The Watch List 2021: The Battle for 1.01

Updated: July 15th 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 Summer as The Watch List will preview the top prospects and let you know who is fantasy relevant and worth your valuable draft capital.

Will we or won’t we? It’s too soon to know whether we’ll have a college football season in the Fall or how it will impact the pre-draft process for 2021 prospects. I’ve held off on writing and research the last few weeks — honestly, it was hard to find inspiration with so many question marks — but I’m back at it today bringing you three players I think have a chance at being the 1.01 in 2021 rookie drafts. In my opinion, the three players that have distanced themselves from the field at this point are RB Travis Etienne, RB Chuba Hubbard and WR Ja’marr Chase. (WR Rondale Moore of Purdue may be in the conversation as well but he’s coming off a season-ending injury and I’ve already written about him this offseason.) This potential three-man race is reminding me of 2017 when we had to decide between Christian McCaffrey, Leonard Fournette and Corey Davis at the top of rookie drafts. I personally ranked them Fournette, Davis and McCaffrey but I recall many analysts had Davis leading their lists. McCaffrey, as we know with the benefit of hindsight, was the best selection but at the time he was atop fewer rankings than Fournette or Davis. The 2021 top tier, featuring two running backs and one wide receiver, looks to be an equally tough race to handicap. (Note: I sorted these three alphabetically, I’m not yet ready to put them in order!)

 

Ja’Marr Chase, WR, LSU

  • Measurables: 6010/200
  • 2018 Stats: 13 games, 23 receptions, 313 rec yards, 13.6 ypr, 3 rec TDs
  • 2019 Stats: 14 games, 84 receptions, 1,780 rec yards, 21.2 ypr, 20 rec TDs

In the English language we lack a superlative to describe just how truly prolific the LSU passing offense was in 2019. Quarterback Joe Burrow’s 60 passing touchdown mark may not be broken any time soon but what really caught my eye was that the Tigers had two players pacing the country in receiving touchdowns. Ja’Marr Chase led the nation with 20 while teammate Justin Jefferson had 18. Chase also led the FBS in receiving yards (1,780), won the Fred Biletnikoff Award and was named a consensus All-American. What a season! Can Chase match his output on a reloading LSU offense?

I watched three videos of Chase to get a good barometer of his game: games against Alabama and Auburn and a season-long highlight package. I was impressed with Chase’s ability to help keep a play alive while his quarterback looks for an open receiver. I’d bet the average length of play on Chase’s targets was the longest in the country. When he is targeted, Chase uses his short-area quickness and leaping ability to find slivers of space. He adjusts well to the ball when it’s in the air and loves coming back to the ball to make the grab. His hands appear to be sticky and strong, with most catches secured away from his body. I was surprised with how physical Chase was on certain plays. This completion against Auburn shows Chase fighting with the corner all the way across the field. Burrow places the ball well, but Chase did well to get enough separation to make the play possible.

Chase also showed his physicality on this play later in the Auburn game. He takes his route outside along the boundary and leans on the corner. The leverage gives him enough space to create a one-handed, over-the-shoulder masterpiece.

I did notice, however, that Chase was not consistently willing to engage in plays that weren’t going his way. I saw a few half-hearted attempts at blocks or decoy routes. The worst example was on a key play late in a one possession game against Alabama. Chase completely blew off his blocking assignment on a play that appeared designed to run to his side. His running back still converted the score but I want to see my top receiver trying to dominate his defender with the game on the line.

As I watched Chase, I vacillated on my opinion. His highlights are eye-popping, I think he’ll be a versatile slot receiver in the NFL, but there were moments where I wanted more from him. He is still young and it’s clear he is a talented player so I don’t want to be too critical in my evaluation. Chase has the upside of a first round pick and another Biletnikoff-winning season will put him in contention for the 1.01.

Travis Etienne, RB, Clemson

  • Measurables: 5100/210
  • 2017 Stats: 13 games, 107 carries, 766 rush yards, 7.2 ypc, 13 rush TDs; 5 receptions, 57 rec yards, 11.4 ypr, 0 rec TDs; 19 kick returns, 20.5 ypr
  • 2018 Stats: 15 games, 204 carries, 1,658 rush yards, 8.1 ypc, 24 rush TDs; 12 receptions, 78 rec yards, 6.5 ypr, 2 rec TDs
  • 2019 Stats: 15 games, 207 carries, 1,614 rush yards, 7.8 ypc, 19 rush TDs; 37 receptions, 432 rec yards, 11.7 ypr, 4 rec TDs

Travis Etienne is my favorite player in the college game at the moment. I started writing about him back in September 2017 and here we are nearly three years later. In last year’s ACC preview, I started Etienne’s writeup by saying, “Travis Etienne may hold the record for the player I have written about the most in my The Watch List series.” Well, here we are again! Since I last wrote about Etienne, all he did was lead the ACC in rushing again and win his second ACC Player of the Year award. Etienne is no one-hit wonder either: he led the NCAA in touchdowns from scrimmage in 2018. He already owns the record for most rushing touchdowns in modern ACC history and should put that record out of reach in 2020.

Any sports fan with a pulse has seen Etienne crushing defenses the last three years as Clemson rose to the top of the totem pole. I’ll keep it simple… Etienne is a long strider with breakaway speed, he is surprisingly difficult to bring down because he combines power and balance, and he has become a reliable receiver. To help illustrate the strengths of Etienne’s game, I picked out three of my favorite plays from late in the 2019 season. In this play against Virginia in the ACC Championship Game, you see Etienne read his off-tackle cut before setting his sights on the end zone. He fends off two leg tackles and then stiff arms the safety for five yards, making it impossible for the defender to get his hands on him to bring him down.

Etienne played a key role against Ohio State in the semi-finals, scoring three touchdowns. The first points for the Tigers came on this option play that was doomed after the pitch. Etienne is twelve yards from the goal line with two defenders in his face. He stretches the defense towards the sideline, hand fights with the defender, and somehow finds a way through the crowd to the promised land. As Etienne scores there are eight Buckeyes in the frame who all had a chance to bring him down at some point. This play, along with the one against Virginia, show Etienne’s strength and balance, as well as his determination to succeed.

His second receiving touchdown of the Ohio State game shows his evolution as a pass catcher and I’ll bet it was a play they held onto for a key situation. The linebackers cheat up which lets Etienne sneak behind them. QB Trevor Lawrence delivers a Tebow-esque jump pass over the line of scrimmage which Etienne hands-catches as he spins upfield and accelerates. His movement is so fluid in that moment that I found myself rewinding repeatedly to watch it again. The linebacker was just a yard away when Etienne caught the pass but he had no hope of tackling him in the open field. Two defensive backs do get to Etienne but neither could bring him down before the touchdown. The cherry on top? It was the go-ahead score that put Clemson into the national championship game.

I’ll be rooting for Etienne in 2020 and hope he can end his Clemson career on a high note. He’s my pick to be the top running back on NFL draft boards in 2021 and deserves strong 1.01 consideration for rookie drafts.

Chuba Hubbard, RB, Oklahoma State

  • Measurables: 6010/207
  • 2018 Stats: 13 games, 124 carries, 740 rush yards, 6.0ypc, 7 rush TDs; 22 receptions, 229 rec yards, 10.4 ypr, 2 rec TDs; 23 kick returns, 22.2 ypr
  • 2019 Stats: 13 games, 328 carries, 2,094 rush yards, 6.4 ypc, 21 rush TDs; 23 receptions, 198 rec yards, 8.6 ypr, 0 rec TDs

When I wrote about Chuba Hubbard in early September 2019, I suggested that “it’s not crazy to think that Hubbard will be leading the FBS in rushing at the end of September.” Not only did Hubbard dominate in September, he had continued success the rest of the year too and finished as the leading rusher in the nation. He also led the way in rushing attempts and touchdowns too so it should be no surprise that he was a consensus All-American and Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year.

Since he was just a sophomore and not draft eligible, I didn’t watch Hubbard too closely after the beginning of the season. However, I did want to share one observation I made at the time about the “nuance” that Hubbard runs with. The play I was referring to was a touchdown scamper against Oregon State. “The replay angle allows you to better see the play develop. He stretches the defense horizontally as he awaits the pitch. Once he secures the ball he gets upfield and uses a nearly imperceptible hesitation move to get around his engaged blocker.” I forgot all about that play but fell in love with it again once I revisited it.

Hubbard is a high-volume running back who had a combined 57 carries in the two games I watched (Texas and TCU from 2019). He is a balanced runner who shows some pop and some speed but lacks elite power or quickness. Hubbard shines when he is able to run north-south rather than east-west. Instead of trying to stretch the defense, Hubbard excels when he’s able to keep his pads parallel to the line of scrimmage and use his vision and patience to find the best crease. That patience can turn into indecisiveness at times but it’s usually a positive rather than a negative. Against Texas I noted a number of good blocks in pass protection which is a great skill for a young running back to have already.

This run against Texas was a good example of Hubbard’s ceiling. He takes the handoff at the twenty and strings the play along, continuing towards the sideline with no clear running lanes. As a defender fights off a block, Hubbard needs to decide whether he should try to cut it inside or continue to the outside. He sees his receivers have their blocks sealed so he has a shot at the end zone from the outside. He shrugs off a weak arm-tackle attempt, slows his momentum to stay in bounds, keeps his balance, and uses his body to protect the ball as he absorbs a hit at the goal line.

Hubbard may not have the explosiveness that Etienne has but he still has long speed, which you can see on this play against TCU. Hubbard gets the ball at about the five yard line and has his choice of two huge off-center holes. He takes the left side, runs past two potential tacklers and then outruns three guys trying to catch him. It was the first of two important second half touchdowns against the Horned Frogs.

I sure hope we have football in 2020 so I can watch Hubbard’s game evolve. All-round backs who can block are always going to be in demand in the NFL and from what I’ve seen so far he has the potential to be a top draft pick if he comes out in 2021.

 

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
  • NFL rosters, depth charts and contract info: ourlads.com, spotrac.com
  • Draft history: drafthistory.com
  • Combine info: pro-football-reference.com, espn.com, nflcombineresults.com, mockdraftable.com
  • Season preview magazines: Phil Steele, Lindy’s, Street and Smith’s, Athlon Sports
  • Podcasts: ESPN’s First Draft, The Audible by Football Guys (specifically episodes w/ Matt Waldman), UTH Dynasty, Draft Dudes, Saturday 2 Sunday, Locked on NFL Draft, Cover 3 College Football
  • Logos & Player Media Photos: collegepressbox.com
  • Odds & Gambling Stats: vegasinsider.com

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

More Analysis by Bob Cowper

The Watch List: 2019 ACC Season Preview

Updated: August 18th 2019

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

Storylines to Watch

Heisman Contender: Trevor Lawrence, QB, Clemson. At just nineteen years old, Trevor Lawrence is the best quarterback in college football.  He has a big arm and elite 6060/215 size.  Given his frame, he is also surprisingly mobile.  Lawrence excels in clutch situations, illustrated by his 6:0 TD:INT ratio in Clemson’s three postseason games last year. I don’t believe it’s hyperbole to say that he’s one of the best twenty quarterbacks in America today; if NFL teams had the chance, many would replace their current starter with Lawrence two years before he’s even draft eligible.  Barring a major injury to him or a key Tiger teammate, I expect Lawrence to lead Clemson to another College Football Playoff appearance and pace the Heisman race along the way.

Underclassman to Watch: Justyn Ross, WR, Clemson. The most promising target for Lawrence is fellow sophomore Justyn Ross.  Ross earned national recognition after a spectacular showing in the college football playoff, including one truly unbelievable catch against Alabama.  In those two games against Notre Dame and Alabama, Ross combined for 12-301-3, about a third of his season totals.  He’s the conference’s leading returning receiver from last year and is likely to lead the line again.  He has a huge catch radius, sticky hands and looks like a punt returner with the ball in his hands.  If he and Lawrence progress together as we expect, we could be looking at Ross joining Lawrence as a Top 5 prospect in two years.

Newcomer of the Year: Sam Howell, QB, North Carolina. New Tar Heels head coach Mack Brown and new offensive coordinator Phil Longo are moving the team to an air raid offense this season.  They might have just the pilot in true freshman Sam Howell.  Howell, the state’s all-time leader in total yardage, flipped from Florida State to UNC on signing day.  Phil Steele ranked him as the 8th best quarterback in the class while 247Sports had him as the 3rd best dual-threat quarterback.  I watched some highlights and he really is a great rusher, the high school competition couldn’t handle his speed or finesse moves.  It also looks like he can sky the ball – one his his throws went sixty yards on the fly and was delivered inch-perfect.  If Howell can win the job and battle through the early growing pains, North Carolina will return to bowl eligibility.

Coaching Carousel: Manny Diaz, the new head coach of the Miami Hurricanes, operated his own coaching carousel this offseason.  In December, Diaz accepted the head gig at Temple.  It was a positive step in Diaz’s career progression, going from Miami’s defensive coordinator to Temple’s head coach.  However, just a few days later, Miami head coach Mark Richt retired.  Diaz jumped at the chance to return to lead the staff he had been a part of for the previous three seasons.  Diaz has an interesting back story that was captured on a recent episode of Real Sports on HBO (Diaz’s dad was the mayor of Miami from 2001-2009).  I’m torn on how I feel about Diaz and what happened this Winter.  On one hand, I couldn’t envision myself bailing on a job just eighteen days after accepting it; on the other hand, it’s hard to fault somebody for taking their dream job.

Player to Watch

Travis Etienne, RB, Clemson

Travis Etienne may hold the record for the player I have written about the most in my The Watch List series.  My first mention came back in September of 2017 when Etienne was just a freshman on his way to a 766-13 rookie season.  It’s always interesting to see how my initial assumptions about a player hold up and in Etienne’s case my notes from two years ago mirror my notes from two months ago.  Back in 2017, I described Etienne as “the hammer to close out Clemson’s wins” and that he is “undeniably fast and explosive.”  My recent film notes said that he “was not afraid to lower his shoulder and run up the gut” and in my first 2020 mock draft I noted that he “has the speed to outrun just about any defender to the boundary.”

Before I share some plays that showcase Etienne’s speed and surprising power, I wanted to take a closer look at his stats.  In 2017, Etienne averaged an impressive 7.2 yards per carry, which led the ACC.  He bested the conference again last season but improved his number to 8.1 (good enough for third in the FBS).  With averages like that, you would expect Etienne to be a big play threat so I wanted to compare him to the other four backs who are currently in my Top 5.  I also wanted to see if his chunk plays resulted in a higher scoring rate.

  • Travis Etienne
    • Runs over 10 yards: 44
    • Runs over 20 yards: 23
    • Scores every 8.4 touches (!!)
  • Jonathan Taylor
    • Runs over 10 yards: 61 (!!)
    • Runs over 20 yards: 16
    • Scores every 21.4 touches
  • D’Andre Swift
    • Runs over 10 yards: 32
    • Runs over 20 yards: 11
    • Scores every 17.2 touches
  • Trey Sermon
    • Runs over 10 yards: 27
    • Runs over 20 yards: 9
    • Scores every 15.7 touches
  • JK Dobbins
    • Runs over 10 yards: 24
    • Runs over 20 yards: 4
    • Scores every 23.6 touches

After reviewing the stats, I think it’s safe to say that Etienne is the best home run threat in the class.  He breaks big plays more often than the other top backs and more frequently converts them into points.

It’s easy to find highlights of Etienne illustrating my points above about his breakaway ability.  I picked this highlight from Wake Forest because when you watch it on YouTube you can pause it and see just how much faster he is than the fastest defenders.  At one point near the end of the run, when Etienne is crossing the ten yard line, he has a thirteen yard cushion.  That’s crazy for a play that started with him nearly bottled up behind the line of scrimmage.  Before Etienne hits the after burners, he shows his patience and his willingness to follow his lead blocker through a hole.  Once he gets a glimmer of open field, he’s gone.  His track-inspired celebration at the goal line is a reminder that he knows just how fast he is too (he reportedly once ran a hand-timed 4.24 40 yard dash).

Whenever I watch Etienne, I am always pleasantly surprised with the power that he runs with.  He has perfect size at 5100/200 which gives him a low enough center of gravity to stay upright through contact but also to churn forward for valuable yardage.  In this goal line snap, he receives the shovel pass and immediately runs into trouble.  He gets wrapped up at the two yard line, manages to squirm free, and lunges for the end zone.

When you watch the two above highlights it can be hard to square the fact that they are in fact the same prospect.  That’s what I love about Etienne, he seems to be the best of both worlds.  It’s not all rainbows and butterflies, though because there are a few areas where Etienne can improve.  If he wants to be considered a true three-down back in the NFL, Etienne needs to show us that he can be a productive receiver in 2019.  With a career receiving line of just 17-135-2, he’s merely been a dump off option (keep in mind, one of those receiving touchdowns was the shovel pass seen above).  As a pass blocker, I believe Etienne understands his assignments but lacks the strength to hold his blocks for very long.

I expect him to take another step forward this season and show us that he is a complete running back.  When he does, Etienne will challenge for the RB1 spot.

Honorable Mentions

Cam Akers, RB, Florida State: Akers joined the ‘Noles with a ton of hype as an incoming freshman, however much of that potential has been unrealized. Whether Akers has been the victim of, or part of the cause of, Florida State’s disappointments is the question. There’s no denying that their offensive line has been bad but star players sometimes transcend. Akers has shown flashes while compiling nearly 2,000 yards from scrimmage, but he was uneven in the two games I watched. He did not pop off the screen like I expected him to. My preconceived notion of Akers was that of a scat back but he may actually be better between the tackles. As such, I was surprised to see Akers succeed in short yardage situations, he was regularly able to get leverage and fall forward to convert. He’s a good receiver so I’d like to see more of him in pass protection to better judge his viability as a versatile third down back. Akers has the ceiling to be a Top 5 back in this class but right now I have a number of other players I am more confident in.

AJ Dillon, RB, Boston College: I was critical of Dillon earlier this Summer and took some heat about it on Twitter, including from AJ himself. Dillon is the best power back in the class, however, I felt he was lacking in speed and elusiveness when I first studied him. Some readers rightfully pointed out that the tape I watched (Miami 2018) was after Dillon injured his ankle and fought to finish the season. I found a highlight reel from his pre-injury explosion against Wake Forest (33-185-1) and he definitely was more dynamic and quick. Bruce Feldman recently included Dillon on his annual “Freaks List” so I’m willing to admit that I owe Dillon a more in-depth study this season. One critique still stands: he needs to get more involved as a receiver. He ran a surprising number of routes in that Miami game and did get two receptions, however, those two represent a quarter of his career receptions. Regardless of how he progresses as a receiver, Dillon’s battering ram style will surely find a role in the NFL.

Tee Higgins, WR, Clemson: Higgins is an NFL-caliber X receiver who effectively uses his 6040/200 body in a number of ways. In my notes, I called him the “Curl and Comeback King” because of his ability to box out defenders. His length allows him to outjump defenders and win 50/50 balls. Higgins typically lines up on the line of scrimmage and to the boundary, so he is comfortable along the sideline. I was also impressed by his long speed which is above average for his size. Higgins may play second fiddle to Justyn Ross this season but a 60-1,000-8 season is well within his reach and would set the stage for him to declare early.

 

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

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

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

More Analysis by Bob Cowper

The Watch List: 2020 Rookie Mock Draft v1.0

Updated: May 21st 2019

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

The 2020 NFL Draft kicks off on Thursday April 23rd. So, why am I bothering to create a mock draft so far in advance? I’ve found that creating mock drafts forces me to create both my positional rankings and my overall rankings. It would certainly be easier to ride the fence but I’d rather start thinking critically about these players now and edit as I go. The usual caveats apply here. This mock draft is a snapshot of my thinking at this moment. We have yet to see the best that many of these players are capable of producing so this list is very much a living document. A number of these underclassmen will decide to return to school and will create a gaping hole in my rankings. Some will be injured or lose their starting role for myriad reasons. Some will grow and mature physically, while others will do so mentally. There’s a lot we don’t know yet about this draft class but there is one thing I am sure of: I have never been so excited to study and write about a group of players!

1.01 | D’Andre Swift, RB, Georgia

Swift appears to be the full package. He is a combination back who combines effortless cutting ability with a desire to fight through contact. He is a natural receiver who has great hands and adjusts well to the ball. He has long speed to outrun chasing defenders even if he does take an extra beat to get up to top speed. Jerry Jeudy will give Swift a run for his money so I doubt he’s an unanimous 1.01 but he has my vote right now.

1.02 | Jerry Jeudy, WR, Alabama

Jeudy is an A+ route runner who also utilizes that change of direction to be a handful after the catch. He’s explosive and can create big plays seemingly out of nothing. He can stop on a dime which helps him feint defensive backs both on a route and with the ball in his hands. As of today, we haven’t seen a glaring weakness in his game. Jeudy could be a Top 10 NFL Draft target after two years without a can’t miss wide receiver prospect.

1.03 | JK Dobbins, RB, Ohio State

Dobbins has ascended to RB2 in my 2020 rankings. He’s an old school style player who will appeal to NFL scouts. He’s short and compact with a sturdy base. That base and his play strength help him excel in pass protection. He’s a decisive runner who plays with more power than speed. Although, that’s not to say he’s slow, he’s probably 4.45-4.50 quick. Dobbins is also a good pass catcher. I expect him to project as a three-down back at the next level.

1.04 | Travis Etienne, RB, Clemson

Etienne has the speed to outrun just about any defender to the boundary before he cuts up field and jets to pay dirt. He’s a fun guy to watch because he’s a seventy yarder just waiting to happen. He has not yet been a factor as a receiver (17 career receptions) but I don’t think he’s incapable, just under utilized. If he shows as a pass catcher this year he’ll solidify his spot in the top tier of backs.

1.05 | CeeDee Lamb, WR, Oklahoma

Lamb’s upside is immense so I pushed him all the way up to 1.05. I originally had him in the 2.01 range but decided I’d rather bet on his potential, now that he’ll be the Sooners’ top target. He has elite body control, easily tight-roping or toe-tapping the sideline. He is a one-hander extraordinaire with hands that are strong yet soft. His long speed is bettered by his long stride. Even though he weighs in at just 189lb he blocks with a tenacity and effectiveness that surprised me. Lamb has an alpha male attitude on the field that I loved. He has the rare combination of opportunity and talent that will help him blossom in 2019.

1.06 | Laviska Shenault, WR, Colorado

Shenault is a versatile playmaker who lines up all over the field. In fact, he often lines up in an h-back role and serves as an energetic blocker. He has a thick lower body that drives a powerful running style that can kick into an extra gear in the open field. He fights for extra yardage with above average play strength. Shenault catches the ball with his hands, utilizing great hand placement. Two injuries sidelined a promising 2018 campaign so I’m excited to see what we can do with a full season.

1.07 | Jonathan Taylor, RB, Wisconsin

Taylor leads my second tier of running backs right now. He’s an effective one-cut runner with power back wallop. He rarely goes down on first contact. I did observe that Taylor sometimes stutters too long at the line of scrimmage, so I’d like to see him more decisively select his lane. Like Etienne, he will need to get more involved as a receiver to avoid being type cast as a two-down back. As a Rutgers fan, Taylor is the one that got away. Instead, I have to watch him dominating Big Ten defenses in a different shade of red.

1.08 | Albert Okwuegbunam, TE, Missouri

Okwuegbunam surprised me in that he plays as an in-line tight end more than I anticipated. He lacks suddenness and explosion in his blocks but at least he has that experience. Okwuegbunam has good body control and tracks the ball well over his shoulder. He’s a hands catcher who uses his fingertips to snag the ball which is a great trait to have so early in a career. Okwuegbunam will start the season as the prohibitive favorite to be the first TE off the board next April, as such he should be atop our fantasy boards too.

1.09 | Trey Sermon, RB, Oklahoma

Sermon is a running back well suited for the zone read offense. He slashes through holes, sells his fakes and gets upfield to block for the quarterback. I think Sermon’s “Football IQ” is very high too. He knows his pass blocking assignments, understands the game situation and runs a variety of routes from the backfield. He has a great stiff arm and doesn’t shy from contact. Sermon should get the lion’s share of the carries in the Sooner backfield this season and if he does he has first round rookie draft potential pending scheme fit.

1.10 | Justin Herbert, QB, Oregon

Herbert was my QB1 last season before he decided to return for his senior year. He retains that mantle to start the 2020 NFL Draft campaign. Herbert has the size that NFL teams covet (6060/233). He has enough athleticism to pick up short yardage conversions and keep the defense honest but he’s certainly not a high volume runner. The biggest knock right now would be his accuracy (59.4% completion percentage last year was a career low). In 1QB RSO leagues, I believe it’s a good strategy to grab your preferred passer here because you get that fifth year option. If you’re playing Superflex/2QB, you’ll need to target him much earlier in the round.

2.01 | Collin Johnson, WR, Texas

Johnson is the biggest of the top receivers in the class at 6060/220. Whether he’s high-pointing the ball or making a full extension diving catch, he uses that long and lean frame to get to balls that others couldn’t. Johnson releases well with quick feet and is an adept hand fighter to get the corner’s hands off of him. He also has excellent situational awareness, I noted many times when he made a smart decision about how deep to run a route or when to protect the ball instead of fight for yardage. If he can add a few pounds without sacrificing his quickness, Johnson will be the best prototypical X receiver in this class.

2.02 | Tyler Johnson, WR, Minnesota

Johnson, one of the rare seniors in this mock draft, can win from both outside and slot alignments. He has explosive feet off the snap and out of his route breaks. He uncovers well which helps make him a target for the quarterback on most plays, even when the defender is closely trailing him. Johnson shines after the catch where he pairs elusiveness with elite breakaway speed. I may be lower on Johnson than other writers so I owe him a thorough study this offseason.

2.03 | Jalen Reagor, WR, TCU

Reagor is a literal track star: he excelled in the long jump and relay races in high school. He brought those talents with him to Fort Worth where he’s shown off his elite speed and athleticism for Horned Frog fans. What surprised me was how well he wins in the air despite being just 5110/195. He’s nearly impossible to cover, especially against Cover 2 when he can split the safeties on a deep post and leave his man in the dust. He also wins after the catch where his strength and contact balance help him rack up yards. Unfortunately there was no game film to watch so my exposure was limited to highlight reels. Reagor will be a first round consideration if his full game films live up to the expectations his highlights set.

2.04 | Cam Akers, RB, Florida State

Akers is a tough study because of how poor his offensive line play has been both years in Tallahassee. The film I watched of Akers showed that he has a balanced running style with 4.50 speed and more power than I expected. He’s adept at submarining for additional yardage by getting lower than the defender. The Akers I see in my mind’s eye, perhaps from expectations in his freshman season, has more wiggle than I saw. He runs a ton of routes out of the backfield but I didn’t get to see him pass protect much. I’m hopeful that the Seminoles are a better team in 2019 so we get to see how well Akers plays when his team is competing.

2.05 | Kennedy Brooks, RB, Oklahoma

Brooks plays larger than his 5110/205 frame, running with an upright and downhill style. He’s a patient runner who waits for his blocks and follows them through the hole. Brooks is not a flashy runner but he’ll get every yard that’s available by powering through defenders and falling forward. He keeps his feet well and can break low tackles. I didn’t get much exposure to his pass blocking and catching ability but what I did see appeared average, at worst. Brooks, a redshirt sophomore, will continue to split touches with Trey Sermon so who knows if he’ll come out early with a small sample size. If he does, keep an eye on him.

2.06 | Najee Harris, RB, Alabama

Harris is a big back at 6020/230 and it’s hard not to see Derrick Henry when watching him (the 2s on the jersey and hairs poking out of his helmet certainly help make the connection). He’s a former top recruit but has not had many carries yet in his career due to the depth at the position for the Tide. He shows excellent vision, seeing cut back lanes and hitting them strongly. His size and strength lend some power to his evasive moves. He’s largely a projection at this point but Harris should have plenty of opportunity to show us his skills in 2019 and is likely to creep up my draft board.

2.07 | Eno Benjamin, RB, Arizona State

Benjamin is fun to watch because of his elusiveness. He has a Swiss army knife’s worth of moves at his disposal: spins, jukes, cuts, hurdles. His feet are dynamic and never stop moving. Benjamin is susceptible to getting tripped up or being caught by his jersey so I would like to see him improve his strength and balance. It could be a one game coincidence but ball security could be a concern as well. Where Benjamin excels is as a pass catcher, he has good hands and knows how to get open. His receiving upside will help increase his value early in his NFL career.

2.08 | Bryan Edwards, WR, South Carolina

Edwards is a powerfully built outside receiver who started his Gamecock career strong in 2016. His numbers have failed to bloom like draft fans had hoped though. He’s still a solid prospect whose floor projects as a reliable possession receiver in the NFL. He has strong hands which he uses to consistently catch the ball away from his body. There was only one game film available, and that from 2017, so I still have a lot to learn about Edwards. I am comfortable putting him here though because I feel that he has a high floor as a prospect.

2.09 | Tua Tagovailoa, QB, Alabama

Tagovailoa is undeniably talented and his name has been on everybody’s lips for a year. So, why do I have him as my QB2 and so low in my overall rankings? I think we first need to see that Tua can make it through a full season unscathed. He loves to improvise and takes a lot of hits which lead to some wear and tear as the season progressed. As much as we remember his game-winning relief performance in the championship game as a freshman, let’s not forget that he himself was pulled in this year’s championship. He’s now the unquestioned starter and will contend for QB1 if he puts together a complete and successful season. Tua has first overall potential: he is athletic, throws a beautiful deep ball and has impeccable character.

3.10 | Tee Higgins, WR, Clemson

Higgins uses his length to box-out defenders and win at the catch point. He’s a curl and comeback king, running smart routes and making sure-handed catches for first downs. He attacks the ball with his hands when he comes out of his breaks, not wasting precious moments for the ball to come to him. He has elite separation for somebody of his height (6040). Chances are that you saw a few of Higgins circus catch highlights last year because his concentration helps him snag batted or tipped balls with regularity. Higgins will be catching passes from one of the country’s most ballyhooed quarterbacks, sophomore Trevor Lawrence, so it’s inevitable that we see his highlights all season long.

Honorable Mentions

AJ Dillon, RB, Boston College

Dillon is a big and powerful back, likely the best thumper in the class. He’s rarely brought down on first contact and often dishes out more punishment than he receives. He doesn’t have top end speed (4.60?) but he doesn’t need it for his playing style. Dillon ran more routes than I anticipated based on his number of receptions so I think there is room for growth in that area. Similarly, he needs to improve as a pass blocker. He was hampered by an ankle injury for much of 2018 so I’m excited to see Dillon bounce back and show us he has every down potential.

Grant Calcaterra, TE, Oklahoma

Calcaterra is the lightest TE on my watch list at 221 so we’re likely looking more at a “big slot” than an in-line tight end for the purposes of his NFL Draft evaluation. Regardless, he’s a playmaker with soft hands and is a big play threat up the seam. Oklahoma does have a lot of mouths to feed and is losing another Heisman winning quarterback, so it’s possible we see Calc’s numbers dip this year. Even if that’s the case, I don’t think his draft stock should.

 

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

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

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

More Analysis by Bob Cowper

The Watch List: 2018 Week 6 Preview

Updated: October 6th 2018

Welcome to The Watch List, a resource to help RSO owners identify the players and matchups from the college game that deserve your attention.  To view my weekly picks and observations, 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. 

Games to Watch

#19 Texas vs #7 Oklahoma, 12:00pm on FOX: The Red River Rivalry. I love that they kick this one off at 11:00am local time. I think it gives it even more of a “this is something special” atmosphere. The last time both teams were ranked was 2012 (which capped off a run of seven straight ranked matchups). Oklahoma won that one 63-21 and I fear the 2018 edition will go the same way. OU hasn’t missed a step without RB Rodney Anderson like I thought they might. QB Kyler Murray and WR Marquise “Hollywood” Brown are an exciting pair to watch. Brown is averaging 22.7 yards per catch and seems to always be behind the last defender (see below for more on Brown). WR CeeDee Lamb may not be as explosive, but I think he’ll end up being the better pro (he’s no slouch with his stats either, 19-348-5). Texas QB Sam Ehlinger has increased his completion percentage and efficiency this year but the difference in talent (and supporting cast) between he and Murray will be evident.

#4 Clemson at Wake Forest, 3:30pm on ESPN: Uh oh. Clemson fans’ worst fears were realized early in the contest against Syracuse when true frosh Trevor Lawrence went down with an injury. I’m not sure if Lawrence suffered a concussion or just a neck strain as has been reported so who knows if he plays in this one. Either way, it will be a story line to follow. Is it too late for Kelly Bryant to return? Can third-stringer Chase Brice keep the team winning in Lawrence’s absence? Regardless of who is taking the snaps, Clemson’s offense should be good enough with RBs Travis Etienne and Tavien Feaster to beat Wake, especially when you factor in their dominant front seven.

#5 LSU at #22 Florida, 3:30pm on CBS: I’ve somehow gone five weeks without watching much of #5 LSU so this will be the week I get my fill during an iffy 3:30pm window. I did watch parts of LSU’s matchup with Auburn and was nonplussed with QB Joe Burrow. RB Nick Brossette is 4th in the conference with 481 yards rushing and has 6 rushing TDs. Florida has the third-worst rushing defense in the SEC (172.6 yards per game) so I expect Brossette to pace the offense. As long as Burrow continues to take care of the ball, the Tigers should be victorious again.

#6 Notre Dame at #24 Virginia Tech, 8:00pm on ABC: Rewind a week and it would be hard to believe that the Hokies would be ranked again after a crushing loss to Old Dominion. Va. Tech, however, rebounded with a strong win against Duke with backup quarterback Ryan Willis at the helm. Speaking of quarterbacks, Notre Dame has undoubtedly found theirs in Ian Book. Book has completed 74.3% of his passes to go with 6 TDs and zero INTs. I tend to root against the Irish but having them undefeated is good for the sport.

Fresno State at Nevada, 10:30pm on ESPNU: Before the season started I picked Fresno to lose the division to San Diego State. Now that the Aztecs have lost RB Juwan Washington and won their last three games unconvincingly, the door may be open for the Bulldogs. Fresno features the league’s best QB-WR duo in Marcus McMaryion (1,050-7) and KeeSean Johnson (394-3). I’ll also be watching because I have McMaryion and Johnson on my college football fantasy team!

Players to Watch

Honorable Mentions

  • Steven Montez, QB, Colorado: Montez is the nation’s leader in completion percentage through five weeks (75.8%). He fell into playing time as a redshirt freshmen and was the full time starter in 2017 as a sophomore, so he has experience. Montez also has NFL size at 6050/235 and is starting to get pub on my Twitter timeline as a potential draft sleeper. If he plays well against USC, Washington and Utah he’ll continue to climb rankings and will deserve further film study if it looks like he’ll come out.
  • Ryquell Armstead, RB, Temple: Armstead earned some buzz way back in 2016 when he rushed for 14 TDs and gained 5.9 yards per carry and was key for a surprising 10-4 Owls’ team. He dented his draft stock in 2017 though when his yards per carry dipped all the way down to 3.9. 2018 is looking more like 2016 so far. After a slow start against Villanova (14 for 31 yards), Armstead has four straight 100+ yard games. He ripped off 171 and 4 TDs last week against Boston College. BC doesn’t have a great defense but Group of 5 backs need to feast in Power 5 games to get attention and Armstead did just that.
  • Andy Isabella, WR, UMass: Isabella crested 1,000 yards last season (1,020) but was overshadowed by TE Adam Breneman in the Minutemen offense. This season, as the primary target, Isabella is stealing the spotlight. He’s currently 6th in the NCAA in receptions (40) and 2nd in yards (647). Worth noting: UMass played in Week Zero so Isabella has an extra game compared to everybody else. Still, the numbers are encouraging. Isabella is a 5100/190 screen receiver who is a converted running back (he has 31 rushing attempts since 2016). He also returned kicks as a freshman. Isabella is likely to find a role in the NFL because of his versatility.

Marquise “Hollywood” Brown

  • Listed at 5100/168  per sports-reference.com
  • Film watched: Oklahoma State 2017, Iowa State 2018
  • 2017: 13 games, 57 receptions, 1,095 yards, 19.2 yards per reception, 7 TDs
  • 2018: 5 games, 24 receptions, 544 yards, 22.7 yards per reception, 5 TDs

Hollywood is leading the Big 12 in yards per reception and has been a dynamo all season long. He’s more than just a one-hit wonder though. He has four or more receptions and a touchdown in every game this year and has three 130+ yard games. This is his second season as a Sooner; he transferred from a junior college after a successful freshman season (50-754-10 plus two return touchdowns according to his media bio). There is no doubt about his playmaking ability but the foremost detraction of Brown is his size. He’s listed at just 5100/168 on in the 2018 media guide.  After another big game against Baylor (5-132-2), I decided it was time for me to watch some film of Brown instead of dismissing him because of his size.

Since my biggest concern about Hollywood is his size, I thought it would be important to study how he lines up.  He takes a few snaps from the slot and while in motion, so as to limit how easily the defensive back can jam him at the line, but the majority of snaps come when he lined up as an outside receiver.  My uneducated presumption was that he would solely be an inside receiver.  I don’t have tracking data to back up my estimate but I’d guess he lines up outside about 90% of the time.  Head coach Lincoln Riley cleverly deploys Brown when he lines up outside to avoid physical play along the sideline.  Sometimes he carries the route inside before breaking outside, as you’ll see in this clip from this year’s Iowa State game.  He’s the receiver at the bottom of the screen (#5), he drifts inside closely to his fellow receiver and disappears from the screen momentarily.  When he makes the catch he’s heading back towards the sideline with plenty of cushion from the defender.

Other times, as shown in this clip, Brown lines up in a “plus split”.  This alignment puts Brown on the outside to the field rather than the boundary (i.e. the side opposite the hash the ball is on), which gives him more space to maneuver.  On this play the Sooners are lined up on the left hash with Brown inside the numbers to the right.  He has plenty of space to the sideline and you can see his route stem is more diagonal than vertical.  The zone defense has nobody in the space that Brown bee-lines to and he picks up nine yards on a 2nd and 11.

This next clip is from 2017 when the Sooners played Oklahoma State.  This one ended up going for an 84 yard score.  It’s hard to say what was the key aspect of the play, was it Brown’s well-run slant route?  Or was it his breathtaking breakaway speed?  It’s hard to notice but look at the hesitation he gives the corner at the top of the route stem.  That pause, paired with Mayfield’s pump fake, freezes the corner long enough to let Brown catch it freely and jet towards the end zone.  On his way he avoids an ankle tackle while splitting three defenders and out runs everybody on the field.

It’s easy to find big play highlights of Brown so I went into my study looking for other positive indicators.  His route running, speed/agility and awareness are all encouraging.  My favorite play of his was this one from the 2017 Oklahoma State game that showed bits of each trait.  It’s a 1st and 10 from the opponent’s 20 yard line.  Brown lines up in the aforementioned plus-split and keeps his route alive while QB Baker Mayfield is scrambling.  Brown probably runs 40 yards on the route only to gain 9 but it was a good illustration of his awareness and determination to get open.

Even though I loved much of what I saw from Brown on tape, realistically, his NFL Draft stock is going to hinge predominantly on his combine measurements.  Dating back to 2010, there are only three guys who measured in his cohort and were drafted. You’ve never heard of two of them and the third is JJ Nelson. I think Brown will benefit from another year on campus so he can gain more reps on the field and in the weight room.  It is asking a lot but if Brown can bulk up to 185-190 he’d measure similarly to Brandin Cooks.  If he does come out in 2019, I anticipate his immediate upside being limited as a gadget and return guy.  However, if Brown does return and bulk up, I may be all-in next year.  I really enjoyed watching his film.

 


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

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

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

More Analysis by Bob Cowper

The Watch List: 2018 ACC Preview

Updated: August 18th 2018

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

Storylines to Watch

  • Heisman Favorite:  Cam Akers, RB, Florida State.  According to Vegas, running backs Cam Akers and AJ Dillon have the best odds of winning the Heisman from the ACC.  Clemson QB Kelly Bryant is close behind but I’m not sure he holds onto his starting job so I wouldn’t be putting money on him now.  Akers has 2,000 yard potential while Dillon has 20 TD potential; ultimately I lean towards Akers as he will be playing on a better team than Dillon and should get more national exposure.
  • Darkhorse Heisman Candidate:  Daniel Jones, QB, Duke.  As I have previously discussed in this space, picking a conference’s best dual-threat quarterback is your best bet for predicting the Heisman winner.  I’m a fan of Jones, see below, and think he has 3,000/750 yard upside but he needs to score more.  Last year he had just 18 total TDs and would need to double that to get in the Heisman conversation.  I’m not saying it’s likely, or even probable, but it’s possible.
  • Offensive Player of the Year:  Taquon Marshall, QB, Georgia Tech.  Few players in the FBS will be as valuable to their unit as Marshall to the Georgia Tech offense.  He won’t get the national recognition of somebody like Cam Akers but he’ll put up big numbers and be a CFF darling.  If he stays healthy, Marshall will top 1,000 yards each passing and rushing and will total 30+ TDs.
  • Defensive Player of the Year:  Dexter Lawrence, DL, Clemson.  Take your pick from the Clemson defensive line.  I’ll go with Lawrence because of the impact he has on the opposing line on every play.  Lawrence had a huge freshman season with 62 tackles and 6.5 sacks but regressed in 2017 to 33-2.0.  At 6040/340, he’s a mountain of a man.  It’s rare to find an interior defensive lineman with the combination of size and athleticism that Lawrence shows.
  • Newcomer of the Year:  Trevor Lawrence, QB, Clemson.  According to 247Sports, Trevor Lawrence was the top rated recruit in the 2018 class and had a near-perfect grade of 0.9999, the highest I have seen on their site.  Lawrence is huge, listed at 6060, and put up equally big numbers in high school.  His recruiting profile on 247Sports touts a 160:21 ratio with over 13,000 passing yards.  I take high school stats with a grain of salt of course, but that’s just insane.  I am not a big Kelly Bryant fan so I think it’s only a matter of time before we see Lawrence take over at Clemson.
  • Underclassmen to Watch:  The ACC is chock-full of impact sophomores.  Rather than pick one, I decided I needed to mention a few:
    • Cam Akers, RB, Florida State:  Akers will be the best of a talented group of young backs in the ACC this season.
    • Travis Etienne, RB, Clemson:  Etienne is an explosive runner with a long stride.  He gained 766 yards and scored 13 TDs in a RBBC role last season and finished with a 7.2 yards per carry average.  It remains to be seen if he can be as effective with a larger workload.
    • AJ Dillon, RB, Boston College:  Dillon is a 6000/245 bruiser who has a nose for the end zone.  He scored 14 TDs last season and should see 20 this season.  He’s a workhorse back who earned 300 carries as a true freshman and had four games with over 30.
    • Greg Dortch, WR, Wake Forest:  Dortch is an undersized (5090/165) slot and screen receiver who dominated at times in 2017 before getting injured.  Against Louisville he had an incredible 10-167-4 line before falling to an abdominal injury.  He contributes as a rusher and returner as well.
  • Best QB-WR Tandem:  Ryan Finley and Kelvin Harmon, NC State.  Finley is quietly the conference’s best quarterback prospect; meanwhile Harmon should be a first round fantasy rookie pick in 2019.  I doubt many casual fans know their names though because they shared the spotlight last season with draftees DE Bradley Chubb, TE Jaylen Samuels and RB Nyheim Hines.  Finley and Harmon eclipsed 3,500 and 1,000 yards respectively so they are a productive duo.  I have more on these two Wolfpack stars below.
  • Best RB Corps:  Georgia Tech.  It should come as no surprise that a triple option team like Tech would land in my “Best RB Corps” spot.  The Yellow Jackets led the conference in rushing (307 yards per game) and return their six leading rushers from that squad.  The two that catalyze the option attack are QB TaQuon Marshall (1,146-17 rushing and 927-10 passing) and RB KirVonte Benson (1,073-6).
  • Coach on the Hottest Seat:  Larry Fedora, North Carolina.  Fedora has been in the news recently after his curious remarks at ACC Media Day.  Those comments were best summarized by Luke Decock in the Charlotte News-Observer: “This is all ludicrous, of course, the earnest hyperbole a little less dangerous than the willful denial.”  Even if Fedora didn’t put a target on his own back, he went 3-9 in 2017 and hasn’t won a bowl game since 2013.  The Tar Heels are also dealing with “another compliance black eye” after numerous players were suspended for selling team-issued apparel.  A winning coach could withstand most of this drama but not one who suffers another losing season.

Teams to Watch

 Miami (10-3 in 2017)

I was consistently down on Miami last season.  I did not believe they could run the table and kept picking against them during their winning streak.  The wheels finally came off in late November when Miami lost to Pitt, a game I still remember for how frustrating it was to watch, which started a season-ending three game losing skid.  Miami should be in the ACC Coastal running again but what makes them even more interesting to watch are the plethora of NFL prospects they will field.  On offense they will feature RB Travis Homer, WR Ahmmon Richards and TE Michael Irvin Jr (Editor’s note: Irvin Jr. is now injured).  The defense returns its top five tacklers, including first round hopeful safety Jaquan Johnson.  LB Shaq Quarterman and CB Michael Jackson should end with high draft grades as well.  The Hurricanes feature 14 returning starters, including QB Malik Rosier.  I was very critical of Rosier last season and hope that an additional season of experience helps him play more efficiently.  If he does, Miami will end up in another New Year’s Six bowl, as I am currently predicting, with a shot at the playoff.

 Florida State (7-6 in 2017)

I don’t think there is any disagreement among college football fans that the Seminoles will rebound from a demoralizing 7-6 season last year which required them to make up a meaningless game against UL-Monroe just to become bowl eligible.  The question is, just how high do they rebound with new head coach Willie Taggart?  I have gone out on a slimsy (yes, that’s a word) limb and predicted that they will be selected for the College Football Playoff.  Three of FSU’s toughest games (the nationally broadcast opener versus VaTech, Clemson and Florida) will be played in Tallahassee.  I’m also feeling optimistic because I think the offense will be miles ahead of 2017.  QB Deondre Francois returns from injury; if he’s shelved again, sophomore James Blackman now has valuable experience.  The offensive line, which tends to be a weak spot for Florida State, returns four starters.  The largest factor will be the running backs: wunderkind soph Cam Akers and senior Jacques Patrick.  Akers crested 1,000 yards (1,094) and earned 2nd-Team All-ACC honors as a true freshman.  Patrick is a 6030/231 bruiser who added 780 yards of his own.  Both backs had seven scores.  The receiving corps is filled with young and/or unproven targets but the team’s leading receiver, Nyqwan Murray returns.  The defense may struggle as they only return four starters and lost top prospect Derwin James.  One interesting stat gives me hope: per Phil Steele, the last time the Seminoles returned just four defensive starters, which was 2013, they allowed just 12.1 yards per game.  Oh, and by the way, that team went 14-0 and won the BCS National Championship.

Players to Watch

Honorable Mentions

  • Daniel Jones, QB, Duke:  Jones is on my shortlist of candidates for the 2019 QB1 spot.  In my limited study, I noted that he has good anticipation and throws excellently while on the run.  He has above average athleticism for the position and runs with good vision.  There are some areas for improvement, namely his passing accuracy and pocket awareness.  Plus, he could add a few pounds to fill out his 6050 body due to his physical playing style.  His touchdown total decreased last season (16 to 14) while his interceptions increased (9 to 11), which is not a good sign.  He did add 518-7 on the ground which helped keep the Blue Devil offense moving.  I’ll check in on Jones periodically this season.  If he improves nearer a 2:1 ratio he’ll be in consideration for a first round NFL Draft pick.
  • Deondre Francois, QB, Florida State:  This time last year, I was one of many college football fans who was expecting Francois to take a big step forward in 2017.  Unfortunately, that growth was stunted in the Seminoles’ opener against Alabama after he sustained a season-ending knee injury.  True freshman James Blackman filled in and, luckily for Francois, did not do enough to guarantee himself the job for 2018.  I think Francois has the inside track to win the starting job but it’s not impossible to think that Blackman wins the gig in Fall camp.  Francois is tough as nails but is on the smaller side for a quarterback prospect (6010/205).  He has 3,500 yard upside so I am pulling for him and I hope he gets a chance to realize his potential.  I am predicting that FSU will make a run to the College Football Playoff and that hope rests squarely on Francois’ shoulders.
  • Eric Dungey, QB, Syracuse:  I loved watching Dungey last season and recall his standout games against Pitt and Clemson.  Sadly, Dungey has a long injury history which has limited him to just 26 career games over three seasons.  He’s not all that prolific or efficient (40:21 career ratio and 131.5 career passer rating) but there’s something about him that I enjoy watching.  He is a true dual-threat quarterback: in a shortened season he still managed 595 rushing yards and 9 TDs.  I’m not sure there exists a universe where Dungey is a relevant 2019 rookie but he’ll be fun to watch in 2018 as long as he stays healthy.
  • Travis Homer, RB, Miami:  Homer started the season as the backup to Mark Walton but took over after Walton went down with an injury.  He had a six game stretch in the middle of the season where he totaled 642 yards and 4 TDs; he also added 12-146-1 as a receiver in that span.  Homer did sputter a bit down the stretch but that middle-season burst is encouraging.  Per DLF, Homer is one of the youngest draft eligible players in the 2019 class which could increase his draft stock if he can enhance his numbers this season.
  • Jaylen Smith, WR, Louisville: Our friends at the Dynasty Command Center loved Smith for the 2018 draft before he decided to return to school.  In Volume One of their rookie prospectus they listed Smith as the WR5.  Despite coming back for his senior season, Smith is just 21 years old.  He has elite size at 6040/219 and pairs his big frame with 4.50 speed.  He is a constant deep threat.  Eight of his 60 receptions in 2017 went for 25 or more yards; in 2016, on just 27 receptions, that number was even higher at nine.  A wrist injury caused him to miss time in 2017 but he finished strong with 7-107-1 in the Cardinals’ bowl game.  My biggest concern is whether new starting quarterback Jawon “Puma” Pass can hit Smith downfield with the same frequency.
  • Tommy Sweeney, TE, Boston College:  Sweeney is the leading returning receiver on a potentially ascending BC team.  Last season, he paced the Eagles with 36 receptions, 512 yards and 4 TDs.  The passing offense should improve in 2018 with QB Anthony Brown back under center.  Brown started the year as a redshirt freshman but missed the end of the campaign with an injury; when he was healthy he struggled (11:9, 51.9%) but another year of experience will help.  I have not watched any film of Sweeney but based on his size (6050/255) I expect that he will be able to hold his own as a blocker.
  • Austin Bryant, Clelin Ferrell, Dexter Lawrence, Christian Wilkins, DL, Clemson:  I don’t have the space, or honestly the expertise, to delve into the Clemson defensive line in this preview.  Suffice it to say that they will be a fearsome group.  Come next Spring, we could see all four of these guys getting first round NFL Draft buzz.  If you don’t believe me, just check out one of many mock drafters who are predicting just that.  Some others are saying that this unit is overrated – let’s ask ACC quarterbacks what they think.
  • Jaquan Johnson, S, Miami:  Johnson is the leading safety prospect according to a number of sources I trust (i.e. Phil Steele’s preview magazine and DraftScout.com).  He’s a former 4-star recruit who decided to stay home and eschew offers from heavyweights like USC, LSU and Clemson.  Johnson became a full-time starter in 2016 and did not disappoint.  He finished with 96 tackles, 4 INTs, 3 forced fumbles and 2 fumble recoveries.  The Miami offense prides itself in forcing turnovers and Johnson was an important link in that chain (pun intended).

Ryan Finley, QB, North Carolina State

Finley is entering his third season as the starting signal caller for NC State.  He transferred from Boise State in 2015 as a graduate transfer.  Finley was granted a sixth year of eligibility because his two seasons at Boise were marred by injuries.  So, he arrived at Raleigh as the rare graduate transfer with three years of eligibility for his new team.  If you’re thinking that Finley must be an old prospect after such a winding road, you’d be right.  Finley is currently 23.6 years old and is the oldest prospect on DLF’s 2019 age table.  Age doesn’t necessarily make or break somebody’s draft stock, but it will be a hurdle Finley needs to overcome in scouts’ eyes.

On the field, Finley has played well but has been more of a distributor than a dynamic playmaker.  He has completed 63.0% of his passes for NC State with a 35:14 ratio over two seasons.  He doesn’t commit many turnovers but he also doesn’t sling the ball around either.  He threw for a career-high 3,514 yards in 2017 but his yards per attempt dropped to 7.4 (sixth best in the ACC).  Finley added a bit on the ground in 2017: 198 yards and 3 TDs.  He’s not the type of prospect whose stats and game logs will garner attention from casual fans.  Instead, Finley will need to impress during film study.

I came away from my viewing of Finley feeling conflicted.  His best trait for me was his awareness, specifically his penchant for fakes of all kinds.  There’s a nuance to his play action and pump fakes that I don’t often notice in other college passers.  He also has a good awareness of the field and situation.  When he scrambles he rarely takes a hit and instead is able to take a track that gets him out of bounds before contact.  This combination of field and situational awareness was perhaps best illustrated by a play against FSU.  The Wolfpack were up eleven late in the game but Finley was in shotgun in his own end zone.  There was a bad snap and as Finley scrambled for the ball, he swatted it out of the back of the end zone for an intentional safety rather than allowing a defender to fall on it for a game-changing touchdown.

Unfortunately the rest of my notes on Finley were less glowing.  He has good accuracy and anticipation on short throws but he’s lacking on intermediate and deep throws.  A number of his deep throws were well overthrown or out of bounds so his receiver had no chance.  Speaking of short throws, many of his attempts are quick screens or slants without multiple reads.  As an athlete he is not quick (maybe 4.75) but he does have functional rushing ability to gain a few yards.  His arm is more confident than strong.  He trusts himself to fit the ball into tight windows but sometimes he lacks the zip or accuracy to get it done.  Right now, I see Finley projecting as an NFL backup with some upside to start an occasional game.  (Film watched: Clemson 2017, Florida State 2017)

Kelvin Harmon, WR, North Carolina State

Harmon emerged as a sophomore in 2017, finishing with 69 receptions, 1,017 yards and 4 TDs.  His season started off with a bang when he had a combined 19-235-1 line to start the year against South Carolina and Marshall.  He also had big games against Notre Dame (7-97-1), Clemson (8-155-1) and Wake Forest (8-105).  He has boom or bust capability, shown by a few duds on the game logs: four games under 25 yards.  Harmon exhibits a good mix of speed, size and strength.  I estimate he has 4.50 speed and he’s listed at 6030/213.  While I think Harmon may measure shorter than 6030, there’s no questioning his ability to win the ball in the air.

Put simply, Harmon excels in contested catch situations.  He often high points the ball and is strong enough to survive the defender and the ground with possession.  He’s also adept at catching the ball over his shoulder while in stride.  He’s a powerful runner after the catch who can break tackles and carry defenders on his back for extra yardage.  In the game against Clemson, I noted two spectacular routes that he ran which gave him separation.  It’s a shame there aren’t more full games cuts of Harmon because I would love to see more of his route running because what I saw was great.  He releases well off the line due to his combination of speed and strength.  If I were to nitpick, I would say that Harmon needs to be eliminate some of his body catches.  Sometimes it’s like he jumps too high which causes him to bring in the ball at his midsection rather than away from the body with his hands.

Based on the above size/speed measureables Harmon would be comparable to guys like Courtland Sutton and Allen Robinson.  I think Harmon will project more like Stefon Diggs in the NFL because of his excellent route running ability.  Harmon will be a first rounder in rookie drafts next year but I suspect his stock will fluctuate as he’s not as “sexy” as some of the other big name receiver prospects.  (Film watched: Clemson 2017, Highlights 2017)

Ahmmon Richards, WR, Miami

Ahmmon Richards starred as a true freshman in 2016.  He earned freshman All-American honors after finishing the year with 49 receptions, 934 yards and 3 TDs.  His 19.1 yards per reception mark was fourth best in the ACC that season.  Expectations were high for Richards in 2017 as a sophomore but unfortunately injury sidelined him to start the season and again in October and then again in December.  Richards ended up playing just 7 games, totaling 24 catches for 439 yards and 3 TDs.  Encouragingly, he finished the regular season strong, combining for 7-98-2 against Virginia and Pitt.  Richards is a lean 6010/190.  At that size, I’d like to see him flash 4.45 speed which looks probable on film.  Per the Hurricanes, he’s ran a 4.31 and a 4.40 on previous attempts but you always need to question school-reported numbers.

Richards’ tape was frustrating to watch.  For starters, he was often the victim of poor quarterback play from Malik Rosier.  This was especially apparent against Florida State where Rosier chucked some ducks.  Pair that with questionable hands from Richards and you have multiple plays that should have gone for points instead of going incomplete.  Richards often body catches the ball; when it does hit his hands he too frequently let’s it zip right through so I question his hand placement and hand strength.  His play strength in contested situations is also lacking.  He’s not the type of receiver who will play above the rim and win jump balls with regularity.  Where Richards excelled is on shorter routes.  He has an elite ability to get off the line and away from press-man coverage on slants.  He quickly slaps the defender’s hands away and can chop through contact to get open.  After the catch, I noted a few plays where Richards showed his speed, cutting ability and some strength to gain extra yards.  He even had an impressive hurdle against Syracuse which showed his athletic ability.  Unfortunately, my sample size was just ten receptions so I want to see more opportunities for RAC this season.  Richards is a willing blocker whom I saw lay out two Seminole defenders (one was a penalty though).  He lined up tight in a few goal line situations and did not block well then but in the open field he’ll at least be average.  I want to see Richards stay healthy this season and improve the consistency of his hands.  If he can pair average hands with his speed and ability to get open at the line he could turn into a valuable NFL asset.  (Film watched: Syracuse 2017, Florida State 2017)


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

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

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

More Analysis by Bob Cowper

The Watch List: Bowl Game Previews, Part VI

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.

Monday, Jan. 1

Outback Bowl, Michigan (8-4) vs. South Carolina (8-4), 12 p.m. (ESPN2)

  • Michigan: 88th scoring offense, 112th passing offense, 44th rushing offense; 14th scoring defense, 1st passing defense, 21st rushing defense
  • South Carolina: 99th scoring offense, 79th passing offense, 108th rushing offense; 27th scoring defense, 71st passing defense, 42nd rushing defense

As my readers know, I am a Michigan homer but I’m going to be as impartial here as possible. There is no reason this game should be on New Year’s Day. I guess the NCAA (read as: ESPN) prefer to have some of the biggest games spaced out on Dec 29 and Dec 30 but it’s hard to get excited by this matchup. Both teams are 8-4 and were a combined 1-5 against ranked teams (notably that single win was Michigan over #17 Florida in the first game of the season before we knew how bad Florida was going to be). The teams are also banged up: per Sports-Reference.com’s injury reports, the teams have a combined 22 players injured with varying severity.

Since Gamecocks WR Deebo Samuel has not returned to practice and will not play in the bowl, the most significant injury is likely to Michigan QB Brandon Peters. Peters started the year as the third stringer but was elevated to the starting role on Oct 28 against Rutgers. Wilton Speight got hurt in the team’s fourth game but wasn’t playing well anyway. Wolverines fans like myself got a taste of truly dreadful quarterback play when John O’Korn took over and struggled mightily. Peters has not been great (57.6% completion percentage, 4 TDs and 0 INTs) but he’s a significant improvement over the turnover prone O’Korn. The offense is led by a trio of running backs: Karan Higdon (929 yards, 11 TDs), Chris Evans (661-6) and Ty Isaac (548-2). Not surprisingly, none of the WRs are a factor. The team’s leading receiver is TE Sean McKeon (29-285-3). Keep an eye on FB Khalid Hill near the goal line. Hill only has 34 yards on 17 carries this season but he has three scores and had ten last year. Michigan’s defense is chock-full of NFL talent and they alone should warrant their own full-length piece. The biggest difference makers on that unit are DT Maurice Hurst and DE Rashan Gary. Hurst has 58 tackles, 13 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks; Gary has 55-10.5-4. Gary is the better pro prospect, don’t be surprised if he’s a Top 3 pick in 2018, but the stats belie his skill because of how often he’s double teamed. This Youtube video is a good cut-up of 2016 highlights for a number of 2017’s key defensive players, including LBs Chase Winovich and Mike McCray.

It’s a shame Deebo Samuel won’t be back for the bowl after a broken leg. Reports earlier in the season were that he could return but he has not practiced. Samuel is draft eligible but he should probably return for another year. He has fifteen career touchdowns (7 rushing, 5 receiving, 3 returning) and is an explosive game breaker. Sophomore QB Jake Bentley regressed in 2017 in terms of his rate stats and efficiency. I have not watched much of Bentley so I’m not able to provide much analysis here but I’ll bet that there’s a good chance he doesn’t start 2018 as the starter. TE Hayden Hurst is the team’s best NFL prospect. He had 41 receptions for 518 yards and 2 TDs this year. He has not been a high volume scorer (just 3 career TDs) but he is a good pass catcher and at least an average blocker in my film study. Hurst was my TE2 when I did 2018 rookie positional rankings in November; he’ll probably come in a little lower than that but he’s still a possible rookie pick in many fantasy leagues. LB Skai Moore is a four year contributor who has 346 career tackles, 5 career sacks and 14 career interceptions. Moore is WalterFootball.com’s 12th ranked OLB. His versatility in pass coverage should earn him a Day Two draft pick.

Michigan’s defense, without a doubt, will be the most dominant unit on the field in this one. I’ll make the homer pick and take my Wolverines. Prediction: Michigan

Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, #7 Auburn (10-3) vs. #12 Central Florida (12-0), 12:30 p.m. (ESPN)

  • Auburn: 25th scoring offense, 68th passing offense, 22nd rushing offense; 10th scoring defense, 17th passing defense, 32nd rushing defense
  • UCF: 1st scoring offense, 7th passing offense, 34th rushing offense; 53rd scoring defense, 111th passing defense, 66th rushing defense

What a game this one is going to be.  We all know the story surrounding outgoing UCF head coach Scott Frost so let’s not beat the proverbial dead horse because the spotlight should be on the players.

Auburn had a roller coaster of a season.  Heading into SEC play they were 2-1 but with two poor wins and a close loss to #3 Clemson.  They made it up to #10 but a loss to LSU bumped them all the way down to #21.  From there they worked their way into the playoff picture with wins over #2 Georgia and #1 Alabama (both of whom are playing in the playoff despite their losses to Auburn).  A poor showing in the rematch against Georgia sealed their outside-looking-in fate.  Throughout the season they were led by two players on offense: QB Jarrett Stidham and RB Kerryon Johnson.  I was lukewarm regarding Stidham for most of the year but he won me over against Alabama.  I wrote him up that week and compared him favorably to Alex Smith.  He’s an efficient and athletic game manager which sounds like an insult but it’s actually high praise (don’t forget that Smith was taken first overall in 2005).  Stidham threw just one INT in SEC play but has a mixed bag of results in the year’s biggest games (good games against Georgia and Alabama, bad games against Georgia and Clemson).  UCF has a poor passing defense so I expect Stidham to put up big numbers.  Kerryon Johnson has battled some injuries this season but he was still very productive in eleven games (1,320 rushing yards, 23 rushing TDs, 23 receptions, 188 receiving yards, 2 receiving TDs).  I did not rank Johnson in my Top 15 for 2018 rookie RBs but his success in November has me re-thinking that: over 700 totals yards and 15 total TDs.  As far as non-offensive skill positions go, the Tigers have three NFL talents.  At corner, Carlton Davis could land near the end of the first round.  According to Pro Football Focus, Davis was the 50th ranked player in “Cover Snaps per Reception” and was average in passer rating against.  Still, my preferred draft sources (WalterFootball.com and NFLDraftScout.com) favor him over guys I like more like Josh Jackson or Jaire Alexander.  OG Braden Smith will be a second tier option for teams who miss on the elite prospects in a guard-heavy draft.  K Daniel Carlson will end up getting drafted before the 6th round by some team desperate to end their kicking woes; he has played in 52 career games and hit on 90 of his 111 attempts (plus a perfect 195-195 record on PATs).  In a game destined to come down to who has the ball last, Carlson could be a factor.

The UCF offense is all about QB McKenzie Milton.  I have been praising him for a few weeks now because he is one of the purest passers I remember watching in recent memory.  His deep ball looks effortless and he’s not afraid to throw it – he can just spin it.  Milton played as a freshman in 2016 but exploded in 2017.  He threw for 3,795 yards and 35 TDs and completed 69.2% of his passes.  The biggest knock on Milton is his size.  He’s listed at 5’11” and 177lbs and that might be soaking wet with two sets of shoulder pads on.  I don’t think there is any way we talk about Milton as a pro prospect next year so enjoy him now as a fun to watch college QB.  WR Tre’Quan Smith is the biggest benefactor of Milton’s prolific passing.  He only caught 54 balls but went for 1,082 yards (an outstanding 20.0 yards per reception) and 13 TDs.  Per PFF, Smith is fourth in the FBS in “Deep Receiving Catch Rate” by catching 68.4% of his deep attempts.  Smith has 50+ receptions in each of his three seasons so who knows maybe another solid 2018 gets him drafted.  UCF does not have any high level NFL hopefuls but you should read up on LB Shaquem Griffin.  He was the conference’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2016 after finishing with 92 tackles, 20 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks.  His stats all decreased this year but that doesn’t make him any less fun to watch.  Griffin’s left hand was amputated in 1999 and against all odds he is pushing for a shot in the NFL.  I envy people like Griffin who can overcome their physical limitations to do great things, I’m not sure I would have the strength to do so myself, and I don’t doubt for a second that he’ll make an impression on NFL scouts.

I’m not a gambler but if I were, I would avoid this one.  I’m picking with my heart and not my head here: I love watching UCF and am rooting for them to show the playoff committee that they deserved a chance.  Prediction: Central Florida

Citrus Bowl, #17 LSU (9-3) vs. #14 Notre Dame (9-3), 1 p.m. (ABC)

  • LSU: 72nd scoring offense, 86th passing offense, 30th rushing offense; 16th scoring defense, 20th passing defense, 22nd rushing defense
  • Notre Dame: 22nd scoring offense, 104th passing offense, 7th rushing offense; 32nd scoring defense, 51st passing defense, 49th rushing defense

LSU has earned some headlines over the last 24 hours as reports have come out that offensive coordinator Matt Canada is leaving the team.  Canada’s offense is famous for its pre-snap shifts and movement.  Ironically, Canada’s career is famous for its movement too because he can’t stick around anywhere too long (six different schools since 2010); maybe the gimmick just isn’t worth all of the effort and time it must take to learn.  Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly is always surrounded by rumors too because half the fan base hates him.

LSU was an enigma to me this season.  Midway through the year, I was honestly surprised to see that 5-2 LSU was ranked #24.  One of those losses was to Troy from the Sun Belt which would seem to be disqualifying.  Of the other Power 5 teams in the Top 25, only Stanford (vs San Diego State) has a loss to a Group of 5 team; and that is without a doubt a stronger loss than LSU’s.  I guess the committee felt that LSU’s win over then #10 Auburn more than made up for the bad loss (but by that logic Ohio State should have been in over Alabama).  LSU has two players who will go at the top of drafts: DE Arden Key in the NFL Draft and RB Derrius Guice in your rookie draft.  Guice has been as under the radar as the soon to be 1.02 can.  Saquon Barkley has, deservedly, received a ton of attention this season but second tier backs like Ronald Jones and Bryce Love have stolen some of the shine that should be on Guice.  He has confirmed that he will play in the Citrus Bowl which is good because I figured he might follow former teammate Leonard Fournette’s lead and skip the bowl.  Guice had a solid season but was not as dominant as he was last year when sharing the backfield with Fournette.  This year Guice finished with a 1,153-11 line.  He’s not a big receiving threat (just 29 career receptions, 15 of which came this year) which could limit his utility at the start of his NFL career.  It turns out that my feelings about Guice from August were spot-on: “I’m very interested to see how Guice does without Fournette…in 2017.  If he can repeat even 75% of his production from 2016 he’ll be a first round NFL back.  What I saw in Guice’s tape was not enough for me to push him to RB1 over Penn State’s Saquon Barkley, but at worst, Guice will be your 1.02 for 2018.”  Injuries derailed Arden Key’s season and will cause him to miss the bowl.  He still has an elite size and speed combination plus enough production to guarantee he finds the Top 10 in the NFL Draft.  WR DJ Chark had 47 touches for 874 total yards and 4 TDs; his production is undraftable but his 6’4″ height could get him a look.  CB Donte Jackson is WalterFootball.com’s 3rd ranked corner.

The strength of Notre Dame’s team, stop me if you’ve heard this before, is their offensive line.  I would not at all be surprised for Notre Dame to have both the first tackle and the first guard drafted, both likely in the Top 15.  T Mike McGlinchey (6’8″ and 315lbs) and G Quentin Nelson (6’5″ and 330lbs) were both first team All-Americans.  They pave the way for RB Josh Adams and QB Brandon Wimbush to rack up rushing yards.  Adams finished with 1,386 yards and 9 TDs while Wimbush had 766 and 14.  I am not a fan of Wimbush because he is such an inaccurate passer but you can’t deny his ability as a runner.  I have waffled on Adams throughout the season but I remain concerned about his size at the next level (he’s too tall – click the link for my analysis).  In Week 9, I predicted he’d be a 3rd round rookie draft pick and I’ll stand by that now.  It’s a shame that Wimbush has struggled to complete passes because WR Equanimeious St. Brown (my vote for the first player to break RSO’s draft software because of the length of this name) has such potential.  St. Brown is long and lean (he really needs to add about 10lbs to make it in the NFL) with a good pedigree (4 star recruit, offers from a number of big schools).  If he comes out he is going to have to dominate the combine because his production is below average (90-1,437-13 in two seasons as a starter).  LB Nyles Morgan considered coming out after his junior year (88 tackles, 6 tackles for loss, 4 sacks) but returned to school; unfortunately for Morgan, 2017 probably hurt his stock more than helped it (82-6.5-1).  Both WalterFootball.com and NFLDraftScout.com have him as either a 7th rounder or undrafted.

I struggled to pick this one because I’m not a fan of either team.  I’ll take LSU because of Guice and the strength of their defense (even without Key).  Prediction: LSU

College Football Playoff Semifinal #1, Rose Bowl Game Presented by Northwestern Mutual, #3 Georgia (12-1) vs #2 Oklahoma (12-1), 5 p.m. (ESPN)

  • Georgia: 23rd scoring offense, 111th passing offense, 11th rushing offense; 3rd scoring defense, 2nd passing defense, 12th rushing defense
  • Oklahoma: 4th scoring offense, 3rd passing offense, 27th rushing offense; 52nd scoring defense, 87th passing defense, 39th rushing defense

And here we are, finally the College Football Playoff, 39 games later.  The Georgia vs Oklahoma matchup may lack the familiarity of the Alabama vs Clemson matchup but it will be equally entertaining featuring a great matchup of Oklahoma’s offense against Georgia’s defense.  Baker Mayfield is apparently sick but there’s no way that it keeps him off the field.

Oklahoma’s season was momentarily disrupted by their Oct 7 loss to Iowa State but they went on to win eight straight including three wins against teams ranked #8, #10 and #11.  Coming into the season, I had serious doubts about whether Baker Mayfield was going to 1) win the Heisman and 2) become a top NFL prospect.  Turns out that I was wrong on both accounts.  Mayfield has been exceptional this season.  Who would have thought it would be possible to improve on his 2016 numbers, but he did.  Mayfield finished with 4,340 yards (2nd in FBS), 41 passing TDs (2nd) and completed 71.0% of his passes (1st).  His interceptions went down, his yards per attempt went up, and on and on.  There just aren’t enough superlatives for what Mayfield accomplished on the field this season, especially considering that he is a former walk-on at Texas Tech.  Mayfield does have some “character” question marks but I don’t think any of them are enough to ding his draft stock.  I had Mayfield as my QB6 when I ranked potential 2018 rookies but I think he’ll likely be in the QB4 range by moving ahead of Luke Falk and Lamar Jackson.  I expect Mayfield to be drafted in the first half of the first round in April; depending on his landing spot he could be a factor in fantasy leagues as a rookie.  Mayfield is surrounded by a strong supporting cast composed mostly of underclassmen.  That includes sophomore RB Rodney Anderson (960 yards, 11 TDs), freshman RB Trey Sermon (710-5) and freshman WR CeeDee Lamb (40 receptions, 741 yards, 7 TDs).  Aside from Mayfield, the best pro prospect is TE Mark Andrews.  Andrews is 6’5″ and 254lbs and often plays in the slot to maximize his size advantage over smaller corners and safeties.  Andrews is certainly not the most well-rounded TE in the class but he will likely be the first drafted in 2018 rookie drafts for his receiving ability.  In my early 2018 mock rookie draft I had Andrews as the 2.10 pick and the first TE off the board.  Andrews led the team in receptions (58) and receiving TDs (8) and was second in receiving yards (906).  LT Orlando Brown seems to be a polarizing player in mock drafts as I have seen him as high as the 2nd overall pick to the 18th overall pick to all the way down to 59th overall.  The Sooners defense is led by DE Ogbonnia Okoronkwo.  Okoronkwo has two straight 70+ tackle and 8+ sack seasons.  He landed on numerous second team All-American lists and was the Big 12’s Defensive Player of the Year (shared with Malik Jefferson).

Georgia had some quarterback controversy very early in the year when freshman Jake Fromm took over for the injured Jacob Eason in the season opener.  Regardless of how well Eason played in 2016 as a freshman, there was no way he was getting the job back from Fromm once he took over.  By virtue of their strong rushing game, Fromm is not counted on to throw the ball much (he had six games with fewer than ten completions) but when he does he is efficient.  He ended the season with 21 TDs and 5 INTs and had rate stats significantly higher than those of Eason in 2016.  The run game is a three-headed monster featuring Nick Chubb, Sony Michel and D’Andre Swift.  Chubb led the way with 1,175 yards and 13 TDs; Michel had 948 yards and 13 TDs; Swift had 597 yards and 3 TDs.  Neither Chubb nor Michel are pass catchers but Swift did have 15 receptions.  Swift is a true freshman and a name to watch for next season after Chubb and Michel leave for the NFL.  Both Chubb and Michel were drafted in my 2018 early mock draft (Chubb at 1.03, Michel at 2.06).  Chubb has an injury history which may trouble some NFL teams but he’s been mostly healthy since his 2015 knee injury.  Swift closed out the SEC Championship game against Auburn and had 94 total yards on 10 touches – look for a similar output here in the bowl because Georgia will need to get the ball out quick to neutralize the pass rush.  The Georgia defense is led by two LBs who are bound to be IDP considerations in 2018.  The lesser prospect is DE/OLB rusher Lorenzo Carter.  Carter had 48 tackles, 8 tackles for loss, 4 sacks, 3 forced fumbles and 3 fumble recoveries this season.  I researched him back in Week 4 and guessed he could end up as a first rounder – that may be a little high but he could still get picked on Day Two.  Roquan Smith is an elite prospect.  He was named SEC Defensive Player of the Year and is a first team All-American.  In 2016 he had 95 tackles with no sacks, this year he improved to 113 tackles and 5 sacks.  He’s the top draft eligible player at the position and will be a Top 10 draft pick.

I’m taking Oklahoma purely because of Baker Mayfield.  If the game is close, he’ll find a way to win it.  I worry that Georgia could get an early lead and milk to clock with their run game but if they start slow they’ll struggle to keep up with Mayfield, et al.  Prediction: Oklahoma

College Football Playoff Semifinal #2, Allstate Sugar Bowl, #4 Alabama (11-1) vs #1 Clemson (12-1), 8:45 p.m. (ESPN)

  • Alabama: 12th scoring offense, 83rd passing offense, 10th rushing offense; 1st scoring defense, 7th passing defense, 3rd rushing defense
  • Clemson: 21st scoring offense, 52nd passing offense, 33rd rushing offense; 2nd scoring defense, 8th passing defense, 13th rushing defense

How often is the third installment of a trilogy the best?  Probably never unless you’re a big Return of the Jedi fan.  I don’t think this one will have the juice of the last two matchups because we’re missing the star that is Deshaun Watson.  Don’t get me wrong it’ll be entertaining but we won’t be seeing this one on ESPN Classic in ten years.

Alabama snuck into the playoff in my opinion.  If it were up to me, I would have taken Ohio State because they won their conference and did not have any FCS wins.  Sure, Alabama has one less loss but in my mind they also have two less wins.  Alabama is full of familiar names so we’ll go through them quickly.  QB Jalen Hurts feels like he’s been around for half a decade but he’s just a sophomore.  He is a run-first quarterback (he led the team in rush attempts with 137) who really improved as a passer this year.  His yards per attempt went up to 9.0 from 7.3 and he threw just one INT (he also only lost one fumble).  He didn’t run as much in 2017 as he did in 2016 but he also increased his yards per rush this year.  Nick Saban trusts him with the ball in his hands and you can see why.  In the preseason, my preferred Crimson Tide RB was Bo Scarborough; he disappointed this year with just 549 yards and 8 TDs.  I will be lowering him in my 2018 rookie rankings (assuming he comes out).  The best back this year was Damien Harris who is also draft eligible; he leapfrogged Scarborough in my early 2018 positional rankings.  Harris ran for 906 yards and 11 TDs but added just 8 receptions.  He’ll probably be an early 2nd round rookie pick for me next year.  WR Calvin Ridley is still my WR1 despite the fact that many draft analysts disagree with me.  Ridley’s production has been hampered by a run-heavy offense so of course we aren’t going to see production like Amari Cooper or Julio Jones.  Ridley is a little too light so I would like to see him add about 10lbs in the offseason to approximate Cooper’s size.  Ridley has a pedigree that few prospects can match: he was ESPN’s #1 recruit in his class and was the leading receiver for Alabama in three straight seasons in which they contended for the national championship.  I’m not scared off by his decreasing production and will keep him as my WR1 until he proves me otherwise.  Alabama has a number of defensive prospects including LB Rashaan Evans, S Ronnie Harrison and DT Da’Shawn Hand but the number one guy is DB Minkah Fitzpatrick.  Fitzpatrick has played both corner and safety so he offers versatility in both pass coverage and run support.  His stats decreased from 2016 (66 tackles vs 55, 6 INTs vs 1) but he was battling a hamstring injury so that could have been the cause.  He has four career interception return touchdowns so when he has the ball in his hands he can change a game too.  Fitzpatrick is likely to go in the Top 3 in the NFL Draft and will instantly makeover a struggling defense.

I put out my first playoff ranking in Week 7 and had Clemson as the #1 team (I also had Alabama and Georgia, three out of four ain’t bad) and am happy to see them ascend back to the #1 spot after that loss to Syracuse.  Like Alabama, the strength of the team lies on defense.  There might be fix or six guys from the defense drafted this Spring.  DT Christian Wilkins started the season with some preseason hype, played well and increased his stats in 2017 (52 tackles, 5.0 sacks).  Wilkins will be a first rounder but challenging him to be the first pick from Clemson will be DE Clelin Ferrell.  Ferrell is just a redshirt sophomore but he broke out in 2017 for 62 tackles, 17 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks.  The defense also has two tackle machines in Kendall Joseph and Dorian O’Daniel.  The Clemson offense is similar to that of Alabama in that it features an efficient rush-first quarterback.  That quarterback is Kelly Bryant.  Bryant managed to play in each game despite an ankle injury and a concussion (he left that loss to Syracuse early due to the concussion).  Bryant only threw for 13 TDs but rushed for 11 more.  Freshman RB Travis Etienne is a burner who came on early in the season with some big plays to close out blowout wins.  He finished strong too: he had six scores over the last four games.  Etienne only had double digit carries twice so he’s not a high volume player but his speed means he’s only one missed tackle away from a touchdown.  WR Deon Cain (55-659-6) is a top receiver prospect for many analysts but I’m not sold.  He does not have elite size or production; I’ll wait and see how he does at the combine but I’m not sure his speed will make up for the other aspects.  Cain was suspended for the semi-final and championship games in 2015 after a failed drug test which will factor into his draft evaluation too.  WRs Hunter Renfrow and Ray-Ray McCloud are undersized but trustworthy possession receivers.

I’m not sure they deserve to be here based on their resume but the Tide deserve to be here based on their roster.  Save for the defensive line, Alabama arguably has better players at every position than Clemson.  Roll Tide.  Prediction: Alabama


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

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

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

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