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 V

Updated: December 30th 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. 29

Hyundai Sun Bowl, Arizona State (7-5) vs. #24 North Carolina State (8-4), 2 p.m. (CBS)

  • Arizona State: 40th scoring offense, 49th passing offense, 50th rushing offense; 88th scoring defense, 119th passing defense, 82nd rushing defense
  • NC State: 47th scoring offense, 29nd passing offense, 51st rushing offense; 50th scoring defense, 97th passing defense, 29th rushing defense

Both of these teams have endured some coaching carousel drama over the last month.  NC State’s Dave Doeren was an early target in Tennessee’s never-ending coach search but ultimately he spurned the Vols to stick with the Wolfpack.  Doeren has NC State playing in their fourth straight bowl and should the team stay competitive next year he’ll probably be in the running for an even bigger job at the end of 2018.  Arizona State made the odd, in my opinion, hire of Herm Edwards.  Herm is a master motivator for sure but Herm has not been involved with the college game since 1989.  Even more odd is that outgoing coach Todd Graham is sticking around to coach the bowl.

Arizona State’s offense is led by two NFL hopefuls in senior RB Kalen Ballage and sophomore WR N’Keal Harry.  Ballage is a big back at 6’3″ and 230lbs.  His size concerns me because few backs have been successful in the NFL at that height.  Since 2010, only four backs have measured 6’2″ and 225lbs or bigger at the combine: Derrick Henry, Matt Jones, Dominique Brown and James Wilder.  Henry has potential but he has not yet earned the starting role in Tennessee and teams may be hesitant to roll the dice on a big back like Ballage.  Ballage has not handled a full load in any of his four seasons but he is a productive pass catcher (44 receptions in 2016, 19 this year).  His high number of carries came this year with 153.  He has under 2,000 yards in his career.  I’m just not able to get that excited about him, honestly.  I have read comparisons to David Johnson but I think that is crazy: Johnson was more than twice as productive in most stat categories in college.  Ballage will get drafted in fantasy leagues but it won’t be by me.  The other big name for the Sun Devils is WR N’Keal Harry.  Harry is not draft eligible so it’s not worth a deep dive yet but you will hear his name constantly next season.  He has elite height (6’4″) and has been very productive as a young receiver on a mediocre team (career line of 131-1,659-12).  Add Harry to your 2019 short list now!

North Carolina State has three draft prospects that I will touch on.  First and foremost is DE Bradley Chubb.  I mentioned Chubb a few times in the middle of the season when NC State was looking like it could challenge Clemson for the conference title.  He has 25 sacks and 54.5 tackles for loss in his career.  Chubb is relentless and should be a Top 5 pick in the NFL Draft.  Sadly, he’s banged up and may miss the bowl game.  On offense, QB Ryan Finley and TE Jaylen Samuels are the two to watch.  Samuels is one of my favorite players of the season because he transcends position.  He is listed as a TE but he’s really too small to play the position in the NFL.  Instead he’ll probably factor in as a hybrid RB, FB, TE who lines up all over the field.  To give you an idea of Samuels’ versatility, look at his 2017 stats: 68 receptions, 547 receiving yards, 4 rushing TDs, 72 rushing attempts, 387 rushing yards and 11 rushing TDs.  Samuels was the only player in the FBS with more than 65 receptions and rushing attempts.  More so than any other prospect, Samuels’ 2018 fantasy value relies heavily on his landing spot.  If he gets drafted by a team with a creative offense he could turn into the ultimate third down and short yardage weapon.  Finley is a late round quarterback prospect that is hard for me to get excited about.  He should add a few pounds to his 6’4″ frame because he’s listed at just 210lbs and may be lighter.  He’s efficient and does not turn the ball over often.  Finley does have another year of eligibility so we could see him come back for another season to improve his draft stock.  WalterFootball.com has him as QB16 for 2018 while NFLDraftScout.com has him as QB14 in his 2019 class.  If he can show a more prolific side to his game in 2018, he could become a mid-rounder next year.

Even if it weren’t for the Sun Devils coaching distractions, I would have gone for NC State because Arizona State’s defense is so bad.  Prediction: North Carolina State

Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic, #8 USC (11-2) vs. #5 Ohio State (11-2), 8:30 p.m. (ESPN)

  • USC: 24th scoring offense, 19th passing offense, 36th rushing offense; 61st scoring defense, 98th passing defense, 57th rushing defense
  • Ohio State: 5th scoring offense, 28th passing offense, 13th rushing offense; 22nd scoring defense, 18th passing defense, 7th rushing defense

I don’t care what the name of this bowl is, it’s the Rose Bowl to me.  I hate the fact that with the new CFP we lose the historical tradition of some of the biggest games.  The folks running the Cotton Bowl got themselves a doozy of a matchup with two Power 5 conference champions and a slew of NFL prospects.  Covering each and every one of the draft hopefuls in this game is impossible – I will touch on a few but by no means is this a comprehensive list.

Let’s start with Ohio State.  By now, we have all heard and participated in the debate about whether or not Ohio State should have been in the playoff.  I fear that topic will be prominent during the telecast and will overshadow some of the great players on the field for the Buckeyes.  QB JT Barrett improved on a number of stats this season but probably hurt his chances of playing quarterback in the NFL after poor performances in three big games (against Iowa, Michigan [before the injury], and Wisconsin).  I don’t have an opinion yet on whether Barrett should enter the draft process as a QB but my gut says he will.  The RB duo of freshman JK Dobbins and redshirt sophomore Mike Weber was very productive (nearly 2,000 combined rushing yards and 17 TDs).  Dobbins took advantage of an early, and lingering, injury to Weber to steal the lead role.  If Weber comes out for the 2018 draft, I think his stock is less now than it was four months ago.  He could return but it’s clear he won’t be the first choice back.  Maybe he transfers, sits out a year, and dominates at a lower level Power 5 school in 2019.  I listed Weber as my RB13 in November so if he does come out he’s a mid-rounder at best.  The strength of Ohio State’s team lies outside of the offensive skill positions.  Drafttek.com has six Buckeyes ranked in their Top 10 NFL draft prospects from the Big Ten: three defensive linemen (Sam Hubbard, Tyquan Lewis, Dante Booker), one corner (Denzel Ward) and two offensive linemen (Jamarco Jones and Billy Price).  I’ll venture a guess that four of the six go in the first round (Ward, Hubbard, Price, Jones) with the other two following on Day Two.  The best prospect on the defense, sophomore DE Nick Bosa, is not yet draft eligible but he’d be a first rounder too if he were.

The biggest name on USC’s team is QB Sam Darnold but he has really hurt his draft stock this season.  Darnold was a walking turnover in 2017: 12 INTs and 10 fumbles (7 of which were lost).  Elite quarterback prospects just can’t turn the ball over that often; for comparison, Rosen (13) and Mayfield (5) combine for fewer turnovers than Darnold.  Darnold is only a redshirt sophomore so he is young and still has two more years of eligibility should he decide to return to college for further seasoning.  Ultimately, I think Darnold comes out and is a Top 3 pick because of the potential the he has shown.  Despite his turnovers, the yardage, scoring and efficiency are all above average.  He’s also an above average runner with enough speed to earn first downs when flushed from the pocket.  What Darnold has that doesn’t show up in the box score is his confidence and swagger.  If I had to pick one college QB to lead my team in a comeback, I would take Darnold because he wouldn’t shrink from the challenge.  One negative: Darnold’s throwing motion.  I noticed this in the offseason and plan on watching more film before the draft to see if it’s improved.  Darnold’s favorite receiver is WR Deontay Burnett.  Burnett is undersized (6’0″ and 170lbs) so he likely won’t garner early round attention but I’ve raved about him numerous times this season.  A close size comp for Burnett would be Travis Benjamin who was a 4th round pick back in 2012.  Burnett was good, but not great, this season going for 74-975-9.  I started the season low on RB Ronald Jones but I came around by mid-September.  He is just so quick and agile that it’s almost not fair to defenders.  I was previously concerned about his size but no longer.  Even though he missed a game due to injury, Jones totaled 1,486 yards and 18 rushing TDs; he added 13 receptions for 165 yards and another score.  After a down game against Notre Dame, Jones ended the season strong with over 800 yards and 10 TDs in the last five games.  He’s fun to watch and I am so happy he won’t be skipping the Cotton Bowl.  On defense, the Trojans have a number of prospects including Cameron Smith and Porter Gustin.  Gustin missed most of the season, and is doubtful for the bowl, but could get drafted based on a solid sophomore season if he comes out (68 tackles, 13 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks).  Smith is a prototypical MLB who has 263 career tackles and has been a big part of the USC defense for three years; according to WalterFootball.com he is looking at a mid-round grade.

Ohio State’s defense will be the best unit on the field and is strong enough to limit Darnold and Jones.  I expect the Buckeyes to win in a game where they beat USC in time of possession.  Prediction: Ohio State

Saturday, Dec. 30

TaxSlayer Bowl, Louisville (8-4) vs. #23 Mississippi State (8-4), 12 p.m. (ESPN)

  • Louisville: 13th scoring offense, 15th passing offense, 14th rushing offense; 71st scoring defense, 77th passing defense, 52nd rushing defense
  • Mississippi State: 38th scoring offense, 109th passing offense, 15th rushing offense; 24th scoring defense, 13th passing defense, 24th rushing defense

As far as the NFL Draft prospects go this matchup is all about Louisville, let’s touch on Mississippi State first though.  QB Nick Fitzgerald could be an interesting study in 2019 but I don’t think he has enough of a resume to warrant coming out for 2018, especially after a season-ending ankle injury sustained on Thanksgiving.  NFLDraftScout.com has him as the QB6 in his 2019 draft class.  Fitzgerald will need to improve on his efficiency in 2018 because he doesn’t complete enough passes (55.6%) and throws too many INTs (15:11 ratio this season).  He’s a tremendous rushing threat with 33 career rushing TDs and nearly 2,500 yards but that won’t matter to scouts if he’s missing throws.  The backup QB is freshman Keytaon Thompson.  I don’t think I have seen any of Thompson play this season but I am intrigued by the combination of his size (6’4″ 222lbs) and rushing ability (he played in nine games this season totaling 299 yards and 3 TDs rushing).  Thompson played significant snaps in the Egg Bowl vs Ole Miss after Fitzgerald went down so at least he’s not coming in cold.  He rushed for 121 yards and a score but only completed 13 of his 27 passes for 195 yards.  I came across the name of DB JT Gray on NDT Scouting’s website while researching potential draft prospects from Mississippi State.  He has played at both linebacker and safety and his listed measureables are similar to those of Jabril Peppers who was a first rounder last year; maybe he could be a poor man’s Pepper in the late rounds.  Per Pro Football Focus, Gray did not allow a single TD in coverage this year and the passer rating against him was 70.4 which is above average.

Louisville has their own DB, Jaire Alexander, who excels in those same metrics.  Alexander has also shut out opposing receivers and, this is not a typo, has allowed a passer rating against of just 17.7.  For comparison, a QB who had one completion for negative nine yards would have a rating of 16.  Alexander allowed just five receptions on the season and ranks 5th in PFF’s “Cover Snaps per Reception” stat, meaning he is in coverage a lot and allows few receptions.  Alexander declared for the 2018 draft already and is skipping the bowl so you won’t get to see him play against Mississippi State but you’ll see him playing on Sundays soon.  You may be thinking to yourself, how has he not mentioned Lamar Jackson yet?  You’re right I may be burying the lede but Jackson has been talked about ad nauseam on every platform this season.  That includes me too: I tagged Jackson in eight of my weekly The Watch List pieces and focused on him in my preseason preview.  Talk of Jackson changing position is useless, in my opinion, because Jackson will go into the NFL as a quarterback.  If anything, the brief spark of Deshaun Watson this season shows NFL teams that a lightning quick deep-ball thrower with accuracy issues can still lead a team to victory.  Some team will take Jackson in the first round but I don’t think I’ll be taking him in any of my fantasy drafts.  Jackson’s top target is junior WR Jaylen Smith.  Smith is 6’4″ and 219lbs which is great size for a receiver but it’s his speed and deep-ball ability that makes him a threat to the defense.  To illustrate this, despite his size, only three of his 53 receptions came in the red zone; meanwhile he had seven receptions of 25+ yards.  He totaled 873 yards and 6 TDs (he missed three games due to a wrist injury).  I’m not as high on Smith as some, including our friends at Dynasty Command Center who have him as their WR5 for 2018 rookies.  Jackson and Smith versus the stout Bulldog defense will be fun to watch, regardless of what you think of their NFL chances.

Defense wins championships, sure, but offense wins college bowl games.  Take the Cardinals.  Prediction: Louisville

AutoZone Liberty Bowl, Iowa State (7-5) vs. #20 Memphis (10-2), 12:30 p.m. (ABC)

  • Iowa State: 53rd scoring offense, 32nd passing offense, 112th rushing offense; 28th scoring defense, 81st passing defense, 31st rushing defense
  • Memphis: 2nd scoring offense, 8th passing offense, 31st rushing offense; 104th scoring defense, 123rd passing defense, 100th rushing defense

Iowa State had a whirlwind of a season.  Get it?  The Cyclones had a whirlwind…. okay, okay I’ll stop.  Seriously though, Iowa State was a surprisingly fun team to watch this season.  They had a number of interesting story lines throughout the season including 1) an up-and-coming head coach in Matt Campbell, 2) jack-of-all-trades Joel Lanning playing at both LB and QB in a number of games, 3) the continued emergence of RB David Montgomery, 4) the revolving door at quarterback including underclassmen, walk-ons and transfers and 5) the upset of #3 Oklahoma and #4 TCU.  Montgomery is fantastic.  He has good speed, is amazing at breaking tackles and gaining yards after contact and is a reliable receiver.  He is just a sophomore so he’s not coming out in 2018 but there’s a chance he is my top RB next year.  Leading receiver Allen Lazard is a 6’5″ red zone monster (15 of his 25 career touchdowns came inside the twenty).  I think Lazard is underappreciated as far as draftniks go.  I had him as WR13 a few weeks ago but will likely move him up into the WR10 range.  The Iowa State defense has played well most of the season and is led by emotional leader Joel Lanning (the aforementioned former QB).  As much as I enjoy rooting for Lanning, I don’t think he’ll be considered by NFL teams.

Memphis has an incredibly efficient and high scoring offense that will be fun to watch against the solid Iowa State defense.  QB Riley Ferguson is a former Tennessee transfer who has played exceptionally well in his two seasons at Memphis.  Ferguson throws a lot of touchdowns, completes more than 63% of his passes, has never thrown more than 10 INTs in a season and has 10 career rushing touchdowns.  He’s also 6’4″; like Ryan Finley at NC State he is just 210lbs so needs to add some weight for the NFL.  I think Ferguson sneaks up NFL draft boards and gets taken on Day Two.  Ferguson’s top target was undoubtedly WR Anthony Miller.  I fell in love with Miller in the preseason when I jokingly compared him to Antonio Brown.  In hindsight that comp may have been more accurate than I could have guessed.  Miller caught 92 balls for 1,407 yards and 17 TDs.  Miller has unreal hands, great body control and is tough.  If you watched the AAC Championship game you might recall how exhausted and banged up he was yet he was on the field and still making plays when it mattered the most.  I want him on my NFL team and my fantasy team and I don’t care what pick it takes.  In September, I had him at 2.02 for 2018 rookie drafts but now I would even be willing to part with a late first for him.

By the rankings this may not be the best game of the day but I bet it’s the most entertaining.  The Tigers offense is just too good to stop.  Prediction: Memphis

PlayStation Fiesta Bowl, #11 Washington Huskies (10-2) vs. #9 Penn State (10-2), 4 p.m. (ESPN)

  • Washington: 17th scoring offense, 73rd passing offense, 39th rushing offense; 6th scoring defense, 19th passing defense, 2nd rushing defense
  • Penn State: 7th scoring offense, 26th passing offense, 62nd rushing offense; 7th scoring defense, 43rd passing defense, 17th rushing defense

This PAC-12 vs Big Ten matchup definitely has less going for it than the Ohio State vs USC matchup but it’s still a game with some key NFL prospects to keep an eye on.  Thankfully, Penn State RB Saquon Barkley confirmed back in November that he planned to play in the team’s bowl game.

Penn State was looking like a favorite to make the playoff when they were ranked #2 in late October but back-to-back losses to Ohio State and Michigan State put an end to that.  Even the most casual of fan knows about Barkley and I have covered him exhaustively for RSO.  In fact, I tagged Barkley in thirteen different articles this season.  My deepest dive on Barkley came in the preseason in my Big Ten conference preview.  At some point you just run out of things to say but he was so dominant at points he just demanded to be discussed.  Barkley ran the ball less this year but he increased his yards per attempt (5.5 to 5.7) and became more involved as a receiver (47 receptions, 594 yards and 3 TDs).  He’ll likely be a Top 5 NFL Draft pick and will be the unanimous 1.01 pick in fantasy rookie drafts.  QB Trace McSorley is also draft eligible but he will probably return for another season.  He won’t be able to improve on his size (just 6’0″ and 202lbs) but he can continue to improve his efficiency and yards per attempt.  The pass catcher with the highest draft grade in my opinion will be TE Mike Gesicki.  Gesicki went for 51-501-9 this season and had one of my favorite highlights of the season when he hurdled McSorley after a touchdown.  Penn State keeps track of some combine-like measureables and supposedly Gesicki ran a 4.54 40 yard dash – that is crazy good for somebody his size.  I expect that number to increase at the combine, it must be the benefit of some “home cooking,” but still he’s looking at a favorable size/speed comp to the likes of Jimmy Graham and Travis Kelce.  The first round may be too early for Gesicki realistically but he’s a Day Two guy at worst.  The Nittany Lions’ top defensive prospect is senior safety Marcus Allen.  I researched him in the preseason and was nonplussed.  I felt he needed to show scouts that he was equally as good in coverage as he is in run support.  He still succeeded in run support (just two missed tackles against the run per Pro Football Focus) but he only had one interception (the first of his career) and had just two pass break-ups (just ten in his career).  He’ll probably start his career as a situational player and won’t be an IDP factor right away unless he can prove he should stay on the field for every snap.

Washington QB Jake Browning finished 6th in Heisman voting in 2016 after a huge 43 TD season.  Unfortunately for Huskies fans, that season was the outlier for Browning as he returned to his 2015 levels with just 18 TDs this year.  His completion percentage did increase significantly this year (62.1% to 68.8%) but all of his other rate stats decreased.  One of my favorite plays in football is the quick kick from a quarterback and Browning excels at that: he has 11 career punts, averaging about 35 yards per kick.  The two offensive standouts are WR Dante Pettis and RB Myles Gaskin.  I’ve never been a huge fan of either and I am willing to admit it is probably an east coast bias since I don’t see them play that often.  I previewed Pettis in the preseason and expressed concerns that his size would limit him in the NFL.  Pettis played in thirteen games each of his first three seasons so he’s avoid any long-term injuries but he is currently hurt (but probabl for the bowl game).  He is a good receiver (averaging 40 receptions, 500 yards and 6 TDs per year over his four year career) but a better punt returner (9 career punt return TDs, including 4 in 2017).  He’s currently my WR8 and should find himself drafted in the late second round.  RB Myles Gaskin is ranked a little lower in my positional rankings (RB13) but he’s somebody that I definitely need to revisit.  Gaskin’s numbers are great and if they were attached to a different name I would probably be higher on him.  He rushed for 1,282 yards this season and rushed for 19 TDs.  He also added 18 grabs for 228 yards and 3 receiving scores.  He has been consistent, and healthy, throughout his three year career.  He’s gone over 1,300 total yards each year and has 47 career TDs.  He’s slightly undersized (think Theo Riddick) but not so small that he can’t play a heavy role in an NFL offense.  On defense, LB Azeem Victor and DT Vita Vea are both likley Day Two prospects.  Victor’s college career has been marred by injuries and off-field issues (he was suspended to start 2017 for a failed drug test and was suspended late in the season after a DUI arrest).  In 2015, his only full season, Victor had 95 tackles, 9 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks and an interception.  Vea is an agile, space-eating DT who could end up going in the late first if he dominates the combine.  Chris Trapasso of CBS Sports had Vea going 19th overall in his December 5th mock; Trapasso thinks that Vea may be the most physically strong prospect in the entire draft class.

Given the strength of the two defenses, I expect this one to be a low scoring affair.  I’ll take the team with the best player on the field.  Prediction: Penn State

Capital One Orange Bowl, #10 Miami (10-2) vs. #6 Wisconsin (12-1), 8 p.m. (ESPN)

  • Miami: 58th scoring offense, 50th passing offense, 73rd rushing offense; 21st scoring defense, 52nd passing defense, 44th rushing defense
  • Wisconsin: 31st scoring offense, 95th passing offense, 21st rushing offense; 4th scoring defense, 4th passing defense, 1st rushing defense

The Orange Bowl may feature two Top 10 teams but I’m just not finding the matchup all that intriguing.  I was down on Miami for most of the season before the team imploded against an unranked Pitt team and laid an egg against Clemson in the ACC Championship game.  At least Wisconsin was competitive in their conference championship and proved that they belonged in the playoff conversation despite a weak schedule.

Hurricanes QB Malik Rosier was overrated, in my opinion, during Miami’s unbeaten run to start the season.  He ranks 89th in adjusted completion percentage according to Pro Football Focus; that metric is meant to give a better picture of a quarterback’s accuracy by not counting spikes/throwaways against them and by giving them credit for drops.  Per their stats, the Miami receivers dropped 22 passes, which is about average, but even after factoring those back in he is still at the bottom of the list (there are only twelve worse qualifying QBs).  Rosier did rush for 427 yards and 5 TDs which helps make up for his negative plays but it’s not enough in big games.  Case in point: Rosier was pulled late in the Pitt game to give redshirt sophomore backup Evan Shirreffs a shot.  Shirreffs had five career passing attempts at that point so in that moment the coaches though he gave them a better shot than Rosier (predictably, Shirreffs did nothing and was replaced by Rosier).  Miami lost RB Mark Walton early in the season but sophomore Travis Homer has emerged in his stead.  Homer has over 1,100 total yards and scored 8 TDs.  He had a big game against #3 Notre Dame (18 rushes for 146 yards) but had just 55 combined rushing and receiving yards in the late losses to Pitt and Clemson.  If Miami is to stand a chance against Wisconsin’s great defense it will fall on Walton.  Senior DE Chad Thomas had 30 total pressures per PFF and finished the year with 3.5 sacks.  Safety Jaquon Johnson improved his stats in 2017 to end with 85 tackles, 2 forced fumbles, 2 fumble recoveries and 4 INTs.  Miami’s defense did get better in 2017 but gone are the days when the NFL Draft was littered with Hurricane defenders; Thomas and Johnson could be mid-round picks but I doubt anybody goes higher than that.

Speaking of defense, Wisconsin’s is a juggernaut.  They are 4th in scoring, 4th against the pass and 1st against the run.  They don’t have a weakness and it’s unfortunate we did not get to see them play a stronger schedule.  We may never know if this was a historic unit or just a product of a soft schedule.  Their leader, LB TJ Edwards, is good in both run support (27th ranked in run stop percentage per PFF) and in coverage (4 INTs).  According to DraftTek.com, he’s the 11th ranked prospect in the conference and according to WalterFootball.com he’s looking at a 3rd-5th round grade.  Edwards may not be a Watt brother but he’s keeping up the tradition of productive Wisconsin linebackers with initials instead of first names!  The Badgers offense is all about freshman RB Jonathan Taylor.  Taylor had 1,847 rushing yards and 13 TDs this season and he finished 6th in Heisman voting.  Those rushing yards ranked him first in the conference and third in the FBS.  Not bad for a three star recruit.  Taylor still has two more seasons before he’s draft eligible so we have to wait and see what he develops into but he’ll probably be on my Heisman watch list for next season.  Aside from offensive tackle Beau Benzschawel, the best offensive prospect is TE Troy Fumagalli.  Fumagalli has a long injury history that I discussed in my Big Ten preview, but I still like his chances in the NFL.  He’s more of a traditional TE than the “move TE” that is en vogue right now so that may lower how high he is drafted.  Regardless of where he is drafted, he will be on the field from day one because of his above average blocking ability.  Fumagalli led the team with 43 receptions, 516 yards and 4 TDs.  He has already declared for the NFL Draft but Fumagalli has confirmed that he will play in the bowl.    Fumagalli may not be a fantasy factor in his rookie season but he’ll still be worth a third round pick.

I don’t have a doubt in my mind that Wisconsin will win this one.  Prediction: Wisconsin

 


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.

More Analysis by Bob Cowper

The Watch List: Conference Championship Week

Updated: November 30th 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.  Check back throughout the season as The Watch List will continue to update you on who is fantasy relevant and worth your draft capital next year. 

Note: the rankings referenced below refer to the Week 14 AP poll.  CFP rankings were not yet available at the time of writing.

Storylines to Watch

  • Heisman Update:  Baker Mayfield finished off his regular season with a 281 yard, 3 TD outing.  The Heisman winner is Mayfield.  Moving on to more important topics.
  • Playoff Picture: Last week, I postulated that Alabama and Miami would be in danger of missing the playoff even if they lost and finished with one loss.  I was not expecting them to both lose!  Having them both lose keeps a potential playoff spot open for the other if championship results fall properly.  As of this writing on Sunday evening, I anticipate the Top 7 to be: Clemson, Oklahoma, Wisconsin, Auburn, Georgia, Miami and Alabama.  The order of Georgia, Miami and Alabama is tough but I put Alabama last because while their loss was “better” than Miami’s, they do not have as good of a win on their resume as Miami over #3 Notre Dame.  Two of the four spots are easy: the winner of Auburn/Georgia is in, as is the winner of Clemson/Miami.  If Oklahoma and Wisconsin win, they are obviously in too and the playoff is set.  Things get very interesting though if one of them loses, specifically Oklahoma.  If Oklahoma loses, there is no obvious replacement like if Wisconsin loses (a win against #3 Wisconsin might be enough to jump Ohio State to the #4 spot and squeak in, see below for an alternate possibility).  I think that if Oklahoma and Clemson lose, we might see Clemson hang in with the #4 ranking (they would have five Top 25 wins, a 3-point loss when their quarterback was hurt and a loss to my projected #6 in Miami – that is still a better two loss resume than others).  For now, I’m predicting chalk but am hoping for some chaos.
  • Undefeated UCF:  Here’s a fun thought experiment for you… is there anyway we get an undefeated UCF into the Top 4?  Probably not but here’s what I think you would need:
    • Stanford win over USC in the PAC-12 Championship so that both finish behind UCF in the final rankings.
    • Oklahoma win over TCU in the Big 12 Championship.  TCU would move up in the rankings and stay ahead of UCF with a win over Oklahoma.  Better for UCF to cede one of the playoff spots to Oklahoma and jump ahead of TCU.
    • Georgia win over Auburn in the SEC Championship.  Auburn would be totally out of contention with 3 losses; if Georgia loses they probably stay ahead of UCF with a strong two loss resume.  I think we’d all take Auburn in a head-to-head matchup against UCF but it’ll be hard for the committee to put an undefeated UCF behind a three loss team.
    • Clemson wins big over Miami in the ACC Championship.  If Miami loses two straight, especially an embarrassing one to Clemson, they should fall out of the Top 10.
    • Ohio State wins close over Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship.  If Wisconsin wins, they are in but the reverse is not guaranteed.  In three iterations of the CFP, we have not yet had a two loss team make the cut.  If Ohio State gets a close, unconvincing win against Wisconsin, is it possible that the committee leaves a two loss Ohio State out in favor of an undefeated UCF?  Maybe the injury to JT Barrett factors into the decision if it lingers and the committee says that a weakened Ohio State is not worthy of the playoff.
  • Florida State vs History:  Florida State will be playing this week but not in the ACC Championship as they would have hoped a few months ago.  Instead, the Seminoles will be battling 4-7 UL-Monroe (the game was cancelled earlier in the year due to Hurricane Irma).  Florida State has a lot of history riding on this inconsequential game because they have not finished with less than six wins in a season since 1976 which was Bobby Bowden’s first season at the helm.  What an incredible run of success for a team.  I don’t know for sure but I assume that has to be a record for most consecutive seasons with a .500 record or better.  It’s a little iffy to get that sixth win in a game like this but hey it counts in the record books and in a few years nobody will even remember the circumstance.

Players to Watch

  • Jarrett Stidham, QB, Auburn:  I haven’t been the highest on Stidham so far this season but boy did he standout against Alabama last week, especially with his legs.  One thing I have previously pointed out about Stidham is his efficiency.  Stidham’s completion percentage (68.5%) ranks 4th in the FBS; his passing efficiency rating (160.0) is 9th; his yards per attempt (9.1) is 8th.  If you only look at his games since Week 3 following the Clemson loss, Stidham’s completion percentage rises to 70.8%, including six games 74% or higher.  So, the rate stats are all fantastic but what about the counting stats?  They are less eye-popping because of Auburn’s tendency to lean on RB Kerryon Johnson.  Stidham has 2,682 yards and just 16 TDs but he has also only thrown 4 INTs.  Those only looking at the stats and not watching the film will underestimate Stidham’s athleticism and his rushing ability as I had.  The game logs say he only has 153 yards but don’t forget that factors in all of his sacks.  If I had to guess, I would say that that Stidham probably has gained about 300 yards rushing (figuring about 10-15 rushing yards per game lost to sacks).  Side note: if you don’t typically purchase Phil Steele’s annual preview magazine, this is one big reason why you should because they break down yards gained and lost to get a true sense for a quarterback’s rushing ability.  Going back to that Alabama game, Stidham went 21-28 for 237 yards in the passing game which is expected but what surprised me was the 51 rushing yards.  A few plays stood out, one passing and three rushing.  On one of the first plays of the game, Stidham double clutched to force the rushing lineman into the air for an attempted pass breakup so he had a throwing lane for the quick screen.  The color commentator compared it to a shot fake in basketball which was a perfect analogy.  To me, it showed Stidham’s composure under pressure when it would have been understandable for him to be skittish in the first drive of the biggest game of his career.  The next play I highlighted was a late third quarter scramble on third and long when Auburn was down 14-13.  Stidham took a three step drop out of shotgun so he was nine yards behind the line of scrimmage.  He goes through his progressions, evades a rusher, slips out of the pocket, beats CB Tony Brown to the first down and dives head first to ensure he gets enough yardage.  It was a turning point play in the game.  A few plays later he ran again for 13 yards right up the gut.  Those two runs kept the drive alive and led to a touchdown for Kerryon Johnson.  The last play where Stidham surprised me was in the 4th quarter with Auburn up 20-14.  Stidham fakes the handoff to Johnson on the zone read and keeps the ball himself.  He quickly directs his blockers and rolls left.  He accelerates as he turns up field and just beats all of the Alabama defenders to the goal line.  Ultimately five players were close enough to get a hand on him but he just wanted it more and made the play.  I knew Stidham was an efficient and effective passer and was really happy to see this side of his game.  Stidham is playing in his first season at Auburn after transferring from Baylor in 2015, so it’s probably more likely that he stays in college for another season rather than declaring for the draft.  As I was watching Stidham play against Alabama I saw Alex Smith.  They are very similar in size and speed and have a similar game.  If he stays in, he will be a preseason target of mine next season.

Games to Watch

  •  #14 Stanford vs #11 USC, Friday 8:00pm on ESPN:  The PAC-12 Championship isn’t worth all that much this season.  Neither team has a shot at the playoff and since the Rose Bowl is part of the playoff, a PAC-12 championship doesn’t even get you a bid into the “granddaddy of them all.”  If nothing else, this game will be a true showcase game for a few draft prospects, namely Stanford RB Bryce Love (who is within reach of a 2,000 yard season at 1,848) and USC QB Sam Darnold (whose wavering play has some thinking he’ll stay in college another season).  I’ll have my eye on USC WR Deontay Burnett too – he isn’t getting much draft love, mostly because of his size, but I really like him and am significantly higher than most.
  • #10 TCU vs #2 Oklahoma, Saturday 12:30pm on FOX:  Oklahoma has much more to play for than TCU so I’ll bet the Sooners come out firing and bury the Frogs.  Oklahoma QB Baker Mayfield is incredibly efficient (71.4% completion percentage and just 5 INTs) and is my no-brainer Heisman winner.  The good news is that TCU has the conference’s best passing defense (227.5 yards per game); the bad news is that puts them at 73rd in the FBS overall.  When these two teams last faced off, TCU’s conference-best defense allowed 333 passing yards and 200 rushing yards, forced zero turnovers and lost by 18.  Unless they hold Oklahoma to under 300 total yards they don’t stand a chance at keeping Oklahoma from their playoff berth.
  • #6 Georgia vs #4 Auburn, Saturday 4:00pm on CBS:  For me, this will be the best game of the weekend if Auburn RB Kerryon Johnson is able to play.  Johnson played through an injured shoulder against Alabama but it sounds like there is a chance he misses the SEC Championship.  Jonhson had 33 touches (for 125 total yards and a score) in the Alabama game which is the third time in four weeks that he has had 30+ touches, 125+ total yards and a touchdown.  Like TCU/Oklahoma, this game is a rematch from earlier in the year.  Auburn shellacked Georgia in that one by a final score of 40-17 (and it wasn’t even that close because of a late garbage time Georgia TD).  Georgia has the SEC’s second best defense, led by LB prospects Roquan Smith (100 tackles, 4.5 sacks) and Lorenzo Carter (42-4), so I’ll bet that they’ll keep it closer the second time around.  This one is for all the marbles: the winner is onto the playoff without question while the loser is out of contention.
  • #7 Miami vs #1 Clemson, Saturday 8:00pm on ABC:  I have been picking against Miami all season long and it finally paid off with their upset against 4-7 Pitt.  I just don’t trust QB Malik Rosier because he is so inaccurate (55.2% on the season and 44.1% against Pitt).  Sophomore RB Travis Homer has filled in reasonably well for the injured Mark Walton but you’ll be hard pressed to find a tailback that can compensate for a quarterback missing half his passes.  Miami’s defense is 14th in points but 42nd in yards allowed which is an odd dichotomy.  Clemson has been my #2 squad for awhile and is now my top team.  I haven’t been a huge Kelly Bryant fan but he is a solid game manager as a passer and a dynamic rushing threat (639 yards and 10 TDs).  True freshman RB Travis Etienne is a burner who carved out a role for himself after a hot start.  Etienne has had more carries than incumbent Tavien Feaster in four straight games.  His stats have been mediocre but I am interested in seeing WR Deon Cain against Miami’s defense; Cain is a prospect that I have been lower on than the consensus.  I have highlighted many of the Clemson defensive stars (i.e. Austin Bryant and Christian Wilkins) but a name that you may not know is LB Dorian O’Daniel.  O’Daniel has 80 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss, 5 sacks, 2 INTs (both of which returned for scores in key Top 15 wins over Louisville and Virginia Tech).  If I had to bet meaningful money on any of the championship games, this would be the one.
  • #3 Wisconsin vs #8 Ohio State, Saturday 8:00pm on FOX:  As a Michigan and a Rutgers fan, I don’t know who to root for in this one.  It’s a shame there are no ties in college football.  Since Ohio State isn’t a shoo-in for the playoff with a win, it’s probably best for the conference for Wisconsin to win it.  The bright spot on Wisconsin’s offense is freshman RB Jonathan Taylor.  Ohio State has the 13th ranked rush defense in the FBS (112.8 yards per game) and has held opponents to 100 rushing yards or less in seven games this season (including three straight after they were gashed for 243 yards against Iowa).  Taylor has 125+ rushing yards in seven of his last eight games and I expect him to continue that streak.  Wisconsin’s rush defense is actually better than Ohio State’s (1st in the FBS at 80.5 yards per game) so I doubt that either JK Dobbins or Mike Weber will be a major factor.  Much of this game will come down to whether JT Barrett can return from a knee injury sustained against Michigan.  Ironically, I think that the Buckeyes might be better off with Dwayne Haskins under center because he’s more of a pass-oriented quarterback.  Wisconsin’s pass defense is ranked 2nd so while it may be weaker it’s hardly a weakness.  Regardless of who is under center, I think Ohio State will struggle to move the ball like they did early against Michigan, and the Badgers will win a close one.

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.

More Analysis by Bob Cowper

The Watch List: Week 8

Updated: October 19th 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.  Check back throughout the season as The Watch List will continue to update you on who is fantasy relevant and worth your draft capital next year. 

Storylines to Watch

  • Heisman Update:  Penn State and Saquon Barkley were off so no change to his Heisman hopes, he’s my top choice.  The other RB in the running is Stanford’s Bryce Love who just keeps on producing with another 148 yards and 2 TDs against Oregon.  The bad news is that Love injured his ankle; the good news is they are off again and he has until October 26 to heal.  Lamar Jackson is still tremendous (especially on the ground where he added 180 yards and 3 TDs) but the Cardinals are not a good team so he’s likely out of the Heisman running.  I’ll bet that Jackson will be on every ballot this year, a nod to his win last year, but he shouldn’t win if Louisville keeps playing so poorly.  Sam Darnold and Mason Rudolph are still the other two front runners.  Darnold was inefficient but didn’t throw any picks which is a nice change; Rudolph lit up a poor Baylor defense for 459 yards and 3 TDs on just 19 completions.
  • Topsy Turvy Top 25:  Four Top 10 teams lost this past weekend so there is some turnover this week.  Those losses went to #2 Clemson, #5 Washington, #8 Washington State and #10 Auburn.  Clemson fell to #7 while the others fell out of the Top 10.  Meanwhile, #8 Miami, #9 Oklahoma and #10 Oklahoma State all move into playoff consideration.  Miami is undefeated but I think an inferior team to both Oklahoma teams (not to mention they lost starting RB Mark Walton for the season).  The losses last week make it likely that we’ll see two SEC teams in the final four.  Even after one of Georgia or Alabama loses to the other in the SEC Championship, the loss will be to such a superior team to the likes of TCU that the committee will have to put them both in.
  • Bowl Projections:  I am working on a full bowl projection piece but here’s a bit of a preview of some of my favorite make-believe matchups.  Check back later this week for the full slate of my bowl projections and then check back after the regular season to read my previews for all of the real bowl matchups.
    • Sun Bowl, UCLA vs Florida State: Before they both head to the NFL it would be fun to see top QB prospect Josh Rosen face off against top S prospect Derwin James.
    • TaxSlayer Bowl, LSU vs Michigan: Could be the most entertaining 9-6 game ever televised.  The game would feature two standout DL prospects in LSU’s Arden Key and Michigan’s Rashan Gary.  Who knew keeping your eye off the ball could be fun.
    • Cotton Bowl, South Florida vs Oklahoma State:  If the over was 100, I would take the over.  My god would this one be incredible to watch although it would probably last about five hours.

Players to Watch

  • Will Grier, QB, West Virginia:  A number of my draft/scouting Twitter follows have been talking about Will Grier lately so I figured it was time to look more closely since I knew the name but not much about the prospect. Grier has an interesting back story. He started at Florida where he started six games as a freshman but was then suspended for a failed drug test for a performance enhancing drug. Grier claims he took an over-the-counter supplement that had a banned substance in it but denies doing anything wrong willfully. I’m not sure if I believe him but it doesn’t really matter. Grier transferred to West Virginia and was cleared to start the 2017 season by the NCAA after they determined that the season he sat out as a transfer could count towards his season-long PED suspension. So, where does Grier find himself now that he is in Morgantown? How about atop the NCAA passing ranks. Grier has 21 passing TDs which paces the country and is 9th in yards (2,092). Grier’s completion percentage (65.6% vs 65.7%) and TD:INT ratio (10:3 vs 21:5) have stayed consistent between his starts in 2015 and 2017 so the time off did not cause any lingering effect. What has changed is that his yards per attempt is up to 9.1 from 7.5. Extrapolated out for a full 2017 season, that higher YPA would be worth an extra 800 yards. After looking closely at Grier’s stats, I question his “clutch” ability. When it matters most, in the 4th quarter and on 3rd down, Grier’s completion percentage takes a huge dip to less than 55%. His efficiency is buoyed by what he does on 1st down (71.2%, 11 TDs) rather than what he does afterwards (61% and 10 TDs for 2nd-4th down). I have not watched much film of Grier except for some highlight reels and a DraftBreakdown.com film of Grier against Virginia Tech.  After watching Grier’s tape, I have some concern about his mechanics and need to see more.  Something is wonky about his short throws to the left that looks like he’s almost shot-putting the ball; throws to the center and right look more natural.  File this under possibly related, I only counted two deep throws to the left, both inaccurate and incomplete, whereas many more were thrown deep down the middle or to the right.  Maybe it was coverage or personnel or maybe he’s less confident throwing left.  That’s purely a guess based off 12 minutes of tape so take it with a huge grain of salt.  There were also a number of throws off balance or off his back foot, some of which actually were completed.  He’s fast enough to be a rushing threat and kept the ball on a number of zone read plays.  Per ESPN’s recruiting service he ran a 4.73 as a recruit so I would expect him to now be in the 4.65-4.70 range (Trubisky was 4.67). As far as his size, Grier is below average at 6’2″ and 204lb (Mitch Trubisky was the same height but 18lb heavier last year).  There’s definitely some things to like about Grier but I am not ready to add him to my top 2018 QB prospect list. He would benefit from another season at WVU where he can get more time in the weight room and prove that the PED suspension was a fluke. If Grier does come out, I would expect him to be a late Day 3 prospect and off the board in RSO leagues.
  • Ito Smith, RB, Southern Miss:  As a proud owner of both Kareem Hunt and Tarik Cohen in three of my six leagues, I wanted to try and identify next season’s small school back who surprises in September. I’m not predicting he will have the pro premiere that either Hunt or Cohen did, but Ito Smith would get my vote if I had to pick somebody right now. Smith is a senior and has played a big role since late in his freshman season. Smith has played in 44 games so far in his career which means he has a ton of experience, few injury concerns and is durable despite his size. In 2015, Smith ran 171 times for 1,128 rushing yards, 10 TDs, 49 receptions, 515 receiving yards and 3 TDs. In 2016 his rushing line was 265-1459-17 while he added 43-459-2 receiving. Smith’s 2017 numbers are on pace to match or surpass 2016 (118-733-7, 21-192-0). I know, that’s a lot of numbers to digest. Let’s just summarize the above section to say that Ito Smith has been supremely productive. The two biggest positives for me are 1) his receiving ability and 2) the 250+ attempts he had last season and is on pace for this season. Given Smith’s measurables and pass catching prowess he likely projects as a passing down back. What will increase his draft stock is his ability to play every down, illustrated by the number of touches he racks up on a bad Southern Miss team. Film of Smith from 2017 is not yet available on DraftBreakdown.com so I watched some 2016 tape instead. In my short study, I would say that he is patient, has enough speed to get to the edge (but not elite speed, maybe 4.50) and is an average to below average blocker. I couldn’t put my finger on who he reminded me of visually but he is thick and stout below the waist.  Like Grier, Smith looks to be a Day 3 or UDFA NFL prospect and could find a home on some deeper league RSO teams a la Tarik Cohen or Matt Breida depending on team depth chart.

Games to Watch

  •  #25 Memphis @ Houston, Thursday 8:00pm on ESPN:  Two NFL prospects will be on display in Memphis WR Anthony Miller and Houston DT Ed Oliver.  Oliver is just a sophomore and is enduring a bit of a sophomore slump this season (just 0.5 sacks but 36 tackles).  Meanwhile, Miller has been playing incredibly over the last two weeks (25 receptions, 314 yards and 6 TDs).
  • Maryland @ #5 Wisconsin, Saturday 12:00pm on FOX:  Penn State has a tough conference game this week while Wisconsin gets an easier opponent so it’s very important for the Badgers to hold serve here.  A loss, even a close one, to Maryland in a week where two of Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State will win could be devastating to their CFP hopes.  After Maryland, Wisconsin has Illinois and Indiana so they can cement their Top 5 spot over the rest of the month before the stretch run.
  • #10 Oklahoma State @ Texas, Saturday 12:00pm on ABC:  I have written a lot about these two teams so I won’t go into much detail other than to say you know who to keep your eyes on: Mason Rudolph and James Washington.  Texas may have found their QB in Sam Ehlinger.  He now has 658 total yards in the last two contests against Kansas State and Oklahoma, neither of which are push overs.  Ehlinger is a true freshman so he won’t be draft eligible for awhile, but a name to monitor.
  • #19 Michigan @ #2 Penn State, Saturday 7:30pm on ABC:  The UM offense has been terrible, even with John O’Korn pressed into service.  The Wolverines are 79th and 89th in points and yards respectively.  Penn State has no such issues on offense with superstar RB Saquon Barkley and the oft-forgotten senior QB Trace McSorley.  McSorley quietly is having a better, more efficient season than last.  He has a 67% completion percentage which is ten points higher than 2016 and his TD:INT ratio is very good 13:4.  He has also added four rushing scores.  This will be a close rivalry game but give the nod to the home team Nittany Lions.
  • #11 USC @ #13 Notre Dame, Saturday 7:30pm on NBC:  My, oh my, will it feel like a throwback night of football with two simultaneous games featuring four of the all-time winningest programs in Division 1 history.  USC and Notre Dame won’t have as much CFP implication since I think both teams are out of the picture, but it will be a great game and a scout’s dream.  The usual suspects who we have covered in this space will be present: Sam Darnold, Ronald Jones and Equanimeous St. Brown to name a few.  Keep an eye on some other draftable names too: Josh Adams and Deontay Burnett.  Adams has 776 yards and 5 TDs despite being pulled from some lopsided wins; he is averaging a crazy 9.0 yards per carry to truly illustrate his dominance.  Burnett is slight of frame but looms large for the Trojan offense.  Burnett is a first down machine: 29 of 49 receptions have gone for a first down, while all 7 of his third down receptions have converted.

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
  • 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.

More Analysis by Bob Cowper

The Watch List: ACC Preview

Updated: August 6th 2017

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 Heisman 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. 

Players to Watch

  • Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville:  My grandmother once told me that “if you don’t have anything nice to say, then don’t say anything at all.”  So… onto Deon Cain.  Just kidding, I have plenty to say and plan on sharing with you, my fellow RSO owner.  Let’s start with Jackson’s statistics.  He had some gaudy numbers in 2016 like 3,543 passing yards, 1,571 rushing yards and 51 total TDs (hence the Heisman).  My concern lies in his completion percentage: 56.2 in 2016.  It was even lower in limited action in 2015 at just 54.7%.  To get a better feel for when Jackson was completing his passes, I used CFBStats.com’s situational stats.  In the red zone, his completion percentage falls even lower to 50.7% (albeit with 19 TDs).  When the score is tied or worse, it was 54%.  I was really hoping that when it counted most that Jackson’s accuracy would improve but it did not; in fact it is buoyed by less important game situations.  Using Sports-Reference.com’s play index, I was able to find a strange, but possibly telling stat for Jackson: he led the NCAA in games with 300+ passing yards but with a completion percentage below 60% (4 games).  When he completes a pass, it’s often for a chunk of yards but there are many negative plays in between.  It’s also important to notice that 15 of his 51 total TDs (or nearly 30%) came against Charlotte and Marshall who were the 102nd and 107th worst defenses last season.  Maybe it’s unfair to pick out his best games but I’d be less worried if they came against stronger teams.  My accuracy concerns were borne out in the film I watched of Jackson against Marshall.  Early in the first half I counted four consecutive plays where the ball was behind his receiver.  He does not appear to be great at leading a receiver.  There were two very poor decisions that Jackson made while scrambling – both balls should have been thrown away but were instead lofted up and one led to an interception.  His lack of pocket presence showed in the Clemson game too.  In fairness the Clemson defense victimized the Louisville offensive line (5 sacks, 10 tackles for loss) but Jackson did not adjust and was consistently rattled by the rush.  Want some good news?  Okay fine.  Jackson is an electric player when he has the ball in his hand and he’s rushing.  DraftScout.com has him in the 4.32-4.52 range and it would not surprise me to see him hit the top end of that (in March, Louisville announced he ran a 4.34 at Spring practice).  If he ran that at the combine, it would make him the second fastest QB since 2010 (RGIII).  Hopefully Jackson measures in true to the listed 6’3″ and 205lb but I’m not so sure.  Don’t let the accolades and awards fool you, Jackson does not warrant consideration as a top prospect in this year’s class.  If I had to guess now, I would probably have him as my 7th or 8th quarterback and likely undraftable in most RSO formats.
  • Deon Cain, WR, Clemson: In 2015, when Mike Williams was out with injury and Deon Cain was a freshman, Cain caught 34 balls for 582 yards and 5 TDs.  In 2016, in Williams’ shadow, Cain caught about the same number of balls (38) but improved to 724 yards and 9 TDs.  In both seasons he led the team in yards per reception (17.1 and 19.1).  Because of his second-fiddle status, I feared that most of Cain’s production would have been against FCS and weak non-conference foes.  Per CFBStats.com, Cain had 34 of his 38 receptions and 7 of his 9 TDs against Power Five teams in 2016.  The only caveat is that a plurality of his yards and 4 of his TDs came in garbage time when the Tigers were up by 15+ points.  Cain’s biggest game of 2016 came against Syracuse when he had 5-125-2.  I watched film of that game and came away impressed.  Cain blew past corners with straight line speed on multiple occasions, one of which went for a score.  I was most impressed by his concentration and focus at the catch.  At the end of the first half, he had a play where he went over the corner on a fade, managed to find the ball, and got his toe down in the end zone.  Unfortunately his heel came down out of bounds and it was called back.  He had a similar concentration grab later in the game near the sideline.  He let the ball come over his shoulder, stopped the ball with his right hand, secured it with both hands and then managed to get both feet in bounds.  It was an NFL worthy catch and he was pretty nonchalant about it after the fact.  I was even more encouraged about Cain when I checked his combine size comps: Amari Cooper, Sammy Watkins, Justin Blackmon, Davante Adams and DeAndre Hopkins.  That’s quite a group of talented players to be compared to (with varying levels of success in the NFL of course).  I’m bullish on Cain and am thinking he will be a 3rd-4th round NFL selection if he comes out this year and should be a target late in your RSO draft.
  • Mark Walton, RB, Miami:  Walton is a small back with quick feet and a penchant for bouncing off tackles.  In the clips package I watched, there were multiple plays against both FAU and Pitt where Walton showed supreme patience at the line.  He would shuffle his feet either left or right, keep his pads parallel to the line of scrimmage and wait for his hole.  Once he hits the hole he has the speed (DraftScout.com predicts him in the 4.49 range which is exactly what Dalvin Cook ran) and bounce-off ability to break big plays.  In 2016, as a sophomore, Walton rushed for 1,117 yards and 14 TDs.  He also added 27 receptions which will be a necessary skill in the NFL given his smaller size.  The good news for Walton is that Miami has 100 OL starts returning which is the 6th best in the NCAA per Phil Steele.  The bad news for Walton is that 2018 will be a crowded RB class (Barkley, Guice, Chubb, Scarborough to name the top four) so even if he improves this season he should stay put and wait for his senior season.
  • Honorable Mentions
    • Deondre Francois, QB, FSU:  I fell in love watching Francois during one of FSU’s nationally televised games last year (can’t remember which).  He was getting battered but took the hits and kept getting up.  He looks bigger than his 6’2″ and 205 lb frame to my eye.  He’s just a redshirt sophomore, with a lot to improve on, so I don’t think he comes out but he could be in the Heisman race.
    • Max Browne, QB, Pitt: Browne has one more shot to prove his potential.  Per Rivals.com he was a five star recruit and the #1 QB recruit in the 2013 class.  He landed at USC where he threw 112 career passes, most coming last year before he lost the job to Sam Darnold.  Browne has the pedigree and the size (6’5″) to force NFL scouts to take a look.
    • Derwin James, S, FSU:  Don’t know the name?  Don’t worry I didn’t either.  James missed most of 2016 with a knee injury but will still be a top IDP prospect if he comes out as a junior.  As a true freshman he had 91 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, 4 passes defended, 2 fumbles forced and 2 fumble recoveries.  He has linebacker type size and would be one of the bigger safeties in recent classes (a close combine comp is former FSU LB Telvin Smith).
    • Christian Wilkins & Dexter Lawrence, DTs, Clemson: This dynamic duo of disruptive DTs combined to put up 110 tackles, 21.5 tackles for loss, 10 sacks, 10 passes defended and 4 fumble recoveries last year.  Lawrence did so as a true freshman and won the ACC Rookie of the Year award (unfortunately that means he isn’t draft eligible until 2019).  Coach Dabo Swinney even likes to use Wilkins on trick plays – in 2016 he rushed for a first down on a fake punt and also caught a TD pass.
    • Harold Landry, DE, Boston College:  Landry is a rising senior who could have come out after a tremendous 2016 campaign.  He had 50 tackles, 22 tackles for loss, 16.5 sacks, 4 passes defended and 7 forced fumbles.  As a sophomore, before fine-tuning his pass rushing ability, he had 60 tackles.  Landry is WalterFootball.com’s 6th ranked DE for 2018 and is projected to be a 1st or 2nd round pick right now.  He’s a bit undersized for a 4-3 end but could be a valuable IDP if he lands in a productive 3-4 scheme.

Storylines to Watch

  • Clemson Let Down:  There’s simply no way that Clemson can stay in the national title picture for a third year in a row.  The Tigers lost first round talents in QB Deshaun Watson and WR Mike Williams and also lost other offensive contributors (including one of my favorites, RB Wayne Gallman).  Per Phil Steele’s experience charts, Clemson is ranked 128th in returning offensive yards.  The only team worse that played in the FBS last year?  Conference foe North Carolina.  If Dabo can keep Clemson in the division race and finish the season at 9-3 or better it would do more for him in my eyes as a head coach than winning last year’s title.
  • Heisman Distractions Abound:  The ACC has two of the top five Heisman hopefuls, according to an ESPN study of the Vegas odds, in Lamar Jackson and Deondre Francois.  The shadow of expectations, will follow those two and their teammates throughout the season.  Jackson has to carry the burden of trying to repeat as the winner – a feat only accomplished by Archie Griffin.  Francois will likely be faced with paint-by-numbers comparisons to former FSU QB Jameis Winston who won the Heisman and national championship in 2013.  Also on the list of Heisman candidates are Mark Walton, Derwin James and Deon Cain (albeit all at 100:1 odds).
  • Wolfpack Lurking: Repeat readers know that I highly value Phil Steele’s annual experience charts.  I think they are a great tool to help identify teams who will outperform expectations.  What caught my eye was how high Steele had North Carolina State ranked – 8th in the NCAA – so I did a bit more research.  The Wolfpack ended 2016 on a high note winning 3 of 4, including a 41-17 domination of Vanderbilt in the Independence Bowl.  They lost leading RB Matt Dayes but they return the top four receivers, QB Ryan Finley and eight defensive starters.  WR Nyheim Hines is switching to RB so technically they have a returner there as well.  Finley is a transfer from Boise State, where he also worked with current NC State OC Eliah Drinkwitz (great name, by the way).  He threw for just over 3,000 yards last year with 18 TDs and 8 INTs and should improve further in 2017.  Three of the toughest games for NC State come at home: Louisville, Clemson and the rivalry game against UNC.  I won’t go as far as to say that they will win the tougher Atlantic Division, but they will finish above two of FSU, Clemson and Louisville.

Games to Watch

  • September 2, Alabama vs Florida State:  What a doozy to end the first true Saturday of the college football season.  Both teams are preseason championship contenders and whoever wins this game will probably be the favorite.  There will be plenty of NFL talent on display, including Dondre Francois, Derwin James, Bo Scarborough, Calvin Ridley, and as usual most of the Crimson Tide defense.
  • September 16, Clemson at Louisville:  This is pretty early in the season to get such a meaningful in-conference game.  Beating Louisville would go a long way to proving whether Clemson will stay relevant or if they will collapse after hemorrhaging all of their top players to the NFL.  For Louiville’s Lamar Jackson and his Heisman hopes, the consecutive games against UNC and Clemson will be vitally important to overcome the let down of finishing September against Kent State and Murray State.
  • November 4, Virginia Tech at Miami:  If second year Hurricanes coach Mark Richt wants to aspire to more than the Russell Athletic Bowl he’ll have to hold off the Hokies who won the Coastal last year.  The Hurricanes are more experienced and have an easier schedule so they likely have the edge this season but this game will be a must-win.  It’ll be in Miami and it’s been designated as their homecoming game – maybe there’s a mind game at work.
  • November 25, North Carolina at North Carolina State and Florida State at Florida:  These in-state rivalry games will make for a fun post-Thanksgiving Saturday.  One of the two will end up as the 8pm showcase game on ABC because Ohio State/Michigan will be at noon and Alabama/Auburn will likely be the CBS 3:30pm game.  The North Carolina game will feature teams fighting for their respective division titles, or at least bowl eligibility.  The Florida game will feature teams looking to stay in the CFP bracket.  The “last” button on your remote will be your friend if they both end up in primetime.

Note: When watching film for a player, 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
  • Film: draftbreakdown.com, youtube.com (but be wary of highlight only reels)
  • Draft info and mocks: draftcountdown.com, nfldraftscout.com, walterfootball.com, mattwaldmanrsp.com, ESPN’s First Draft podcast, 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

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