The Watch List 2021: Early RB Tiers

Updated: January 14th 2021

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

(Note: This article was written between January 7-13. By the time you read this it’s likely that many players will have made official announcements about whether they will enter the NFL Draft, transfer or return to school. Rumors abound about each player’s decision but we’ll know for sure by the time you read this.)

1.01 Contenders

  • Travis Etienne

  • Najee Harris

  • Javonte Williams

Two of the names in this cohort should not surprise you. Both Travis Etienne and Najee Harris would have been 1.01 contenders in the 2020 class if they came out after their junior years; and they did nothing to dispel that potential for 2021. Etienne has been my favorite running back in this class since I first saw him as a true freshman. He has speed to spare and has grown as a player to become a better pass catcher and blocker. Etienne had a good but not great season — his yards per carry was down to 5.4 while his first three seasons were all over 7.2 — but he really showed up as a receiver with 48-588-2. Harris had a fantastic season and likely edges out Etienne in most 1.01 conversations but their final order will come down to their landing spot. Harris is a beast at 6020/230 and yet is nimble on his feet and is a plus pass catcher. He had nearly 1,900 yards from scrimmage and scored 30 TDs this season. Get ready for a vociferous debate all winter long about which is the better back. If one player has a chance at upsetting the proverbial 1.01 applecart, I would say it’s Javonte Williams. He had solid production his first two years as a Tar Heel but exploded onto the national radar with a crazy six-week midseason run in 2020. In those six games, all against ACC opponents, Williams rushed for 754 yards and 11 scores. He has average or better size, speed and pass catching ability. Every season there seems to be one player who catapults themselves into the conversation for the top rookie pick and Williams might have done enough this season that a successful offseason will jump him up fantasy draft boards.  (All of this 1.01 talk is assuming you’re not playing superflex. If you are, please take Trevor Lawrence. If you’re playing in a 1 QB league the value changes so you should go RB or WR, but if I’m being honest, I’d still find it hard to pass on Lawrence and the value he could bring in the RSO format.)

Day Two Targets

  • Kenny Gainwell

  • Kylin Hill

  • Chuba Hubbard

  • Zamir White

If recent history is any indication, Day Two is typically when the running back run happens in the NFL Draft. The guys taken in that range are destined to become the late 1st and early 2nd rounders in your rookie drafts. Like a few other players featured in this article, Kenny Gainwell decided to opt out of the 2020 season and get ready for the NFL Draft. He does so with the confidence that his stellar 2019 season at Memphis will be enough to land among the top handful of prospects at the position. Memphis has had a tremendous run of producing NFL running back talent and it seems that Gainwell may be the best of the bunch. His 2019 highlights and totals are eye popping: 231 carries for 1,459 yards and 13 TDs combined with 51 receptions for 601 receiving yards and 3 receiving TDs. Gainwell is an excellent receiver and can accelerate into the secondary in a blink. He should test well which may quiet concerns about him being a one-year wonder. Kylin Hill has been on the cusp of breaking out for awhile now. His production crescendoed in 2019 as a junior when he put up a 1,350-10 season. Hill opted out after an injury in 2020 so we didn’t get to see much of him and will be relying on that 2019 tape to evaluate him. For whatever reason I never studied Kylin Hill closely so I need to fix that ASAP. Chuba Hubbard did play in 2020 and it’s likely that his average performance will cost him in terms of draft capital. Before the season I had predicted that Hubbard, a solid all-round back who can run with nuance, would be in the 1.01 conversation. He’s probably still a first round rookie pick but in terms of NFL value he may be better off returning for another season. Zamir White just can’t catch a break. The kid earned a near-perfect score as a recruit from 247Sports but endured back-to-back ACL tears which delayed the beginning of his college career. He contributed late in the 2019 season and was expected to star in 2020. He led the Bulldogs with 779-11 rushing but the season was off-kilter from the start between covid and a revolving door in the quarterback room. White will be a coveted early down runner at the next level whenever he decides to leave Athens.

Regular Season Risers

  • Michael Carter

  • Khalil Herbert

  • Jaret Patterson

The three backs I slotted here helped their NFL Draft stock immensely with their production in 2020 (ironically they are all also almost the exact same size at 5090/200). They may have started the season as being on the fringe of being draftable but now it’s possible they may have elevated themselves over some of the better-known names below. Let’s not fall too hard for recency bias though, these players will need to prove it throughout the pre-draft process as well. Michael Carter was the second head in the two-headed monster that was UNC’s rushing attack this season. In addition to 1,245-9 on the ground, Carter added 25-267-2 as a receiver (keep in mind that is in just eleven games). At 5080/199 he has a low center of gravity, and thick tree trunk-like legs, that make him a tough tackle. Carter has experience as a kick returner so I can easily see him earning a roster spot on special teams in training camp and then working his way into the offense. Admittedly, I have a blind spot for Khalil Herbert and am including him here based on his 2020 stats (1,183-8) and highlights (a very direct runner with 4.40 top end speed). Until I have a chance to study him further take Herbert’s placement with a grain of salt. The MAC played a six game season in 2020 so you’d think that Jaret Patterson didn’t have much time to wow amateur scouts like myself. You’d be wrong because he made the most of those opportunities. In mid-November he had back-to-back games with 301-4 and 409-8. That’s incredible, regardless of what level you’re playing at. Patterson led the MAC’s second-best running back, his teammate Kevin Marks, by a whopping 331 yards. His success was no fluke either: Patterson has fifteen career games with 100+ rushing yards. Patterson is small-ish, probably smaller than he’s listed, but he finds a way to get it done. A high draft pick and instant fantasy relevance may elude Patterson but I’m not going to bet against a guy who showed he can be a wildly productive high-volume running back.

Riddle-Wrapped Enigmas

  • Journey Brown

  • Jermar Jefferson

  • Trey Sermon

  • Stephen Carr

Journey Brown opted out of the 2020 season, a decision surely motivated by the 2021 NFL Draft. As a sophomore in 2019, Brown excelled down the stretch when he was the lead runner. In those last five games he averaged 118 yards per game and scored 9 TDs. Brown ticks a lot of boxes — ideal measurables at 5110/217, 4.40 speed, sublime contact balance — but he has just one game in his career where he handled 20+ carries and only three with 15+ carries. Brown has talent but I’m wary to project him too high in my rankings. After his 1,380 yard freshman season I assumed we would be talking highly of Jermar Jefferson in 2021 but an injury plagued sophomore season slowed his progress. His 6.5 yards per carry in 2020 was his best yet so maybe I should be feeling more bullish on his future fantasy value. Jefferson is a balanced back who has above average speed, elusiveness, power and balance. I wrote about Trey Sermon heading into the championship game and was looking forward to a big game to cement his rising draft stock. Sadly he got hurt on his first carry of the game and didn’t return. I still think Sermon’s slashing running style will find a home in the NFL. Oh, Stephen Carr. I gushed about this guy way back in 2017 when he was a highly touted true freshman but injuries and ineffectiveness limited his touches in the intervening years. He popped up with two scores in the Trojans’ first two games in 2020 and then had just 24 carries in the last four games. I refuse to give up on him, even if USC has.

Pass Catching Playmakers

  • Max Borghi

  • Deon Jackson

  • Isaih Pacheco

Heading into the 2020 season I was very excited about Max Borghi. I thought he could be the NFL’s next great pass catching back because he has the ability to stretch the defense horizontally before punishing would-be tacklers when he turns upfield. Unfortunately a back injury sidelined him for all but one game so it seems unlikely he makes the jump for 2021. Deon Jackson is my current pick for the out-of-nowhere fantasy relevant rookie running back in 2021. He was an unheralded 3-star recruit back in 2016 and averaged just 4.3 yards per carry in his career on some middling Duke teams. When I watched him for my Week 7 preview, I noted that he is patient but decisive. I saw fantastic skills as a receiver and saw him trusted in pass protection. I’ll be following Jackson closely in the pre-draft process to see if he starts to earn any plaudits from draft pundits. I root hard for my hometown Rutgers Scarlet Knights (although the Michigan Wolverines were my first love) so it’s exciting to finally highlight one of my favorite “choppers.” Isaih [sic] Pacheco has super lateral quickness and deploys a deadly horizontal cut at the line of scrimmage that sets him up for big runs off the edge. He’s a plus receiver and I think he’ll test well athletically. Unfortunately there’s literally zero cut-ups out there for Pacheco so I’m going off memory here and can’t wait for him to receive some well deserved exposure.

Spacey Satellites

  • Javian Hawkins

  • Pooka Williams

Hawkins and Williams are both smaller prospects who are likely to be seen as “space” players at the pro level. Both players feature blazing speed and quickness. Hawkins, listed at 5090/196, runs with a ferociousness that belies his frame. I doubt he himself is convinced he can’t be between-the-tackles runner in the NFL. I watched Hawkins against Miami back in September and was impressed with how he ran against the 17th ranked ‘Canes. Hawkins, whose nickname is Playstation because of his video game-like moves, had a career-high 16 receptions in 2020 and will need to continue to develop as a receiver as that’s likely to be a part of his role in the NFL. Pooka Williams, 5100/170, isn’t afraid of a little contact either but his game is predicated on his impressive ability to stop and change direction on a dime. He’s also an angle buster when he breaks through the second level which makes it even harder for safeties and corners to catch him. Williams played in just four games this season before opting out for family reasons; those four performances were lackluster and didn’t help his draft stock if I’m being honest. He also has a domestic violence arrest in his past so Williams comes with baggage that teams will need to unpack. I think Williams may be best served by returning to Kansas and reminding us once again why we loved watching him.

Undervalued, Underdrafted

  • Keaontay Ingram

  • Brian Robinson

  • Larry Rountree

  • CJ Verdell

The four players in this tier are Power 5 guys who I feel may be undervalued right now, and as such, will be underdrafted when it comes to your 2021 rookie drafts. Keaontay Ingram was a big cog in the Longhorns’ offense in his first two seasons on campus, coming in as a heralded 4-star recruit. Unfortunately, an ankle injury cut his 2020 season short. Ingram runs with a suddenness and forward pad lean that I think will translate to the pros. He also has excellent hands out of the backfield. If Brian Robinson were on any other team than Alabama he’d probably be an All-Conference player and find himself high atop these rankings. I’ve highlighted him a few times on The Watch List, always waiting for his breakout that never quite came. Robinson has great size at 6000/226 and I have previously noted that he runs with vision. I’ll take an educated guess that more than one team will see him as ready-made for the NFL. Perhaps most undervalued on this list is Larry Rountree. He was the main reason that recent iterations of the Mizzou Tigers weren’t even more irrelevant in the SEC. Rountree is trending upward at just the right time: in 2020 he increased his per-touch numbers, and set a career-high for both rushing touchdowns (14) and receptions (15). Rountree may not be a sexy name but to me he looks like the type of back who can stick around. I watched CJ Verdell’s opening match against Stanford this year and was impressed with his brute force running style. His signature play from the game, and the one sure to feature on his NFL Draft coverage, is a bone crunching hit he delivers to two Cardinals at the goal line to force his way in for the points. He caught two balls in that game and I thought he should have been featured more as a receiver (he did have 27 receptions as a frosh). I’m not sure that Verdell has reached his potential yet and that’s saying something for somebody who has two 1,000 yard campaigns under his belt.

Short Yardage Specialists

  • Rakeem Boyd

  • Stevie Scott

  • Master Teague

These three backs were difficult for me to place in my running back hierarchy. It’s not that these guys didn’t catch any passes in college — Boyd and Scott each have a 20+ reception season in their past — it’s that I feel their future role will be limited to a situational runner. They may get drafted above some of the aforementioned players but in terms of fantasy value they will be lacking. Vulturing some touchdowns is nice but touchdowns are difficult to predict and as such I would often lean towards a player with a better chance at reliable touches. Stevie Scott is the biggest of the bunch here (6020/231) but is likely the most limited of the trio. I liked what I saw of Boyd when I did a quick study of him early in the season, however he struggled for much of 2020. I coined a phrase to describe him: a wallop-gallop runner. I didn’t watch the season on which he was featured but he was a star on Last Chance U if you’re interested in seeing some of his back story.  I think Teague has the most natural talent of these later round options and has a chance to transcend a situational role. He has a small-ish sample size and has dealt with a number of serious injuries throughout his career (concussion, Achilles, foot) so I would actually expect him to return to Ohio State for his senior season and hopefully put together a full season.

Small School Sleepers

  • Spencer Brown

  • Brenden Knox

  • Elijah Mitchell

  • Trey Ragas

My “Small School Sleepers” would usually include some solid FCS players to watch, however we largely missed out on an FCS season. Side note: doesn’t it feel like those early season games featuring teams like Central Arkansas and Campbell were played three years ago? 24 of the 26 players featured above are all Power 5 prospects so I figured this was the spot to share some Group of Five love. Trey Ragas and Elijah Mitchell were mainstays for the Ragin’ Cajuns for the last four years. Ragas accumulated 4,001 career yards from scrimmage and 43 touchdowns; meanwhile Mitchell totaled 3,864 and 46. That’s a hell of a duo. Ragas and Mitchell popped up on The Watch List back in 2018 and 2019 but I have not recently watched them so they deserve some closer attention this offseason. Spencer Brown dazzled as a true freshman but fell out of favor with #DraftTwitter after a lackluster junior season. In a shortened 2020 senior season he put up good totals — 10 TDs, six games with 100+ yards — but I recall that he looked pedestrian for the most part in his showcase game against Miami. I’m not sure that Brown has NFL-level ability when it comes to power, speed or receiving but there’s something to be said for dur-ability and avail-ability. Way back in 2018 and 2019 I had said that Brown could be “a star in the making” and surmised that he could “find a role in the NFL as an early down runner.” I may have missed the mark there but I have a soft spot for Brown and hope he gets a shot in the NFL. Brenden Knox always makes me question my spell checker — that’s two Es and no As please. Knox capitalized on the increased attention at the beginning of the season when most of the Power 5 was still idle, averaging 112 yards per game and scoring nine times in his first six games. I see a back with the jump and the juice to get the edge and the power to move the pile. As a junior with two more years of eligibility we may not see him hit the draft in 2021 but he’s somebody we should study closely when he does.

 

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: 2018 Big 12 Preview

Updated: July 21st 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:  Will Grier, QB, West Virginia.  It feels like cheating when I take the best passer in the conference as my Heisman favorite.  Alas, that’s the way it goes these days.  Grier threw for 3,490 yards in 2017 but he’ll need to approach 4,000 if he’s to be a true Heisman contender.
  • Darkhorse Heisman Candidate:  Kyler Murray, QB, Oklahoma.  Murray has name cachet already because of his impending baseball career.  He was selected 9th overall by the Oakland A’s but still plans to play football in 2018.  If Murray is playing well, which I anticipate, he will get a lot of buzz because he has a story media outlets can sell.
  • Offensive Player of the Year:  David Montgomery, RB, Iowa State.  No offensive player will mean more to his team this season in the Big 12 than Montgomery will to the Cyclones.  He is not a breakaway runner but he has amazing balance and tackle breaking ability.  He’ll have a number of “how did he do that” highlights again this season.
  • Defensive Player of the Year:  Joe Dineen, LB, Kansas.  Dineen was a Second-Team All-American last season after a 133 tackle season.  He led the Big 12 in tackles and tackles for loss in 2017 (and was top five in the nation in both stats).  He also added 2.5 sacks.  He may not draw the NFL Draft hype that Texas Tech LB Dakota Allen will but Dineen will again prove to be a bright spot on a poor Kansas team.
  • Newcomer of the Year:  Keaontay Ingram, RB, Texas.  Ingram was ranked the #6 running back in the class by 247Sports and #10 by Phil Steele.  Ingram is listed at 6010/190 which is good size for an incoming freshman.  He hails from Texas and received an offer from just about every school in the Big 12 and Big Ten so it was a good get for the rebounding Longhorns.  Per 247Sports, Ingram had 39 total TDs and over 2,500 total yards last season.  Texas’ leading rusher last season, with 385 yards, was QB Sam Ehlinger so the depth chart is wide open for Ingram to earn a role.
  • Underclassman to Watch:  Ceedee Lamb, WR, Oklahoma.  Lamb was the Sooners third leading receiver last year (46-807-7) as a true freshman.  While the numbers weren’t stellar, Lamb stood out to me a few times when I watched OU play, specifically against Texas Tech.  He took over that Tech game, earning 147 yards and 2 TDs on 9 receptions.  He was a bit inconsistent in 2017 but I would expect that to even out as he gains more experience.  He’ll need to adjust to a new quarterback again this season but I’m expecting a 60-1,000-8 season from Lamb which would put him in the NFL Draft conversation for 2020.
  • Best QB-WR Tandem:  Will Grier and David Sills, West Virginia.  I wanted to avoid listing West Virginia or Oklahoma here to add a little variety to the preview but there just aren’t enough good quarterbacks right now in the Big 12.  Grier and Sills are the name brand tandem to watch.  Grier also has WR Gary Jennings to target.  Last year Jennings led the team in yards and receptions but isn’t the scoring threat that Sills is while playing over the middle from the slot.  A sleeper QB-WR tandem to keep an eye on is Iowa State’s sixth year senior QB Kyle Kempt and WR Hakeem Butler.  Kempt battled injuries but was efficient when he played (145.9 rating, 15 TD to just 3 INT); Butler has great size at 6060 and averaged 17.0 yards per catch.
  • Best RB Corps:  Oklahoma.  The Sooners have one of the best backs in the conference in junior Rodney Anderson (more on him below) but it’s more about the supporting cast.  Lincoln Riley’s backfield also boasts sophomore Trey Sermon who had a great true freshman season (744-5 rushing and 16-139-2 receiving) and is a devy league darling.  New to the mix this season will be redshirt sophomore Kennedy Brooks and freshman TJ Pledger.  Both Brooks and Pledger were 4-star recruits according to 247Sports.  OU’s third-stringer was good for over 500 yards last year so I expect both to contribute.  Defenses will also need to be wary of QB Kyler Murray who has wheels; he rushed for 142 yards on just 10 carries last season in limited duty.
  • Coach on the Hottest Seat:  David Beaty, Kansas.  It should be no surprise to find Beaty in this ignominious position after a 1-11 season in 2017.  In his three seasons with the Jayhawks, Beaty has just 3 wins (and 33 losses).  Kansas won’t be good this season but they will be improved.  I’m thinking that four wins saves Beaty his job and that might not be a stretch given the experience this squad has.

Teams to Watch

 Kansas Jayhawks (1-11 in 2017)

As I mentioned above, Kansas is very experienced.  So much so that Phil Steele ranks them as #1 in his NCAA Experience Chart for 2018.  The Experience Chart is a favorite tool of mine to aid in finding under-the-radar teams for the upcoming season.  While the Jayhawks may not posses much talent, their consistency and maturity will help.  The team returns 19 starters but even more importantly is the depth that they return: they have the second most letter winners returning in the nation.  The two returning quarterbacks, Carter Stanley and Peyton Bender, split time last year due to ineffectiveness and injury.  Leading rusher Khalil Herbert (663-4) is back, as is WR Steven Sims (59-839-6) who also doubles as a return man.  The aforementioned LB Joe Dineen leads the defense.  Kansas should start with two wins against Nicholls and Central Michigan.  It’s feasible they split the next two games, home against Rutgers and at Baylor.  That could be the extent of their wins for the season but because of their experience I would not count out the possibility of getting to four and saving David Beaty’s job.

 Oklahoma State (10-3 in 2017)

I’ll be watching Oklahoma State closely this season, but not because I expect them to improve upon last season.  Instead, I’m half-expecting Mike Gundy’s team to implode in 2018.  The Cowboys lose QB Mason Rudolph, WRs James Washington and Marcell Atemen and three of their four top tacklers.  In contrast to Kansas, OK State is one of the least experienced teams in the nation (ranked #119).  They do return RBs Justice Hill and JD King but the offense may struggle for the first time in years.  Senior QB Taylor Cornelius is the presumed starter but graduate transfer Dru Brown could beat him out.  Whoever is under center will be hoping that WRs Jalen McCleskey and Dillon Stoner can pick up the slack after the departures of Washington and Ateman.  If you’re a bettor, Oklahoma State will be an interesting team to handicap.  The schedule starts favorable with four straight home games (Missouri State, South Alabama, Boise State, Texas Tech) and then features two winnable road games before their bye week (Kansas and Kansas State).  I would pick them to win most of those games, but chances are you can safely take the points against Boise State, Texas Tech and Kansas State.  It’s possible that the Cowboys are 6-1 and riding high heading into their October 27th matchup against Texas, but I think it will be fool’s gold so don’t let them sucker you into a late season bet.

Players to Watch

Honorable Mentions

  • Justice Hill, RB, Oklahoma State:  Hill has put together two very encouraging seasons in his first two years as a Cowboy. He averages 5.5 yards per carry and topped 200+ carries and 1,000+ yards in each season. In 2017 he increased his scoring production with 15 rushing TDs. He also got heavily involved in the passing game with 31 receptions and 190 receiving yards. He’s a bit undersized at 185lb but I would expect him to bulk up a bit after another offseason of training. Hill’s production was mostly overshadowed by the high powered passing offense led by former QB Mason Rudolph and WR James Washington. With that passing battery moving onto the NFL, Hill will see a larger share of the offense.
  • David Sills, WR, West Virginia: David Sills, listed at 6030/201, is a quarterback-turned-receiver who led the nation in touchdown receptions in 2017. Sills only caught 60 balls for 980 yards, both just third best on the team. Sills has had an interesting path to being one of the conference’s top receiver prospects. You may recall that years ago then USC head coach Lane Kiffin offered a scholarship to a middle schooler. That player was Sills. He ultimately went to WVU instead where he was unable to earn playing time as a quarterback. He left the school to go the JUCO route before returning to the ‘Neers for a second stint, this time at WR. You could spin this as either a positive (he’s determined) or a negative (he must not be that good if it took so long to find the field as a receiver) so I’ll reserve judgment for now. Sills has one of the leading quarterback prospects tossing him the ball so I anticipate another big season, although that touchdown rate will be impossible to keep up.
  • Collin Johnson, WR, Texas:  If you’re looking for a high upside X receiver at the next level, look no further than Collin Johnson. He is massive at 6060/220 and would have been one of the biggest receivers in the 2017 class. The Longhorn offense struggled at times in 2017 while they switched between Shane Buechele and Sam Ehlinger. Neither signal caller was particularly great last year but Ehlinger offers some dynamism as a rusher so he’ll likely be the starter (he led the team with 381 rushing yards). At least whoever starts will boast some experience which should help Johnson improve on his 54-765-2 campaign. I want to see Johnson prove himself to be a red zone threat with that size so let’s hope the offense overall is improved. As the cliche goes, you can’t teach size.
  • Denzel Mims, WR, Baylor:  Mims had a few huge games last year for an atrocious Baylor team. Against Oklahoma, he went for 11-192-3. Meanwhile, against Texas Tech he had 12 grabs for 152 yards and a score. Unfortunately, both of those outings, plus two other 100+ yard games, weren’t enough to push the Bears past their opposition. Part of me worries that too much of his production may have come in garbage time (full disclosure: I haven’t studied the play-by-play to see when the bulk of his yards came, it’s just a thought I had while researching). His 6030/200 frame comes with 4.50 speed so if he can prove his value to the team we’ll be talking about him as an NFL Draft hopeful.
  • Dalton Risner, OT, Kansas State:  Risner measures in at 6050 and 300lbs and was a potential NFL Draft prospect in 2018 before deciding to return to to school.  He had offseason shoulder surgery, surely one of the reasons he decided to return.  Risner is a two-time First-Team All-Big 12 performer who has starting experience at both C and RT.  That versatility will help increase his stock for the 2019 draft.
  • Dakota Allen, LB, Texas Tech:  Allen is a leading IDP prospect but that’s probably not why you might recognize his name.  In 2016, Allen transferred to East Mississippi Community College after being dismissed from Tech for burglary.  EMCC is better known as “Last Chance U” and is the topic of a popular Netflix documentary series.  Allen featured in the show’s second season.  Tech’s coaches thought enough of the young man to give him another chance so here we are.  Allen had 101 tackles in 2017 to go along with 2 sacks and 2 INTs.  It’ll be interesting to hear what his narrative is, whether a story of redemption or of character concerns.

Will Grier, QB, West Virginia

For much of 2017, Will Grier was overshadowed by Baker Mayfield and Mason Rudolph in the Big 12 but that all changes this year when Grier figures to be the conference’s best.  I briefly discussed Grier’s backstory last season so I won’t rehash it here and will instead focus on the stats and the tape.  Grier completes nearly 65% of his passes and has a 3:1 TD:INT ratio for his career.  Last season with West Virginia, Grier finished in the top ten in the NCAA in passer rating (162.7), yards per attempt (9.0) and touchdowns (34).  Those positive stats are backed up by some positive traits that I noticed while watching tape.
When you watch Grier, it’s immediately clear that he has a confidence and a swagger that not all quarterbacks share.  He trusts his arm and is not afraid to let it fly.  He has one of the strongest arms of QBs I have watched so far this offseason.  He can launch it 50 yards downfield on the run but can also quickly fire the ball to the sideline on a quick screen.  That arm strength costs him some touch though, which was evident on a number of fade patterns near the end zone.  As good as his arm strength is, Grier’s best attribute for me was his pocket presence.  He does not get rattled as he slides and steps up.  His feet are active while in the pocket which allows him to escape and evade with ease (his spin move reminded this Cowboy fan of one Tony Romo).  All the while, he keeps his eyes downfield and scans through his progressions.  I did note a few negatives in Grier’s game as well.  His short yardage accuracy and mechanics can improve.  He has a tendency to jump-pass short throws which often fell incomplete (or worse) in my study.  Grier also had a few balls batted down at the line of scrimmage.  The jump-pass tendency and the batted balls combine to lead me to believe he’s closer to 6000 than 6020 as listed.  Grier shows the ability to anticipate receivers and lead them, especially on deep post routes where he’s adept at splitting the safeties, but that anticipation can be inconsistent.  Grier is seemingly capable of the impossible, like his on-the-run hail mary touchdown against Kansas State, but he does have some work to do on the little things.
He’ll be hoping to continue on the path to the NFL Draft that Mayfield and Rudolph walked last season.  Grier is a top ten prospect at the position for me right now so I would anticipate him going sometime in Day Two come next April.

David Montgomery, RB, Iowa State

David Montgomery was one of my favorite players to watch last season even though I wasn’t writing about him in a fantasy context since he was just a true sophomore.  This year I’m excited to look at him through the fantasy lens.  Montgomery’s highlight reel runs last season were abundant.  According to Pro Football Focus, Montgomery broke their record for most missed tackles forced in a season, breaking Dalvin Cook’s record by more than 10%.  Montgomery rushed for 1,148 yards and added 36 receptions for 296 yards.  He had 11 rushing TDs which is good but not great, ranking 3rd in the conference.  The biggest cause for concern is Montgomery’s yards per carry: 4.4.  Of the fifty backs currently in my 2019 database, only two had averages lower than Montgomery and neither is remotely close to his quality.
The low yards per carry average, in my opinion, is a result of Montgomery’s boom-or-bust tendency.  I don’t actually track the stat but it felt like he had more no-gain runs than other running back prospects I studied this offseason.  When Montgomery breaks loose though, he’s dangerous.  He has fantastic change of direction, cutting ability and contact balance.  It doesn’t matter where on his body he is contacted, he can usually keep his progress moving forward for extra yards.  He repeatedly used a back cut at the line of scrimmage paired with enough acceleration to get around the whiffing defender.  Montgomery is such a good pass blocker that I stopped taking notes on positive blocks.  He’s also successful in the passing game, displaying good hands that he uses to snag the ball away from his body more often than not.  Iowa State trusted his route running ability enough to have him running patterns from motion or lined up wide.  When split out, he often runs a short stop route; out of the backfield he’s adept at finding space in the middle of the zone.  On numerous occasions, Montgomery flashed a nifty spin move as he caught the ball on swing passes; it was super effective at making the first defender miss.  He does lack elite speed but all of his other attributes help cover up the deficiency.
Since Montgomery is a factor in the passing game, he has the potential to be a three down back in the pros.  Right now he’s my RB1 for 2019 and I would anticipate him being in the 1.01 conversation for next season.  (Film watched: Texas 2017, Oklahoma State 2017)

Rodney Anderson, RB, Oklahoma

Before I get into Anderson’s successes on the field last year, I first need to touch on the injuries that kept him off the field in 2015 and 2016.  In 2015, Anderson suffered a broken leg in the second game of the season (he had just one carry before the injury).  Before the 2016 season even started, he broke a bone in his neck which forced him to miss the entire season.  At the time, coach Bob Stoops was quoted as saying, “there’s no paralysis or anything like that.”  Hardly reassuring.  Anderson also has a potential red flag in an alleged sexual assault from 2017.  Ultimately the district attorney declined to press charges, saying that they were “unwarranted,” but I can’t help but think it will ding his NFL Draft stock.  It’s a shame that his injury history may be disqualifying to many fantasy owners, myself included, because Anderson put out some great tape in 2017.
The word I wrote most often when watching Anderson’s tape was “momentum.”  He runs with great power and above average speed and often powers over and through defenders.  While he may not have elite top speed, his acceleration appears to be elite after my limited watch of his film.  Despite his 6020/220 size, Anderson is able to change direction and stop on a dime when necessary.  On numerous occasions he was stopped cold in the backfield only to step back to find a small seam to gain some positive yardage.  Anderson is a good pass blocker and I think with more experience could become one of the best at the position in next year’s draft class.  My biggest gripe with his film against Georgia was his poor showing in the passing game.  I am sure he has the talent, because he showed it in other games, but his routes rarely afforded him any space and his hands failed him on at least two plays against Georgia.  Hopefully further film study will put that concern to rest.
In 2017 when I was writing about Clemson WR Mike Williams, who also suffered a broken neck, I said: “Ultimately, I am too hesitant to take Williams…At this point, I’d rather be the guy who misses on Williams… [rather] than the guy who takes him despite the neck injury…and is stuck with a bad contract.”  That’s basically where I am with Anderson at the moment.  There’s no doubt he has talent but because of the sunk cost of drafting bust rookies in the RSO format, I will be avoiding him.  (Film watched: Georgia 2017, 2017 Highlights)

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
  • 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

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