2018 Post-Draft Rookie Rankings

Updated: May 11th 2018

I’m feeling a bit bittersweet today.  After months of research, statistical analysis and film watching this will be my last post about the 2018 rookie class.  You’ll be in capable hands with the rest of our RSO writing crew but I can’t help but feel sad about losing “my guys.”  I’m looking at you Anthony Miller and Rashaad Penny.  I had been a casual college football writer for years, and a fan for much longer, but the 2018 class was the first that I went truly deep on.  Alas, I will probably feel the same about the 2019 class this time next year.  Speaking of the 2019 class, expect to see content rolling out starting in June.  I have compiled a watch list of 150 players from the FBS to Division III.  I will release conference previews in the Summer, along with a way-too-early mock draft.  I will also unveil a Madden-like grading system I devised as a way to quantitatively compare players across levels and positions.  Before all of that though, let’s take one last look at my 2018 rookie rankings.  These were updated after the NFL Draft and I have also included a write-up about some noteworthy players.  Enjoy!

#3 – Nick Chubb, RB, Browns

I have vacillated on Chubb’s ranking more than anybody else at the top of my rankings. Earlier in the year I had Chubb and Derrius Guice alternating as my RB2/RB3. Immediately after the draft I bumped Chubb down to RB4 (1.04), behind Ronald Jones, due to concerns about playing on a poor Browns team that has a crowded backfield. The more I thought about it though, I decided I’d rather have Chubb because I think he’s a better player and will earn ample opportunity early enough in his career to warrant the 1.03 pick.

#5 – Rashaad Penny, RB, Seahawks

It was hard not to have Penny rocket up my rankings after he went 27th overall to the Seahawks. It felt like a confirmation of everything I saw and loved during the 2017 season. I tempered my excitement though for two reasons. First, Penny’s struggles as a pass protector are well known and I fear this could limit his touches to start his career. Second, the Seahawks have a weak offensive line (ranked 27th by PFF after 2017) that will test even Penny’s elite evasion. I was also building some return game work into Penny’s valuation but now that he’s a first round draft pick I doubt there’s any chance he gets to return kicks.

#6 – Calvin Ridley, WR, Falcons
#7 – DJ Moore, WR, Panthers

I’m sticking to my guns here. I have had Ridley as my WR1 throughout the season and I still don’t feel he has done anything to change that for me. Moore certainly impressed at the combine more so than Ridley but it’s not like Ridley looked like Orlando Brown out there. Moore was a victim of a poor passing game at Maryland, but you could say the same about Ridley who was rarely featured. Moore will get a lot of early targets as the lead receiver in Carolina but I’d rather have Ridley’s fit in Atlanta with a top passing offense. Julio Jones will dictate coverage which should leave Ridley and his superb separation and route running skills wide open.

#20 – Bradley Chubb, DE, Broncos
#21 – Josh Rosen, QB, Cardinals

Chubb and Rosen come in as the first of their position in my rankings. IDP and QBs are always tough to rank because they are so heavily dependent on league settings and scoring. In general, for a typical RSO IDP league, I think that taking your first IDP near the second turn is a good bet; same with quarterbacks in a 1QB league. If you’re in a league featuring high IDP scoring or in a Superflex or 2QB league, you’ll need to push these guys higher by about a round. Similarly to Ridley, Chubb joins a unit where he won’t be the focus and can prosper. I’d be buying shares of the Broncos in team defense leagues, boy are they going to rack up the sacks. Rosen was the fourth quarterback taken in the NFL Draft but I think he should be the first off the board in your fantasy draft because he has the best combination of short-term opportunity and supporting cast in my opinion. Darnold and Allen may see the field just as soon but they won’t be throwing to Larry Fitzgerald, David Johnson and Christian Kirk. Mayfield is the wildcard if he beats out Tyrod Taylor, who the Browns spent a 3rd round pick on in a trade, because the Browns skill position players look intriguing if they all stay healthy and out of trouble.

#39 – Lorenzo Carter, OLB, Giants

I have a man crush on Lorenzo Carter. He’s a quick and lanky edge rusher who also showed the ability to drop into coverage late in the season. He’ll probably start as a situational pass rusher but the Giants will soon find that they found a gem in Carter. If you’re playing in an IDP league you can probably get Carter later than 39th overall but I wouldn’t chance it. Take him in the third round, stash him on your bench and be the envy of your league this time next year.

#45 – Ito Smith, RB, Falcons

Like Carter, Smith is a sneaky late round pick to stash on your bench. He’ll be lucky to find 50 touches in 2018 behind Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman but once Coleman leaves in free agency, Smith will fall into a fruitful timeshare. Smith ran for 1,100+ yards each of the last three years while catching 40+ passes. Smith is strong and thick with powerful leg drive. I rated him as a B+ blocker in his class so despite his short stature he isn’t a liability in pass protection. Smith will be the type of back who earns 75% of his fantasy production in the last two minutes of each half. He’ll come on the field for his mix of receiving and protection and stay on the field while the team runs the hurry-up.

#48 – Equanimeous St. Brown, WR, Packers
#49 – J’mon Moore, WR, Packers

I’m not very high on either of these Packer receivers but one of them is going to emerge, it’s just a matter of which one does. There were rumors that St. Brown fell in the draft because of his “diva” personality which shouldn’t really come as a surprise to anybody who has done any research about his family. That pedigree and promise is what garnered St. Brown buzz the last two years – it certainly wasn’t his on-the-field production. Moore is shorter, lighter and slower but put up two solid seasons at Mizzou in 2016 and 2017 (60+ receptions, 1,000+ yards, 8+ TDs). I wouldn’t recommend drafting either player, you’re better off waiting to see which one hits and then scramble to the waiver wire, but if I had to pick I would go with St. Brown for his superior physical attributes.

#50 – Mason Rudolph, QB, Steelers

I like Rudolph as a speculative third round pick in Superflex and 2QB leagues. While Ben Roethlisberger has been squawking about the Rudolph pick, let’s not forget that just a year ago he was considering retirement. I don’t think it’s a mistake that the Steelers brass decided to draft James Washington and then pair him with his college quarterback. There’s also a chance that Rudolph gets playing time in the short-term due to an injury to Big Ben. Ben has only played a full 16 game season three times in his 14 year career. If you happen to get two games out of Rudolph in 2018 when your own starter is hurt or on bye you’ll already be ahead of the game value-wise.

#64 – Josh Sweat, DE, Eagles

Josh Sweat is another IDP sleeper of mine. Sweat may not get much opportunity early in his career but he had first round talent and physicals but was available later due to his injury history. The stories about his knee injury are pretty gnarly so I would not recommend spending much draft capital on him but if you’re in a deep IDP league and looking for a long shot, he’s your guy.

#80 – Richie James, WR, 49ers

So you’re saying there’s a chance? The 49ers offense is an enigma at the moment. As a Jimmy G owner, I’m excited for what he showed late last year but I am concerned about who he’ll be targeting this year. Pierre Garcon will be back from injury but he’s old. Marquise Goodwin is back too but he’s nothing more than a complementary player in my opinion. The door is open for somebody to emerge and Richie James has as much of a chance as anybody else on the roster. James had two uber productive seasons to start his career: 107-1,334-8 and 105-1,625-12. He lost most of 2017 to injury but is healthy now and reports are that he played well at the team’s first mini camp. You’d have to be in a pretty deep league to consider drafting James but once you get past WR15 it’s a crap shoot anyway.


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

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

2018 NFL Mock Draft: Part I, Picks 1-16

Updated: April 24th 2018

If you have not already read Part IV of my mock draft, please start there so you can start at the bottom and follow through to the beginning.  Part IV includes detailed notes about my methodology and process.  You can then move on to Part III and then to Part II before continuing below.  An important note to remind readers is that this mock draft was compiled on March 30-31 so please keep the timing in mind as you read in case there are trades or free agent signings in the interim.

#16 – Ravens – Calvin Ridley, WR, Alabama

The Ravens have been desperate for a WR1 for what feels like a decade.  Sadly, I don’t think free agent signing Michael Crabtree is the answer nor are there are any true standout WR prospects in the class.  Despite my criticism, I believe that Ridley is the best of the bunch.  Aside from a solid 40 yard dash, Ridley mostly hurt his stock at the combine.  I previously had him as a Top 10 player but have dropped him because of lingering doubts.  Ridley is quick, shows good hands and is an excellent route runner.  When I watch him on film he just pops, damn the stats or the combine results.  I’m less convinced about his chance to become a team’s WR1 now than I was a year ago but I still think he can be a productive NFL receiver.

#15 – Cardinals – Denzel Ward, CB, Ohio State

Denzel Ward at #15 is an absolute steal.  In real life, I believe Ward will go higher because some team will either trade their pick to a team looking for a corner or some team will just go BPA and snag him.  He very likely could go a spot earlier to Green Bay but instead I have him falling to the Cardinals.  Unfortunately for the Cards, none of the top quarterbacks have made it this far so they’ll be the ones to go BPA and take Ward.  While researching Ward, I came across a telling stat: opposing quarterbacks completed just 32% of their passes when targeting Ward.  He had a very positive combine to go with the tape.  He tied for the fastest 40 yard dash by a corner (4.32), had the longest broad jump and the second highest vertical.

#14 – Packers – Derwin James, S, Florida State

James started the year in Top 5 consideration with Minkah Fitzpatrick but slipped a bit during a disappointing season for the Seminoles.  Long time starting safety Morgan Burnett is gone to the Steelers so Green Bay has a vacancy in their defensive backfield.  James excels in run support and near the line of scrimmage which would fit perfectly with Ha Ha Clinton-Dix at free safety.  The Packers did draft a safety last year in the second round, Josh Jones, but I don’t think that would be enough to make them pass on James.  Even though he and the team struggled at times, James still put up good totals (84 tackles and 2 INTs) in his comeback season from 2016’s knee injury.  Corner may be a more immediate need for the Packers but something about Derwin James in Green Bay felt right.

#13 – Redskins – Vita Vea, DT, Washington

The Redskins need a NT for their 3-4 scheme and there is none better in this class than Vita Vea.  He has refrigerator like size: 6’4″ and 347lbs.  He ran a 5.10 which sounds slow since we’re so conditioned to the times for RBs and WRs so let me put it into context.  Since 2010, he ran the second fastest of any defensive lineman 345lbs or more.  The only player faster was Dontari Poe who went 11th overall to the Chiefs in 2012.  Vea’s stat line isn’t overwhelming (43 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks in 2017) but that’s because you can’t measure his impact with the boxscore.  Lining him up alongside 2017 first rounder Jonathan Allen will create a stellar one-two punch for years to come.

#12 – Bills – Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville

In my preview of Lamar Jackson this offseason, I comped him to then Bills QB Tyrod Taylor so it’s ironic that I have him landing here after Taylor’s trade to the Browns.  Jackson is an incredible runner as we all know.  There was rumors that he should switch to WR but that was ridiculous – he’s a good quarterback.  He may have a smaller frame than you would want from a run-first QB but he played 38 games in college and is not injury prone like the narrative suggests.  Could he sustain a freak, season-ending injury?  Of course, just ask Tom Brady.  Jackson’s accuracy needs to improve to truly make it in the NFL (57% career completion percentage).  I think he will start his career as an inefficient, big-play-waiting-to-happen type of quarterback.  It’ll come down to the timing of those big plays.  One last thought, can you imagine Lamar Jackson and LeSean McCoy running the read option together?  My god.

#11 – Dolphins – Roquan Smith, LB, Georgia

If you had asked me a few months ago, I would have said that Smith would be the first linebacker off the board.  Fast forward to April and Tremaine Edmunds has leapfrogged him but the Dolphins would still be getting a Pro Bowl caliber player here.  Smith is slightly faster than Edmunds (4.51 vs 4.54) but is smaller at 6’1″ and 236lbs.  Over his final three games, under the brightest of spotlights in the SEC Championship and the College Football Playoff, Smith totaled 37 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss and 2 sacks.  Pairing Smith with returners Kiko Alonso and Cameron Wake, the newly acquired Robert Quinn, and a hopefully-healthy Raekwon McMillan would give the Dolphins a fearsome front seven.

#10 – Raiders – Mike McGlinchey, T, Notre Dame

Much like how I picked Nelson for the 49ers to help protect their big money quarterback, I have done the same for the Raiders with McGlinchey.  Incumbent LT Donald Penn is 34 years old and coming off a season-ending foot injury in 2017 which could cause him to miss some offseason time.  Penn also has a huge roster bonus due in 2019, the last year of his deal, so I’ll bet that the Raiders are planning to move on from him regardless of his injury status.  The Raiders offensive line was already a strength of the team (they allowed just 24 sacks, tied for third best in the league) but adding somebody like McGlinchey would solidify the position long term.

#9 – 49ers – Quenton Nelson, G, Notre Dame

I was surprised to see that Nelson didn’t fit anywhere earlier for me.  He’s probably a Top 5 talent but teams rarely draft a guard that high.  A guard has only been taken this high four times since 1985 (coincidentally, twice in 2015; one of which is the much maligned Ereck Flowers from the Giants).  Nelson has some fantastic highlights and I love watching them whenever they show up on my Twitter timeline.  I’m not convinced the 49ers truly need to draft a guard this high but I figured that they just invested a ton of money in Jimmy Garappolo so they might as well add a piece to protect that investment.

#8 – Bears – Tremaine Edmunds, LB, Virginia Tech

Tremaine Edmunds has climbed up draft boards since the start of 2017 and finds himself at #8 in my mock now.  He ran very well at the combine (4.54) and has fantastic size as well (6’5″ and 253lbs).  He was very productive in 2017: 108 tackles and 5.5 sacks.  Pair that production with his size and speed and you have a can’t miss linebacker.  He will feature as an ILB in the Bears 3-4 defense but because of his speed and explosiveness, he can get to the quarterback too so he’ll have value as a situational pass rusher as well.

#7 – Bucs – Minkah Fitzpatrick, S, Alabama

Tampa has thus far only re-signed one of their four free agent DBs, and have not signed any from other teams, signaling to me that it is a position they plan to target in the NFL Draft.  What better player to target than Fitzpatrick who played both CB and S at Alabama.  He likely factors more as a safety in the NFL but could see time as a strong nickel.  Depending on the matchup, I would expect to see him in shadow coverage against a dominant tight end.  Fitzpatrick struggled through a hamstring injury in 2017 but still managed to play 13 games.  Don’t overthink it.

#6 – Colts – Bradley Chubb, EDGE, NC State

Before the Colts traded the #3 pick to the Jets, Chubb was a common pick for them in mock drafts.  The fact that the Colts traded back, adding multiple second round picks, and still land Chubb is awesome.  Chubb put together back-to-back seasons with at least 10 sacks and 20 tackles for loss.  He finished the year as the ACC’s Defensive Player of the Year and a consensus All-American.  Like Barkley, he’s a better player than his draft slot would lead you to believe.

#5 – Broncos – Josh Allen, QB, Wyoming

The Broncos traded QB Trevor Siemian and signed journeyman Case Keenum in free agency.  Keenum is 30 years old and his deal is only for two years so they’ve created a perfect situation to bring in a project QB like Allen.  Keenum can start in 2018 and possibly even into 2019 if necessary.  Allen’s accuracy issues are well documented and I am personally not a fan because of them.  Many who know more than I, however, think he has the tools to be a star in the league.  Coming in behind an established veteran would be the best thing for Allen’s future prospects.

#4 – Browns – Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State

Barkley is possibly the best true football player in the class, at worst he’s second to Bradley Chubb.  However, the quarterback run and general hesitance to draft running backs high lowers Barkley’s stock.  He’s an absolute stud and will be a fantasy monster from Day One.  He has an uncommon combination of size and speed and is a great receiver.  He did struggle at times in 2017 as a runner but when he did, he made up for it in the passing game.  If the Browns do go the direction I have planned for them, they would end up with a formidable offense in 2018.

#3 – Jets – Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma

The run on quarterbacks continues!  I have read a lot of Mayfield/Jets connections in the last few months and when there is smoke, there is fire.  Mayfield is hyper-accurate and just plain hyper.  His personality has undoubtedly taken him off some teams’ draft boards but I would want him on my team.  My favorite part of the Senior Bowl might have been watching Mayfield on the sideline.  It was a non-competitive all-star game but there he was living and dying with each play, hyping up teammates and helping his fellow quarterbacks.  The only thing that makes me question this pick is the fact that the Jets brought in Teddy Bridgewater.  I have never been a Bridgewater fan so I still think the Jets should go for a QB here.

#2 – Giants – Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA

I have previously compared Rosen to Giants QB Eli Manning so this seems like a great fit.  In my opinion, Rosen is the most NFL ready quarterback of this class.  He does have injuries in his past and some like to question his “love for the game” but that’s not factoring into my analysis.  He’s a prototypical pocket passer who will have a long NFL career.  It’s not often that you get a chance to draft a franchise quarterback so the Giants need to just make this pick and stop pretending that Manning is anything more than a stopgap option at this point in his career.

#1 – Browns – Sam Darnold, QB, USC

I don’t believe that Darnold is the best quarterback of this class, but I do think that he will be the first overall pick.  Darnold is a confident passer which results in turnovers just as often as it does spectacular plays.  He has an ability to extend the play with athleticism in the pocket and he is a team leader and motivator.  I noticed that he has a long throwing motion which worries me and might be the explanation for the high number of interceptions (the window closes before he actually gets rid of the ball) and the fumbles (because the ball dips so low, it’s a target for rushing defenders).  He has a high ceiling but also has a low floor – a high risk, high reward pick.


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

  • Stats: espn.com, sports-reference.com, cfbstats.com, herosports.com, fcs.football, foxsports.com
  • Film: 2018 NFL Draft Database by @CalhounLambeau, youtube.com (but be wary of highlight only reels)
  • Draft info and mocks: draftcountdown.com, nfldraftscout.com, walterfootball.com, mattwaldmanrsp.com, draftek.com, ndtscouting.com
  • Draft history: drafthistory.com
  • Combine info: pro-football-reference.com, espn.com, nflcombineresults.com
  • Season preview magazines: Phil Steele, Lindy’s, Street and Smith’s
  • Podcasts: ESPN’s First Draft, Strong as Steele with Phil Steele, The Audible by Football Guys (specifically episodes w/ Matt Waldman), UTH Dynasty, Draft Dudes

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

More Analysis by Bob Cowper

The Watch List: Bowl Game Previews, Part IV

Updated: December 26th 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.

Thursday, Dec. 28

Camping World Bowl, #22 Virginia Tech (9-3) vs. #19 Oklahoma State (9-3), 5:15 p.m. (ESPN)

  • Virginia Tech: 65th scoring offense, 61st passing offense, 63rd rushing offense; 5th scoring defense, 21st passing defense, 16th rushing defense
  • Oklahoma State: 3rd scoring offense, 1st passing offense, 43rd rushing offense; 86th scoring defense, 120th passing defense, 27th rushing defense

Six weeks ago it seemed that both of these teams could be destined for their conference championship games but late season losses to #5 Oklahoma and #10 Miami dashed those hopes.  It’ll be an interesting strength vs strength matchup when Oklahoma State has the ball.

When Oklahoma State does have the ball, they often score.  They average 46.3 points per game.  Their lowest output of the season came against Texas with just 13 points but other than that they have scored 31+ in every game.  Responsible for those points are QB Mason Rudolph, RB Justice Hill,  WR James Washington and WR Marcell Ateman.  Rudolph is one of my top 2018 rookie QBs for fantasy purposes (he’s big, good accuracy, typically limits mistakes and is a better runner than the stats show because of negative yardage from sacks).  I profiled Rudolph twice this season, once in the preseason and once in Week 4 if you’d like to read more.  I also discussed Washington in depth in Week 6 but to recap, he is a burner who was a high school track star.  He caught 69 balls this year for 1,423 yards and 12 TDs.  That works out to a 20.6 yards per reception average which was 10th in the FBS this season.  Washington will be a Top 3 WR in most fantasy leagues this Spring.  The other two offensive stars, Hill and Ateman, don’t get enough publicity.  Hill is a second year starter as a sophomore and already has nearly 2,500 career yards; he improved as a pass catcher this year which allows him to stay on the field for more snaps.  Ateman may just end up being the best pro player out of the group.  He’s big at 6’4″ and 220lbs and uses that frame to high point the ball and fight for contested catches.  Highlight reels can be misleading, but check out the string of catches he makes in this recent Youtube video from 1:22 to 1:45.  Ateman won’t get drafted as high as Washington but he’ll be productive in the NFL if he keeps playing like that.

Unfortunately for Hokie fans, they will be without senior WR Cam Phillips in this one as he heals from a hernia.  Phillips led the FBS in receptions early in the season and ended with a 71-964-7 line.  He has had 40+ receptions in each of his four seasons which is great sustained productdion.  He hasn’t been super productive as far as touchdowns go though (just 17) but he did have mediocre quarterback play for his first two seasons.  That quarterback play has been decent this season with freshman Josh Jackson.  Jackson has 2,743 yards, 19 TDs and 8 INTs, completes 60.3% of his passes and added 4 rushing TDs.  There’s a drop off from Phillips to the team’s next receiver, freshman Sean Savoy (39-454-4), so I expect the offense to struggle.  On defense, LB Tremaine Edmunds does not struggle.  Edmunds is a two year starter who totaled 101 tackles, 14 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks this season.  He also added 3 forced fumbles.  Edmunds has been getting a lot of hype on Twitter lately so I think he’ll start moving up draft boards as people digest more film.  Edmunds is WalterFootball.com’s 4th ranked OLB prospect so a first round pick is not out of the question but second round is more likely.

The Hokies defense is good but they won’t be able to stop Oklahoma State’s offense.  Sure, they might slow them down and keep the Cowboys under 35 points but there’s no way Virginia Tech can match that with Phillips out.  I originally was going VaTech but I’ve flipped.  Prediction: Oklahoma State

Valero Alamo Bowl, #12 Stanford (9-4) vs. #15 TCU (10-3), 9 p.m. (ESPN)

  • Stanford: 39th scoring offense, 98th passing offense, 32nd rushing offense; 29th scoring defense, 72nd passing defense, 73rd rushing defense
  • TCU: 34th scoring offense, 59th passing offense, 52nd rushing offense; 12th scoring defense, 74th passing defense, 4th rushing defense

Between the Camping World Bowl at 5:15pm and the Alamo Bowl at 9:00pm, we are looking at a great doubleheader Thursday night with just enough time to sneak in a quick, late dinner with your significant other.  Stanford may be ranked higher, likely because of Bryce Love love, but I think TCU is the stronger team.  Both teams are coming off of conference championship losses so it’ll be interesting to see how they rebound.

Stanford started the season with Keller Chryst starting at quarterback with occasional appearances by freshman backup KJ Costello.  Costello took over full-time in the November 4th game against Washington State and struggled (9-20, 105 yards, 0 TD, 1 INT).  He has played better since but his stats are those of a game-manager rather than a game-winner.  The game-winner for the Cardinal is Heisman runner-up Bryce Love.  Love finished the season with 1,793 yards and 17 TDs.  He battled through injuries but still managed to miss just one game.  He’s a bit undersized but is still a workhorse with seven games of 20+ carries.  He had eleven games of 100+ yards (the lone game he didn’t hit the century mark was against Washington State when he came in very questionable), including 263 and 301 yard games.  I covered Love many times throughout the season as he moved up the Heisman ballot – my deepest dive was in Week 7.  Love is currently my RB5 for 2018 rookies because I am a little concerned about his size and durability; I expect him to be a late 1st or early 2nd round rookie fantasy draft pick in 2018.  On defense, Stanford is led by safety Justin Reid who had 92 tackles and 5 INTs in 2017.  He was voted to the second team All-America team and was a first team PAC-12 selection.  Reid will be a second round pick and will factor into IDP leagues as a rookie.

Per my research, TCU does not have any clear cut draft prospects, except maybe for senior LB Travin Howard.  Instead, I’ll touch on a few offensive players who will make a difference in this game.  First up is QB Kenny Hill.  Hill is a former Texas A&M transfer who has started both years at TCU.  He significantly improved his rate stats in 2017 (including completion percentage, passer rating, TD:INT ratio and yards per attempt) but was less of a factor as a runner this year.  He still had 4 rushing TDs but that was significantly less than his 10 from 2016.  RB Darius Anderson (768-8) is injured and may not play.  In his place senior Kyle Hicks will get more carries. Hicks was a 1,000 yard rusher last season but saw a reduced role behind Anderson this season.  My prediction for the player who most benefits from Anderson’s injury will be KR/WR KaVontae Turpin.  Turpin is tiny (5’9″ and 153lbs) but a potential game breaker.  In his career he has 17 career TDs: 1 passing, 2 rushing, 10 receiving, 3 returning punts and 1 returning kicks.  He had seven touches (6 receptions, 1 punt return) and 91 all-purpose yards (39 receiving, 52 returning punts) against Oklahoma in the Big 12 Championship; that was the most touches he had had in six games.  I would expect a similar number of touches in the bowl game and bet he’ll score in some unexpected or spectacular way.

It’s hard picking against somebody of Bryce Love’s caliber but I’m taking the Horned Frogs.  I think that TCU’s strong rush defense will keep Love under 150 yards which will be enough to win a close one.  Prediction: TCU

Friday, Dec. 29

Belk Bowl, Wake Forest (7-5) vs. Texas A&M (7-5), 1 p.m. (ESPN)

  • Wake Forest: 32nd scoring offense, 35th passing offense, 47th rushing offense; 62nd scoring defense, 104th passing defense, 93rd rushing defense
  • Texas A&M: 44th scoring offense, 65th passing offense, 74th rushing offense; 81st scoring defense, 67th passing defense, 65th rushing defense

The biggest storyline surrounding either of these teams is surely FSU head coach Jimbo Fisher leaving Tallahassee for College Station.  Jimbo won’t be coaching in the bowl game, that duty will fall to special teams coach Jeff Banks, but I’m sure his presence will be felt.

Wake Forest started the season strong with four straight wins, three over eventual bowl teams, but went on to lose five of their last eight.  Their crowning victory in the second half of the season came against #19 North Carolina State who could have tied Clemson for the division lead if it weren’t for the Wake Forest loss.  Wake Forest’s senior QB John Wolford had the best season of his career in 2017.  He threw for 2,792 yards, 25 TDs and just 6 INTs.  What is most encouraging when looking at his stats is the huge increase in efficiency this year.  Wolford is undersized at 6’1″ and 200lbs (it’s always a red flag when somebody weighs in exactly at 200lbs, surely he’s less than that).  I don’t think his that quick but he is productive as a runner with 615 yards and 10 TDs.  Wake’s most explosive player, WR Greg Dortch is injured and out for the bowl which is a shame.  Dortch set a school record with 4 TDs against Louisville.  I watched his highlights from that game and he’s like a punt returner whenever he gets the ball in the open field: fast, quick cuts, sets up blockers.  I’m looking forward to watching more of him next year.

Hot take alert: Texas A&M isn’t even as good as their 7-5 record indicates.  They did not beat a ranked opponent all season (in three tries) and their three wins over Power 5 teams were all just by one score.  The Aggie offense is paced by WR Christian Kirk.  Kirk first caught my eye in the preseason while writing my SEC preview.  Kirk is very fast, sub 4.40 speed, and is great when he has the ball in his hands.  Since many of his receptions are at or behind the line of scrimmage, I question his route running and ability to get open at the NFL level; but, as long as the team can scheme for him with screens and drag routes across the field he’ll succeed because of his running after the catch.  Kirk’s value as an NFL player is insulated by his return prowess.  He has 7 career return TDs and if he qualified with two more returns he would have led the FBS in punt return average (21.9 vs the leader who has 19.5) again in 2017, something he did in both 2015 and 2016.  Kirk will be an early second round rookie pick in 2018 so keep an eye on him.

One last note on the Aggies, take a look at their offensive and defensive rankings – they are no better than 44th in any category.  Of the twenty teams covered in this preview, all but three have a unit ranked 43rd or better: Kentucky, Utah State and Texas A&M.  Jimbo will surely shake things up next season but that won’t help in the Belk Bowl.  Prediction: Wake Forest

Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl, Kentucky (7-5) vs. #21 Northwestern (9-3), 4:30 p.m. (ESPN)

  • Kentucky: 87th scoring offense, 100th passing offense, 58th rushing offense; 80th scoring defense, 113th passing defense, 60th rushing defense
  • Northwestern: 55th scoring offense, 51st passing offense, 71st rushing offense; 19th scoring defense, 100th passing defense, 9th rushing defense

If you told me you were watching a Kentucky vs Northwestern matchup in December, I would probably guess you were watching basketball not football because historically these are two weaker Power 5 programs.  Kentucky is playing in their second consecutive bowl while Northwestern’s streak is at three so both have found recent success under their current coaches.  As far as this season goes, Northwestern is on an impressive seven game winning streak which includes a win over #16 Michigan State.  Conversely, Kentucky lost their last two (both by nearly 30 points) and three of the last four.

Kentucky has two players that interest me after doing some research.  The first is sophomore RB Benjamin (Benny) Snell.  Snell set a number of Kentucky freshman records last year and was named a freshman All-American by the Football Writer’s Association of America.  In that freshman season he rushed for 1,039 yards and 13 TDs.  In 2017, Snell added 70 carries and managed to top 1,300 yards and scored 18 TDs.  He also became a slightly larger factor in the passing game (10 receptions vs 2).  Snell’s per-carry average fell in 2017 but it’s good to see that he has held up (he’s 5’11” and 223lbs which is a good size for a running back) without any serious injury.  On defense, SS Mike Edwards could be a mid-round draft pick if he declares early.  Phil Steele had him ranked as the #9 draft eligible SS in the preseason and NFLDraftScout.com has him ranked in the same spot in his 2019 draft class.  Since 2010, there were 17 safeties drafted between the 4th and 6th round that compare similarly to his size; there were also four safeties drafted higher but that’d be a reach for Edwards based on my limited research.  I watched some 2016 highlights of Edwards and noted his ball tracking and good form on a number of his tackles. Edwards has 228 career tackles and 8 INTs so he has been productive, just not at an elite level.

Wildcats QB Clayton Thorson will be best served by staying on campus for his senior season but I have seen some 2018 draft hype for him on Twitter.  The positives: he’s tall at 6’4″, is a good runner, has a lot of experience as a third year starter and improved his completion percentage year-over-year.  I watched tape of Thorson from last year’s Pinstripe Bowl and I had mixed feelings.  I believe Thorson has the requisite “arm talent” for the NFL but he gets sacked too often and seems to make a lot of one-read throws.  Regarding the sacks, in 2017 Thorson was sacked the 13th most in the FBS and in 2016 he was sacked the 3rd most.  He hasn’t missed a game for Northwestern but all of those hits must add up eventually.  Northwestern’s best prospect is RB Justin Jackson.  Jackson is a true three-down back who averages 3.12 receptions per game over the last two seasons.  Jackson has also rushed for over 1,000 yards in each of his four seasons, the biggest total coming in 2016 with 1,524 yards.  Jackson lost carries this year to freshman backup Jeremy Larkin but he still managed 1,154 yards.  Jackson is quick and probably best suited for a zone-blocking scheme where he’s not plowing into the line head first.  He’ll probably start his career as a third down, situational back but I don’t think it’ll be long before he earns more touches.  The third round is probably the best case scenario and he’s a steal if he makes it midway through the fourth.

Despite the strength of the two lead running backs, this one will probably come down to the passing game due to how poor the passing defenses are.  Thorson is superior so I’ll go with Northwestern.  Prediction: Northwestern

Arizona Bowl, New Mexico State (6-6) vs. Utah State (6-6), 5:30 p.m. (CBSSN)

  • New Mexico State: 56th scoring offense, 4th passing offense, 124th rushing offense; 87th scoring defense, 78th passing defense, 64th rushing defense
  • Utah State: 45th scoring offense, 71st passing offense, 56th rushing offense; 70th scoring defense, 16th passing defense, 117th rushing defense

I’ll be honest, it’s hard to say much of anything positive regarding a bowl matchup featuring two 6-6 mid-majors after we’ve had a number of Top 25 matchups.  I’m tempted to do as my mother taught me, “if you don’t have anything nice to say don’t say anything at all,” but I know you are here for some hard-hitting analysis.

Surprisingly, this isn’t the first time this season that I have written about New Mexico State.  In Week 11, I shined a spotlight on Aggies RB Larry Rose III.  I observed that Rose has good lateral and straight line speed and his explosiveness.  Unfortunately, he’s playing on a weak team (just 14 career wins as a four year starter) so his opportunities to shine have been few; he’s also dealt with a number of injuries, including a sports hernia and a knee.  Rose’s best attribute is his pass catching ability: he has 49 receptions for 474 yards and 2 TDs this year.  He probably doesn’t get drafted but it’s a name to monitor in training camp in case he catches on somewhere.  Speaking of four year starters with an injury history, QB Tyler Rogers threw for 3,825 yards, 26 TDs and 16 INTs this season.  He improved his rate stats in 2017 but was featured less frequently as a ball carrier.  His top target is 6’6″ JUCO transfer Jaleel Scott.  Scott is a red zone threat with 5 of his 8 TDs coming from inside the twenty.

After researching Utah State, I’m honestly surprised that head coach Matt Wells still has a job.  He took over for Gary Anderson after a big 11-2 season and subsequently won 19 games over his next two years at the helm.  In the three years since, he has just 15 combined wins.  Maybe he has some dirt on the athletic director?  Throughout the season, Wells has rotated quarterback snaps between Kent Myers and Jordan Love.  Combined they have about 2,500 passing yards, 16 TDs and 13 INTs.  The defense is led by junior LB Suliasi Tamaivena.  Tamaivena had 109 tackles and 3 sacks in his first season at Utah State.  He had a rough road to Logan and FBS football, which included a junior college stop and academic issues that kept him from joining Washington State.  He’s probably too old to be considered as a draft prospect but he’s a good story of perseverance nonetheless.

I don’t know enough about either team to make a truly informed decision about this one but since I like Larry Rose, I’ll go with his squad.  Prediction: New Mexico State


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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