The Watch List 2021: Early QB Tiers

Updated: November 18th 2020

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

Future Pro Bowlers

  • Justin Fields, Ohio State

  • Trevor Lawrence, Clemson

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

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

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

Surefire First Rounders

  • Trey Lance, North Dakota State

  • Zach Wilson, BYU

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

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

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

Preseason Shortlist Picks

  • Tanner Morgan, Minnesota

  • Jamie Newman, Georgia/Wake Forest

  • Brock Purdy, Iowa State

  • Kyle Trask, Florida

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

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

Regular Season Risers

  • Mac Jones, Alabama

  • Kellen Mond, Texas A&M

  • Desmond Ridder, Cincinnati

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

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

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

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

Winners with Question Marks

  • Ian Book, Notre Dame

  • Shane Buechele, SMU

  • Sam Ehlinger, Texas

  • D’Eriq King, Miami

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

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

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

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

Transfers Forging a New Path

  • KJ Costello, Mississippi State

  • Feleipe Franks, Arkansas

  • Brandon Peters, Illinois

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

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

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

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

Riddle Wrapped Enigmas

  • Adrian Martinez, Nebraska

  • McKenzie Milton, UCF

  • Kenny Pickett, Pitt

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

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

Small School Sleepers

  • Zerrick Cooper, Jacksonville State

  • Aqeel Glass, Alabama A&M

  • Levi Lewis, Lousiana-Lafayette

  • Zac Thomas, Appalachian State

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

More Analysis by Bob Cowper

The Watch List 2021: Week 8 Preview

Updated: October 23rd 2020

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

The Big Ten is back baby! I am, admittedly, a Big Ten homer and am so excited for the league to return to play this weekend. (Let’s not talk about the fact that I need to work all day Saturday and won’t actually get to see a minute of the action live, but I digress.) To celebrate the return of my favorite conference this week, I present a supersized version of my weekly preview that will highlight one offensive skill player from each of the fourteen squads. Keep an eye on these players throughout the B1G season, they may just end up on your fantasy rosters next season.

(Prospects are listed alphabetically by position, they are not ranked.)

Justin Fields, QB, Ohio State

Justin Fields may be one of the main reasons I am even able to write this preview of the Big Ten season. He was the vocal leader of the “we want to play” movement and we are all the beneficiary of that. Fields started his career as a highly touted prep star who played at Georgia as a true freshman. He did not win the job away from Jake Fromm and decided to transfer to Ohio State for his sophomore season, managing to get an eligibility waiver from the NCAA so he didn’t have to skip a season. Fields dominated the Big Ten in his first season. He totaled 51 touchdowns and threw just three picks. He passed for 3,273 yards and rushed for an additional 484 more. It’s amazing to see those numbers and then hear that he finished third in Heisman voting but that’s just how lucky we were in 2019 with Joe Burrow and Jalen Hurts lighting it up as well. Fields, as is obvious by his box scores, is a dual-threat quarterback. What makes him special though is his size to go along with that athleticism: he’s 6030/228 and might run a 4.40. Very few quarterbacks have run a sub-4.50 forty in the last twenty years and doing so would put him in the conversation with somebody like Vince Young when it comes to a physical comparison. Fields will likely lead this Buckeyes team to the playoff, and in doing so will cement his place atop this draft class. A top five draft pick seems like a lock at this point so I’m looking forward to watching him more closely this season.

Adrian Martinez, QB, Nebraska

Adrian Martinez is a former 4-star recruit who spurned SEC offers from Alabama and Tennessee to join Nebraska and the hottest name in college football at the time: Scott Frost. Two years, multiple injuries, and nine wins later, you might say that was the wrong decision. (Speaking of those wins, two were against FCS foes and none of the other seven were against the top of the conference.) Martinez is a dual-threat quarterback who has 1,255 rushing yards and 15 TDs so far in his career. As a passer, Martinez totaled 4,573-27-17-62.4% in 21 games. In my mind’s eye, Martinez was too small to be on the NFL radar but he is listed at 6020/225 and was more stout that I remembered when I watched some Youtube tape. He has all of the requisite traits of a running quarterback: he’s quick with long speed, not afraid to take a hit, throws accurately on the run, etc. What surprised me most was how well Martinez could sling it. He spins a beautiful deep ball, leading his receiver enough to let them run underneath it. Clearly, I had a preconceived notion in my mind about Martinez which is why these articles are so important to help me get a clearer picture of each prospect. I need to watch him more closely this season to determine if he’s just a fun-to-watch college star or if he’ll make a mark in the NFL.

Joe Milton, QB Michigan

Choosing a player to highlight from my favorite team was a tough decision. The offensive skill player from Michigan that I think has the best chance at being a high draft pick in 2021 is WR Nico Collins but he opted out. Lead running back Zach Charbonnet is just a sophomore so he’s not eligible yet but is a name to watch for 2022-2023. I’ve always been a fan of RB Chris Evans but its been two years since we have seen him play after injuries in 2018 and a season-long suspension in 2019. QB Dylan McCaffrey, a 4-star recruit who played in mop up duty last year, would have competed for the starting job but he too opted out for 2020. Now, the presumptive starter is junior Joe Milton who has more career rushing attempts (12) than passing attempts (11).  There’s excitement about Milton among Wolverine fans so I thought it was time to take a closer look. Let’s start with his measureables. Milton is huge at 6050/243 and would be one of the biggest passers in the class. As a high school recruit, Milton clocked a 4.80 forty; he’s reportedly said his fastest ever time was a 4.62. If those numbers hold, we would be looking at a physical comp like Josh Allen or Carson Wentz. Milton’s college highlight reel on Youtube ran for a scant fifty-one seconds so I had to seek out some high school highlights as well. Wow, those high school clips were impressive. Milton was the proverbial man against boys, playing faster and stronger than everybody else. Some of the throws he made were incredible, the type that Patrick Mahomes makes and then we see clipped on social media for a week. Off-structure, awkward arm angles, on the run, under pressure, fifty yards downfield. No matter the situation, Milton was dropping dimes. He won’t be able to do that consistently against Big Ten defenses but I have to say I’m even more excited to watch him play now. A strong season for Michigan will certainly put Milton in the NFL Draft conversation.

Brandon Peters, QB, Illinois

Oh, Brandon Peters. As a Michigan fan, I thought Peters was going to finally be our answer at the quarterback position. I was sitting about eighty rows up in the Big House when Peters took his first real snaps as the Wolverines QB, taking over for the underwhelming John O’Korn. Rutgers kept it closer than they should have that afternoon and Peters provided the steady hand that ensured the win. Unfortunately, that 10-14-124-1-0 outing was Peters best in Ann Arbor. He fell out of favor and grad transferred to Illinois where he was the starter from the opening game against Akron in 2019. Peters started well: throwing for 687 yards, 9 TDs, 2 INTs and a 63.1% completion percentage in the first three. His efficiency and volume fell off as the season went on, partially due to some missed time after a concussion, including a five game span where he failed to complete more than nine passes in a game. Despite some bumps and bruises, Peters led the Fightin’ Illini to their first bowl game since 2014. I was feeling nostalgic so I went back and watched Peters tape from that 2017 contest against Rutgers; I wanted to remember what it felt like to believe that the Wolverines had found the next quarterback of the future. Peters looked stoic in the pocket, standing tall, and stepping into well-placed throws against an above average Rutgers d-line. He is definitely a pocket passer but he has enough functional mobility to roll away from a rusher or to run a bootleg to keep the defense off balance. Peters has NFL size (6050/220) and was a highly rated pro-style recruit coming out of high school. There’s sure to be some “project quarterback” interest in Peters for those reasons but this year will be telling as to whether he has any next-level love.

Isaiah Bowser, RB, Northwestern

I absolutely loved reading Isaiah Bowser’s bio on the team’s website. This dude ticks all of my favorite bio boxes: decorated high school player in a talent-rich state (Ohio), multi-sport high school athlete (basketball, track), all-conference sprinter (as a junior), National Honor Society, a real major (civil engineering). Unfortunately, my research did turn up some negative injury-related nuggets too. Bowser missed most of 2019 after a knee surgery that required surgery. He underwent surgery this offseason for an “undisclosed” injury, which I presume was probably a cleanup of the injured knee but who knows. In 2018, as a true freshman, Bowser took over the top running back spot in late October. Four of those eight starts went for 100+ yards (108, 117, 165, 166). He didn’t hit the century mark in 2019 though because he was sharing carries in a crowded backfield. Bowser was listed atop the 2020 depth chart so I would expect him to lead the team in carries, even if he may be eased in at the beginning. Bowser is listed at 6010/220 just like Elijah Collins (see below), but he wears his weight differently. Bowser is broad shouldered and has a yoked upper body. If he didn’t have on a helmet, I think his shoulder pads would touch his ears. Obviously he’s a strong short yardage runner but Bowser’s highlights surprised me with his nimble feet and acceleration. Bowser will be a “win the workout” guy so let’s monitor his progression and see if he can get a combine invite whenever he moves on from Northwestern.

Elijah Collins, RB, Michigan State

Collins, a redshirt sophomore, was a rare bright spot for the Spartans in a mostly disappointing 2019 season. Sure, a 7-6 record and a Pinstripe Bowl victory sound decent, but Michigan State had the nation’s 104th ranked scoring offense. They endured a five game losing streak midseason, scoring 10 points or less in four of those games. In the one game that MSU did score during that stretch, against Illinois, Collins was the main contributor with 177 total yards and 2 scores. Things should have been better under QB Brian Lewerke, a veteran who I always wanted to be better than he was. Collins ran for 988 yards and 5 TDs, averaging 4.5 yards per tote. He also added 15 catches; his 99 receiving yards pushed him over the 1,000 scrimmage yard threshold. Collins is listed at 6010/220 and has a thick lower half. He loves to hesitate at the line of scrimmage, carefully picking his lane before using those powerful legs to make a cut in either direction. Often, but not always, that patience works out well. Collins still has three years of eligibility so it may be awhile before we see him trending on #DraftTwitter. If he uses that time to quicken his decision making and to hone his receiving skills we could have a solid all-round NFL back.

Isaih Pacheco, RB, Rutgers

I was tempted to make a self-deprecating pick for my hometown Rutgers Scarlet Knights and highlight punter Adam Korsak who won numerous honors after a busy 2019 season. Instead, I decided to play it straight and share Isaih [sic] Pacheco with my readers. Pacheco was the team’s leading rusher last year, finishing with 729 yards and 7 scores. Much of that production came in an opening game explosion against UMass (156-4), but Pacheco also had solid games against Iowa, Maryland, Liberty and Penn State. Pacheco also had a taste for the big game as a freshman, lighting up #4 Michigan for 142 yards and a touchdown. Greg Schiano’s previous stint at Rutgers heavily relied on the run and featured pass catching running backs (see: Brian Leonard and Ray Rice). Pacheco will see the lion’s share of the carries and if he can add 2-3 catches a game he will help the offense stay in rhythm and ahead of the chains. Providing a trustworthy safety valve for whoever is under center will be key. The only downside: Rutgers figures to be playing from behind much of the season and the game script will not be in his favor.

Stevie Scott, RB, Indiana

Stevie Scott is an interesting study. There’s not much footage of him available on Youtube, and what is available is mostly from 2018. From what I did see though from 2019, I walked away impressed. Scott is tall at a listed 6020 but runs with a forward pad lean that makes him a smaller target and keeps his progress moving forward. His weight is quoted at 230 but he doesn’t look that heavy to me, probably more like 220. Still though, he runs with enough power to win short yardage situations. He effortlessly slips low arm tackles as he skips through the hole. The highlights I watched showed Scott running solely out of the shotgun; I’d love to see him taking a handoff from an I or singleback formation where he has a few steps to work up his momentum before hitting the hole. Scott looked faster than I expected, maybe in the 4.50 range which would be great for his listed size. As a freshman, Scott surprised with 1,137 yards and 10 TDs, setting school records for a true freshman. His sophomore season was a bit of a step back because of injury (845-10, on fifty less carries) but he remained the team’s leading rusher by a huge margin despite missing two games. Scott is also a plus receiver which flashed in the highlights I watched. I would bet that we see Scott again in 2021 as a senior but if he does put together a solid junior year he could get a late round look.

Rashod Bateman, WR, Minnesota

Like some of the other athletes featured here, Rashod Bateman was unsure about playing in this covid-threatened season. He had originally opted out but then opted back in after the Big Ten released plans for its late fall season. I came across a great tidbit from ESPN when doing some Bateman research: he is switching to number 0 this year to represent a “zero tolerance for racism.” The follow-up quotes from head coach PJ Fleck really speak to Bateman’s character and leadership. As a true freshman from Georgia, Bateman played second fiddle to #DraftTwitter favorite Tyler Johnson. In his complementary role, he tallied 51-704-6. I expected Johnson to be the star again in 2019, and while he did still lead the team in receiving, Bateman got a lot more attention as a big play baller. The sophomore line ended at 60-1,219-11, averaging a Big Ten-best 20.3 yards per catch. Bateman has preternatural concentration which allows him to track and locate the ball, even after its been tipped, underthrown or lost in the sun. If you want to see two of the best catches of 2019, check out the beginning of this highlight reel. My goodness. Bateman pairs that concentration with leaping ability and strength at the catch point to win in contested situations downfield. As illustrated by some of those ridiculous catches, Bateman appears to have very strong and sticky hands. I’m glad that we’ll be able to see Bateman play this season. He’s very likely a first rounder with the potential to be a Top 15 pick in April if he continues to show a penchant for the preposterous.

Dontay Demus, WR, Maryland

After taking a dip into Dontay Demus, I really wish he was on a better team than Maryland! Even though he played on a struggling Terrapins team, he still managed 41-625-6 in 2019. Demus is long and lean and super fast. He’s listed at 6030/200 but looks a skinnier and lankier than that. His game is less across the middle or contested catch, and more downfield dominator. His highlights are littered with deep passes that he tracks well and adjusts to in midstride before making the grab. When he does catch a crossing pattern, the trailing defender has no hope of catching him so if he hits the coverage just right he’s gone. Demus has elite looking acceleration and consistently uses a deadly stop-start hesitation move. He uses that move while running routes to great effect. He also uses it after the catch where he can use his quickness rather than brute strength to break tackles. Maryland has been cagey about who their starting quarterback will be for the opener but I hope that it’ll be Taulia Tagovailoa, Tua’s younger brother who transferred from Alabama. A Taulia-Demus connection would be a “we have that at home” version of 2018’s Tua-Jeudy battery at Alabama.

Rondale Moore, WR, Purdue

Simply put, Rondale Moore is one of the most explosive players in college football. He was the most exciting player in the nation as a true freshman in 2018. That frosh season ended with an impressive 114 receptions, 1,258 yards and 12 TDs (plus 213 and 2 more as a runner). Unfortunately, a hamstring injury cut his 2019 campaign short. We almost lost our chance to see Moore in 2020 between his opt out and the Big Ten cancellation but luckily he’s back in the fold at Purdue. Moore is dynamic with the ball in his hands; he’s able to accelerate out of easily broken tackles. He is also a smart route runner which helps him get open, even against future NFL talent. When I wrote about Moore in the Spring, I predicted that if he could put up 80% of his 2018 productivity that he would be a first rounder. That will be a tall order in an eight game season so instead let’s look for a 65-800-8 type season as a benchmark. A new favorite of mine, the website www.nflmockdraftdatabase.com has Moore listed as the 18th ranked prospect in the 2021 class, with a peak ranking of 12th. Most mocks compiled by the site have him going at the end of the first round. Proving that he’s back from his 2019 injury will close that gap between the potential and the pick.  (Editor’s note: Rondale Moore has been ruled out for this weekend’s game and is expected to play in Week 9.)

Ihmir Smith-Marsette, WR, Iowa

When I was thinking of and researching players for this piece I realized I have a bit of a blind spot for the Hawkeyes. As the team’s leading returning receiver (44-722-5), Smith-Marsette was a simple choice to include. I watched some highlights to give myself a crash course in his game. Smith-Marsette is a playmaker with breakaway speed. He was the Big Ten’s best kickoff return man in both 2018 and 2019, averaging 29.5 and 29.6 yards per return respectively. It may have been fortuitous timing to watch his highlights when I did, just after another NFL weekend where we saw receivers like Chase Claypool and Deebo Samuel taking hand offs and pop passes behind the line of scrimmage to utilize their open field playmaking ability. That’s something that Smith-Marsette did multiple times last season. Smith-Marsette’s body isn’t as sturdy as either of those two (6010/179), but if NFL offenses continue to deploy receivers in that manner somebody like Smith-Marsette could flourish.

Jake Ferguson, TE, Wisconsin

If you’re looking for an old school style tight end, Jake Ferguson is your guy. I didn’t have a feel for Ferguson so I watched his 2019 tape from Michigan State. Right from the start you can see that he’s not some undersized nouveau move tight end. Instead, he’s the type of guy you need if you’re playing smash mouth football and giving Jonathan Taylor 300 carries a year. Against MSU, Ferguson didn’t have a target until late in the first quarter, after staying in to block on just about every snap. That first target came on a 4th and 2 just outside of field goal range. The Badgers line up as if they are going to run for the first but instead Jack Coan fakes the handoff and hits Ferguson down the seam for a big gain that was nearly a touchdown. Because he was deployed solely as a blocker until that point, I think the defense was caught off guard. On his second catch, Ferguson showed off some elusiveness, breaking two tackles on his way to a first down. It’s a shame that Ferguson doesn’t get more standup snaps off the line of scrimmage. He utilizes a wonderful evasive swim move at the top of his stem against close coverage that gives him space. I can see Ferguson having a long NFL career as a reliable blocker and a trustworthy third down target.

Pat Freiermuth, TE, Penn State

Luckily for fans of football, Pat Freiermuth will be playing for the Nittany Lions in 2020. Freiermuth disputes that he ever officially opted out of the previously cancelled season but that’s semantics because he’s suiting up this weekend. When I highlighted Freiermuth in my Spring Scouting series, I predicted that he would make Penn State history, easily passing Mike Gesicki for the most career touchdown catches by a tight end, and then setting his sights on 3rd and maybe 2nd on the overall leaderboard. A shortened season may damn those lofty hopes but a solid 2020 will put Freiermuth on the short list of the greatest Penn State pass catchers of all time. Freiermuth is listed at 6050/256 and contributes both as a pass catcher (43-507-7 last year) and a blocker. In my spring study, I noted how much I loved his ability to seal off running lanes for his running backs while lined up in the slot or split out. Freiermuth projects as a first round tight end and will need to start strong if he has a chance of catching Florida’s Kyle Pitts as TE1.

 

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

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

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

More Analysis by Bob Cowper

The Watch List: 2019 Big Ten Season Preview

Updated: August 30th 2019

Welcome to The Watch List, a resource to help RSO owners identify the players from the college game that deserve your attention.  To view my observations, follow me on Twitter @robertfcowper.  Check back throughout the Spring and Summer as The Watch List will preview the top prospects and let you know who is fantasy relevant and worth your valuable draft capital.

Storylines to Watch

Heisman Contender: Jonathan Taylor, RB, Wisconsin.  Three non-QBs have won the Heisman since 2000: Derrick Henry, Mark Ingram and Reggie Bush.  All three running backs rushed for 1,600+ yards and had at least 16 rushing touchdowns.  Taylor should match those numbers by mid-November.  Taylor will earn Heisman votes again in 2019 — he finished 6th in Heisman voting in 2017 and 9th in 2018 — and if Wisconsin contends for the Big Ten he’s likely to get an invite to New York.

Underclassman to Watch: Rondale Moore, WR, Purdue.  Moore is the most exciting playmaker in the Big Ten.  Full stop.  Moore totaled 180 touches as a receiver, rusher and returner and amassed 2,215 all-purpose yards.  His 14 touchdowns from scrimmage were second best in the conference to Taylor (as were his 1,471 yards from scrimmage).  Moore would be difficult to tackle if you were both locked inside a phone booth.  He’s lightning quick and fast in the open field; he is also more physical than you’d assume by looking at him (5090/180).  Moore is easily on the short list for 2021 and could give Justyn Ross some competition for the fantasy WR1 spot in that class.

Newcomer of the Year: Justin Fields, QB, Ohio State.  Just a year ago, Fields was a 5-star recruit joining an uber-talented Georgia Bulldogs team.  Fields saw the field sparingly as a true freshman and when it was clear that he could not wrest the starting job away from Jake Fromm, he decided to transfer.  There was some question as to his eligibility waiver, but it was approved by the NCAA and he’s clear to play immediately.  Fields chose Ohio State and was just recently announced as the starter for Week 1.  Last year at Georgia he was responsible for eight touchdowns — four passing and four rushing.  He was efficient too, averaging 6.2 yards per carry and completing nearly 70% of his passes.  Ryan Day takes over as the Ohio State head coach this year so we should expect some changes on offense but the Buckeyes will still hang points.  Look out for 4,000 combined yards and 40 total TDs. (Honorable mention: Hunter Johnson, QB, Northwestern.  Johnson is also a former 5-star recruit.  He moved on from Clemson after the signing of Trevor Lawrence.  After four years of stability with Clayton Thorson under center, the Wildcats will lean on Johnson’s pedigree to repeat as division champs.)

Coaching Carousel: The newest head coach in the league is Maryland’s Mike Locksley.  Locksley isn’t even 50 yet but is well-traveled.  Interestingly, this is his third stint at Maryland.  In his decade-plus of previous experience at Maryland, Locksley held a number of titles: running back coach, quarterback coach, offensive coordinator, interim head coach.  As a head coach, Locksley has just three wins and thirty-one losses.  He spent the last three years as an assistant under Nick Saban at Alabama so I’m sure Terps fans expect Locksley to be ready for the spotlight now.  The biggest coaching change in the Big Ten though is in Columbus where Ryan Day officially takes over for Urban Meyer.  The hand-off seemed likely after Day served as interim coach during Meyer’s three game suspension last September, but it was still big news.  With Meyer’s on-again-off-again history, would anybody have been surprised if he had decided to return?  I’m not ruling out another coaching gig for Meyer elsewhere in 2020, but this is Day’s team now.

Players to Watch

JK Dobbins, RB, Ohio State

This is the eighth time that JK Dobbins has landed on The Watch List.  I first mentioned him way back in October 2017 when he was a true freshman who grabbed the job from a banged up Mike Weber.  My most recent article including Dobbins was the first iteration of my 2020 fantasy mock draft.  In that mock draft, I slotted Dobbins as the 1.03 and the second RB off the board (behind Georgia’s D’Andre Swift).  It appears that I’m higher on Dobbins than other #DraftTwitter rankers so I am looking forward to seeing how this season unfolds for him and the Buckeyes.  At the next level, Dobbins will be a do-it-all back who does it all well.

Before we look at some of his best traits, let’s take a quick look at his stats.  Dobbins rushed for 1,403 yards in 2017 and 1,053 in 2018.  Frustratingly for fans like myself, his yards per carry decreased from 7.2 to 4.6 over those two seasons.  He’s an active receiver with a career line of 48-398-3.  My biggest concern about Dobbins, if you caught me in a moment of candor, is his lack of big plays.  I recently studied the big play output of my top five running backs — D’Andre Swift, Dobbins, Travis Etienne, Jonathan Taylor and Trey Sermon — and Dobbins came in dead last in each of the three categories.  I haven’t done any research as to whether big play output is predictive of NFL success so I’m not letting it worry me yet but it’s something to keep filed away.

When I study Dobbins, I see a player that uses his compact frame and low center of gravity to his advantage.  He’s listed at 5100/214 but may be a tick shorter; he’s thicc.  This sturdy base helps him hold his ground in pass protection (good technique and play recognition don’t hurt either).  It’s rare to share a blocking highlight for a running back in a preseason preview but I feel that strongly that his pass protection ability will be one of the reasons he gets drafted in the Top 100.  On this play you can see that the coaching staff trusts him as a blocker because he’s isolated on the right side.  His first thought is to help his right tackle but then he sees a corner coming on a blitz so he shuffles his feet and squares up the rusher.  He makes first contact and spins the defender away from the quarterback and finishes his block off-camera.  It wasn’t a de-cleater of a block but it was executed well and shows each facet of his blocking ability.

Unsurprisingly, Dobbins runs with some pop and power.  My notes are strewn with comments like “breaks arm tackle” or “pushes pile.”  Rather than showing a play where Dobbins plowed up the middle for a short yardage victory, I decided to highlight this play instead.  You’ll see Dobbins determination pay off as he gets stuffed, keeps his feet moving and finds a way out.  He manages to keep his feet and dives for the end zone.  He’s short of the score but it’s illustrative of what his runs often look like.

Lest you think Dobbins is simply a power rusher (and productive receiver and reliable pass protector), I’m here to tell you that he has some wheels as well.  I think Dobbins has 4.45 speed, if not better.  In high school he reportedly ran a 4.44; at an OSU combine event he ran a 4.32.  That time is surely favorable, but for comparison Denzel Ward and Parris Campbell ran just .09 and .05 seconds slower at the NFL Combine than they did at OSU.  So it’s definitely possible that Dobbins could run a 4.40.  In the last five years, just two running backs have ran 4.40 or better at more than 210 lbs: Keith Marshall and Saquon Barkley.  It’s safe to say that Dobbins ends up somewhere between those two disparate career paths, but I’d skew closer to Barkley because the fact is that few backs are that big and that quick.

When I think about Dobbins I can’t help but think of the famous line from an Elizabeth Barrett Browning poem, “How do I love thee? / Let me count the ways.”  Dobbins is a jack-of-all-trades, without that pesky master-of-none caveat, and will be a Top 100 player in 2020.

 

Johnathan Taylor, RB, Wisconsin

Oh, Jonathan Taylor.  I love watching Taylor play but it’s always bittersweet for me as a New Jersey native and Rutgers fan.  Taylor, who hails from southern Jersey, always had his eye on Wisconsin and Badger fans are grateful.  In two seasons in Madison, Taylor has 606 carries for 4,171 yards and 29 TDs.  Those numbers are impressive and if he can repeat his successes in 2019 his career stats will be staggering.  In the aforementioned study of big plays, I was shocked to see that Taylor had SIXTY-ONE runs of 10+ yards in 2018.  Again, I have no research to show that that stat is predictive of anything but I love it nonetheless.

One of the most frequent talking points for a running back is the “tread on the tires” and it is reasonable to worry about wear and tear on his body.  He’s been durable so far though so I’m not going to ding his stock due to a high volume of carries.  If it does worry you, think of it this way: he does play in an NFL style offense so he should be able to adjust quickly and not waste precious time adapting.  Perhaps most concerning for Taylor’s prospects is his lack of involvement in the passing game.  In 27 career games, Taylor has just 16 receptions.  Per MaxPreps, Taylor had just 9 receptions in his last two seasons in high school.

Let’s get into what makes Taylor so much fun to watch.  Taylor is a momentum runner who can punish defenses when he makes a decisive cut.  In this play against Miami from 2018, Taylor hits the second level and makes an effective cut which puts him in position to break two ankle tackles and pick up a few extra yards.

Taylor is outstanding at turning a short gain into a longer one.  In this next play, Taylor gets bottled up at the line of scrimmage but he remains patient and finds a hole.  In a blink he has the entire defense chasing him Keystone Cops style.

Taylor’s speed is something that will be talked about a lot this season.  In my offseason notes I put down that I thought he had 4.55 speed with good acceleration.  The evidence points to me being wrong on his top-end speed though.  Taylor made Bruce Feldman’s Freaks List and was a former high school track star.  In Feldman’s article, he shares that Taylor ran a 4.30 this offseason.  I’m open minded and willing to admit I might have been wrong about Taylor’s speed.

Taylor is within 2,234 yards of the FBS record for career rushing yards and I’m hopeful that he puts up another monster season and breaks the mark.  Even if it’s not a record-breaking season, I expect Taylor to come out for the 2020 NFL Draft.  If he does declare early, Taylor will be a Top 5 back in the class.

Honorable Mentions

Nathan Stanley, QB, Iowa: The Big Ten has a number of quarterback prospects who are on the fringe of being draftable. I don’t feel confident about it but right now I’d pick Stanley over Shea Patterson or Brian Lewerke. Honestly, I think it might be the fact that I’ve seen less of Stanley and so the unknown makes me wonder about his potential. Of the three, Stanley is the biggest (a stout 6040/43) and has the most experience (31 games, 26 starts).  He also plays in a pro-style offense that has consistently produced NFL talent.  In highlights it looks like Stanley has great touch and adequate arm strength.  As I write this and the more I watch of his highlights, the more I’m ready to talk myself into Stanley as a Top 10 quarterback in this class.

KJ Hill, WR, Ohio State: Hill is a productive slot receiver whose route running is top notch.  He sells his changes of direction well which allows him to get open when some other receivers would still be covered.  Hill is good for some run after catch yardage and features a spin-out move that is effective.  He’s a willing blocker and has above average play strength.  One of my favorite #DraftTwitter follows is Mark Jarvis of @WhatsOnDraftNFL and he currently has Hill as his WR1 for the 2020 class.  Jarvis watches a ton of tape so I’m happy to see that a player I liked made (the top of) his list.

Tyler Johnson, WR, Minnesota: When all is said and done come January, I think Tyler Johnson could be the 2020 prospect with the widest range of potential outcomes.  I’ve seen him ranked as high as WR1 and have also seen analysts leave him off their rankings altogether.  I’m somewhere in between those extremes.  Johnson can win both inside and out so he’s a high-volume target in an otherwise mediocre Gopher offense.  His feet are explosive off the snap and out of his breaks and he understands how to uncover to make himself a target.  After the catch he’s a dynamic runner who is elusive and break-away fast.  Before we commit to any hot takes about Johnson, let’s wait and see how he fares in 2019.  Right now, I would predict that a solid NFL Combine cements Johnson to a mid-rounder.

Donovan Peoples-Jones, WR, Michigan: Donovan Peoples-Jones is part of a talented group of receivers in Ann Arbor that also includes Nico Collins and Tarik Black.  Peoples-Jones is the only of the three who has stayed healthy in his first two seasons though, so he has a leg up when it comes to his draft stock.  In addition to being a solid possession receiver with good body control, Peoples-Jones excels as a punt returner — he leads the NCAA in returns and is third in yards over the last two seasons.  His open-field running skills are on display after the catch as well.  Peoples-Jones probably hasn’t proven himself enough to garner much hype yet but keep an eye on him.

 

Notes: Heights listed are using a notation common among scouts where the first digit corresponds to the feet, the next two digits correspond to the inches and the fourth digit corresponds to the fraction, in eighths.  So, somebody measuring 5’11” and 3/8 would be 5113.  This is helpful when trying to sort players by height.  When studying a player I rely on game film “cuts” which are most frequently found on Youtube. If game film is not available I will search for highlight reels.  Keep in mind these highlight reels are the best plays of that player. When I have the option, I will choose to watch a game versus the better defense. Full disclosure, I am not watching film of every single game any player plays, instead I am looking for a representative sample.  There are a lot of analysts out there who have a deeper depth of knowledge about certain players but I pride myself in a wide breadth of knowledge about many players.  When researching my articles I use a number of valuable resources. I would recommend bookmarking the below sites:

  • Stats: espn.com, sports-reference.com, pro-football-reference.com, cfbstats.com, herosports.com, fcs.football, mcubed.net, expandtheboxscore.com, washingtonpost.com
  • Recruiting: 247Sports.com, espn.com, sbnation.com, rivals.com
  • Film: 2020 NFL Draft Database by Mark Jarvis, youtube.com
  • Draft info and mocks: draftcountdown.com, draftscout.com, mattwaldmanrsp.com, draftek.com, thedraftnetwork.com, nfl.com
  • NFL rosters, depth charts and contract info: ourlads.com, spotrac.com
  • Draft history: drafthistory.com
  • Combine info: pro-football-reference.com, espn.com, nflcombineresults.com, mockdraftable.com
  • Season preview magazines: Phil Steele, Lindy’s, Street and Smith’s, Athlon Sports
  • Podcasts: ESPN’s First Draft, The Audible by Football Guys (specifically episodes w/ Matt Waldman), UTH Dynasty, Draft Dudes, Saturday 2 Sunday, Locked on NFL Draft, Cover 3 College Football
  • Logos & Player Media Photos: collegepressbox.com
  • Odds & Gambling Stats: vegasinsider.com

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

More Analysis by Bob Cowper