2018 RSO Rookie Mock Draft v2.1

Updated: January 27th 2018

My first 2018 rookie mock draft was published back on Sept 6 and while some things have changed, I am actually quite pleased with how my mock draft held up throughout the season.  I followed the same guidelines here as I did back in September.  Namely,  I used two base assumptions: 1) a standard one QB roster setup and 2) any junior good enough to be considered will declare early (the deadline is Jan 15 so by the time you read this we may already know that some guys are not going into the draft).  Players are broken down into tiers and I have noted where they were mocked last time to show their movement from version to version.  To view version 1.0, click here.  Version 2.0 never saw the light of day as Bryce Love, Damien Harris and Myles Gaskin decided to return to school before publishing (for what it’s worth they were at 1.09, 2.06 and 2.09 respectively).  I also compile mock draft information for the /r/DynastyFF sub Reddit which you can view here.  Share your thoughts with me on Twitter @robertfcowper.

1.01, Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State (last: 1.01)

Barkley is in a tier all by himself.  He’s a supreme athlete (possibly sub-4.40 speed) with good vision and is a good pass catcher.  He’ll be the consensus first pick in just about every fantasy rookie draft and could be a Top 5 NFL Draft pick.  Don’t overthink it.

1.02, Nick Chubb, RB, Georgia (1.03)

1.03, Derrius Guice, RB, LSU (1.02)

(Note: this was written prior to Nick Chubb’s poor performance in the championship game.  In hindsight, I am less confident about placing him at 1.02.  One game does not a career make but still he played poorly against a defense full of NFL talent.  I will re-visit this in the offseason)  I now have Chubb and Guice flipped compared to where I had them to start the season.  Heading into the season, Chubb’s 2015 knee injury felt like more of a concern than it does now since he has completed two full seasons since.  Their stats this season were similar but Chubb had a slight edge as a rusher (1,320 yards and 15 TDs for Chubb, 1,251 and 11 TDs for Guice).  Neither is a receiver like Barkley.  Both backs have a career high of 18 receptions in a season – Guice did so in 2017 while Chubb did so as a freshman in 2014.  The margin between the two for me is razor thin.  I lean towards Chubb since we have a bigger sample size.

1.04, Calvin Ridley, WR, Alabama (1.04)

1.05, James Washington, WR, Oklahoma State (1.08)

1.06, Ronald Jones, RB, USC (2.07)

I still have Ridley as my WR1 even though 2017 was not a great season (just 59 receptions, 935 yards and 4 TDs prior to the championship game).  To my eye, he is just the most skilled WR in the class, regardless of his production.  He is very fast (4.35 40 yard dash in the Spring), jumps well enough to out play his 6’1″ height and is a good route runner.  Washington is pretty quick himself but he just doesn’t seem as polished as Ridley.  It’s hard to argue against Washington’s production but I think he’ll be drafted later than Ridley and won’t be as good of a pro in the long run.  Washington is this high though because I think he will make an early impact in the league if he lands on the right team.  Jones makes a huge jump from 2.07 to 1.06.  I questioned his size to start the year, I thought he was too tall for his weight, but am no longer as concerned because he put on some weight.  He’s such a quick and fast runner and was very productive this year (1,550 yards, 19 TDs).  If he was a little more “squat” but just as fast and nimble he’d be challenging for the 1.02.

1.07, Rashaad Penny, RB, San Diego State (undrafted)

1.08, Courtland Sutton, WR, SMU (1.07)

Rashaad Penny made a huge impression on me this season.  I noticed Penny in August but thought he was more of a returner than a running back.  He proved his worth as a rusher (his 2,248 yards led the FBS) but still managed to contribute as a return man (3 return TDs).  Penny will probably be an early Day Three draft selection but I think his value as a return man will help him see the field earlier.  Bryce Love originally found himself in this tier before deciding to return to school.  Conversely to the ascending Penny, Sutton’s stock is falling for me.  Sutton has the best size of the top three receivers (6’4, 215lbs) but I have some concerns.  In my past research, I found that he mostly beat up on bad defenses; against the best defense he played this year (TCU), he was held to one catch for zero yards.  It also bothers me that Sutton was not the leading receiver on his team this year (Trey Quinn had more receptions, yards and touchdowns).  Sutton likely saw extra defensive attention but if he’s to be an NFL star, he must be able to dominate even against double coverage in games against lesser defenses.  Interesting stat for Sutton, 8 of his 31 career receiving touchdowns came in three games against North Texas.  I want to see him at the combine – if he comes in smaller than advertised he could fall out of my first round.

1.09, Royce Freeman, RB, Oregon (1.07)

1.10, Anthony Miller, WR, Memphis (2.02)

2.01, Sony Michel, RB, Georgia (2.06)

2.02, Christian Kirk, WR, Texas A&M (1.05)

This tier features some of my favorite players in the draft in terms of value.  I was high on Freeman to start the season before he came out on fire (10 TDs in the first four games).  His pace slowed in the middle of the season but he finished strong too with 6 TDs in the games against Arizona and Oregon State.  He decided to skip the bowl which was disappointing because I wanted to see him against Boise State’s defense.  Despite the positive impression he made on me, I do have him a little lower now because he was jumped by Ronald Jones and Rashaad Penny at the position.  Two players who did not skip the end of their seasons are Anthony Miller and Sony Michel.  Miller is an absolute gamer who I want on my team.  He’s not that big or that fast but he’s just productive.  He runs routes well and has possibly the best hands in the class.  He could have broken his leg in the AAC Championship game and he would have still finished the overtime.  It may be a bit of a reach but I’m willing to take Miller at the end of the first to guarantee I get him.  Michel is sometimes overshadowed by Chubb but he’s just as good in his own right.  He has two 1,000+ yard seasons to his name and a career 6.1 yards per carry average.  He is a better receiver than his 9 receptions in 2017 show.  In 2015 and 2016 he had 48 combined.  The hype on Michel is growing so you may not be able to get him at 2.01 but let’s not overreact to two nationally televised games.  Michel will be a solid pro but I’m not willing to jump him over Chubb.  Kirk dropped because I was probably too high on him originally but I still like him.  He’s a great return man but so many of his receptions come at the line of scrimmage that I worry his NFL role may be limited.

2.03, Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA (2.08)

2.04, Sam Darnold, QB, USC (2.01)

This is where my RSO mock will diverge slightly from a true dynasty mock.  I strongly believe that going quarterback early in the second round of your rookie mock is the way to go.  The salary paid will be less than $2mil per season which is a fantastic bargain for a starting quarterback, especially considering that most quarterbacks taken in the first round of the NFL Draft will see game action sometime in the first season.  The return on investment here is so high when you “hit” that it’s worth taking a chance on a “miss.”  Readers will notice that 1) Rosen has jumped Darnold and 2) I am taking the QBs a little later now.  Neither guy had a great season and they both come with some warts so I think this spot feels right.  Even if Darnold gets drafted higher, barring some crazy trade that lands him on a good team, I would go with Rosen first as I feel he is more NFL-ready and will realize more value during his four year RSO rookie contract.

2.05, Equanimeous St. Brown, WR, Notre Dame (2.03)

2.06, Akrum Wadley, RB, Iowa (undrafted)

2.07, Michael Gallup, WR, Colorado State (3.07)

This was a very tough stretch for me to rank.  I originally included Myles Gaskin and Damien Harris in this tier but they are now removed as they seek a higher grade next year.  St. Brown dropped between mocks because he only had 33 receptions.  Like Calvin Ridley, he was the leading receiver on a run-heavy offense.  I didn’t count that against Ridley but I do against St. Brown because it’s tough to invest highly in a guy with just 92 career receptions.  St. Brown would have dropped further if it weren’t for the decisions of Love and Harris ahead of him.  Wadley and Gallup mostly stayed under the radar this season but move up in my rankings even though their per-touch averages decreased.  They both significantly increased the number of touches they handled this season and played well in their biggest games.  Gallup totaled 21 receptions and 282 yards in three games against Power 5 defenses (Oregon State, Colorado, Alabama); Wadley had 158 total yards versus Ohio State in what was ultimately the death blow for the Buckeyes’ playoff chances.

2.08, Dante Pettis, WR, Washington (2.04)

2.09, Bo Scarborough, RB, Alabama (1.06)

2.10, Josh Adams, RB, Notre Dame (undrafted)

Bringing up the rear of the second round are three Power 5 players that I would be willing to take a shot on despite my concerns about their size.  Pettis is a dynamo and can change a game with one touch.  He had four punt return touchdowns this year and led the FBS in punt return average.  He managed to increase his receptions this year but his per-touch averages decreased.  He’s 6’1″ but about 195lbs so he’s a little too light.  The fact that his former teammate John Ross was such a bust as a first rounder last year probably hurts Pettis even if it’s not fair.  Scarborough and Adams were both productive in college but at 6’2″ they might be too tall to play running back effectively in the NFL.  The comps in that size are not favorable.  The best is Derrick Henry but other than that it’s a lot of no-name players over the last decade.

3.01, Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma (undrafted)

If it makes RSO salary cap sense to take a quarterback near the top of the second, it stands to reason you should at the top of the third.  Mayfield is currently my QB3 after an incredibly efficient season but I want to watch more tape.  Heading into the season I had both Mason Rudolph, Lamar Jackson and Luke Falk ranked higher.  Right now Rudolph would be the only one I consider putting here instead of Mayfield.

3.02, Mike Gesicki, TE, Penn State (undrafted)

3.03, Allen Lazard, WR, Iowa State (3.01)

3.04, Hayden Hurst, TE, South Carolina (3.05)

3.05, Mark Andrews, TE, Oklahoma (2.10)

Let the tight end run begin!  I think everybody would agree that this year’s tight end class pales in comparison to last year but when is the right time to take one?  I’m having trouble valuing them so I’ll bet others are too.  My guess is that once one goes in your RSO draft, two or three will follow shortly after.  Gesicki gets the nod as the top prospect because he’s bigger than both Andrews and Hurst and at least as athletic, if not more.  Hurst is more of a traditional TE than the other two as he blocks better but he’s also fast enough and a good pass catcher.  I had Hurst above Andrews in my early 2018 positional rankings and will stick with my gut.  It takes time for tight ends to develop, Evan Engram notwithstanding, so I’ll knock Andrews down a peg because he so rarely lined up as a tight end in college.  Lazard isn’t a TE but he’s a big-bodied receiver who I am a fan of.  He was a key part of Iowa State’s miracle run (71-941-10).  I wish I was able to find him a spot higher because it feels like I’m down on him compared to start the season but that’s not the case.

3.06, Auden Tate, WR, Florida State (undrafted)

3.07, Simmie Cobbs, WR, Indiana (undrafted)

3.08, Kalen Ballage, RB, Arizona State (3.04)

3.09, Jaylen Smith, WR, Louisville, (undrafted)

3.10, Deon Cain, WR, Clemson (1.10)

Similarly to how I ended the second round, I will end the third round with a group of Power 5 players who I will take a flyer on.  Tate has elite size, ball skills and body control but has just 65 career receptions.  Cobbs also has elite size but he concerns me.  He was suspended to start the 2016 season for “not living up to the responsibilities of the program,” and then subsequently suffered a season ending injury in his first game that year.  In the summer of 2017 he was arrested at a concert.  He didn’t face any discipline so it’s probably nothing but still I would worry about a pattern of negative behavior.  Ballage is a bowling ball at 6’3″ and 230lbs.  He is an effective receiver but averages just 4.4 yards per carry in his career.  His size concerns me too.  It’s hard to find a back with receiving stats like he had in 2016, so with a late third, what the heck.  I don’t know enough about Jaylen Smith to properly evaluate him yet but our friends at the Dynasty Command Center are very high on him so I’ll trust their analysis.  Smith had a crazy 22.9 yards per reception average in 2016 which was unsustainable (in 2017 it was still a solid 16.3).  Deon Cain is another player who concerns me off the field.  After a failed drug test, Clemson suspended him in 2015 for both of their College Football Playoff games and continued to hold him out through Spring practice.  He lead the Tigers in yards (734) and TDs (6) this season but I was hoping for more now that he was out of Mike Williams’ shadow.

Honorable Mentions

4.01, Richie James, WR, Middle Tennessee State (undrafted)

4.02, Mike Weber, RB, Ohio State (undrafted)

4.03, Mason Rudolph, QB, Oklahoma State (undrafted)

4.04, Adam Breneman, TE, UMass (undrafted)

4.05, Kerryon Johnson, RB, Auburn (undrafted)

4.06, Deontay Burnett, WR, USC (undrafted)

4.07, Jalin Moore, RB, Appalachian State (undrafted)

4.08, Dallas Goedert, TE, South Dakota State (undrafted)

4.09, Jaylen Samuels, TE, North Carolina State (undrafted)

4.10, Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville (undrafted)

Guys who I like but couldn’t find space for yet: Ryan Finley, Ito Smith, Jordan Chunn, Cedric Wilson, Antonio Callaway, Troy Fumagali


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

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

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

More Analysis by Bob Cowper

The Watch List: Bowl Game Previews, Part V

Updated: December 30th 2017

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

Friday, Dec. 29

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, Dec. 30

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


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

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

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

More Analysis by Bob Cowper

Early 2018 Positional Rankings

Updated: November 8th 2017

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

It may only be November but I think it’s time to start looking at positional rankings for 2018.  I did struggle at times with these rankings as to whether they should be based on my perceived fantasy value or in what order I believe players will be drafted.  Let’s say these rankings are a composite of both ideals.  I will separate out the two different mindsets in my future RSO and NFL mock drafts.  I have included brief notes on interesting players for each position.  For more detailed play analysis follow me on Twitter @robertfcowper or read my weekly The Watch List pieces which have, and will continue to, spotlight future fantasy relevant players.

Quarterbacks

Rosen is my QB1 because he is likely the most “pro ready” of the prospects since he is playing in a pro-style system with good size and stats.  Darnold looks likely to go back but if he does declare early he has hurt is stock with too many turnovers this year.  You may be surprised to see Finley and Litton on my list.  I have watched a bunch of NC State this year and have liked Finley’s ability to manage the game and limit mistakes.  Litton is a big (6’6″ 233lb) three year starter whose stats have been consistent through each season (including 590 yards and 4 TDs in his two games versus Power Five opponents); no guarantee he comes out but I’m intrigued.

Running Backs

The top of my list is pretty “chalk” for those who have been paying attention to the college season so far.  I did decide to put Chubb over Guice but they are so close it’s a pick’em.  Adams and Scarborough fall out of my Top 10 because I’m concerned about their size; few RBs at their height or taller (6’2″) have had sustained production in the NFL.  I sneak Jalin Moore in at RB15 because I think a team will take him for his pass protection skills as a great third down back; per Pro Football Focus he’s one of only a few RBs with a perfect “pass blocking efficiency.”

Wide Receivers

I have Ridley at WR1 even though he hasn’t put up huge numbers this season (or last).  I like his consistency because even though the offense focuses on the run, he still has three or more receptions in all but four of his 38 career games.  He also has a pedigree that few can match as he was the #1 receiver recruit in his class and had a breakout season as a freshman (89-1,045-7) in 2015.  He’s slight, just 190lb for his 6’1″ frame, which I have to acknowledge as a big negative because I am critical of guys like Pettis and Burnett for the same reason.  Read more about my Ridley opinion in my SEC season preview.  Sills, Cobbs and Burnett landed on my list because of seasons that beat my expectations so far.  I included two small school prospects in James and Wilson because I always need a sleeper to root for.  Watch for Wilson, he’s going to be a training camp riser for whatever team he lands on.

Tight Ends

The top four on this list may not quite compare to Howard, Engram and Njoku from 2017 but it is a very good group and I bet they will creep up fantasy draft boards given how barren the position has been this season with injury and ineffectiveness.  Jaylen Samuels is my favorite prospect in all of college football right now.  He has stat lines like no TE ever before (56-474-3 receiving and 39-209-7 rushing this season) and will likely project more as a FB or H-Back in the NFL.  Being position eligible at TE while getting goal line carries would be an incredible fantasy advantage.  If he lands with a creative offense he will be the ultimate third down weapon.  Never heard of Goedert or Yurachek?  Don’t worry I hadn’t either before I started my research but both are big and productive so I ranked them over some other smaller athletic types.


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

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

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

More Analysis by Bob Cowper

The Watch List: ACC Preview

Updated: August 6th 2017

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

Players to Watch

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

Storylines to Watch

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

Games to Watch

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

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

  • Stats: espn.com, sports-reference.com, cfbstats.com
  • Film: draftbreakdown.com, youtube.com (but be wary of highlight only reels)
  • Draft info and mocks: draftcountdown.com, nfldraftscout.com, walterfootball.com, mattwaldmanrsp.com, ESPN’s First Draft podcast, draftek.com
  • Draft history: drafthistory.com
  • Combine info: pro-football-reference.com, espn.com, nflcombineresults.com
  • Season preview magazines: Phil Steele, Lindy’s, Street and Smith’s

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

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