The Watch List 2021: Early RB Tiers

Updated: January 14th 2021

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

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

1.01 Contenders

  • Travis Etienne

  • Najee Harris

  • Javonte Williams

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

Day Two Targets

  • Kenny Gainwell

  • Kylin Hill

  • Chuba Hubbard

  • Zamir White

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

Regular Season Risers

  • Michael Carter

  • Khalil Herbert

  • Jaret Patterson

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

Riddle-Wrapped Enigmas

  • Journey Brown

  • Jermar Jefferson

  • Trey Sermon

  • Stephen Carr

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

Pass Catching Playmakers

  • Max Borghi

  • Deon Jackson

  • Isaih Pacheco

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

Spacey Satellites

  • Javian Hawkins

  • Pooka Williams

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

Undervalued, Underdrafted

  • Keaontay Ingram

  • Brian Robinson

  • Larry Rountree

  • CJ Verdell

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

Short Yardage Specialists

  • Rakeem Boyd

  • Stevie Scott

  • Master Teague

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

Small School Sleepers

  • Spencer Brown

  • Brenden Knox

  • Elijah Mitchell

  • Trey Ragas

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

 

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

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

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

More Analysis by Bob Cowper

The Watch List: 2019 Sun Belt Season Preview

Updated: June 25th 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: Zac Thomas, QB, Appalachian State.  In his first season as the starter, Thomas showed Mountaineers fans that he could ably take over for long-time starter Taylor Lamb.  Thomas is a dual-threat quarterback who runs the zone read well.  He has the potential to hit 3,000 combined yards and 30 combined TDs.  Non-conference upsets against North Carolina and South Carolina would earn Thomas and App State some national pub.

Underclassman to Watch: Marcel Murray, RB, Arkansas State.  As a true freshmen last season, Murray led Arkansas State in rushing with 860-8.  He also added 16 receptions for 141 yards and 2 scores.  The team vacates nearly 1,500 yards in rushing so there should be plenty of touches for Murray.

Newcomer of the Year: Dahu Green, WR, Arkansas State.  The Red Wolves had the conference’s most prolific passing attack in 2018, averaging 281.5 yards per game.  They return three of their four leading receivers, however they need to break in a new quarterback this season.  In addition to those three returners will be Dahu Green.  Green isn’t technically a “newcomer” but he might as well be.  He’s a former 3-star recruit who transferred from Oklahoma after the 2016 season.  He sat out 2017 and then got hurt in the first outing of 2018.  Green, who is listed at 6050/197, will be a wildcard in Arkansas State’s effort to maintain their passing prominence.

Coaching Carousel: The Sun Belt’s top two teams, Troy and Appalachian State, welcome new head coaches this season and may struggle to repeat a combined 14-2 conference record in 2019.  Both new coaches, Chip Lindsey and Eli Drinkwitz, got their starts as position coaches in the Sun Belt before ultimately moving on to Power 5 offensive coordinator positions.  Drinkwitz went from Arkansas State to Boise State to North Carolina State; Lindsey went from Troy to Southern Miss to Auburn.  If Arkansas State wants to wrest the championship trophy from the East, this will be their chance while the West reloads.

Players to Watch

Caleb Evans, QB, Louisiana-Monroe

Evans is likely the best quarterback prospect in the conference so I thought it was important to feature him in my preview.  Evans will be a third year starter and will be looking for his first winning season in 2019.  In both 2017 and 2018 he topped 2,800 passing yards and had 33 combined passing TDs.  Unfortunately his interceptions spiked in 2018, from 6 to 12.  He’s a running threat with rushing lines of 573-13 and 632-10 the last two campaigns.  Evans is listed at 6020/210 and looks sturdy enough for the next level.

Unsurprisingly, it’s difficult to find good film of Evans this early because he’s an unheralded name.  I was able to find a number of highlight reels on Youtube (the best of which created by the school itself which is rare in my experience, so props to the ULM video team).  What struck me first about Evans was that he looks composed and poised in the pocket.  He does not appear to get rattled by the rush and even though he’s a good runner, he can still keep his eyes upfield.  In this example from the South Alabama game, Evans is flushed after a blown block.  It looks like he’s going to take it himself but he’s unlikely to get the first down.  Instead, he flips it to an alert receiver who easily gains the first.

When he does decide to keep the ball, Evans can make defenders miss.  This dance routine against Louisiana-Lafayette in 2017 is from a bad angle but you can see how many times he tries to find a crease only to have to move on to the next.  When he does finally get forward, he tries to make one last guy miss by spinning out of the tackle so he falls forward and gains extra yardage.

I wish I were able to get a better feel for Evans arm strength and ball placement but that proved to be difficult with the film available.  I suspect that he has better placement than power but I’ll need to watch more before I can truly say that.  The Warhawks have two early season contests, Florida State and Iowa State, that will be proper showcases for Evans against Power 5 defenses.

We may hear a lot about Evans in 2019 because I suspect they may be a surprise eight win team.  Per Phil Steele, ULM is one of the most experienced teams in the nation.  Even better news for Evans, all five offensive line starters return, combining for the second most returning offensive line starts in the FBS.  It’s clear that Evans has some desirable physical tools and he will have a chance to display those again this season.  If he protects the ball better and shows us his arm talent, he’ll be a priority UDFA, if not better.

 

Kirk Merritt, WR, Arkansas State

I settled on Kirk Merritt as my second player preview for the most pragmatic of reasons: there was a full game film available on Youtube.  At first glance, I thought I was going to have a simple write-up of a productive slot receiver.  However, after I did some more research, I realized there is a lot to Merritt’s journey to Jonesboro as a sought after JUCO transfer.  Merritt was originally a 4-star recruit who landed at Oregon and played in eleven games as a freshman (he mostly played special teams).  He transferred for family reasons in 2016 to Texas A&M.  He would never see the field for the Aggies though because he was dismissed from the team after two alleged incidents of “indecent exposure” (Merritt’s lawyer blamed it on a severe case of “jock itch” which seems dubious).  Merritt landed at East Mississippi Community College, the host of the aptly named Netflix series Last Chance U.  He led the team with 52 receptions on their way to another national championship.  247Sports had Merritt pegged as the 4th best JUCO receiver.  He chose Arkansas State over offers from Bowling Green, Troy and others.  A lot to digest there but let’s move on.

Once he saw the field at Arkansas State, Merritt produced right away.  He ended the season as the leading receiver of a fertile passing offense: 85-1,005-7.  Merritt is strictly a slot and screen receiver from what I saw.  His game logs back up that assertion as well: he had seven games where he had 3+ receptions and averaged less than 10.0 yards per reception.  The team force feeds him the ball as an extension of the running game (in fact, his 6010/215 frame looks more like a running back) because he can make tacklers miss in the open field.  He usually avoids the first defender and then if he has a block or some open space he can hit the second level and beyond.  I was glad to see he did often use his hands to snatch the ball.  He’s often stationary and facing the quarterback when he catches the ball so it would be easy to let the ball get into his body.  On this play, you can see Merritt hands-catch the ball and then he shows a flash of his dynamism as he performs a looping spin move around the first defender and then has a short sprint to the goal line.

Merritt’s entrée into the NFL will be as a special teamer.  He’s a good blocker — more on that in a second — and wherever he’s played he’s contributed as both a punt and kick returner.  My favorite play of Merritt’s was a block early in the Georgia Southern game.  It was the first of many times I saw Merritt win as a blocker.  He squares up, maintains contact with the defender for nearly five seconds and then finishes the block by bringing him to the ground out of bounds.  To me, it shows that Merritt is a high effort player who doesn’t mind doing the little things.  The play made me feel like Merritt is tailor made for a special teams role — imagine him wrestling with a gunner on a punt return.

I don’t know Merritt and his background enough to make a personal judgment, so I’ll just leave it at this: Merritt has the ability to land in the NFL as a special team stalwart.

Honorable Mentions:

Dan Ellington, QB, Georgia State: Ellington, a JUCO transfer, suffered through a 2-10 season in his first on campus in Atlanta.  Despite the poor record, there are some things that intrigue me about Ellington.  First is his size: he’s listed at 6030/205 and has a thick frame for a quarterback.  Second is his rushing ability: he led the team with 625 yards of rushing and 5 TDs.  Lastly, in the highlights I watched it appears that Ellington has the ability to throw a pretty deep ball.  We’ll get to see Ellington versus the Tennessee Volunteers in Week 1 so let’s see how he does against an SEC defense — if he holds his own, we’ll need to monitor him.

Trey Ragas, RB, Louisiana-Lafayette: Ragas is a bear of a back at 5110/227.  He runs with good balance and an ability to get lower than the tackler, requiring multiple defenders to bring him down.  What he lacks in breakaway speed he makes up for in short-yardage punch.  He caught more balls than I expected based on what I saw (25-229-2) which was a pleasant surprise.  Ragas is unlikely to be sought after in next year’s draft but he could catch on in a situational role.

Darrynton Evans, RB, Appalachian State: Evans was the beneficiary of RB Jalin Moore’s injury-shortened 2018 season.  Evans led the Mountaineers rushing attack with 1,187 yards and 7 TDs.  I watched his sophomore and junior highlights and was impressed with his open-field ability.  He has 4.45-4.50 speed and just enough strength to shed a tackler.  He’s listed at 5110/191 but looks a bit leaner than that.  Evans adds to the squad on special teams — 26.3 kick return average and 2 TDs — but I would like to see him produce more as a receiver this season.

Corey Sutton, WR, Appalachian State:  When I started researching Corey Sutton I came across the unfortunate mess that his 2017 transfer from Kansas State became.  Seemingly through no fault of his own, Sutton’s saga became headline fodder.  Then head coach Bill Snyder denied Sutton’s release to all 35 schools Sutton requested, none of which were K-State opponents.  Snyder added to the drama when he said that Sutton failed two drug tests, a rumor that Sutton denied and that after my search seems unfounded.  What a mess.  I’m glad that Sutton landed on his feet at Appalachian State and was able to succeed in 2018.  His stat line for the year was 44-773-10.  Sutton, listed at 6030/205, lines up both in the slot and outside.  I think his future will be as a big slot who has big play potential and an acrobatic flair.

 

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

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

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

More Analysis by Bob Cowper

The Watch List: 2018 Bowl Game Previews, Part I

Updated: December 9th 2018

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

Celebration Bowl, North Carolina A&T (9-2) vs Alcorn State (9-3), Sat 12/15 at 12:00pm on ABC

  • Draft Eligible Player to Watch: Lamar Raynard, QB, North Carolina A&T
    • I recalled watching Raynard last year in the Celebration Bowl and wanted to learn some more so I watched his 2018 film against Jacksonville State.  I came away more encouraged than I expected.  He has a good arm that allows him to chuck an effortless looking deep ball, however, his accuracy appears below average.  His footwork in the pocket is crisp.  I think he may be a little eager to leave the pocket but he has enough speed to pick up extra yardage.  Raynard had a great 2017 season (2,932-27-7) but regressed a bit in 2018 (1,630-18-5).  His career completion percentage is a shade under 60% which backs up my accuracy concerns.  Raynard is lanky at 6040/195 so a few extra pounds would do him well.  A&T primarily plays a zone-read offense but I did see him take some snaps from under center which is a bonus.  Given his height and arm strength I think somebody will give Raynard a shot, probably as a priority UDFA, to back up their running QB.
  • My Pick:  North Carolina A&T, -7.5
    • I won’t pretend to have a feel for this game because I don’t.  Chances are, your book won’t list this game anyway (I had to find a line on a European site) but if you do decide to play it, go for the Aggies.  A&T beat FBS team East Carolina earlier, has a recognizable name at quarterback and is on a four game winning streak.

Cure Bowl, Louisiana Lafayette (7-6) vs Tulane (6-6), Sat 12/15 at 1:30pm on CBSSN

  • Draft (In)Eligible Player to Watch: Trey Ragas, RB, Lousiana Lafayette
    • I struggled with selecting a worthy draft eligible player for this game.  I cheated and selected sophomore back Trey Ragas instead.  I figured it would make more sense to watch film of somebody who might actually factor into the game than somebody we’ll never hear from again.  I watched an extended highlight package of the Cajuns blowout loss to Alabama so I could glimpse Ragas against a top foe.  Ragas is a stout back at 5110/227 and as such prefers running straight ahead between the tackles.  He doesn’t stray from contact and in fact shows good contact balance and an ability to keep his feet moving leading to long runs.  I also thought he looked to be an eager, albeit over matched, blocker against an elite rush.  He didn’t record any receptions in the Alabama game but he does have 22 receptions and 188 receiving yards on the year.  That pairs with his 1,040 rushing yards and 8 rushing TDs to make for a great season.  Ragas won’t factor into the 2019 draft class but we could be talking about him again a year from now.
  • My Pick: Louisiana Lafayette, +3.5
    • This one is a toss-up between mediocre teams so I’ll take the points.  Louisiana-Lafayette is 9-4 ATS this season whereas Tulane is 5-7, which is just confirmation of the way I was leaning anyway.  The Cajuns have a strong rushing offense (fellow sophomore Elijah Mitchell added 866-12) and Tulane’s rush defense allowed 153.9 yards per game during the regular season.

New Mexico Bowl, Utah State (10-2) vs North Texas (9-3), Sat 12/15 at 2:00pm on ESPN

  • Draft Eligible Player to Watch: EJ Ejiya, LB, North Texas
    • While I was looking through statistics for these two teams, Ejiya stood out to me because he had both a high number of tackles (113) and a high number of sacks (9); he also had a conference-leading 23.5 tackles for loss.  It’s uncommon for somebody to have tallies that high in all three categories, especially for an inside linebacker.  I figured, “surely this guy must be a one year wonder.”  But he had an almost as impressive 108-12.0-7.0 line in 2017 as a junior.  I sampled Ejiya’s tape against Florida Atlantic and Rice from 2018.  What I saw tempered my expectations.  Ejiya looks small on the field (listed at 6030/230 which is a bit light anyway) and was often caught in the trash in the middle of the play.  I rarely saw him make quick, instinctual reads of the play.  Despite whatever he may lack, Ejiya does keep coming and is determined to make the play.  I saw him ultimately make the tackle on numerous snaps where it looked like he was going to be blocked or out of the play.  Ejiya has the capability to take over a game (four games with 11+ tackles, four games with 3.0+ tackles for loss, three games with 2.0 sacks) so it’ll be interesting to see him lined up across from Utah State’s standout sophomore QB Jordan Love (3,193-28-4, plus 60-6 rushing).
  • My Pick: Utah State, -10
    • Utah State has lost against the spread in their last two contests but prior to that they were 9-1 on the season.  Their offense ranks 3rd overall in the FBS in points scored (47.2) while North Texas averages 36.4.  Both teams feature strong quarterback play (Mason Fine, who helms the Mean Green, is efficient and prolific but too small for NFL consideration I believe) so I expect this one to be full of offense and Utah State’s is better.

Las Vegas Bowl, Arizona State (7-5) vs Fresno State (11-2), Sat 12/15 at 3:30pm on ABC

  • Draft Eligible Player to Watch: N’Keal Harry, WR, Arizona State
    • The Las Vegas Bowl is becoming known as the “One of These Teams has a Premier Prospect but Who Knows if They’ll Play Bowl.” Last year it was Oregon RB Royce Freeman (who ultimately declined to play). This year it could be N’Keal Harry. Harry has publicly said he didn’t yet make a decision about playing. If he does play, you’ll get a glimpse of the possible WR1 in the 2019 class. Harry has 6040 height but the speed and RAC ability of smaller receivers. He succeeds in contested situations because of his strength and vertical. If he plays, his 2018 stat line of 73-1,088-9 will improve and be right on par with his production from 2017 (82-1,142-8). If Harry does not play, keep an eye on Fresno WR KeeSean Johnson (no relation to Keyshawn). Johnson has improved year over year and looks like a mid-rounder for 2019.
  • My Pick: Fresno State, -3.  
    • I took Fresno and the points against Boise and they ended up winning straight up (really wish I took that moneyline!). They will easily handle Arizona State, especially if the Sun Devils are missing Harry. As I mentioned last week, seven of Fresno State’s last eight have gone under.

Camellia Bowl, Eastern Michigan (7-5) vs Georgia Southern (9-3), Sat 12/15 at 5:30pm on ESPN

  • Draft Eligible Player to Watch: Tyler Wiegers, QB, Eastern Michigan
    • This one is a bit of a stretch but there aren’t too many draft prospects in this game. I briefly considered Southern RB Wesley Fields (959-9) and Eastern’s edge rusher Maxx Crosby (62-7.5) but settled on Wiegers. Whenever you’re looking for a draft prospect, you can do worse than a 6040/227 quarterback. Wiegers started his career in Iowa but grad transferred to Ypsilanti for the 2018 season. He has a small sample size, just 270 career attempts, but as I’ll say dozens of times this offseason, it’s a weak quarterback class. Admittedly, I haven’t watched Wiegers tape, save for a few minutes of live game time here and there. His stat logs show an efficient, yet unexciting passer: 64.8% completion percentage, 7.1 yards per attempt, 11 TDs and just 3 INTs. In EMU’s last three wins, Wiegers has thrown for just 418-1-2 so let’s not get too excited.
  • My Pick: Georgia Southern, +3.5
    • Georgia Southern runs a triple option offense so I’ll give them the nod for novelty. The narrative will be that Eastern Michigan has time to prepare but by virtue of playing on the first day of bowl games, it’s not that much longer than usual. Southern has five guys with 300+ yards and as a team average 261.5 rushing yards per game (9th best in the FBS). Despite having such a robust rushing attack, they somehow manage to place dead last in the FBS in offensive plays per game – that was very surprising. They’ll roll against the Eagles’ 93rd ranked rushing defense and win this one straight up to hit double digit wins for the first time in program history.

New Orleans Bowl, Middle Tennessee (8-5) vs Appalachian State (10-2), Sat 12/15 at 9:00pm on ESPN

  • Draft Eligible Player to Watch: Ty Lee, WR, Middle Tennessee
    • I profiled Blue Raider QB Brent Stockstill last week so I figured this week I should focus on one of his targets. Lee is diminutive at 5090/178, but unlike his quarterback he’s been able to stay healthy throughout his career. Lee’s three seasons have been pretty similar and average out to a 69-820-7 line. In 2017 he also had 39 “rushing attempts” for 109-1 (presumably, most of these were screens that went backwards, save for some wildcat snaps). I watched segments of Lee’s 2017 Florida Atlantic tape and loved how varied his usage was. I saw him line up in the slot on both sides, flanking the quarterback and in the wildcat. I didn’t see too much speed so I checked for an estimate on DraftScout.com and they have him in the 4.49 range – hopefully he tests a bit quicker than that. He’s primarily a screen and swing receiver but his versatility could earn him a limited role at the next level.
  • My Pick: Middle Tennessee, +7
    • I’m going with an intangible, emotional argument on this one. MTSU quarterback Brent Stockstill will be playing in his last game for the school and for his dad, Rick who is the head coach. Stockstill has spent six years with the program after gray-shirting in 2013. As I mentioned last week, he’s an old and oft-injured prospect but he’s got a good story. There’s nothing to back this up but I think his teammates will play for him and get the W. (Plus, App State is 0-1-2 in their last three contests ATS).

Boca Raton Bowl, Northern Illinois (8-5) vs UAB (10-3), Tue 12/18 at 7:00pm on ESPN

  • Draft Eligible Player to Watch: Sutton Smith, LB, Northern Illinois
    • I skipped over Sutton Smith last week to feature Buffalo WR Anthony Johnson. I think Mr. Smith took that to heart because he came out with a dominating 10 tackle and 2.0 sack performance in the MAC Championship Game. I was only half watching the game but it felt like I heard his name called on nearly every play. Smith’s stats are outstanding and he’s been rewarded for them (2017 MAC Defensive Player of the Year, 2017 Consensus All-American). Over the last two seasons, he’s combined for: 109 tackles, 51.0 tackles for loss and 27 sacks. If he were bigger, we’d be talking about him as a potential first rounder. He’s listed at 6010/237 and that feels favorable. Smith will be drafted and be given a chance as a situational pass rusher but I think he’ll be one of those college stars that doesn’t translate in the pros.
  • My Pick: UAB, -1.5
    • I figured that UAB RB Spencer Brown would be the key to the C-USA Championship Game, if he played, and he was. Brown returned with a vengeance, racking up 31 carries for 156 yards and a score. He was, no doubt, the key to the rematch against Middle Tennessee. Northern Illinois has the nation’s 14th best rush defense so it’ll be a good strength vs strength battle. I’m looking forward to studying Brown for the 2020 draft so I’ll pick with my heart and lean Blazers.

Frisco Bowl, San Diego State (7-5) vs Ohio (8-4), Wed 12/19 at 8:00pm on ESPN

  • Draft Eligible Player to Watch: AJ Ouellette, RB, Ohio
    • Oullette is your basic vanilla mid-major runner. That sounds like an insult but I promise it isn’t. He has back-to-back 1,000 yard seasons and catches just enough passes to be relevant (19 receptions in 2018). From my limited exposure over the years, I don’t think he does anything particularly great but he’s good enough all-around. He’s a straight-ahead runner without much long speed. He does have enough wiggle to make a cut through a hole or make a defender miss and is a fall-forward kind of runner. As I write this, UDFA Gus Edwards is having a moment for the Ravens, and I feel like that’s the type of career Ouellette can have in the NFL. He’ll be a late rounder or a priority free agent and just about everybody will forget about him until he makes an unexpected impact. It probably won’t matter for fantasy purposes but as an actual fan of his NFL team you’ll be glad you had him.
  • My Pick: Ohio, -3
    • In addition to Ouellette, the Bobcats feature dual-threat quarterback Nathan Rourke. Rourke finished the season with a four score rushing performance against Akron (he ended with 816 rushing yards and 13 TDs). He’s also an efficient passer when called upon. The Aztecs have been a mess for bettors this year (3-9 ATS) and RB Juwan Washington doesn’t seem to be fully recovered from his midseason injury so I wouldn’t think twice about giving the points here.

Lines and betting stats courtesy of OddsShark.com, as of 12/2.

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

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

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

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