fantasy value or in what order I believe players will be drafted. Ultimately, I am ranking based more so on expected fantasy value than predicted draft order but the two are highly correlated. I’ll post separate fantasy and NFL mock drafts in April so you’ll be able to see where the two values diverge. I have included brief notes on interesting players for each position and designated tiers. For more detailed analysis follow me on Twitter @robertfcowper and check out my “RSO Rookie Rundown” series.

Note: this was written prior to the retirement of Adam Breneman.

Quarterbacks

My quarterback rankings are likely more controversial than my rankings at other positions. I truly believe that Josh Rosen is the most NFL-ready of the top prospects and as such I still rank him first. I don’t think he will be drafted first at that position but honestly that might do more to help his fantasy stock than hurt it. I have been low on Sam Darnold and Josh Allen since October so their rankings should come as no surprise. The more I watch and read about Lamar Jackson, the more impressed I am with him as a quarterback; don’t believe the WR narrative. I am much higher on Mason Rudolph than many analysts. He may be a little stiff but he was highly productive, excelled in some advanced metrics and was a quiet leader in Stillwater. I think Rudolph will get drafted by a team who benches him for Year One only to give him the keys to the car to start Year Two (i.e. Pat Mahomes). Luke Falk and Mike White find themselves ahead of the next tier due to their elite size and above average production. Of the rest, my picks for guys who may move up the rankings are JT Barrett and Chase Litton. Barrett was a proven winner at one of the nation’s best programs so I won’t count him out yet. Litton threw too many interceptions in college but is one of the biggest quarterbacks in the class and as such will get a shot somewhere.

Running Backs

No change at the top for me. It’s Barkley well above Guice and Chubb. Jones, Penny and Michel are the next tier and are all very close. I have not elevated Sony Michel as high as some others because I am wary of the recency effect. Michel was in the RB5-10 range all season and one great game against Oklahoma shouldn’t really change that. All of the things we “learned” against Oklahoma were already baked into Michel’s ranking. We knew he could catch the ball, we knew he was explosive, we knew he didn’t need 20 carries to make a difference, etc. To bump him higher based off that one game is essentially a double counting accounting error. Freeman (early in the season), Balage (at the combine) and Johnson (late in the season) are an interesting tier as they all flashed at different times. I’m intrigued by Balage and his combination of size and athleticism; I want to study him more and could slide him up into the third tier. Two big names that have slid down the rankings are Josh Adams and Bo Scarborough. Both concern me because of their size: running backs as tall as they are just don’t often succeed in the NFL (which is also a concern for Balage). There are three FCS prospects on the list (Martez Carter, Chase Edmonds, Roc Thomas). My favorite of that group is Martez Carter. He is short and stout and is a dynamic pass catcher. Edmonds showed out at the combine and will likely move up NFL Draft boards. I’m not a fan of John Kelly because he has a lack of production, size and speed that worries me even though he’s starting to get some buzz. If I had to pick one mid- to late-round pick that will have the biggest immediate impact in the NFL, it might be Ito Smith. Smith was a very good blocker according to PFF’s metrics and is a fantastic receiver (40+ catches each of the last three seasons).

Wide Receivers

I have had Calvin Ridley as my WR1 since the start of the year and I have not been discouraged by the mediocre stats or his middling combine performance. I still believe in Ridley’s raw ability and think that he’s the best of this class. Unlike last year, this class lacks a Top 10 talent so Ridley may be artificially moved up draft boards simply because he may be the best at a position of need. Many other analysts have either Washington or Sutton at WR1 and I can’t really argue with that. They both out-produced Ridley over their careers and each have their own athletic attributes. Ironically, both Washington and Sutton are the only two to have a teammate also make this list so maybe I’m undervaluing just how dominant they could have been on another team. I love all of the guys in my second tier and I don’t think NFL teams will go wrong with any of them. If I was an NFL GM I would probably pass on Ridley in the first and instead grab one of Miller, Moore, Kirk or Gallup in the second. All four have a similar profile: they are versatile, quick and can make spectacular catches. Auden Tate is a big, pun intended, wildcard for me because his sample size is so small (just 65 career catches). However, he has the size and body control to be a true X receiver in the league. Dante Pettis is being too undervalued right now in my opinion. Many analysts seem to have forgotten all about him. He was a four year contributor on a championship contending team. He’ll get on the field early with his punt return and run after catch ability, maybe like how Tyreek Hill started his career, and could be a late round steal in fantasy drafts. Allen Lazard has fallen far down my rankings, mostly because he just failed to impress me at points this past season. There is talk of him moving to TE which would do wonders for his fantasy value. There are three guys in the bottom tiers who are more talented than their rankings: Cain and Callaway (off the field issues) and James (injury). I ended up watching a number of Syracuse games this year and became a fan of Steve Ishmael. He had a fantastic 105-1,347-7 line while playing for a bad Orange team. He has good size and made a number of big-time catches in the games I watched him play against Florida State and Clemson.

Tight Ends

The consensus opinion currently states that Mark Andrews is the best player at the position but I strongly disagree. I did not see enough out of Andrews for me to think he could be a starting NFL tight end. I would feel much more confident drafting one of the other top four for my squad. Goedert is the most well rounded player in the group and he’s such a likable person to boot. Gesicki and Hurst are right with Goedert. Gesicki is an incredible athlete but has a wrap for being a poor blocker. Hurst is underrated because he doesn’t score much (just 3 career TDs) but catches a lot of balls and can block better than most in the class. Adam Breneman has serious injury concerns which drags down his potential – if it weren’t for his history of knee injuries he could be atop this group (Editor’s Note: Breneman has since retired from football). Tight end was a difficult position to rank for me because there were few prospects I had a great feel for. Admittedly, everybody past Troy Fumagalli is a dart throw. Chances are that your fantasy league won’t need to draft the position deeper than that but if you do, I provided a bunch of names of guys to keep on your radar. I prioritized players with either great size or great production – very few had both – and left off some players who might be selected in the NFL Draft but likely have no shot at factoring in fantasy-wise. If you have to go deeper, take the guy who gets drafted highest, regardless of where he ended up in my ranking because there’s so little between TE7 and TE13. The two at the bottom, Yurachek and Akins, are truly deep sleepers. Both are undersized, “move” tight ends who could see a hybrid TE/WR role in the NFL. Teams may be less hesitant to draft somebody of their size and speed after the success of Evan Engram in 2017.


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

  • Stats: espn.com, sports-reference.com, cfbstats.com, herosports.com, fcs.football, foxsports.com
  • Film: 2018 NFL Draft Database by @CalhounLambeau, youtube.com (but be wary of highlight only reels)
  • Draft info and mocks: draftcountdown.com, nfldraftscout.com, walterfootball.com, mattwaldmanrsp.com, draftek.com, ndtscouting.com
  • Draft history: drafthistory.com
  • Combine info: pro-football-reference.com, espn.com, nflcombineresults.com
  • Season preview magazines: Phil Steele, Lindy’s, Street and Smith’s
  • Podcasts: ESPN’s First Draft, Strong as Steele with Phil Steele, The Audible by Football Guys (specifically episodes w/ Matt Waldman), UTH Dynasty, Draft Dudes

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

More Analysis by Bob Cowper

RSO Rookie Rundown: 2018 QBs

Updated: March 30th 2018

Welcome to the RSO Rookie Rundown, a resource to help RSO owners prepare for their upcoming rookie drafts. For more college football and NFL Draft coverage, follow me on Twitter at @robertfcowper. Throughout the offseason, the RSO Rookie Rundown will delve into dozens of future rookies for your consideration. Each prospect will be evaluated on a number of criteria including size, production, performance, character and durability. This is an inexact science but the goal is to gain a better perspective of each player through research. Each player will be given a draft round grade as well as a recent NFL player comparison. For draft round grades, it’s important to remember that some positions are valued more highly than others in the NFL. For player comparisons, it’s important to remember that it is a rough heuristic for illustrative purposes and is based on a physical and statistical basis rather than a prediction of a similar NFL career.

Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville

Lamar Jackson is an interesting prospect so I wanted him to be the first player that I researched this offseason. His production and accolades are at odds with his NFL Draft stock and it’s important to know why. Jackson, a junior, is listed at 6’3″ and 211 lbs. Per NFLDraftScout.com he is estimated to run a 4.42 40 yard dash. Jackson has been free from serious injury, a surprise given his size and playing style. He also does not have any character concerns that I am aware of. There is a great story of Jackson’s mom pushing him hard as a youngster which ESPN ran last year.

Stats & Accolades:  Jackson has high name recognition because he was the 2016 Heisman winner and a finalist again in 2017. He was also the back-to-back winner of the ACC’s Player of the Year and Offensive Player of the Year awards. There’s no doubt that Jackson is talented and puts up big stats but there are a few red flags that warrant a closer look. First off is the fact that Jackson is not a very accurate passer. He has never completed 60% of his passes in a season which is not unheard of but is not a good sign. What doesn’t show up in the above stats are all of the sacks that Jackson takes. In 2017 he took 29 while in 2016 he took 46 (the most taken by a quarterback in 2017 was 39 by Luke Falk). When I looked deeper into Jackson’s statistics and game logs, I was even more concerned with Jackson’s accuracy. In the first quarter in 2017, Jackson completed over 66% of his passes. In subsequent quarters, it falls to under 60% with the worst percentage coming in the fourth quarter (54.9%). It seems that as the game wears on and Jackson tires from all of his running, his ability to complete passes suffers. It might also be that in clutch moments, Jackson (and likely his coaches) don’t trust his arm. As his completion percentage drops throughout the game, his yards per carry increases. His yards per carry average is highest in the fourth quarter (7.51 vs 6.66, 6.68 and 6.79). Jackson’s best game of the year, as a passer, came in the season opener against Purdue. He completed 65.2% of his passes and threw for 378 yards and two scores.

Passing Table
Passing
Year School Conf Class Pos G Cmp Att Pct Yds Y/A AY/A TD Int Rate
*2015 Louisville ACC FR QB 12 135 247 54.7 1840 7.4 7.0 12 8 126.8
*2016 Louisville ACC SO QB 13 230 409 56.2 3543 8.7 9.1 30 9 148.8
2017 Louisville ACC JR QB 13 254 430 59.1 3660 8.5 8.7 27 10 146.6
Career Louisville 619 1086 57.0 9043 8.3 8.5 69 27 142.9

Provided by CFB at Sports Reference: View Original Table
Generated 1/17/2018.

Rushing Table
Rush Rush Rush Rush
Year School Conf Class Pos G Att Yds Avg TD
*2015 Louisville ACC FR QB 12 163 960 5.9 11
*2016 Louisville ACC SO QB 13 260 1571 6.0 21
2017 Louisville ACC JR QB 13 232 1601 6.9 18
Career Louisville 655 4132 6.3 50

Provided by CFB at Sports Reference: View Original Table
Generated 1/17/2018.

Film Study: Mississippi State (2017), Clemson (2017)

In addition to having a reputation as an inaccurate passer, Jackson has a reputation as having a good deep ball. Unfortunately, that deep pass was rarely on display in the two games I watched of him. I dug into Jackson against Mississippi State (the bowl game) and Clemson (third game of the season) so that I could watch him against two tough defenses and at different points of the season. On the whole, I was disappointed.

We know he is a supreme athlete and can run better than just about anybody in the game so I won’t spend much time on that. I did take note of one rushing touchdown which stood out because it showcased his speed and elusiveness but also his toughness which I think is under advertised. The play was in the second quarter against Mississippi State. Jackson took the shotgun snap from the left hash and sprinted right on a designed run. He realizes he cannot get the corner and instead plants his foot into the ground and makes a hard cut up field. The cut allows him to slip between an over-pursuing defender and one who was trying to join the play. After he makes the cut he accelerates for a few yards and, about three yards from the end zone, half-hurdles half-jukes a defender and awkwardly leaps into the end zone. He easily could have slid or gone down to protect his body but he sold out for the score. Obviously, that toughness can easily lead to injury but Jackson has been lucky in that regard.

In the Mississippi State game, Jackson missed a number of throws high and behind his receivers. It appears that he struggles to anticipate the receiver’s route on crossing patterns. This was a theme against Clemson too. Early in the first quarter, already down by a touchdown, Jackson had WR Jaylen Smith open on a deep post. He put the ball high and behind Smith and the ball fell incomplete. It would have been a big play to get the offense closer to scoring position but it also would have helped in the field position battle (after Clemson punted after their ensuing possession, Louisville got the ball back inside their own five). Throughout both games, it was clear that Jackson struggles feeling the rush and does not respond well to the pressure. This is borne out in the sack stats mentioned above. There was one strange play against Clemson where Jackson was pressured after Clemson got caught mid-substitution and managed to throw a touchdown pass to his TE who managed to high-point the ball. A pro-Jackson fan could say he put the ball high where he knew his taller TE could out jump the defender; an anti-Jackson fan would say that it was another high throw that he was lucky to complete. Jackson does not throw a ton of interceptions despite what I saw against Mississippi state when he threw four. In the Clemson game he did throw a particularly killer pick-six in the third quarter. The Cardinals were down 19-7, points on that drive would have significantly improved their chances to hang in the game. Instead, the poor pass turned into seven points the other way and after Clemson scored on their next possession the game was already out of reach at 33-7. I do not believe Jackson has much experience progressing through reads and reading the full field. On many completions he is simply throwing it to his first read; his second “read” is often to tuck the ball and run.

One positive on Jackson’s throwing ability is that he can really fire it to his receivers. At one point in the Clemson game, the commentator said he was throwing “heat seeking missiles” to Jaylen Smith. That arm strength can help him fit the ball into tight windows, when thrown accurately, and is the reason he can throw the deep ball successfully.

SWOT Analysis: (SWOT analysis is a way to study the internal and external factors that may help or hinder your ability to achieve an objective. The objective here: getting drafted.)

Strengths: Rushing ability, 4.40 speed, arm strength, toughness, confidence, durability despite being a rushing quarterback.

Weaknesses: Accuracy, composure in the pocket, decision making under pressure, thin frame for an NFL quarterback.

Opportunities: Deshaun Watson showed NFL personnel that an athletic but inaccurate quarterback could have success in the NFL. If paired with a creative offensive coordinator and strong offensive line, Jackson could flourish.

Threats: Some NFL scouts will want to change his position. The Watson comparison also shows that injury is a risk. He will be very dependent on his head coach, offensive coordinator and supporting personnel more so than some quarterback prospects.

Draft Round Grade: 2nd Round

I believe that Jackson will fall out of the first and be a target for a team in the early 2nd Round, maybe a target for a team trading up to get the 33rd pick. I would not be surprised to hear that some teams have him off their board all together at QB. It only takes one team though to think that they know best and have the perfect scheme for him to succeed.

Recent NFL Comparison: Tyrod Taylor

Jackson is a bit taller than Taylor but otherwise they have similar athletic profiles. Their rate stats in college were also similar (i.e. under 60% completion percentage). Jackson is a more dynamic runner than Taylor though. In the NFL, Taylor has become a game-manager quarterback with a higher completion percentage and few mistakes but it took him four years as a backup to get to that point. Jackson likely won’t get that luxury being such a high pick. I anticipate that many people will compare Jackson to Robert Griffin III but I don’t see it. RGIII was a bit heavier and was a significantly more accurate passer than Jackson.

Mason Rudolph, QB, Oklahoma State

I am higher on Mason Rudolph than most analysts. Earlier in the year, I had Rudolph ranked as my second quarterback, ahead of Sam Darnold and just behind Josh Rosen and he’s still in that range for me. Rudolph likely won’t start in the NFL in 2018 but he has the experience, size and arm strength that scouts will love. In my opinion, he’s a high ceiling, low floor player. He may not have the star potential of Sam Darnold but but he’ll be a solid pro. Rudolph is a senior who played 42 games in his career in Stillwater. He has elite size at 6’5″ and 230lbs and I believe he has underrated mobility. Since taking over as the starter as a true freshman late in the 2014 season (the team had to burn his redshirt due to an injury to their starter), Rudolph has avoided injury. A sprained ankle forced him to miss all but one series against Oklahoma in 2015 and a “very minor,” yet undisclosed, injury limited his productivity this year against Texas. He’s also free from character concerns like suspensions or arrests. Rudolph instantly became the BMOC in 2014 when he led a comeback victory against a ranked Oklahoma team in their annual “Bedlam” rivalry game.

Stats & Accolades: Mason Rudolph’s stats speak for themselves. He’s a high volume, deep ball thrower who feasted on weaker Big 12 defenses. He has 92 career passing TDs and nearly 14,000 yards – crazy. In 2017, he led the FBS in passing yards, ranked 4th in passing TDs and was 3rd in rating. He won’t win any of the country’s biggest awards but he did win the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm award. That may not sound like much but when you look at the history of the award there is a great recent history: Deshaun Watson, Marcus Mariota, AJ McCarron, Andrew Luck, Matt Ryan and Eli Manning. Rudolph beat out Mayfield for the award, one would presume, based on character as that is listed as a key component. It’s easy to be blinded by the big numbers so let’s take a closer look. I used Pro Football Focus’ Signature State Guide to go deeper on Rudolph. In their three key quarterback metrics, Rudolph ranked 22nd or better. His Adjusted Completion Percentage, which accounts for drops, was 73.9% (22nd). His passer rating under pressure was 95.5 (15th). His passer rating on deep throws was 118.1 (7th). He threw for more yards on deep passes than any other player in the sample (1,562). I also reviewed Benjamin Solak’s Contextualized Quarterbacking treatise (a fantastic read, by the way). Solak’s data shows that Rudolph completes 61% of his passes when he goes beyond his first read. On those plays, he throws an “interceptable” ball 34% more often than when he throws to his first read. This may sound like a lot but not when compared to other top prospects, specifically, Baker Mayfield (throws interceptions 81.7% more often after the first read) and Josh Allen (288.9%). Solak goes on to show that Rudolph struggles when fitting a pass into a “tight window.” He only completes 35% of those passes and throws “interceptable” balls 402.2% more often, which is significantly worse than Mayfield and Allen. Solak’s data also shows that Rudolph does not benefit from Yards After Catch (YAC) as often as other passers do. In his study of the eight Senior Bowl quarterbacks, Rudolph had the second lowest YAC percentage (37.8%). When paired with the stats of his deep ball passing, it shows that Rudolph can really chuck it and accurately so. If you see a 58 yard reception in the box score, chances are the ball flew 50 yards with 8 yards coming after the catch, rather than vice versa.

Passing Table
Passing
Year School Conf Class Pos G Cmp Att Pct Yds Y/A AY/A TD Int Rate
*2014 Oklahoma State Big 12 FR QB 3 49 86 57.0 853 9.9 9.2 6 4 154.0
*2015 Oklahoma State Big 12 SO QB 13 264 424 62.3 3770 8.9 8.9 21 9 149.1
*2016 Oklahoma State Big 12 JR QB 13 284 448 63.4 4091 9.1 10.0 28 4 158.9
2017 Oklahoma State Big 12 SR QB 13 318 489 65.0 4904 10.0 10.7 37 9 170.6
Career Oklahoma State 915 1447 63.2 13618 9.4 9.9 92 26 159.7

Provided by CFB at Sports Reference: View Original Table
Generated 1/17/2018.

Rushing Table
Rush Rush Rush Rush
Year School Conf Class Pos G Att Yds Avg TD
*2014 Oklahoma State Big 12 FR QB 3 14 -33 -2.4 0
*2015 Oklahoma State Big 12 SO QB 13 67 -35 -0.5 1
*2016 Oklahoma State Big 12 JR QB 13 83 61 0.7 6
2017 Oklahoma State Big 12 SR QB 13 61 38 0.6 10
Career Oklahoma State 225 31 0.1 17

Provided by CFB at Sports Reference: View Original Table
Generated 1/17/2018.

Film Study: Pittsburgh (2017), Iowa State (2017)

After going through two games worth of Rudolph’s film I was not disappointed. Were there a few things I noted that could be improved, sure, but I do not feel that he has any glaring weakness to his game. The first thing I noted in the Pitt game was Rudolph’s excellent field awareness. The play came early in the first quarter when Rudolph was about to be sacked in his own end zone for a safety. He had the presence of mind to reach the ball across the line to avoid the turnover. It is a simple play but one that many less experienced quarterbacks would not make. His composure was on display on two big third down plays as well. The first, against Pitt, was a 3rd and 11 from his own 31 yard line. Rudolph takes the shotgun snap and takes a three step drop before the pocket collapses around him. He spins out of the grasp of the first defender and then breaks a second tackle as he rolls left. Rather than throwing while on the run in the opposite direction, he sets his feet and looks down field. He skips his first read and throws a 35 yard pass to Marcell Ateman. Ateman breaks a tackle and beats the last defender to the end zone. The sky cam replay showed a great view. Rudolph threw his receiver open along the sideline and away from the defender. A great play. Against Iowa State, he made a similar pass on a 3rd and 13. He stepped up to avoid the rush only to have the spy come forward to cut off Rudolph’s running lane. He gives a bit of a shimmy as he moves right and brushes off the arm tackle. He finishes off the play with a 20+ yard pass. Rudolph also shows his composure when he’s not chased from the pocket. Late in the Iowa State game, down by eight, the Cowboys found themselves behind the chains with a 3rd and 22. I couldn’t remember the outcome of the game but I just knew Rudolph would find a way to convert and keep his team in it. Sure enough, he delivered. He had great protection and showcased his great footwork in the pocket as he went through at least three reads. He did not get antsy and let the play develop. He finally airs one to Ateman in the back of the end zone for a score.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere in this write-up, I believe Rudolph has better mobility and is a better athlete than he is credited for. He won’t be winning any straight line races but he has enough wiggle and strength to fend off rushers and to rush for short gains. Some of the plays I described above showcased this ability perfectly. Another play that helps make my case came on a 4th down late in the Iowa State game. Oklahoma State needed six yards to keep the game alive – they were down by eight at the time. The play call was definitely a pass as all of the receivers are running routes and not blocking but as soon as he receives the snap, Rudolph takes off. I assume he made the decision pre-snap after seeing the defensive alignment (or maybe the play caller told him to do it but not tell the other players to really sell it, either way it’s a good sign). He runs for eight and safely slides to avoid a big hit.

Another positive I noted was Rudolph’s ability to lead his receiver and anticipate their route. It led to three scores to for the speedy WR Jalen McCleskey against Pitt.

Two negatives I noted were: 1) his play action fake does not seem to be very effective and 2) I counted four throws from the left hash to the right boundary that were poor. We know Rudolph has the arm strength to make the throw across the field but I think it comes down to the ball placement as Solak discusses in his Contextualized Quarterback research.

SWOT Analysis: (SWOT analysis is a way to study the internal and external factors that may help or hinder your ability to achieve an objective. The objective here: getting drafted.)

Strengths: Size, arm strength, deep ball, durability, experience, high character, composure, underrated mobility.

Weaknesses: Few passes outside of the pocket or on the run, ball placement in tight windows, offensive scheme in college, quiet leader.

Opportunities: Could start in year one if needed because he is experienced and has played in big games. He has already showed that he can come in as an inexperienced first-year player and win games. He appears to be a quiet leader which may not be great for the college game but will be better in the NFL. Due to his arm strength he will show-out at the combine, pro day and in training camp.

Threats: Some teams may not like that he is not a rah-rah guy. Teams may also question his ability to transition to an NFL style scheme. He’ll need to land with an offense who heavily utilizes shotgun as I don’t recall a single snap from under center. The heavier pass rush and tighter coverage he’ll face in the NFL could pose a problem for him.

Draft Round Grade: Late 1st, Early 2nd Round

Quarterbacks inevitably get drafted higher than we expect at this point in the process. I think Rudolph would be the perfect backup for a team with a one or two year transition coming at the position. Maybe to a team like Pittsburgh?

Recent NFL Comparison: Ben Roethlisberger

I had this comp in mind early during my research of Mason Rudolph and I just couldn’t get off it. I also considered Blake Bortles but Bortles was less experienced than Rudolph at this point in their careers and is likely a faster runner. Ben and Mason are of similar size and build. They were both three year starters who led their team to more wins than the school typically had throughout their history. They had similar senior seasons (37 TDs, 4,400+ yards, 63%+ completion percentage, rating around 170.0). Roethlisberger has a reputation of not being fast but of being good at moving in the pocket – given some more practice, I could see Rudolph playing similarly. Roethlisberger went 11th overall in 2004 in a quarterback class that featured two major names (Eli Manning and Philip Rivers) that overshadowed the other prospects. Sound familiar?

Josh Allen, QB, Wyoming

Josh Allen has had a long and interesting road to this point in his football career. As an outside observer, I have to give him credit. Coming out of high school he did not receive a single offer and instead went the community college route before getting offers from Eastern Michigan and Wyomin. ESPN ran a detailed piece in the preseason which they updated in December which shows just how determined Allen was to get a shot. (Bonus points to author Mark Schlabach for one of the best lines I’ve read all year: “His unsolicited emails went over like a loan request from a Nigerian prince.”). Like Mason Rudolph, Allen has elite size; unlike Rudolph, Allen struggles with accuracy and did not dominate in college as you would expect against Mountain West competition. Allen will be a high draft pick but he won’t end up on any of my fantasy teams. His inaccuracy, failure to dominate lesser opposition and his injury history all give me pause. He seems like a good kid with a great story but he’s being over hyped in my opinion based on a handful of big plays.

Stats & Accolades: As I mentioned above, the biggest knock on Allen’s stats is his inaccuracy and his inability to succeed at a high level against lesser defenders. Over his two year career, Allen completed just 56.2% of his passes. His stats in 2016 were solid and promising given that he wasn’t on anybody’s radar but 2017 left a lot to be desired. Allen took better care of the football in 2017 (he cut down on his interceptions, 15 to 6, and fumbles lost, 5 to 2) but saw his yardage per attempt plummet. Allen played well but not great against many Mountain West foes. Against Boise State, the conference’s best defense this year, he completed just 44% of his passes for one score and two picks. In three career games against Power 5 opponents (Nebraska, Iowa, Oregon) Allen also struggled. He completed just 50% of his passes for a combined 427 yards, 1 TD and 8 INTs. My concerns with Allen hold up when you scrutinize some advanced stats. Pro Football Focus gives him an adjusted completion percentage of 65.2%. That may look good but keep in mind that it’s the lowest of any of the top quarterback prospects; Sam Darnold, second lowest, is at 70.6%. The same holds true for his completion percentage under pressure. He’s lowest of the cohort at 52.2% with Darnold second at 59.7%. The aforementioned Contextualized Quarterbacking study by Benjamin Solak finds that Allen’s placement is worse for throws behind the line of scrimmage than throws within nine yards of the line. That’s an odd stat that matches what I noticed while watching Allen against Iowa. Solak goes on to note that Allen rarely goes past his first read with just 18 completions on such plays. I struggled to find positives when studying Allen’s stats. His 2016 passer efficiency ranked 32nd in the FBS and his 28 TDs tied for 20th. His best stat in 2016 was yards per attempt which ranked 8th.

Passing Table
Passing
Year School Conf Class Pos G Cmp Att Pct Yds Y/A AY/A TD Int Rate
2015 Wyoming MWC SO QB 2 4 6 66.7 51 8.5 8.5 0 0 138.1
*2016 Wyoming MWC SO QB 14 209 373 56.0 3203 8.6 8.3 28 15 144.9
2017 Wyoming MWC JR QB 11 152 270 56.3 1812 6.7 6.9 16 6 127.8
Career Wyoming 365 649 56.2 5066 7.8 7.7 44 21 137.7

Provided by CFB at Sports Reference: View Original Table
Generated 1/19/2018.

Rushing & Receiving Table
Rush Rush Rush Rush
Year School Conf Class Pos G Att Yds Avg TD
2015 Wyoming MWC SO QB 2 3 40 13.3 0
*2016 Wyoming MWC SO QB 14 142 523 3.7 7
2017 Wyoming MWC JR QB 11 92 204 2.2 5
Career Wyoming 237 767 3.2 12

Provided by CFB at Sports Reference: View Original Table
Generated 1/19/2018.

Film Study:

SWOT Analysis: (SWOT analysis is a way to study the internal and external factors that may help or hinder your ability to achieve an objective. The objective here: getting drafted.)

Strengths: Arm strength, perseverance and dedication to get this far, elite size, ability to throw on the run.

Weaknesses: Accuracy, performance against subpar opposition in MWC, questionable pocket presence, lack of pedigree, injury history.

Opportunities: Allen has some great plays on tape and some scouts will inevitably fall for him thinking they can fix the problems in his game. QBs of this size are always overvalued. The success of Carson Wentz and Jimmy Garoppolo so far will help show that you can be successful in the NFL even if you didn’t play against top talent in the NFL.

Threats: As scouts watch more tape, they may become more worried with the inaccurate throws and the degradation of Allen’s mechanics under pressure. There are some recent big name clavicle injuries (Tony Romo, Aaron Rodgers) which could force Allen to undergo additional medical scrutiny.

Draft Round Grade: Early to Mid 1st Round

There’s too much buzz around Allen right now for him to fall out of the 1st Round. I wouldn’t bet on it but an Aaron Rodgers like fall to a pick in the 20s may not be out of the question. The hype may start to fade as NFL personnel guys start worrying about the negatives they are seeing on tape rather than gushing about the positives.

Recent NFL Comparison: DeShone Kizer

I picked Kizer for a few reasons. First, I felt similarly about Kizer at this point in the process last year as I do about Allen this year. There’s buzz but I don’t really agree with it. When I looked at incoming rookie QBs last year, here are a few of the conclusions I drew about Kizer, much of that mirrors exactly what I am saying about Allen:

  • “Kizer will be over-drafted because of his size, plain and simple. He is 6’4″ and 230lb which should peg him as the biggest quarterback prospect…”
  • “He certainly won’t be drafted for the stats he put up at Notre Dame. He had a horrendous completion percentage of 58.7% in 2016 and did not break 3,000 passing yards in either 2015 or 2016. He does have some “boom” capability though so be careful which tape you watch…”
  • “When I watched Kizer’s film, I was struck by how uncomfortable he looked under pressure…”
  • “Some quarterback desperate team will inevitably take Kizer in the Top 15 due to his physical tools but I wouldn’t want my team making that mistake – he will need time to develop and he won’t get that if he’s taken in the top half of the first round.”

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

  • Stats: espn.com, sports-reference.com, cfbstats.com, herosports.com, fcs.football, foxsports.com
  • Film: 2018 NFL Draft Database by @CalhounLambeau, youtube.com (but be wary of highlight only reels)
  • Draft info and mocks: draftcountdown.com, nfldraftscout.com, walterfootball.com, mattwaldmanrsp.com, draftek.com
  • Draft history: drafthistory.com
  • Combine info: pro-football-reference.com, espn.com, nflcombineresults.com
  • Season preview magazines: Phil Steele, Lindy’s, Street and Smith’s
  • Podcasts: ESPN’s First Draft, Strong as Steele with Phil Steele, The Audible by Football Guys (specifically episodes w/ Matt Waldman), UTH Dynasty

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

More Analysis by Bob Cowper

The Watch List: Bowl Game Previews, Part II

Updated: December 14th 2017

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

Friday, Dec. 22

Bahamas Bowl, UAB (8-4) vs. Ohio (8-4), 12:30 p.m. (ESPN)

  • UAB: 67th scoring offense, 106th passing offense, 37th rushing offense; 46th scoring defense, 22nd passing defense, 72nd rushing defense
  • Ohio: 14th scoring offense, 94th passing offense, 17th rushing offense; 59th scoring defense, 109th passing defense, 10th rushing defense

The offensive/defensive rankings in this one make for an interesting matchup.  Neither team throws the ball well but both run the ball with aplomb (UAB averages 190 yards per game while Ohio averages 245).  When UAB is running the ball it’ll be strength against strength with the Ohio rush defense.  Ohio’s offense is led by the two-pronged ground attack of JUCO transfer QB Nathan Rourke and RB AJ Ouellette.  Rourke has an incredible amount of rushing touchdowns: 21.  That is 2nd overall in the FBS – not among QBs, among all players.  It’s four more than Lamar Jackson has.  Ouellette is injured and his status for the bowl is unknown.  He finished 5th in the MAC in rushing but durability is a concern as I pointed out back in Week 10 before his most recent injury.  Backup RB Dorian Brown is also questionable so the bulk of the carries may have to go to undersized freshman Julian Ross (who went 19-81 against Buffalo in the team’s last game).  UAB also has their own mobile QB, AJ Erdely, who transferred from Middle Tennessee State.  Eredely’s rushing stats pale in comparison to Rourke, but he completes more passes (61.8% vs 54.2%) and has a better TD:INT ratio.  UAB’s lead back is freshman Spencer Brown (1,292 yards, 10 TDs).  It’s worth noting that this is UAB’s first season back in the FBS after ending their football program in 2014.  Bill Clark is a name that nobody knows but that should be getting national recognition.  He has done a fantastic job getting UAB to just its second ever bowl while also setting the school record for wins in a season since joining the FBS in 1996.  I’m really torn on this one.  As much as I’d love to root for a UAB bowl victory, which would have been improbable in September, the Bahamas Bowl will come down to the health of Ohio’s running backs and whether their rush defense can slow down Brown.  I’ll guess that one of the injured Ohio backs can play and that UAB won’t be able to slow down the tandem with Nathan Rourke.  Prediction: Ohio

Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, Central Michigan (8-4) vs. Wyoming (7-5), 4 p.m. (ESPN)

  • Central Michigan: 54th scoring offense, 48th passing offense, 93rd rushing offense; 68th scoring defense, 23rd passing defense, 91st rushing defense
  • Wyoming: 108th scoring offense, 101st passing offense, 120th rushing offense; 13th scoring defense, 5th passing defense, 74th rushing defense

This is an odd game to break down.  When I first saw that Wyoming ended bowl eligible and was picked for a game, I figured I would have to go deep on QB Josh Allen but I find myself more excited by the Chippewas.  Allen, as you probably know, is a first round NFL Draft prospect who struggled mightily this season before hurting his shoulder.  That 101st ranking for the Cowboys’ passing offense is not a typo – they were that bad.  Honestly, the shoulder injury might have done more to help his draft stock rather than hurt it.  Before going down, Allen was averaging just 165.8 yards per game with a disappointing 56.2% completion percentage.  His passer rating was 124.0 (ranked 97th in the FBS).  Allen’s yards per pass also decreased about 25% from last season.  So, if the stats are so bad, why is Allen still considered a first round draft prospect?  Because he can do things like this.  That play is loaded with positives if you watch closely.  First off, Allen is under center (which he does a minority of the time but it’s more than most other QB prospects).  Second, he really sells the play fake, using his prototypical size to hide the ball from the defense.  Third, he delivers a nicely timed ball to his back who is running a wheel route from the backfield.  Despite all the negatives, it’s this potential that has scouts excited.  I’m hopeful that Allen plays so we can see him once more heading into the NFL Draft.  Heading into the season, I predicted good things for Central Michigan and thought they would be a “spoiler” in the conference.  Turns out, I had that right.  CMU won close games against Western Michigan and Northern Illinois, both of which were predicted to finish ahead of them in the division by Phil Steele; they even got a win over Ohio, the predicted best in the East division.  CMU has two players I like: former Michigan QB Shane Morris and big play WR Corey Willis.  Morris turns the ball over too much (13 INTs) and does not complete enough of his passes to be a real worry but he’s experienced and a former Michigan man so I like him.  If you throw out a bad game against Boston College his stats would look better (yeah, yeah, I know I’m cherry picking).  In the preseason, I compared Willis to John Brown from the Arizona Cardinals and thought his draft stock could mirror that of 2016 stat-stuffer Taywan Taylor.  Unfortunately, injuries slowed Willis and limited him to just eight games.  Still, those games were encouraging.  He totaled 42-625-9 on the season and had four big games since returning from injury.  Willis has at least one touchdown in five straight games, scoring eight of his nine touchdowns in that span.  It doesn’t get much more under the radar than Willis: NFLDraftScout.com has him as the 46th ranked receiver in his class while Phil Steele had him as the 72nd ranked draft eligible receiver.  I might be the only draft analyst advocating for Willis but I really am a believer and will enjoy watching him in the bowl game and at the combine.  Prediction: Central Michigan

Saturday, Dec. 23

Birmingham Bowl, Texas Tech (6-6) vs. South Florida (9-2), 12 p.m. (ESPN)

  • Texas Tech: 26th scoring offense, 11th passing offense, 96th rushing offense; 98th scoring defense, 124th passing defense, 53rd rushing defense
  • South Florida: 16th scoring offense, 54th passing offense, 9th rushing offense; 37th scoring defense, 58th passing defense, 23rd rushing defense

Here’s a prop bet for you: take the over on the total number of yards earned by Texas Tech and South Florida in the Birmingham Bowl.  I’ll guess that combined the teams gain somewhere between 950-1,000 yards combined.  This one may not feature the best football but it will be fun to watch.  It’ll be long too with all the scoring so I recommend DVRing it and watching it on fast forward later in the day.  Not surprisingly this is the first matchup between the two teams in their history and it was made possible by the fact that the SEC didn’t have enough teams to fulfill all of its bowl tie-ins.  That isn’t to say the SEC was weak, it’s just that Georgia, Alabama and Auburn will all be playing in a New Year’s Six bowl which means less teams for the lower bowls.  Texas Tech’s offense is led by junior QB Nic Shimonek and WR Keke Coutee.  Shimonek is very efficient as a passer and ranks near the top of many passing categories such as completions, completion percentage and passer rating.  His TD:INT ratio is 30:8 which is good too.  Even though he has thrown the ball well this season, he was briefly benched for a game by coach Kliff Klingsbury.  Shimonek came off the bench versus Texas in that game and led the team to a win; he’s already been confirmed as the bowl game starter.  His top target, Coutee, has an 82-1,242-9 line on the season.  South Florida is powered by the legs and the arm of QB Quinton Flowers.  Flowers has 31 total passing and rushing touchdowns this season and 107 during his career.  It’s a shame he’s so undersized (6’0″ and 210lbs) or he’d be a fun draft prospect to evaluate; chances are he’ll still give the NFL a shot but likely after a position change.  Flowers is a winner: he has led the Bulls to a 29-9 record over the last three seasons.  He should notch another one here to cap off a prolific career.  Prediction: South Florida

 

Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl, Army (8-3) vs San Diego State (10-2), 3:30 p.m. (ESPN)

  • Army: 43rd scoring offense, 130th passing offense, 1st rushing offense; 30th scoring defense, 40th passing defense, 54th rushing defense
  • San Diego State: 50th scoring offense, 118th passing offense, 12th rushing offense; 15th scoring defense, 26th passing defense, 8th rushing defense

Oh San Diego State, one of my favorite teams of the year.  Their 12th ranked rushing offense is paced by RB Rashaad Penny who has undoubtedly made himself a millionaire this season with his meteoric rise.  In the preseason, I mentioned Penny as a special teams difference maker.  In Week 3, I discussed how Penny helped the Aztecs overcome their first Power 5 opponent in Arizona State.  By Week 5, the Aztecs made it into my “Games to Watch” segment with Penny as the headliner.  Come Week 6, I spotlighted Penny as my top player to watch that week and had already run out of superlatives for his success.  A week later, Penny was in my “Heisman Watch” segment.  Sure, Penny’s meteor has fallen back to earth but he’s still a great player who deserves your attention.  Penny has 2,169 total yards (most in the FBS) and 24 total TDs on the season.  Those scores break down to 19 rushing, 2 receiving, 2 kick return and 1 punt return.  He truly is a jack-of-all-trades and may be a top ten RB in the 2018 rookie class.  Army is led by senior QB Ahmad Bradshaw.  Bradshaw is a “quarterback” only in the sense that he takes the ball from under center each play.  He passes so infrequently that Sports-Reference.com shows his rushing stats ahead of his passing stats (he went 1-1 for 20 yards against Navy).  He is a very effective rusher who averages 7.5 yards per attempt, for a total of 1,566 yards and 12 TDs this season.  Not surprisingly, Army has a stable of backs with 500+ yards including Darnell Woolfolk, Kell Walker and Andy Davidson.  If you didn’t watch Army’s last game against Navy in the snow, you missed one heck of a game that Army pulled out late.  The game against Navy is, without a doubt, the biggest game of their season but I’m sure they will get up again next week for SDSU.  Ultimately, I think the strong Aztec defense plus Penny will be too much to overcome for Army.  In case this one is close, I will note that San Diego State has a good kicker in John Baron; he only went 12-15 this season because the offense converted drives into touchdowns but he can be counted on in the clutch.  Prediction: San Diego State

Dollar General Bowl, Toledo (11-2) vs. Appalachian State (8-4), 7 p.m. (ESPN)

  • Toledo: 11th scoring offense, 20th passing offense, 26th rushing offense; 56th scoring defense, 49th passing defense, 68th rushing defense
  • Appalachian State: 33rd scoring offense, 72nd passing offense, 28th rushing offense; 33rd scoring defense, 45th passing defense, 43rd rushing defense

Saturday Dec. 23 is looking to be a great day of good games, finishing off with yet another high scoring affair in the Dollar General Bowl.  Toledo ended the season on a three game winning streak including the MAC Championship against Akron.  Toledo is led by the strength of their offense.  Senior RB Terry Swanson is the standout back of the bunch (1,319 yards, 14 TDs).  Swanson went for 466 yards and 3 TDs over the last three games of the season including 180-2 in the MAC Championship.  Freshman RB Shakif Seymour has earned a larger role of late, especially after a five touchdown game against Bowling Green.  The top target for QB Logan Woodside, more on him in a moment, is WR Diontae Johnson.  Johnson is a big play guy who averages 17.5 yards per reception and also has two return touchdowns this season.  The aforementioned Woodside is Toledo’s best draft prospect but he’s maybe a 7th rounder at best heading into the combine.  I watched Woodside earlier in the year against Eastern Michigan and he mostly disappointed in that one.  He had fantastic numbers last season (4,129 yards, 45 TDs, 69.1% completion percentage) but just about all of his stats except INTs has regressed in 2017.  It’s looking more and more like Woodside will be an UDFA but who knows maybe that works out the best for him so he can choose his landing spot.  I included Appalachian State RB Jalin Moore in my Early 2018 Positional Rankings for one reason: his pass blocking will get him drafted.  Per Pro Football Focus, Moore has the highest pass blocking efficiency by a running back in the FBS.  It was a good thing to see Moore get 12 receptions this year (just five in his first two seasons) because if he’s going to be on the field in pass blocking situations in the NFL he better work on his receiving skills.  Moore battled a foot injury this season and missed some time but when he was healthy he was very productive.  He had two games over 200 yards (239 and 241) and two games over 100 yards where he also scored 2 TDs.  The Mountaineers QB Taylor Lamb is a four year starter who will be playing in his last game for the team.  He’s a dual threat (539 yards and 5 TDs rushing) and careful with the ball (just 6 INTs this year).  I went into researching this game thinking I would take Toledo and Woodside but I’m now leaning towards App State.  They have the better defense and I have a gut feeling Lamb will show-out.  Prediction: Appalachian State

Sunday, Dec. 24

Hawaii Bowl, Fresno State (9-4) vs. Houston (7-4), 8:30 p.m. (ESPN)

  • Fresno State: 79th scoring offense, 66th passing offense, 77th rushing offense; 9th scoring defense, 37th passing defense, 14th rushing defense
  • Houston: 67th scoring offense, 38th passing offense, 54th rushing offense; 39th scoring defense, 118th passing defense, 46th rushing defense

Fresno State is probably the bowl team that I have the least feel for – I can’t recall watching a single minute of their games this season before the MWC Championship.  Fresno won four straight to earn that MWC Championship game berth, including a win over 23rd ranked Boise State.  Lead WR KeeSean Johnson could be a longshot 2019 NFL Draft prospect if he improves his stats again in 2018.  His receptions, yards, yards per reception and touchdowns have all increased year over year.  In 2017 he finished with 66 receptions, 918 yards and 8 TDs.  Fresno’s rush attack is led by a trio of underclassman including freshman Jordan Mims (142 attempts, 604 yards, 6 TDs), sophomore Josh Hokit (117-519-7) and freshman Ronnie Rivers (95-473-5).  Mims is the go-to guy, he had 10+ carries in eight straight games before the MWC Championship game, but it’s definitely a “hot hand” situation.  The Cougars offense is not in good shape, despite their middling rankings, and clearly misses former head coach Tom Herman.  They are currently on their third starting quarterback, having settled on dual threat freshman D’Erig King in late October.  Since taking over, King has 6 passing TDs and 7 rushing TDs.  Houston has one player that you must watch: DT Ed Oliver.  Oliver is just a sophomore so he’s not draft eligible but I’ll bet he’s in the conversation for a Top 10 pick in the 2019 NFL Draft.  He’s 6’3″ and 290lbs but athletic.  His stats won’t be amazing because he is often double teamed but he still managed 69 tackles, 5.5 sacks, 3 passes defended, 2 forced fumbles and a fumble recovery in 2017.  Total gut call but I have more faith in Fresno State’s offense after doing my research so I’ll take them and the bonus that is their strong defense.  Prediction: Fresno State

Tuesday, Dec. 26

Heart of Dallas Bowl, West Virginia (7-5) vs. Utah (6-6), 1:30 p.m. (ESPN)

  • West Virginia: 19th scoring offense, 12th passing offense, 72nd rushing offense; 92nd scoring defense, 101st passing defense, 105th rushing defense
  • Utah: 59th scoring offense, 43rd passing offense, 70th rushing offense; 42nd scoring defense, 54th passing defense, 36th rushing defense

West Virginia enters the Heart of Dallas Bowl with their 12th ranked pass offense in flux.  QB Will Grier is questionable after a finger injury ended his season early.  In the game and a half the Mountaineers played without Grier, backup Chris Chugunov went 24-46 for 326 yards and 1 TD.  The team did lose both of those games though, one against Texas and one against Oklahoma.  I covered Grier back in Week 8 but since he’s injured I won’t go into more detail here other than to say that I am lower on him than others.  The must-watch offensive prospect, in my opinion, on West Virginia is QB turned WR David Sills.  Sills has good height at 6’3″ and uses that size to be a dominant red zone target.  Sills totaled 18 TDs on the season (enough to lead the FBS); 12 of those TDs came in the red zone.  NFLDraftScout.com predicts Sills to have 4.58 speed which not elite but is good enough and subsequently has him as the 6th ranked WR in his 2019 draft class (note: that does not include other 2018 guys who come out early). WalterFootball.com has him as the 14th if he were to come out this season.  I have Sills as my 10th WR for 2018 so I really like his potential.   I’ll predict that coach Dana Holgorsen calls up a key trick play where Sills gets to throw the ball and remind everybody that he used to play QB.  Utah is also dealing with an injured quarterback as Tyler Huntley is questionable for the bowl.  Troy Williams, a former Washington transfer who started in 2016, has not played particularly well in relief duty this year (2 TDs, 4 INTs, 54.5% completion percentage).  Senior WR Darren Carrington was unable to cement his status as an NFL Draft prospect but he’ll still get a late round look (66-918-6 this season).  The Utes best shot at a win is to ride RB Zack Moss.  Moss has 1,023 yards rushing, 9 rushing TDs, 28 receptions and 234 yards receiving this season.  When Utah has the ball, pay attention to West Virginia S Kyzir White, brother of Bears WR Kevin White.  White is a top safety prospect who has 81 tackles and 3 INTs this season.  As long as Chugunov can get the ball to Sills and target-hog Gary Jennings (94 receptions) the Mountaineers will be fine against a mediocre Utah team.  Prediction: West Virginia

Quick Lane Bowl, Northern Illinois (8-4) vs. Duke (6-6), 5:15 p.m. (ESPN)

  • Northern Illinois: 51st scoring offense, 87th passing offense, 38th rushing offense; 26th scoring defense, 57th passing defense, 11th rushing defense
  • Duke: 86th scoring offense, 80th passing offense, 59th rushing offense; 25th scoring defense, 12th passing defense, 62nd rushing defense

Duke was recently in the college football headlines because head coach David Cutcliffe was offered, and declined, the Tennessee job.  Considering what a sideshow that search became, I think we would all agree that was a good decision by Cutcliffe.  Cutcliffe has brought relevance to a struggling Duke program (they went to four straight bowls from 2012-2015) but finished just 4-8 last season.  I’m not a Duke fan and don’t follow the team closely but from afar I have to say that I like Cutcliffe and appreciate that he shunned a bigger job to continue building at Duke.  Maybe one reason Cutcliffe decided to return was the opportunity to continue working with redshirt sophomore QB Daniel Jones.  Jones has prototypical height at 6’5″ but needs to add weight to his 215lb frame.  Of the 18 quarterbacks who were drafted since 2010 and measured at 6’5″ or taller at the combine, none weighed less than 223lbs.  Per my two favorite draft sources, WalterFootball.com has him as the 15th ranked quarterback if he came out in 2018 while NFLDraftScout pegs him as the 6th best if he waits until 2020.  Jones will be best served by another season or two in college because he wouldn’t get drafted today based on his production.  His completion percentage is too low (55.7%) and his TD:INT is poor (12:11).  Part of that could be excused by a lackluster supporting cast but a top quarterback prospect needs to transcend his team.  Keep an eye on Jones to see if he improves next season.  The NIU quarterback situation is the polar opposite of the stability that Duke enjoys.  Like the Houston Cougars, the Huskies are on their third starting quarterback this year, moving on from the first two due to injury and ineffectiveness.  They are currently starting dual threat freshman Marcus Childers.  Childers took over in October and has been productive: 20 combined passing and rushing TDs.  Protecting the blindside of Childers is a mountain of a man named Max Scharping.  Scharping, a junior, is 6’6″ and 312lbs.  Per Pro Football Focus he is third in the nation in pass blocking efficiency by offensive tackles.  According to their stat guide, Scharping has only allowed one hit and just four hurries.  If Scharping comes out, I’ll bet he’s a Day Two prospect.  Neither team really won my heart here but I’ll go with NIU and their stronger scoring offense.  Prediction: Northern Illinois

Cactus Bowl, Kansas State (7-5) vs. UCLA (6-6), 9 p.m. (ESPN)

  • Kansas State: 37th scoring offense, 99th passing offense, 42nd rushing offense; 58th scoring defense, 129th passing defense, 18th rushing defense
  • UCLA: 30th scoring offense, 5th passing offense, 114th rushing offense; 118th scoring defense, 39th passing defense, 129th rushing defense

Apologies to Kansas State and legendary head coach Bill Snyder but this preview is all about UCLA’s Josh Rosen because he will be the biggest topic of conversation in this one.  The Rosen discussion, is dominated by one thought: will Rosen even play?  One of the oft-mentioned negatives of Rosen is that he might lack the passion for the game that some players exude.  I’ve heard some pundits say something to the effect of Josh not “needing” the game.  I obviously don’t know Rosen personally and haven’t studied him enough to have my own opinion but it does worry me that if that is true maybe he won’t bother suiting up for this meaningless game.  We saw a number of top prospects take that approach last year (Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffery) and can you really blame them?  The first overall pick and millions of dollars are on the line for Rosen.  I would not at all be surprised to read reports of Rosen’s shoulder injury “lingering” long enough to keep him out of the Cactus Bowl.  Regardless of whether he plays or how well he plays, Rosen is my pick for the first  pick in the 2018 NFL Draft.  I have gone deep on Rosen earlier in the season so I won’t rehash everything here but long story short is that he is the most pro-ready quarterback in the class.  He plays in a pro-style offense, has good size and arm strength and has been very productive in college.  He’s not without his negatives (i.e. the aforementioned mentality questions, low completion percentage, some poor decisions) but he has a high floor.  His ceiling may not be as high as somebody like Sam Darnold, who is younger but needs more seasoning for the NFL level, but Rosen is worthy enough of the top pick and can start from Day One.  I lied about ignoring Kansas State because there are three things I want to touch on.  First, starting QB Jesse Ertz is out and has been replaced by freshman Skylar Thompson, a QB with the same size and skill set as Ertz.  Second, Junior CB D.J. Reed is a difference maker on defense (43 tackles, 4 INTs, 9 passes defended) and on special teams (2 TDs, led Big 12 in punt and kickoff yards per return) when he is healthy.  Unfortunately, Reed is hurt and it’s unsure if he’ll be able to play.  If he does, I’ll be interested to see him vs Rosen.  Third, Kansas State has an interesting OL prospect in junior Dalton Risner.  Risner was the team’s starting C as a redshirt freshman and has since switched over to RT.  He is ranked second in the pass block efficiency stat by PFF at the tackle position.  If Risner enters the NFL Draft as a C prospect he could be a Day Two pick due to his versatility.  It’s hard to throw out praise for a team’s starting quarterback like I did and then pick against them but that’s exactly what I’m going to do.  If Rosen can’t or won’t go, they could have to go to third stringer Matt Lynch because backup Devon Modster is questionable with his own injury.  No thanks, let’s go Wildcats.   Prediction: Kansas State


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

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

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

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