The Watch List 2021: Early RB Tiers

Updated: January 14th 2021

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

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

1.01 Contenders

  • Travis Etienne

  • Najee Harris

  • Javonte Williams

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

Day Two Targets

  • Kenny Gainwell

  • Kylin Hill

  • Chuba Hubbard

  • Zamir White

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

Regular Season Risers

  • Michael Carter

  • Khalil Herbert

  • Jaret Patterson

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

Riddle-Wrapped Enigmas

  • Journey Brown

  • Jermar Jefferson

  • Trey Sermon

  • Stephen Carr

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

Pass Catching Playmakers

  • Max Borghi

  • Deon Jackson

  • Isaih Pacheco

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

Spacey Satellites

  • Javian Hawkins

  • Pooka Williams

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

Undervalued, Underdrafted

  • Keaontay Ingram

  • Brian Robinson

  • Larry Rountree

  • CJ Verdell

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

Short Yardage Specialists

  • Rakeem Boyd

  • Stevie Scott

  • Master Teague

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

Small School Sleepers

  • Spencer Brown

  • Brenden Knox

  • Elijah Mitchell

  • Trey Ragas

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

 

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

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

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

More Analysis by Bob Cowper

The Watch List 2021: Championship Game Preview

Updated: January 10th 2021

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

Well, we made it. The 2020 college football season was an interesting ride from start to finish, full of unexpected hurdles and plenty of last minute gameplan changes. It’s fun to debate the merits of a 4-team playoff but I think it’s fair to say that we got two deserving teams in the championship. Alabama, as usual, stood out among the SEC and added another chapter to the story of Nick Saban’s dynasty. Ohio State, controversially, has played half as many games as Alabama but proved they belong with a convincing win against Clemson in the semi-finals. Both teams are loaded with NFL talent on both sides of the ball. As is my custom on The Watch List, below I am sharing the draft-eligible offensive skill position players you should be keeping an eye on in the game. Much of these players are “name brand” guys so I have also included a few under the radar honorable mentions at the end. (In true 2020 style I’ll share a familiar caveat: it’s possible that players mentioned in this preview are ruled out of the game for covid-related reasons between writing and publication.)

Mac Jones, QB, Alabama

Mac Jones started the 2020 season mostly as an unknown quantity to fans like myself. He played well enough in relief of Tua Tagovailoa in 2019, but it was a small-ish sample size and he lacked the recruiting pedigree of typical Alabama stars. So, it was fair to question whether he could lead the Tide to greatness. Jones put the questions to rest quickly after a second game statement win over Texas A&M. He ultimately ended with 4,036 passing yards and 36 TDs to just 4 INTs. Jones came in third in Heisman voting but received the consolation prize of seeing his favorite target, DeVonta Smith, win the trophy. Jones reads the field well and throws a tremendous deep ball that is accurate and perfectly placed. If he comes out he’ll probably end up being a late first rounder but another season on campus might elevate him even higher.

Najee Harris, RB, Alabama

For non-superflex leagues, Najee Harris has made the best case this season for the 1.01 pick. Harris is a bear to bring down, fully utilizing his 6020/230 build in goal line and short yardage situations. Harris led the nation in rushing touchdowns this season (24) and was near the top in attempts (229) and yards (1,387); he is also a big part of the passing game (36-346-3). Based on his size and his dominant performance this season, it’s easy to compare Harris to former Alabama star Derrick Henry but Harris is a more balanced back than Henry. I have a years-long love of Clemson’s Travis Etienne but even I need to admit that it may be time to put Harris atop the 2020 running back class. Ohio State had the nation’s second-best rushing defense (just 89.0 yards per game) so we’ll get a great showcase game for Harris to end on.

DeVonta Smith, WR, Alabama

DeVonta Smith racked up the end-of-season accolades: SEC Offensive Player of the Year, AP Player of the Year, Biletnikoff Award, Maxwell Award, Walter Camp Award, Heisman Trophy, etc. Let me be the first last to tell you that DeVonta Smith is good. Smith is an innate route runner, he has great body control at the boundary, and he is quick and shifty after the catch. If Smith was twenty pounds heavier, he would probably be the highest rated receiver prospect in a decade. The biggest question about Smith is whether his size (6010/175) will reduce his impact in the NFL. #DraftTwitter is full of hot takes but I won’t add to them because Smith has been dominant for 2+ years and has never missed a game in college. Until he proves otherwise, Smith is my WR1 over LSU’s Ja’Marr Chase who sat out this season. We should relish the chance to watch DeVonta Smith in crimson one last time.

Jaylen Waddle, WR, Alabama

When I started writing this preview I did not include Waddle on my list because I didn’t think there was any shot he would play after suffering a fractured ankle earlier in the season. As of Sunday morning, word is that he may play though so he’s a necessary inclusion on this list. If Waddle does see the field it might only take one touch for him to make a difference. Waddle is the ultimate low-volume, high-impact player. For his career he averages just 4.75 touches per game (receptions, rushing attempts and returns) but an impressive 88.75 all-purpose yards per game. Like Smith, Waddle is undersized at 5100/180 but he’s a dynamo when he has the ball in his hands. He’s a true track star in football pads. Speed sells in the NFL and as such I expect Waddle to be a late first rounder at worst come April. If Waddle is able to play and prove he’s fully healthy it will only further improve his draft stock.

Justin Fields, QB, Ohio State

Whether he’s drafted 2nd or 3rd overall on April 29th, the team that drafts Justin Fields will be getting a cornerstone for their franchise for years to come. Fields is still my QB2 in this class and the toughness he showed in the semi-final against Clemson only solidified that for me. Sure, the six passing touchdowns were gaudy but it’s not the first time this season that he’s put up eye-popping numbers. In just seven games, Fields has scored 26 total TDs. Fields is listed at 6030/228 but looks even bigger than that on the screen. He’s a smart runner, reads the zone-read well and is a leader on and off the field. I love watching him sling it and that’s tough to admit as a lifelong Michigan fan.

Trey Sermon, RB, Ohio State

Leading into the 2019 season I was high on Trey Sermon. I thought he was the better of the two backs for the Sooners, over Kennedy Brooks, but he found himself on the wrong side of the time share. Sermon moved to Ohio State as a grad transfer for this season and now that he’s more comfortable in the offense he’s excelled. In the last three games against Michigan State, Northwestern and Clemson, Sermon has compiled 636 rushing yards and 4 TDs. His 331 yards against Northwestern were the second-most in a single game this year in the FBS. Sermon is a bit lanky at 6010/215 so he may not have the prototypical dimensions for a three down back in the NFL but I don’t think that will be his role. I believe Sermon can be a successful change of pace back in a zone running scheme where he can use his first-step quickness to get upfield. In past studies, I thought Sermon could also be a decent pass protector and pass catcher too. Sermon’s year-one role may only translate to a late round rookie draft flyer but I’d be interested in taking the chance because I think Sermon is better than he’s ever gotten credit for.

Chris Olave, WR, Ohio State

Between Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson, Justin Fields has a powerful one-two punch at receiver. Wilson, a sophomore, isn’t draft eligible yet so we’ll focus on Olave here. Olave is a crafty route runner who inevitably finds a way to get open for his quarterback. He’s not really a yards-after-catch threat but that doesn’t matter if he catches it on the run with his straight line speed. I noticed that Olave seems to modulate his momentum well as he tracks a deep ball, allowing him to slow down and get under the ball to catch it in stride. Receivers will often outrun the ball and then come back to it, but Olave manages to catch most of his deep balls while still moving forward which translates to more touchdowns. I don’t think I’ve ever noticed that by a receiver and am now excited to watch that closely during the championship game. Olave is just a junior so we don’t know yet if he’ll declare early but if he comes out ESPN’s Todd McShay predicts he’ll be a first rounder.

Jeremy Ruckert, TE, Ohio State

I recently wrote about Jeremy Ruckert in my TE tiers article and described him as underused in the Buckeyes attack. Between drafting that sentiment and publishing my article, Ruckert went out and scored twice against Clemson in the semi-finals. He’s undoubtedly a block-first tight end but he does have a knack for the red zone. I foresee Ruckert getting drafted ahead of some recognizable pass-catching tight end names because he will have an instant impact as a blocker.

Honorable Mentions

  • Brian Robinson, RB, Alabama: Robinson has been a four-year contributor for the Tide who should get a look in the NFL. He’s been in Harris’ shadow this season but shined when given the chance against Arkansas with 17 touches for 76 yards and 3 TDs. I profiled Robinson heading into the season and wondered if he could have a Josh Jacobs-esque rise after being a bit player for three years.
  • Miller Forristall, TE, Alabama: I hear Brad Nessler saying “Miller Forristall” in my dreams. It feels like he’s been around forever (actually, just since 2016) and yet had his best season in 2020 with 23 grabs for 253 yards. About half of his production has come in the last three gotta-have-them games so I’m thinking he’ll figure in this one too. Forristall may not have the fantasy upside as recent ‘Bama tight ends like OJ Howard or Irv Smith but he’ll be playing on Sundays.
  • Master Teague, RB, Ohio State: Master Teague, all All-Name Team nominee, started the season as the Buckeyes’ bellcow. Teague racked up 380 yards and 6 TDs in the first four games. He got hurt in the Big Ten Championship game trying to hurdle a defender and it’s unclear if he’ll suit up for this one. Teague is a former 4-star recruit with a bowling ball body at 5110/225. He’s a straight ahead runner who pairs well with the aforementioned Trey Sermon. If he goes pro I would expect Teague to get some attention as an early down runner.

 

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

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

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

More Analysis by Bob Cowper

The Watch List 2021: Early TE Tiers

Updated: January 5th 2021

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

Surefire First Rounders

  • Pat Freiermuth

  • Kyle Pitts

Calm down, calm down. The order of Pat Freiermuth above Kyle Pitts is not a hot take. Remember: these are not rankings. Kyle Pitts is BY FAR the top tight end prospect in this class. He was one of three in the conversation at the beginning of the season and is the last man standing now atop the 2021 tight end class. Back in Week 5, I wrote that “nobody did more for their professional prospects in Week 4 than Florida TE Kyle Pitts.” Well now we can extrapolate that even further to say that nobody improved their NFL draft stock as much as Pitts did in 2020. He went from a borderline first rounder to having a shot at a Top 10 pick come April. Pitts is the quintessential receiving tight end for the current NFL metagame. He can be dominant at the catch point, has solid hands, good body control and separation speed. His 43-770-12 line in eight games played is fantastic and does not even fully illustrate what a beast he’s been. I think Pitts will be a late first rounder in your 2021 rookie drafts and could sneak up a few spots depending on landing spot. Pat Freiermuth probably would have been my pick as the TE1 before the season started. In the Spring, I called him a “zone buster” as a receiver who makes himself an easy target for his quarterback. I didn’t see much of him during that study as an in-line blocker but I liked what he did to seal running lanes from the slot. Unfortunately we only got four games of Freiermuth in 2020 which turned out to be a lost season for the Nittany Lions for a litany of reasons. Freiermuth had surgery in November so we’ll need to check on his recovery leading up to the NFL Combine. If he’s healthy, he’ll be a late first rounder in the NFL Draft and a second rounder in your rookie draft.

Preseason Shortlist Picks

  • Matt Bushman

  • Jake Ferguson

  • Brevin Jordan

  • Charlie Kolar

Matt Bushman has been a crush of mine dating back to the spring of 2018 when I first wrote about him. It’s a shame he suffered an Achilles injury before the 2020 season started, it would have been so much fun to watch him ascend alongside QB Zach Wilson. I last studied Bushman heading into the 2019 season and at that time I described him as a a “versatile tight end” who was “one of the best blockers I’ve seen as an underclassman” and who was also “a good route runner.” I’ve seen conflicting information on the interwebs about whether Bushman has declared as of early January. I expect he’ll go pro but keep an eye on his status and his pre-draft workouts because Achilles injuries typically require a lengthy recovery. Jake Ferguson’s status for 2021 has just been announced as I write this: he’ll be returning to Madison for another season with the Badgers. I watched both of Ferguson’s first games of the season versus Illinois and Michigan and was very impressed with his 11-123-4 output. Those initial games ultimately were his best of the season though, so perhaps it’s not a surprise he’ll be back. I had originally included Ferguson on this list because I felt he was going to be one of the most balanced tight end prospects in the class. Speaking of balanced tight ends, I was encouraged by just how often Brevin Jordan featured as an in-line blocker when I studied him this past spring. I didn’t watch enough Miami ball this season to have a feel for whether his blocking improved to an NFL level. He was the team’s leading receiver on a yards per catch basis (15.2) and receiving scores (7); his 576 receiving yards and 38 receptions were second-best on the squad. Jordan ended the season on a high note: torching the Oklahoma State defense for 8-96-2 during a furious comeback attempt. Brevin Jordan is a bit undersized (6030/245) to be a blocking tight end in the NFL but there’s surely no question about his ability to be a playmaking receiver. Charlie Kolar, a junior, has been QB Brock Purdy’s favorite target over the last two seasons. During that span, Kolar has an impressive 95 receptions for 1,188 and 14 TDs which lead the Cyclones. Kolar stood out in the Big 12 Championship against Oklahoma. He had two great downfield catches where he went up and snagged the ball away from his body with soft-strong hands. He’s got a huge body at 6060/257 and looks ready for the NFL but he’s yet to declare. If he does come out, I’d expect Kolar to be a Day Two consideration.

Regular Season Risers

  • Cary Angeline

  • Hunter Long

  • Kenny Yeboah

The three guys on this list were not on my tight end radar to start the season but it’s time for that to change. Angeline is a transfer from USC who never recorded a catch for the Trojans. In 26 career games with the Wolf Pack, Angeline has 11 games where he scored or had at least four receptions. That’s solid, reliable production for a low-volume target. (I bet you NFL fantasy players would kill for that consistency from every tight end not named Travis Kelce or George Kittle.) In highlights it looks like Angeline, who is listed at 6070, has the wingspan of a pterodactyl so it’ll be fun to see his combine measurements. Hunter Long played eleven games for BC in each of the last two seasons. In 2019, he posted a solid 28-509-2 stat line. In 2020, he burst out of the gates and eclipsed those totals with a 57-685-5 tally. In those first four games — against Duke, Texas State, North Carolina and Pittsburgh — Long had 31 grabs for 363 yards. Surely that must have been the second best start to the season among tight ends, except for the aforementioned Kyle Pitts. The clips I watched showed Long solely as a big slot receiver rather than an in-line blocker so I’m not yet sure if he’s the complete package but will study him further this offseason. Last up in this section is Ole Miss TE Kenny Yeboah. Yeboah is a grad transfer from Temple. In his four seasons as an Owl he was only an occasional target so his 27-524-6 output in 2020 is a positive outlier. I watched Kenny Yeboah’s film against Alabama and I came away very impressed. He looked like a rare combination of an athletic yards-after-catch receiver who is also an able blocker. Like Long, he’ll warrant a deeper dive over the winter.

Underutilized, Underdrafted

  • Nick Eubanks

  • Peyton Hendershot

  • Jeremy Ruckert

This trio from the Big Ten were tough to categorize. I wanted to include them but didn’t feel that they fit into my other categories. I felt the through line of their stories were being underutilized or underappreciated in college, leading to them being underdrafted at the NFL level. Eubanks (Michigan) and Ruckert (Ohio State) were both 4-star recruits according to ESPN; both are also 6050 and 250+. Unfortunately, both are similar in another way: they have played a limited number of college games and have just 72 combined receptions. Eubanks had a strong 2019 season where he grabbed 25 passes for 243 yards and 4 scores but he was outshone at times this year by redshirt frosh Erick All and ended with just 10-117-1. As a Michigan fan I have been pulling for Eubanks to become a star but it just never happened; I hope he gets a shot at the next level. Jeremy Ruckert is a block-first red zone threat who has just 27 career receptions. Much of Ruckert’s production, including 8 of his 9 career touchdowns and half of his receptions, have come from within twenty five yards of paydirt. Ruckert had just 9 grabs in the 2020 regular season but added 3-55-2 in the semi-final against Clemson. If he comes out early, ending on an upswing will be good for his pro portfolio; if he returns, a bigger role in the offense would help us solidify his evaluation. Indiana’s Peyton Hendershot lands on this list because he’s underappreciated by #DraftTwitter more so than because he’s underutilized by his team. Hendershot has significantly more career receptions than Eubanks and Ruckert (90 vs 45 vs 27) and yet there’s no film out there to watch to give him the look he deserves. The 2020 version of the Hoosiers’ offense really undercut Hendershot’s downfield targets. In 2019 he averaged 12.0 yards per reception but in 2020 he’s notched barely half that (6.6).  Regardless, Hendershot was a productive piece of a surprisingly successful Indiana squad in 2020, catching 23 balls for 151 yards and 4 TDs. Last year that 12.0 average turned 52 catches into 622 yards and four scores. Underappreciated plus underdrafted could equal late round rookie draft steal.

Small School Sleepers

  • Trae Barry

  • Zach Davidson

  • Cole Turner

Well, it wouldn’t be a draft preview article by yours truly without some deep sleeper suggestions. I first introduced my readers to Central Missouri’s Zach Davidson back in May when I shined the spotlight on some FCS and DII sleepers. Davidson’s size is what caught my eye first (6070/245) but I was further impressed by his stats and the limited highlights I was able to find. Davidson was a frequent downfield target and also served as the team’s punter (trick play possibilities!). Davidson has announced that he is ready to move onto the pros so watch him closely. Two years ago I fell in love with Stetson TE Donald Parham who went onto lead the FCS in receiving yards per game (as a tight end!). This year, I will include Jacksonville State’s Trae Barry on my list as an FCS hopeful to monitor. As of this writing, Barry leads the FCS in receiving yards per game for the position (60.0) and has a career line of 80-1,316-5. Barry is listed at 6070/245, identical to Davidson; and like Parham, Barry is lanky with a looping gait that doesn’t look fast but covers ground. I watched some film of his matchup against North Alabama and I think Barry’s upside is being a situational red zone target. He’s unlikely to become fantasy relevant but when he scores a random touchdown in Week 9 next year you’ll remember this article! My last small school sleeper, Cole Turner of Nevada, is a bit of a unicorn. The only easily searchable clips on Youtube for him, as of early December, are two highlights uploaded by his uncle and a number of high school profiles. Luckily for us, Turner is active on Twitter retweeting clips of his best catches. This I do know: he’s a converted receiver with a big body (6060/240) who has contested catch skills. Turner has just nine games of experience at tight end so let’s not jump to conclusions yet but he excites me. Ending the season with a five game streak of 4+ receptions and 1+ touchdown also excites me. Since he is just a junior, and this year doesn’t count against eligibility, we could see Turner for another two years before the NFL Combine comes calling.

 

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

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

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

More Analysis by Bob Cowper

The Watch List 2021: Week 13 Preview

Updated: January 10th 2021

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

Nothing goes better together than Thanksgiving and football. The NFL games on Thursday always get the most attention but college football typically provides us with a good slate on both Friday and Saturday too. This year is no different. Friday’s noon matchup of Texas and Iowa State is likely to have Big 12 Championship implications. A PAC-12 intrastate rivalry between Oregon at Oregon State will cap off the night. If that weren’t enough football feasting for you, Saturday features the always-classic Iron Bowl between Auburn and Alabama.

The game I’m circling as my ultimate must-watch is Notre Dame visiting Chapel Hill to take on the Tar Heels. Notre Dame came in at #2 in the initial College Football Playoff ranking so there’s surely going to be some pressure to show the nation that the win over Clemson was no fluke. Both teams are coming off bye weeks so they’ll have plenty of time to prepare and hopefully that means everybody will be at full health (and test negative). It’ll be strength versus strength when the UNC offense is on the field. Carolina has the nation’s 10th best rushing attack by yards per game among teams who have played three or more games (233.5); Notre Dame’s defense is 5th best by the same metric (85.1). As of this writing, UNC has two backs on the top ten rushing leader list: Javonte Williams and Michael Carter. I wanted to take a closer look at their one-two punch because both are future NFL Draft picks.

Michael Carter, RB, North Carolina

The more experienced of North Carolina’s dynamic duo is Michael Carter. Carter, a 3-star who signed in 2017 spurning offers from Florida and Colorado, is a fourth year senior who has contributed all four seasons on campus. Carter is an all-purpose player who has had at least 108 offensive touches in each season, averaging 6.49 yards per. With 23 career scores, he’s no stranger to the end zone. Carter has also been the Tar Heels primary kick returner the last two years (22.4 yards per return). It should come as no surprise to longtime fans that Carter serves a Swiss Army knife role for his team: he tallied an incredible 3,3345 all-purpose yards as a high school senior. Carter is a bit undersized at 5080/199 and he has two previous significant injuries (knee and wrist).

Carter is off to a strong start in 2020. Through eight games he has a total of 1,036 yards from scrimmage (116 carries and 21 receptions). With 6 TDs he’s already on pace to beat his career-best mark of nine scores as a freshman. I decided to dive into Carter even deeper by watching his 2020 film against Virginia Tech and North Carolina State.

The combination of Carter’s low center of gravity and his tree trunk-like legs make him immune to arm tackle attempts. He easily bursts through contact at the line of scrimmage or from diving defenders. Carter shows patience before making his bounce-outside cut. On his last touch of the Virginia Tech game, shown below, you see his long speed which wasn’t often on display in either game. Against NC State, Carter had two great receptions on downfield routes: one wheel route and one option route. I only saw him throw a few blocks so I don’t think pass protection will be a trait he’s drafted for but I suspect he has the strength and base to hold up to the occasional rusher. I haven’t watched enough of Carter to pinpoint his pro stock yet but I would guess that right now he’s an early Day Three grade.

Javonte Williams, RB, North Carolina

When I start researching a prospect I usually start in two places: their school media guide bio and their 247Sports recruiting profile. For Javonte Williams I started with his bio and after reading his high school athletic plaudits — four-time state champ in football, a state champion track athlete — I was sure that he must have been a 4-star recruit at least. Not so. 247Sports had him as a 3-star and ESPN didn’t even have him ranked. Luckily then, for us and for Williams, the former North Carolina coaching staff saw something in the local star and offered him. According to one report I read, it was a dream come true for Williams. Williams played a limited role in 2018 as a true freshman but took on a bigger share of the committee in 2019. He ended that campaign second to Carter in attempts and yards but still had a respectable 166-933-5 line, adding 176 receiving yards and a score on 17 receptions. The Tar Heels have played 32 games since Williams arrived at Chapel Hill and he’s played in every one of them.

My platonic ideal of a running back is somebody in the 5100/220 range with 4.50 speed (think: Cam Akers, Rashaad Penny). They are not always the most dynamic runners but they are often durable, multi-faceted and stick around in the NFL. Javonte Williams fits right into that framework so I was excited to dive into some extended film. I watched Williams against the same Hokies’ team that I saw Michael Carter dominate. I thought that would give me an interesting comparison of the two UNC backs. Williams is an even more patient runner than Carter and sees his running lanes well. Williams runs with a forward momentum that I relished thanks to his forward pad lean and his willingness to get lower than the defender. He was also deployed as a pass protector, a downfield receiver and a short yardage back against Virginia Tech. If you’re playing along at home that’s a bingo! Much of what I saw in that tape was also present in highlight reels from his games against Duke and Florida State. My favorite run of all the plays I watched was the below against Florida State where he takes the handoff going right and delivers an absolute thud to the safety as he turns upfield. Williams looks and feels like what I want in an NFL running back and I’d be happy to see my team take him on Day Two.

 

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

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

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

More Analysis by Bob Cowper

The Watch List 2021: Early QB Tiers

Updated: November 18th 2020

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

Future Pro Bowlers

  • Justin Fields, Ohio State

  • Trevor Lawrence, Clemson

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

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

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

Surefire First Rounders

  • Trey Lance, North Dakota State

  • Zach Wilson, BYU

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

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

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

Preseason Shortlist Picks

  • Tanner Morgan, Minnesota

  • Jamie Newman, Georgia/Wake Forest

  • Brock Purdy, Iowa State

  • Kyle Trask, Florida

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

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

Regular Season Risers

  • Mac Jones, Alabama

  • Kellen Mond, Texas A&M

  • Desmond Ridder, Cincinnati

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

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

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

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

Winners with Question Marks

  • Ian Book, Notre Dame

  • Shane Buechele, SMU

  • Sam Ehlinger, Texas

  • D’Eriq King, Miami

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

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

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

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

Transfers Forging a New Path

  • KJ Costello, Mississippi State

  • Feleipe Franks, Arkansas

  • Brandon Peters, Illinois

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

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

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

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

Riddle Wrapped Enigmas

  • Adrian Martinez, Nebraska

  • McKenzie Milton, UCF

  • Kenny Pickett, Pitt

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

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

Small School Sleepers

  • Zerrick Cooper, Jacksonville State

  • Aqeel Glass, Alabama A&M

  • Levi Lewis, Lousiana-Lafayette

  • Zac Thomas, Appalachian State

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

More Analysis by Bob Cowper

The Watch List 2021: Week 11 Preview

Updated: November 11th 2020

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

Not only did we get “PAC-12 After Dark” in Week 10 but we also got “PAC-12 and Pancakes” with a 9:00am local kickoff between USC and Arizona State. It took awhile for the Trojans to wake up and they ultimately needed fourteen late points to win 28-17 against Herm Edwards and the Sun Devils. Oregon, Colorado and Washington State also notched victories; meanwhile Arizona, Utah, Washington and Cal had their start delayed due to covid cancellations. Unfortunately for our purposes in this spot, most of the top PAC-12 draft hopefuls have either opted out or play in positions I don’t typically cover (OL Penei Sewell, S Jevon Holland, OL Walker Little). I didn’t get to watch any of the PAC-12 action live in Week 10 so I wanted to comb through the opening week stats and see which draft eligible skill position players shined in their premiere so I know who to concentrate on in Week 11. (Caveat emptor: Week 11 games seem to be dropping like flies due to positive tests and contact tracing. It’s likely that by the time you read this article that some of these players’ games will be cancelled.)

Stephen Carr, RB, USC

  • Week 10 Stats: 10 carries, 45 rushing yards, 1 rushing TD; 5 receptions, 12 receiving yards
  • Week 11 Matchup: at Arizona (0-0)

Stephen Carr was first “a thing” for me back in 2017 when he leapt into the spotlight early in his true freshman season. He started with a 7-69-2 line against Western Michigan in his first-ever game and then followed that up with 11-119-0 against Stanford the next week. Carr hasn’t topped 100 yards since, in nearly three full seasons, and only has six subsequent games with double digit carries. So color me surprised when I saw a #7 scoring a touchdown for USC this past weekend. My first thought was: “that can’t be Stephen Carr still, can it?” Sure enough, it was. I last highlighted Carr in August 2018 when writing my conference previews. I singled Carr out as my underclassmen to watch. Unfortunately, my excitement was misplaced as Carr once again battled injury and lost out on the starting job. Carr was a highly touted recruit who earned a 5-star rating and a near-perfect 0.9889 score from 247Sports, so we know he has potential. I’ll leave you with some of my comments from 2018 which are still relevant today: “As a true freshman, Carr played second-fiddle to Ronald Jones last season but stood out to me on a number of occasions. He has a big frame at 6000/210 and I think his speed is deceiving because of his upright running style and long gait. Carr has to prove that he can stay healthy.” I’m really hoping that Carr can get through all six games in 2020 and prove that he’s worthy of a look at the next level.

https://twitter.com/AABonNBC/status/1325137597476208640?s=20

Jermar Jefferson, RB, Oregon State

  • Week 10 Stats: 21 carries, 120 rushing yards, 3 rushing TDs; 5 receptions, 50 receiving yards
  • Week 11 Matchup: at Washington (0-0)

True freshman running back Jermar Jefferson was the lone bright spot on a dreadful 2-10 Oregon State squad in 2018. He turned in a 239-1,380-12 rushing line and added another 25-147-0 as a receiver. Those stats were good enough for Freshman All-American and PAC-12 Freshman of the Year honors. Like Stephen Carr above, Jefferson’s standout freshman season led me to picking him as my underclassmen to watch in the PAC-12 for the next season. Also like Carr, injury slowed Jefferson down, limiting him to just nine games and 685 rushing yards. Jefferson is healthy now and put in a valiant effort late in the contest against Washington State. Jefferson scored thrice in sixteen minutes to make a comeback a possibility but the Beavers ultimately came up short. Jefferson is small-ish but has above average speed, elusiveness, strength and contact balance. He may not be a sexy name or play on a sexy team but Jefferson should be an NFL contributor.

https://twitter.com/MariaSantoraTV/status/1325672178314956800?s=20

Amon-Ra St. Brown, WR, USC

  • Week 10 Stats: 7 receptions, 100 receiving yards, 0 receiving TDs
  • Week 11 Matchup: at Arizona (0-0)

I featured Amon-Ra St. Brown earlier this year in my Spring Scouting series so I won’t go into too much detail here. Instead, go read my analysis and my love for him as a potential strong slot in the NFL. Admittedly, I had a preconceived notion of St. Brown as a “diva receiver” but that was disproved with my spring film study. In case we needed further evidence of St. Brown’s want-to and physicality, check out this block that was making the #DraftTwitter rounds this weekend.

Dorian Thompson-Robinson, QB, UCLA

  • Week 10 Stats: 20-40, 303 passing yards, 4 passing TDs, 1 INT; 109 rushing yards, 1 rushing TD
  • Week 11 Matchup: vs Utah (0-0)

DTR is one of those players who I like to call a “bio box-ticker.” He was 247Sports’ second-highest ranked dual-threat quarterback in 2018 when he committed to UCLA over other PAC-12 offers (plus one from ‘Bama too). He played at a big name high school, Bishop Gorman in Las Vegas, where he won multiple state championships and a national title as an underclassman role player. He’s an honor roll student. Once he got to UCLA he started as a true freshman but was likely pressed into service too early because his passing efficiency was below average. Thompson-Robinson dealt with injuries in both 2018 and 2019 which caused him to miss time. Thompson-Robinson’s game logs have a few eye-poppers including a game last year against Washington State where he threw for 507 yards and 5 TDs while completing 65.8% of his passes. DTR started 2020 strong with a 303-4-1 outing against Colorado. I watched some film of the game to get a feel for his performance. Unfortunately, my takeaways weren’t all positive, but to his credit he did keep the team close in garbage time. He threw forty times, second most in his career, and only completed half of those attempts. Some of the downfield completions were hopeful heaves rather than precisely targeted deep balls. There was one bad mesh-point fumble near his own end zone that he luckily recovered himself. Three of the touchdowns were largely thanks to yards after catch. I did love how patient Thompson-Robinson looked in the pocket. I figured he might be a run-first quarterback based on his lean 6010/200 frame but I was surprised just how long he stayed in the pocket trying to find a receiver downfield. When he is on the run, he is quite quick. His early third quarter touchdown run went for 65 yards and there was no threat of getting tackled once he broke the line of scrimmage. Thompson-Robinson, a junior, needs more experience and refinement to his game but you can see his underlying physical traits. This time next year we’ll be discussing him as mid- to late-round project quarterback.

 

CJ Verdell, RB, Oregon

  • Week 10 Stats: 20 carries, 105 rushing yards, 1 rushing TD; 2 receptions, 30 receiving yards
  • Week 11 Matchup: Washington State (1-0); allowed 21-120-3 to Jermar Jefferson last week

CJ Verdell started the shortened 2020 season just like the reliable bellcow he’s been for Oregon since 2018. Verdell has back-to-back 1,000+ rushing yard seasons to begin his career in Eugene. In those two seasons he’s averaging 220 touches per season which is good for an average of 1,339 scrimmage yards and 10 TDs. At 5100/210, Verdell has a near-perfect frame for an all-around running back role; to that point, he’s durable and yet to miss a game in college. Against Stanford he started the scoring for the Ducks with a late 1st quarter score that tied the game and paved the way for Oregon to pull away. Oregon has a recent reputation as being flashy and fast but Verdell’s success is thanks to his power and willingness to run through a defender. Verdell’s signature play from the Stanford game is surely the below touchdown run. Verdell takes the option pitch, turns the corner and then weighs his options about whether to take it inside or go for the pylon. He chooses the path of most resistance, bowling between two tacklers and helicoptering into the end zone. Maybe even more impressive than the touchdown was the nice catch and run he had on his previous touch. The Oregon offense is missing the nation’s top o-line prospect in Penei Sewell (opt out) so continued production from Verdell this season will be even more instructive. Next up is a Washington State team that allowed the aforementioned big game to Jermar Jefferson. Verdell is probably a Top 10 prospect at the position and if he comes out as a junior he’ll be a part of our rookie drafts in 2021.

https://twitter.com/PFF_College/status/1325247663663669248?s=20

 

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

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

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

More Analysis by Bob Cowper