2020 Rookie Rankings Explained: Part II

Updated: May 10th 2020

This was my fourth year creating the rookie rankings for Reality Sports and it was as rewarding as ever in 2020. I look forward to the rankings each year because it’s such a unique experience and I’m grateful to have the opportunity to help inform literally every single RSO rookie draft. Since my rookie rankings can have a large impact on roster composition, I shy away from “hot taeks” and am more risk-averse than I might be in my own personal rookie drafting. I view the rookies through the lens of an RSO league and how a 3- or 4-year rookie contract can change the value of a player compared to dynasty formats. In order to create rankings that are representative for the majority of RSO leagues, I made a few assumptions on rosters and scoring (i.e. 1QB, offense scores more than defense and IDP scoring heavy on tackles/sacks). Each year there are a few themes and surprises that emerge as I’m ranking and over two articles I will share those with you. First up were my notes about this historically deep wide receiver class. Today I’m sharing my thoughts on the rest of the roster.

Click here to view the 2020 Reality Sports rookie rankings, compiled by Robert F. Cowper

Love Hurts?

My quarterback rankings started so simply. Joe Burrow first, no brainer. Tua second and Herbert third, less certain but I was confident. Then I ran into the roadblock that was Jordan Love vs Jalen Hurts. After much consideration, I put Hurts above Love despite the draft capital the Packers spent on Love. My thinking is this: I believe Hurts is more likely to return value on an RSO rookie contract than Love. We don’t know how much longer Aaron Rodgers will be the starter in Green Bay but if it’s closer to four years than one year, you may waste your pick on Love. We also know that Love’s performance and efficiency declined in 2019, so while we love his physical tools we aren’t sure about his consistency. Conversely, in 2019 Hurts showed us that he can adapt to a new system and a new coaching staff and flourish. We saw a side of Hurts that we never saw at Alabama and that gives me hope that he can stick as a passer at the NFL level. Eagles starter Carson Wentz has suffered a number of multi-game injuries throughout his college and pro career so it’s not unreasonable to think that Hurts may get an early chance to prove himself. We may also see Hurts get some Taysom Hill-like touches so he could have utility in 2QB leagues when you’re hit hard by injury or bye weeks. Hurts is a leader and a winner so I’ll take my chances with him over Love.

RBBC

I, like many draft fans, was surprised to see Clyde Edwards-Helaire be the first running back off the board to Kansas City. For the longest time, the consensus RB1 in this class was D’Andre Swift from Georgia. Jonathan Taylor came on strong after another 2,000+ yard season and a good combine performance, bumping Swift from the top spot in some rankings, including mine. CEH going in front of both Swift and Taylor caused me to reevaluate. I decided to keep Taylor at RB1, moved Edwards-Helaire up to RB2 and dropped Swift to RB3. Taylor and Swift will both see some early competition for touches from Marlon Mack and Kerryon Johnson respectively. I figure Johnson is likely to stick around longer than Mack so Taylor is more likely to be the unquestioned starter in 2021. Some have compared it to Nick Chubb competing with Carlos Hyde and Duke Johnson for touches in Cleveland in 2018 but becoming the guy the following year with great results. Edwards-Helaire will have the biggest opportunity in 2020 but I hesitate to catapult somebody to RB1 who I did not even consider for the spot two months ago. During his seven seasons in Kansas City, Andy Reid has had five different running backs lead the team in rushing yards. There’s no doubt that CEH will have value in 2020 but I think that Taylor has a better shot at having value over the duration of his rookie deal.

Light End

This year’s tight end class was weaker than the previous three so it wasn’t a surprise that none went in the first round. What did surprise me though was just how hard they were to rank. By virtue of his draft capital and the fact that he should have no problem getting on the field early for the Bears, Cole Kmet was my TE1. Two of the next three off the board went to the Patriots which complicates rankings a bit (I slid Dalton Keene down as I expect him to serve as a blocker more so than as a receiver). As far as how Josiah Deguara (Packers), Devin Asiasi (Patriots) and Adam Trautman (Browns) end the season, your guess is as good as mine. I clumped them together in the mid 40s to hedge my rankings. One guy to keep an eye on is Albert Okwuegbunam in Denver. He has been reunited with his college quarterback Drew Lock and was the presumed TE1 back when they teamed up back in 2017-18. Chances are that only one tight end will be drafted in your rookie draft so I would wait on these guys to see how training camp and the offseason shakes out and target any preseason standouts in free agency.

Frequent Flyers

One of my favorite thought exercises each year is trying to identify the UDFAs who have the best chance at fantasy relevance. It’s impossible to predict injuries but we can study team depth charts to see where the road to relevance is shortest. I don’t recommend you draft any of these players in your rookie draft but monitor them during the preseason and pounce on any who find themselves an injury away from a sizable role.

  • Michael Warren, RB, Eagles (Rank: 68): Behind starter Miles Sanders, the Eagles have two previous practice squad poaches as their running back depth. Neither Boston Scott nor Elijah Holyfield inspire confidence if Sanders were to go down. I think Michael Warren from Cincinnati would be a reliable fill-in if needed. Over the last two seasons, Warren amassed nearly 3,000 yards from scrimmage and 36 scores in the competitive AAC. In five games against Power 5 opponents during that span he rushed 112 times for 520 yards and 6 TDs. I was surprised to see him go undrafted.
  • JJ Taylor, RB, Patriots (Rank: 71): Taylor measured smaller (5050/185) and ran slower (4.61) than I expected at the combine which definitely hurt his chances of being drafted as a gadget player. Would anybody be surprised if a 5’5″ undrafted free agent running back ended up scoring two touchdowns in a game for the Patriots this season?
  • Austin Mack, WR, Giants (Rank: 116): The bad news: Mack did not test particularly well and was often buried on the Buckeyes depth chart. The good news: the Giants receiving depth chart is littered with other UDFAs and waiver cast-offs. Somebody will need to be the fourth receiver and maybe it can be Mack who I always wanted to see get more targets at OSU.
  • James Robinson, RB, Jaguars (Rank: 117): The Jags running back depth chart is busy behind Leonard Fournette but there always seem to be rumors about him being traded. Whether by injury or trade, if running back touches were to open up in Jacksonville it’s possible that FCS star James Robinson (1,917 yards and 18 TDs last season) could get into the rotation.

Chase-ing the Quarterback

Sacks or tackles? The age-old question when it comes to making IDP rankings. The IDP leagues I play in tend to favor sacks over tackles so I typically value a rush end or outside linebacker over an off-ball tackling machine. So, it should come as no surprise that DE Chase Young is my DE1 and my first ranked IDP player. Most IDP leagues still weight offensive stats more than defensive so I slot Young into my 15th slot overall, making him a mid-2nd rounder. My next decision was on do-everything LB/S Isaiah Simmons or seek and destroy LB K’Lavon Chaisson. I went with Simmons because I have him listed as a LB and that’s almost unfair with his coverage ability. Simmons may never come off the field if he’s utilized to his full potential which means he’ll accrue tackles, sacks, interceptions and passes defended. Chaisson will join fellow new faces in free agent Joe Schobert and fourth rounder Shaquille Quarterman. Chaisson, who was drafted largely on potential and one season of production, will likely start as a pass rush specialist as he rounds out his game.

 

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

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

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

More Analysis by Bob Cowper

The Watch List: 2019 AAC Season Preview

Updated: July 28th 2019

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

Storylines to Watch

Heisman Contender: D’Eriq King, QB, Houston.  King is likely to be the most debated prospect in the 2020 class.  He has some of the upside and athleticism that Kyler Murray possessed last season when he won the Heisman.  The only downside is that he also shares Murray’s body type.  If King stays healthy — he missed the last two games of 2018 — he could hit 4,000 total yards and 50 TDs.  He’s on the short list for top Heisman candidates and a good bet if you take “the field” instead of Tua Tagovailoa or Trevor Lawrence.

Underclassman to Watch: Desmond Ridder, QB, Cincinnati.  Ridder took over midway through the season opener and retained the job throughout.  He is a dual-threat quarterback with 6040/212 size.  He completed 62.4% of his passes, threw 20 TDs to just 5 INTs, and rushed for 583-5.  In the highlight package I watched, Ridder’s composure in the pocket and his ball placement impressed me.  A comp came to mind but I’ll withhold it for now until I see full game tape.  The Bearcats are poised to win the AAC West this season with a weakened UCF and Ridder will be a huge factor.

Newcomer of the Year: Brandon Wimbush, QB, UCF.  Wimbush transfers in from Notre Dame where he flashed his playmaking ability but was plagued by inconsistency.  In McKenzie Milton’s absence, Wimbush was expected to battle with Darriel Mack for the starting role, however Mack went down with a non-football injury.  Wimbush is dynamic as a ball carrier but struggles to complete 50% of his passes.  Head coach Josh Heupel is known as a quarterback-friendly coach so I expect he can structure the offense to highlight Wimbush’s strengths and maintain the Knights’ winning way.

Coaching Carousel: Dana Holgorsen is the biggest name among new coaches in the American this season.  He joins Houston from West Virginia, a rare move down in conference prestige for a big-name coach.  Holgorsen, at $4.0mil per year, becomes the highest paid Group of Five coach (Memphis coach Josh Norvell is second at $2.6mil).  Holgorsen spent ten years in Texas as an assistant at Texas Tech and at Houston so he should know the talent-rich state well.  I have no doubt that he will have successful and high-scoring teams at Houston but I don’t understand why you would willingly give up a shot at playing in the College Football Playoff.

Players to Watch

D’Eriq King, QB, Houston

As I mentioned above, King is likely to be the most debated prospect in this year’s class.  He’s undeniably talented but is he an NFL quarterback?  If not, can he make a move back to receiver and find a role?  King is the next undersized dual-threat quarterback who will wow fans on his way to Heisman votes.  Last year we had Kyler Murray, who ended up going first overall to the Cardinals.  I went into King’s study expecting to see Murray and that was a mistake on my part because he’s not (yet?) on that level.  Before we get into my observations, let’s check in on King’s stats and measurables.

For those who are new to King as a player, let’s start with a quick primer.  He was recruited as a 3-star athlete and chose Houston over offers from Power 5 schools like Baylor and TCU.  Switched to receiver in 2016 so he could get on the field and became the starter at quarterback midway through 2017.  As a receiver, King was a slot/screen type, averaging less than ten yards per catch.  He also earned rushing touches as well.  In 2016, he had the rare distinction of scoring in four different ways: passing, rushing, receiving and kick returning.  At just 5110/190, King is undersized to be a starting quarterback but his athleticism makes up for whatever he may lack in height.

When I dug into his game film against Texas Tech from 2018, I noted that King regularly reads the field and throws to his second or third option on numerous plays.  There are definitely some quick-hitting single-read throws but when he’s given time and freedom to scan the field, he does.  You’ll actually see this trait on all three clips below.

On this first clip, you’ll see that King throws to his second read.  He bombs it more than fifty yards and places it well, just shading the receiver to the sideline away from help coverage.  The receiver still has a lot to do before he scores — over the shoulder catch, avoid a tackle, stay in bounds — but King makes it possible by delivering a beautiful ball.

I was surprised that I didn’t see King on more designed runs.  I saw him play sporadically last season, mostly in highlights, and assumed he was more of a primary rushing option.  Instead, much of his ground game comes when he evades the pass rush and gets out of the pocket.  I’m actually glad to see that, because functional mobility from the pocket as a scrambler is more important to an NFL team than a speedy option quarterback; forcing a defense to spy on the quarterback helps open up the field for other players.  On this play, King senses the play breaking down and sprints out of the pocket, accelerating just enough to beat the defense to the first down marker.

King is able to improvise with the ball in his hands, a skill he shows on this last clip.  The initial read on this 1st and Goal play is a quick screen.  King decides not to throw the ball and instead looks to his second option, a slant from the blocking receiver, which is well covered.  King then tucks it, rolls out of the pocket to his left and is the first to the pylon.  It’s an illustrative combination of the two previous clips and shows how dangerous King can be.

There are some negatives I noted as well when watching King.  As I stated above, he has the arm strength to deliver a deep ball 50+ yards but I think he needs to be more selective about when he employs that zip.  He too frequently overpowers short and intermediate passes which sacrifices touch and accuracy.  He’s a multi-faceted player but his versatility means that he hasn’t spent that much time as a starting quarterback at a high level.

He may need more than just his senior season to gain the experience and consistency to become a viable professional quarterback, however King flashes enough upside that some team is likely to stash him on their roster and see if he continues to develop.

 

Michael Warren II, RB, Cincinnati

When I previewed the AAC in 2018, I chose Cincinnati as a team on the rise.  One of my observations was that the Bearcats had a number of options at quarterback and running back and that “if [head coach Luke] Fickell [could] juggle his myriad backfield options, Cinci could surprise in the East and get to eight wins.”  Little did I know that eight wins would turn into eleven and that the two to emerge would be the aforementioned Desmond Ridder and RB Michael Warren II.  Warren fell into the job due to an injury and didn’t look back, going for 35-142-3 in the season-opening win against UCLA.  Warren totaled 1,329 yards and 19 TDs, an impressive output for somebody elevated to the starting spot.

Warren is listed at 5110/218 and runs with a throwback, between the tackles style.  He’s fantastic in short yardage situations when he can use his power to pick up tough yards.  Late in the UCLA game, Cinci found itself with a tenuous two point lead in the red zone.  While trying to seal the victory, they came upon a 4th and 2.  Dare I say everybody in the stadium knew what was coming: a Michael Warren run.  The Bruins put five on the line of scrimmage and come with the rush.  Warren is able to churn and fight for the all-important first down.  By no means is it a flashy play but it illustrates what his NFL role could be.

Warren also excels in the passing game.  He finished 2018 with 25 receptions for 232 yards and a score.  I don’t think those stats do justice to his pass catching ability though.  When I was watching the UCLA game there were numerous times when he was lined up as a slot or boundary receiver, so the coaching staff trusts him in that role.  Speaking of trust, he was put in a lot of pass protection situations early in the UCLA game, his first as the starter.  He did well and clearly knows his assignments, even if he lacks pop in his blocks.  Warren has good hands, catching the ball away from his body, and isn’t fearful of contact over the middle.  This first down catch shows just how versatile he can be in the passing game.  He’s lined up in the slot and runs a quick slant on a 3rd and 6.  He extends and makes the grab; he knows the safety is closing so he quickly gets both hands on the ball to secure it.  So far in my offseason study, I can’t recall seeing another back make a similar play as a receiver.

I was a bit disappointed that the only game film currently available was the UCLA game.  I was hoping to see Warren later in the season when he was full entrenched and had a number of starts under his belt.  So, I turned on some highlight reels I found on Youtube.  I’m glad I did.  One of my original notes on Warren was that he lacked top-end speed and was probably a 4.55-4.60 runner.  What I saw on highlights contradicted that.  You can see here against Tulane that he clearly has another gear after he breaks through the second level.  I updated my notes now to say that Warren accelerates well but struggles to maintain his top-end speed, maybe topping out at about 4.50.

Cincinnati figures to be in the running for the AAC championship in 2019 so we’re likely to see a lot of Warren this season.  I’m grateful because I think there’s more to his game than I was able to see in his lone game tape.  At worst, it appears that Warren could be a solid short yardage specialist with receiving upside at the next level.

Honorable Mentions

Damonte Coxie, WR, Memphis: Coxie emerged in 2018 as the Tigers’ leading receiver, ending with more than double the receptions of the next best receiver (72 vs 33).  He’s listed at 6030/200 and plays with above average play strength and excellent hand strength.  His play strength allows him to body-battle with defenders for 50/50 balls and also makes him a difficult tackle after the catch.  His hand strength helps him rip the ball away from defenders and is the reason why he’s often able to snare balls well away from his frame.  Coxie is a redshirt junior and will earn draft buzz if he repeats his 1,172 yard output from last season.

Gabriel Davis, WR, UCF: I watched a highlight reel and a full game film of Davis and I’m honestly not sure which I should put more stock in.  The highlight reel showed a downfield threat who wins contested balls while the full film showed a possession receiver with the ability to break a big play.  Either would be valuable, it’s just a matter of what does he do well consistently.  He led UCF in receiving with a 53-815-7 line last year but I expect that to decline with Brandon Wimbush at the helm.  Whether Davis can regularly show us his playmaking ability, and not his counting stats, will ultimately determine if he comes out as a junior.

James Proche, WR, SMU: Proche led the AAC and finished fifth in the FBS with 93 receptions in 2018.  He averaged 12.9 yards per catch, finishing with 1,199 yards (and 12 TDs).  Proche (pronounced Pro-shay) also returned kicks and punts for the Mustangs which will increase his chances of making an NFL roster.  He’s listed at 5110/190, has about 4.50 speed and made some spectacular catches last season.  I love that Proche shows up in big games.  In two career games against conference-leading UCF, Proche totaled 19-273-3.  In five games against Power 5 opponents, he amassed 32 receptions for 453 yards and 3 TDs, including an 11-166-2 coming-out party against Michigan.  I’m expecting big numbers from Proche again in 2019.

Isaiah Wright, WR, Temple: Wright was the AAC Special Teams Player of the Year in 2018 but he offers much more than that to the team. He’s deployed in myriad ways: wildcat, jet sweep, option, traditional receiver. Wright has fantastic change of direction skills and has straight line speed to outrun most defenders. At 6020/220 he’s built well and is bigger that most players with his skill set. In 2018 he scored seven total touchdowns: three receiving, one rushing, one kick return and two punt returns. He may be a gadget player in the NFL but he could still have fantasy value.

Mitchell Wilcox, TE, USF: Mitchell Wilcox is an easy prospect to fall in love with. He has better than average size at 6050/245 and ample speed for the position. He’s versatile because he’s also a competent blocker, which gives him a leg up on big-slot tight end prospects. Most impressively, Wilcox is a natural when it comes to catching the ball. He adjusts well to the ball in midair and loves to make highlight reel diving catches. After watching his highlights, I also feel that he has the potential to be an emotional leader for his team. Wilcox is a lock to be a Top 10 tight end prospect in the class and may end up even higher in my rankings.

 

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

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

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

More Analysis by Bob Cowper

The Watch List: 2018 Bowl Game Previews, Part IV

Updated: December 28th 2018

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

Peach Bowl, Florida (9-3) vs Michigan (10-2), Sat 12/29 at 12:00pm on ESPN:

  • Draft Eligible Players to Watch: Chase Winovich, EDGE, Michigan
    • I was originally going to profile Winovich in this space but changed my mind after Todd McShay’s most recent big board ranked fellow LB Devin Bush 10th overall. Then I figured why not mention both? Then on the morning I was writing this, Bush declared for the draft and announced that he’d skip the bowl due to a hip injury. Woe, the travails of bowl season for somebody writing advance previews. Winovich is a can’t miss player on the field, 1) because of his golden locks and 2) because of his persistence attacking the ball. He’s a smart player who will quickly curry favor in the locker room and on the practice field.  I expect him to land on Day Two come April.
  • My Pick: Florida, +7.5
    • As repeat readers know, I am a Michigan fan so this is a tough one to pick. My heart says to go for the Wolverines and a blowout victory but my brain says it’ll be close (if not a loss). Michigan has lost their last three games against the spread which does not bode well. Both teams feature strong defenses (advantage: Michigan) so it should be relatively low scoring. I’d be surprised to see either team win by more than a field goal.

Belk Bowl, South Carolina (7-5) vs Virginia (7-5), Sat 12/29 at 12:00pm on ABC:

  • Draft Eligible Player to Watch: Bryan Edwards, WR, South Carolina
    • The Gamecocks have two receiver prospects in Edwards and Deebo Samuel. Samuel has already announced that he will not play in the bowl so Edwards should receive the spotlight treatment. Since the USC offense is less than explosive, Edwards’ numbers are good but not great. His 2018 line finished at 52-809-7. He’s listed at 6030/220 and plays strong. In the preseason, I noted that I was impressed with his ball tracking, body control and ability to complete circus catches. I previously had Edwards as my 1.03 for 2019 rookie drafts so keep a close eye on his postseason performance.
  • My Pick: Virginia, +5
    • I was honestly surprised to see that Virginia ended up bowl eligible and with a winning record to boot. Like Minnesota which I mentioned in a previous installment, Virginia is one of the rare Power 5 teams I have not seen a lick of this season. Virginia has a better record ATS (8-4) and the better defense (a top 25 group in most categories) so I’ll take them and the points. You should follow along on Twitter because the people behind the Belk Bowl’s Twitter account are fantastic at their jobs.

Arizona Bowl, Nevada (7-5) vs Arkansas State (8-4), Sat 12/29 at 1:15pm on CBSSN:

  • Draft Eligible Player to Watch: Justice Hansen, QB, Arkansas State
    • Hansen will be looking to cap off a very productive career at Arkansas State in this one. He was twice named the Sun Belt Offensive Player of the Year and should crest 10,000 career passing yards in the bowl (he’s sitting at 9,858). Hansen has good size at 6040/224 and is a threat as a runner as well. He moves well in the pocket but has much room to grow as a passer. His touch and accuracy are below average for pro prospects but he does show a quick release and an ability to run a zone-read offense. I see him being a priority UDFA and finding a home as a project backup to a run-first quarterback.
  • My Pick: Arkansas State, -2
    • Saturday 12/29 is a day with some big games. This is not one of them. Both teams have top 20 passing offenses, however Nevada’s pass defense is much weaker. Trust in the Red Wolves and Justice Hansen.

Military Bowl, Virginia Tech (6-6) vs Cincinnati (10-2), Mon 12/31 at 12:00pm on ESPN:

  • Draft Eligible Players to Watch: Ricky Walker, DT, Virginia Tech & Marquise Copeland, DT, Cincinnati
    • The best draft eligible guys in this one are both interior defensive linemen. Both players are listed at 6020 but Walker has the weight advantage (300 vs 287). They were both three year starters who finished with similar 2018 lines. Walker had 49 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss and 2.0 sacks, while Copeland had 43 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks. I’m not familiar with either player’s film so I referred to two of my favorite sites’ positional rankings: The Draft Network and DraftTek. DrafTek has both guys as Top 100 players with a slight edge to Copeland. The Draft Network, on the other hand, has Walker ranked significantly higher on their big board (91 vs 460). It’ll be interesting to see them on alternating possessions and compare and contrast their abilities.
  • My Pick: Cincinnati, -5.5
    • The Bearcats finished the season with an impressive 10-2 record (7-5 ATS). Their explosive offense was led by sophomore RB Michael Warren II. Warren recorded nearly 1,400 yards from scrimmage and 18 total TDs. He’s currently injured but expected to play. I’ll assume he does play and helps Cinci cement the victory. According to the OddsShark “edge finder,” Cincinnati leads Virginia Tech in eleven of twelve categories. Perhaps not surprisingly then, OddsShark predicts Cincinnati will win this one 45-19.

Sun Bowl, Stanford (8-4) vs Pitt (7-6), Mon 12/31 at 2:30pm on CBS:

  • Draft Eligible Player to Watch: JJ Arcega-Whiteside, WR, Stanford
    • JJAW was not on my radar when I started making my 2019 position rankings in June of 2018. He exploded at the beginning of the year though and made people like myself notice. By September I had moved him up to the 2.08 slot and today I would probably put him in the late first round. Arcega-Whiteside is a prototypical “box-out” receiver who uses his play strength, length and leaping ability to win in contested situations. He has good hands and superior ball tracking ability. He does not rely on speed or RAC but he doesn’t need to. I’d say there’s at least a 50/50 chance that he stays for another year so let’s monitor his status.
  • My Pick: Stanford, -6
    • Stanford’s offense will be missing former Heisman runner-up RB Bryce Love because he decided to skip the bowl as he prepares for the NFL. Twelve months ago, missing Love would have left a gulf in the middle of the Stanford offense. He’s continued to play banged up and did not perform at a high level this season (just 739-6 in 2018 vs 2,118-19 in 2017). QB KJ Costello finished the season strong with a 10:2 TD:INT ratio over the last three games.  Costello himself could factor into the NFL Draft conversation if he decides to forego his senior season. Even without Love, Stanford has enough to hold off Pitt to improve to 4-0-1 ATS since the start of November.

 

Lines and betting stats courtesy of OddsShark.com, as of 12/18.

Notes: In an effort to standardize the description of key positional traits, I frequently use the following adjectives: elite, good, above average, average, below average, poor.  My experimental grading system uses a Madden-like approach by weighting position relevant traits on a 100-point scale; bonus or negative points are awarded based on production, size, injury history and character.  Heights listed are using a notation common among scouts where the first digit corresponds to the feet, the next two digits correspond to the inches and the fourth digit corresponds to the fraction, in eighths.  So, somebody measuring 5’11” and 3/8 would be 5113.  This is helpful when trying to sort players by height.  When watching film for a player, I typically pick two games.  When time permits, I may add a third game. If game film is not available I will search for highlight reels, but keep in mind these are the best plays that player had so they really need to jump off the screen. I do not necessarily want to watch games where they did very well or very poorly as that may not be a great illustration of their true ability. If possible, when comparing players at the same position I also like to watch film against common opponents. Full disclosure, I am not watching film of every single game any player plays, instead I am looking for a representative sample.  There are a lot of analysts out there who have a deeper depth of knowledge about certain players but I pride myself in a wide breadth of knowledge about many players.  When researching college players I use a number of resources, I would recommend bookmarking the below sites…

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

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

More Analysis by Bob Cowper

The Watch List: 2018 AAC Preview

Updated: July 21st 2018

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

Storylines to Watch

  • Heisman Favorite:  McKenzie Milton, QB, UCF.  Milton thrived under coach Scott Frost last season, throwing for 4,037 yards and 37 TDs.  It remains to be seen how Milton progresses under new head coach Josh Heupel but I assume he’ll do just fine with such a strong supporting cast.  He may be the next in the line of “great college quarterbacks who can’t make it as a pro” but that won’t diminish my enjoyment watching him in 2018.
  • Darkhorse Heisman Candidate:  Ed Oliver, DT, Houston.  Picking a defensive lineman for the Heisman is about as darkhorse as it gets.  Oliver is a beast who will be in the conversation for a top draft pick so it stands to reason he may earn a Heisman vote or two like Roquan Smith received in 2017.
  • Offensive Player of the Year:  Darrell Henderson, RB, Memphis.  Henderson will have a strong season but will never get the publicity of Milton so I wanted to honor Henderson here while giving Milton my AAC Heisman vote.  Per Phil Steele, Memphis ranks 11th in the nation in offensive line starts returning for 2018, so Henderson will have an experienced line blocking for him.  Add in the fact that the Tigers lose their star QB and WR and we’ll be looking at an offensive attack more focused on the run this season.
  • Defensive Player of the Year:  Ed Oliver, DT, Houston.  I hope you’re not getting tired of hearing Ed Oliver’s name because there is more of him to come in this preview and I’ll be talking about him all season long.
  • Newcomer of the Year:  Tavion Thomas, RB, Cincinnati.  Thomas was a highly sought recruit who earned offers from the likes of Ohio State, Oklahoma and Alabama.  Thomas committed to the Sooners before changing his mind in January.  He was the 17th ranked back according to 247Sports and was #29 per Phil Steele.  Thomas has a shot at emerging from Cinci’s young but crowded backfield.  The Bearcats return two sophomores in Gerrid Doaks and Michael Warren who had 520-2 and 334-1 respectively as freshmen.
  • Underclassman to Watch:  Gabriel Davis, WR, UCF.  The Knights are losing two of their top three receivers (Tre’Quan Smith and Jordan Akins) so the door is open for Davis to take on a bigger role in 2018.  In 2017 as a true freshman his line was 27-391-4.  He has a big body at 6’3″ and 219lb so it’ll be interesting to see if the high volume offense of UCF vaults him into 2020 draft consideration.
  • Best QB-WR Tandem:  McKenzie Milton and Dredrick Snelson.  I thought about being flippant here and selecting Zach Abey and Malcolm Perry, see below, but I figured I should give some real analysis instead.  Ultimately I chose Milton and Snelson more out of necessity than desire.  The AAC only returns one of its top ten receivers from last year so my options were quite limited here.  That sole returner, East Carolina’s Trevon Brown, will be playing with a new passer this season so I couldn’t go with that tandem.  Snelson is the Knights leading returning receiver; he had 46-695-8 last year.  Snelson was Phil Steele’s 35th ranked recruit in his class so he has some potential and could land on NFL Draft radars as a junior.
  • Best RB Corps:  Navy.  I haven’t had such an easy choice yet in my season preview research.  The Midshipmen return two 1,000+ yard rushers in Zach Abey and Malcolm Perry.  They also return FB Anthony Gargiulo who rushed for 424 yards and averaged 5.6 yards per carry.  Notice that I left off position designations for Abey and Perry because there’s an interesting battle, forgive the pun, between them heading into this season.  They both had starts at QB last year but Perry is the better athlete (Perry played at WR while Abey started at QB).  Reports are that Abey will be moving to WR which we know is not a premier assignment in a triple option offense.  I’ll bet that head coach Ken Niumatalolo has been game planning all offseason and keeping both players on the field at the same time will make Navy even harder to defend.
  • Coach on the Hottest Seat:  Randy Edsall, UCONN.  I don’t really get the allure of Randy Edsall.  He left the Huskies back in 2010 for a five year stint at Maryland that netted him just 22 wins.  Then Connecticut brought him back in 2017 after firing Bob Diaco.  Edsall has a 73-72 career record with Connecticut but the team was dreadful last year at 3-9.  Those three wins were by a combined seventeen points and one of them was over 4-7 Holy Cross from the FCS.  Not exactly a winning resume.  When I researched Edsall for this preview, I was reminded of his recent tirade about paying college players.  While I agree with the idea, going off on that tangent probably isn’t the best way to keep your job with an NCAA member institution.  Neither is suing the school’s Citizen Ethics Advisory Board.

Teams to Watch

 Memphis (10-3 in 2017)

I’m really interested to see what Memphis can do in 2018 after losing so much with QB Riley Ferguson and WR Anthony Miller moving on.  As I’ve discussed elsewhere in this preview, the Tigers have a number of offensive weapons leftover including RB Darrell Henderson, do-everything dynamo Tony Pollard and TE Joey Magnifico.  The Tigers won the West division last season with a 7-1 record.  They return 15 starters from that team and have a favorable non-conference schedule (easily winnable home games against Mercer, Georgia State and South Alabama).  An odd midseason matchup against SEC foe Missouri could end up being the make-or-break contest.  Memphis will easily hold onto the division mantle but a sneaky win against Missouri would catapult them into playoff contention (it would be a better Power 5 win than UCF had last year over Maryland).  Memphis may have the widest range of possible outcomes this upcoming season in the AAC, because of the uncertainty of replacing two huge pieces of the offense, but if I had to bet (and hey I may soon be able to, thank you New Jersey!) I would take the over and pick them to improve on last year’s 10 wins.

 Cincinnati (4-8 in 2017)

What is a Bearcat anyway?  Nobody seems to know for sure, unless you accept this tenuous explanation from the school.  One thing I do know about Cincinnati is that they will be on the come this season.  Per Phil Steele, Cinci returns 78% of their offensive yards, the most in the conference.  They also have a soft non-conference schedule after opening at UCLA.  They have an annual game against Miami Ohio which the Bearcats have won every season since 2006; two weeks later they have another winnable, albeit more difficult, MAC matchup against Ohio.  Between those two, Alabama A&M comes to town which Cincinnati should beat easily.  They get Navy and USF at home which will help them steal a win against one of the higher ranked AAC teams.  The offense features a number of underclassman running backs that could be either a blessing or a curse for head coach Luke Fickell.  The experienced QB Hayden Moore returns but may be beat out by true freshman Ben Bryant.  It may be a big if, but if Fickell can juggle his myriad backfield options, Cinci could surprise in the East and get to eight wins.  Even if that may be a stretch, I like Fickell’s chances of getting to 7-5 in his second season at the helm.

Players to Watch

Honorable Mentions

  • McKenzie Milton, QB, UCF:  Milton was fantastic in 2017 and should light up AAC defenses again this season, even under a new coach.  Jeff Heupel was the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach for fellow NFL prospect Drew Lock at Missouri; Heupel also worked closely with NFL quarterbacks Sam Bradford and Landry Jones at OU.  So, Heupel’s quarterback coach credentials could help increase Milton’s stock.  Unfortunately, I think it’s going to be an uphill battle for Milton as he is severely undersized at 5110/180.  It’s a shame because he has a great arm and makes some of his throws look effortless.  Another 4,000 yard and 35 TD season should be expected.
  • Ryquell Armstead, RB, Temple:  Armstead followed up a promising sophomore season (919-14) with a disappointing junior campaign (604-5).  Interestingly, he had the exact same number of carries in each season (156).  One positive of 2017 was that Armstead got involved with 14 receptions, although for only 75 yards.  Armstead has good size (5110, 205) but needs to show that he can be the lead back and wrest carries away from veteran David Hood.
  • Adrian Killins, RB, UCF:  Listed weights for Killins range between 150-170 but either way he’s light and slight at 5080.  What Killins lacks in size, he makes up in speed.  He offered up some bulletin board material last year leading into the Peach Bowl when he boasted that Auburn hadn’t seen speed like he and the Knights had.  DraftScout.com predicts Killins speed will range between 4.40-4.59.  After watching some highlights, this one specifically, I’m going to guess he’s safely in the 4.40 discussion.  Killins was involved as a receiver with 25 receptions in 2017; he totaled 959 yards and 11 TDs from scrimmage on 148 touches.  He also has some limited experience returning kicks which is where he could be deployed early in his pro career.
  • Tony Pollard, WR/RB/KR, Memphis:  Pollard is an all-purpose threat.  In 2017 he had 10 touchdowns: 2 rushing, 4 receiving, 4 kick return.  He only had 66 touches from scrimmage but averaged over 11 yards per touch.  He’ll still be behind RB Darrell Henderson in the offensive pecking order but with WR Anthony Miller gone, Pollard will see more snaps.  It’s not impossible that Pollard could parlay his size (5110/200) and versatility into a “Jaylen Samuels lite” draft profile.
  • Justin Hobbs, WR, Tulsa:  Hobbs finished 2017 with a respectable 55-830-3 line on a bad Tulsa team that averaged just 173 yards passing per game.  Hobbs has not showed a knack for finding the end zone (just 9 career TDs in three seasons) but has a redzone worthy frame at 6040/218.  I watched a 2017 highlight package of Hobbs and was disappointed to see how infrequently he used that size to his advantage by playing in the air.  I’ll monitor Hobbs this year to see if he improves in that regard.
  • Joey Magnifico, TE, Memphis:  Here we have another player who stands to benefit from Memphis WR Anthony Miller leaving for the NFL.  You may be quick to counter that I’m attributing too much added production to Henderson, Pollard and Magnifico but you need to remember what a black hole Miller was in this offense.  He had 100+ touches in both 2016 and 2017 that need to be replaced.  Magnifico is listed at 6040/235 which puts him on the smaller side of the last two tight end classes.  Size wise he comps to Evan Engram or Gerald Everett but DraftScout.com predicts he’ll be significantly slower.  Magnifico has just 30 career receptions (365 yards, 5 TDs) so this is pure speculation here but he’s likely the best TE in the conference so so let’s keep an eye on him.

Ed Oliver, DT, Houston

Regardless of what source you’re looking at, Ed Oliver is about as unanimous a selection as you’ll find for the nation’s best at their position. He checks in at 6030/290 and is projected in the 4.90 range.  He ran a 4.87 as a high school prospect and in my experience, guys tend to get a tick faster once they are on campus and start training at a higher level.  NFL.com quotes some sick athletic feats as well in the vertical and broad jump categories.  No prospect in 2018, at 290+ pounds, would have a better profile.  Taven Bryan and Kolton Miller would come close, and both were first rounders, but Oliver would have them beat by nearly a full tenth of a second in the 40 yard dash.  Oliver is in the running for the top pick and I’ll bet that some team is going to get tremendous value for him at #2 or #3 after a quarterback inevitably rises up the draft board.  By no means am I an expert when it comes to defensive line play so I’m not going to try and break down his technique but it’s impossible to watch Oliver and not see the impact he has on the game every single snap.  Considering the attention offensive lines pay him, his stats are great: 73 tackles, 16.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks in 2017.  I watched a fair bit of Oliver last season so I did not do a new round of film study for this preview (honestly, seems kind of pointless… he’s good), but I encourage you to take four minutes and watch this highlight reel entitled “Absolute Domination” which just about sums him up.

Darrell Henderson, RB, Memphis

Henderson is a 5090/200 running back who made fantastic use of his 154 touches last season.  On those touches, 24 of which were receptions, Henderson averaged 8.96 yards per and scored 11 TDs.  In my database of nearly fifty running backs for this class, Henderson led them all in yards per carry, by nearly a yard too.  He also had a productive freshman season with over 700 scrimmage yards and 8 TDs.  As I’ve mentioned ad nauseam in this preview, Memphis has a lot of offensive production to replace in 2018.  I expect to see Henderson’s touches creep closer to 200 and while his rate stats will surely decrease he will still be productive and could be a fast riser.  Henderson uses his squat body type to run with a balanced combination of speed and power, often pinballing off defenders.  He showed me great contact balance and an ability to stay upright, especially while avoiding ankle tackles.  He accelerates well and has a top speed in the 4.50 range, in my opinion.  His hands need some work and he appears to be a hesitant (and inexperienced) blocker but that may improve with experience.  Henderson offers the Memphis offense versatility which they used to create mismatches for Henderson and his teammates.  In one perfect example against SMU, Henderson motioned out of the backfield to line up in the slot.  The linebackers shift and it’s clear there’s some confusion.  Amidst that confusion, WR Anthony Miller splits the linebackers and scores on a touch pass over the middle.  If the defenders were not concerned about Henderson playing out of the slot the touchdown never would have materialized.  If I were ranking today, Henderson probably cracks my Top 20 at the position but I was impressed enough with his power/speed combination to reserve final judgment.  (Film watched: UCF 2017, SMU 2017)

Trevon Brown, WR, East Carolina

Brown was not on my radar when I started researching the AAC for this preview.  He stood out, however, when I realized how few productive receivers were returning to the AAC this season.  Brown finished 2017 with a line of 60-1,069-7 for the Pirates, making him the only one of the conference’s top ten receivers coming back to campus.  His 17.8 yards per catch average led the conference by receivers with 60+ receptions.  Brown had a solid sophomore season in 2015 (41-496-4) but was forced to sit out 2016 after being declared academically ineligible.  Since he’s not a buzzworthy name, there was not much film of Brown to find online.  I was able to watch one full game and a highlight reel package.  His game against Cinci ended up looking good on the stat sheet (9-270-2) but it was buoyed by a huge 95 yard score.  It concerned me that a number of Brown’s best routes went untargeted by the quarterback.  Part of that is likely the fact that Brown lines up almost exclusively on the left and his right handed QB just didn’t have the time or ability to read the full field.  Brown shows strong hands, in fact I did not note a single drop.  He runs a limited route tree but found success on numerous post routes.  On those posts, he used his body to shield the defender while making the catch with his hands.  In general, he has average speed and acceleration but he does have an extra gear when he wants to shift into it making him dangerous after the catch.  It did concern me that Brown appears to be uninterested on plays that are designed to go away from him, rarely did I see him try to sell a route or hold a block when he knew he wouldn’t see action.  I’m hoping that Brown’s upward statistical trajectory continues because he has decent enough size and speed (6020/211, DraftScout.com predicts in the 4.55 range) to get drafted as a late round flyer a la Cedrick Wilson from this year.  (Film watched: Cincinnati 2017, Highlights 2017)

Notes: In an effort to standardize the description of key positional traits, I frequently use the following adjectives: elite, good, above average, average, below average, poor.  My experimental grading system uses a Madden-like approach by weighting position relevant traits on a 100-point scale; bonus or negative points are awarded based on production, size, injury history and character.  Heights listed are using a notation common among scouts where the first digit corresponds to the feet, the next two digits correspond to the inches and the fourth digit corresponds to the fraction, in eighths.  So, somebody measuring 5’11” and 3/8 would be 5113.  This is helpful when trying to sort players by height.  Then watching film for a player, I typically pick two games at random to watch.  For top prospects I may add a third game, while for long shots I might only devote the time for one. If game film is not available I will search for highlight reels, but keep in mind these are the best plays that player had all season so they really need to jump off the screen. I do not necessarily want to watch games where they did very well or very poorly as that may not be a great illustration of their true ability. If possible, when comparing players at the same position I also like to watch film against common opponents. Full disclosure, I am not watching film of every single game any player plays, instead I am looking for a representative sample.  There are a lot of analysts out there who have a deeper depth of knowledge about certain players but I pride myself in a wide breadth of knowledge about many players.  When researching college players I use a number of resources, I would recommend bookmarking the below sites…

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

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

More Analysis by Bob Cowper