2018 Post-Draft Rookie Rankings

Updated: May 11th 2018

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

#3 – Nick Chubb, RB, Browns

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

#5 – Rashaad Penny, RB, Seahawks

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

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

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

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

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

#39 – Lorenzo Carter, OLB, Giants

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

#45 – Ito Smith, RB, Falcons

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

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

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

#50 – Mason Rudolph, QB, Steelers

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

#64 – Josh Sweat, DE, Eagles

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

#80 – Richie James, WR, 49ers

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


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

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

Updated 2018 Positional Rookie Rankings

Updated: March 15th 2018

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

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

Quarterbacks

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

Running Backs

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

Wide Receivers

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

Tight Ends

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


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

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

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

More Analysis by Bob Cowper

The Watch List: Bowl Game Previews, Part II

Updated: December 14th 2017

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

Friday, Dec. 22

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, Dec. 23

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, Dec. 24

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

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

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

Tuesday, Dec. 26

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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