The Watch List: 2020 Rookie Mock Draft v1.0

Updated: May 21st 2019

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

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

1.01 | D’Andre Swift, RB, Georgia

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

1.02 | Jerry Jeudy, WR, Alabama

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

1.03 | JK Dobbins, RB, Ohio State

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

1.04 | Travis Etienne, RB, Clemson

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

1.05 | CeeDee Lamb, WR, Oklahoma

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

1.06 | Laviska Shenault, WR, Colorado

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

1.07 | Jonathan Taylor, RB, Wisconsin

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

1.08 | Albert Okwuegbunam, TE, Missouri

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

1.09 | Trey Sermon, RB, Oklahoma

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

1.10 | Justin Herbert, QB, Oregon

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

2.01 | Collin Johnson, WR, Texas

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

2.02 | Tyler Johnson, WR, Minnesota

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

2.03 | Jalen Reagor, WR, TCU

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

2.04 | Cam Akers, RB, Florida State

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

2.05 | Kennedy Brooks, RB, Oklahoma

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

2.06 | Najee Harris, RB, Alabama

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

2.07 | Eno Benjamin, RB, Arizona State

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

2.08 | Bryan Edwards, WR, South Carolina

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

2.09 | Tua Tagovailoa, QB, Alabama

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

3.10 | Tee Higgins, WR, Clemson

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

Honorable Mentions

AJ Dillon, RB, Boston College

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

Grant Calcaterra, TE, Oklahoma

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

 

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

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

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

More Analysis by Bob Cowper

The Watch List: 2018 Week 3 Preview

Updated: September 15th 2018

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

Games to Watch

  • #5 Oklahoma at Iowa State, 12:00pm, ABC:  The 2017 version of this matchup was possibly my most memorable game of the season.  David Montgomery was a constant threat out of the backfield, LB Joel Lanning filled in at QB, Allen Lazard caught a contested game-winner, Baker Mayfield scored 3 total TDs and Trey Sermon had a breakout game on national television.  The fact that the Cyclones stole the W made it even more satisfying as a fan.  A number of the stars from that game have moved on but we’ll still see some solid play on the ground with Montgomery, Sermon and Oklahoma QB Kyler Murray.  Against Iowa last week, Montgomery played to his doubters, averaging just 2.6 yards per carry on 17 totes.  Through two games the Sooners are allowing more than 130 yards per game so I expect Montgomery to improve.  Sermon and Murray have combined for 174 yards and 3 scores thus far.  The onus will fall on them now that starting RB Rodney Anderson is out for the year.  (By the way, I was so disappointed to hear the Anderson news.  I was ready to peg him as my RB1 for the 2019 class.)
  • UC Davis at #9 Stanford, 2:00pm, PAC-12 Network: I talked about Stanford last week so I’m not going to rehash their players to watch.  This matchup is interesting because it will give us a spotlight game for UC Davis WR Keelan Doss.  Doss, who dominated the FCS last season, started the season strong with 11 receptions and 85 yards in a victory over San Jose State of the FBS.  I studied Doss in the preseason and noted that he uses his 6030/209 size to dominate smaller corners.  He is elite at the catch point with strong hands.  This matchup will mean a lot for his NFL Draft stock.  (Update:  Bryce Love has been ruled out for the game.)
  • #12 LSU at #7 Auburn, 3:30pm, CBS: I see this game finishing 15-9 and being a defensive classic.  Combined, the two defenses gave up 33 points to their opening weekend opponents, both of which were ranked in the top ten.  The game is also worth watching because it will feature two potential first rounders in LSU LB Devin White and Auburn QB Jarrett Stidham.  Stidham had a great game against Washington, completing 72.2% of his passes for 273 yards and a score.  White meanwhile is making his case to be the first inside linebacker off the board with 19 tackles through the first two games.  We’ll have to keep an eye on his interest to declare early, one article I found was not sure he’d make the leap early.  The winner of this one will be in the driver seat to compete against Alabama for the SEC West crown.
  • #17 Boise State at #24 Oklahoma State, 3:30pm, ESPN:  If you like points, tune into this matchup at 3:30pm instead.  Boise and OK State are 5th and 8th in points per game (117.5 combined).  In addition to being entertaining, the game will feature a few notable draft prospects.  On the Bronco side, we have QB Brett Rypien and RB Alexander Mattison.  RB Justice Hill is the player to watch for the Cowboys.  Hill hasn’t been involved in the passing game yet (just 2 receptions) and that was one of the things buoying his stock.  Now that he’ll be facing a worthy foe, I am hopeful that Hill will get more work.
  • #4 Ohio State at #15 TCU, 8:00pm, ABC:  I’m really not sure what to make of the Buckeyes yet this season.  That seems crazy to say when you consider they have outscored two Power 5 opponents 129-34 this year but neither Oregon State or Rutgers truly provided a test.  When you factor in all of the off-field drama it’s tough to forecast where this squad will end up in three months.  TCU started slow against SMU but ended up with a 42-12 victory.  The Horned Frogs’ defense is ranked sixth in yards allowed this year (they finished 19th last year so it’s not a fluke) and will be a tougher adversary for Ohio State.  Unsurprisingly, Ohio State’s backfield trio of QB Dwayne Haskins and RBs Mike Weber and JK Dobbins are succeeding so far.  Weber and Dobbins have combined for 364 yards, 4 TDs through two weeks.  TCU’s Shawn Robinson has also been productive, albeit more so on the ground than the air.  Robinson has 328 yards passing, 4 TDs and 1 INT plus 112 rushing yards and 3 rushing TDs.  I’ll be keeping an eye on Ohio State’s aggressive defensive line to see how well they can keep Robinson in the pocket.  We know DE Nick Bosa is a generational pass rusher and it looks like sophomore Chase Young isn’t too shabby himself (he had a great strip sack against Rutgers that was ultimately reversed on replay).  If the pass rush gets too far up field and Robinson escapes he’ll be the difference maker in a close one.

Players to Watch

Honorable Mentions

  • Dwayne Haskins, QB, Ohio State:  Haskins earned the starting job this Spring and his play so far has proved that he was the best option for the Buckeyes for 2018.  He’s completing 79.2% of his passes and has tossed 9 TDs to just 1 INT.  In limited duty in 2017, Haskins was nearly as efficient with the ball so I don’t think his successes are a factor of the weak foes he’s faced.  Haskins is a redshirt sophomore so there’s no guarantee he declares after this season but if he continues to play well, I would expect him to give the NFL a go a la Cardale Jones.
  • Jonathan Taylor, RB, Wisconsin:  Unfortunately for fantasy players, but thankfully for college football fans, Taylor is not draft eligible after this season.  So, I won’t give him the full treatment this season but his stats warrant mention.  Taylor totaled 1,977-13 last season and is on pace to blow away those marks.  He started well against Western Kentucky with 145-2 and somehow improved against New Mexico with 253-3.  Taylor is an electrifying combination of size, speed and elusiveness.  He’ll be coming out in a crowded 2020 running back class so it remains to be seen how high he’ll climb but he has 1.01 potential.
  • Juwan Washington, RB, San Diego State:  Washington is the heir to the San Diego State rushing title throne.  Prior to him, Donnell Pumphrey and Rashaad Penny both led the FBS in rushing in their senior seasons.  Washington, just a junior, is already off to a great start with 314 yards and 4 TDs.  158 of those yards came against a solid Stanford defense.  Washington is diminutive (5070/190) but runs with enough power to be effective in short yardage situations.  He runs with a shiftiness and quickness that you’d expect of somebody his size.  Tarik Cohen would be an easy comparison based on size but it’s important to realize that Washington is nowhere near as accomplished as a receiver (just 9 career receptions).  Washington is an experienced returner who brought three kicks back in his career.  His return ability should earn him an NFL nod but some proof that he is worthy of passing down work would make him a fantasy consideration.

Preston Williams, WR, Colorado State

  • Listed at 6040/210  per sports-reference.com
  • Film watched: Hawaii 2018
  • 2017: Redshirt after transferring (16 receptions, 247 yards and 2 TDs in 7 games with Tennessee in 2015-2016)
  • 2018: 3 games, 27 receptions, 391 yards, 4 TDs

Williams is an interesting NFL Draft prospect who wasn’t really on my radar this offseason.  I had heard the name numerous times on SiriusXM’s ESPNU radio but I didn’t follow through with any research.  Now that Williams has excelled to start the season, it was time to dive in.

Before we look at Williams’ stats and film, let’s discuss his background.  Williams is a former 5-star recruit who chose Tennessee over numerous top schools (i.e. Alabama, Clemson, Auburn).  When he decided to transfer, it was rumored that he could join Miami, Cal or UCLA.  Ultimately he chose Colorado State because he had relationships with some of the Rams coaches.  Before he took his first snap for CSU, Williams was suspended indefinitely for an altercation with his girlfriend (he shoved her when she was trying to move out).  Williams pleaded guilty, is no longer facing legal ramifications and was reinstated to the team before their first game.

On the field it’s clear that Williams needs some seasoning but there were a few plays that showcased his ability and got me excited.  He appears slow out of his breaks and does not seem to have the violent, fast-twitch movement you would want from your receiver off the snap.  Williams lines up all over the field which is a good sign for his versatility to fit into an NFL scheme.  I don’t see enough from him as a route runner yet.  To my eye, it seems like he’s coasting, knowing that his physical gifts can bail him out of situations.  He does let the ball get into his body but when he attacks it with his hands, he can make good fingertip catches.  On the two below plays, Williams tracks the ball, makes an adjustment and catches it with his fingertips.

As you can see in the first clip above, Williams does have some ability after the catch.  He’s not very fast, probably in the 4.55-4.60 range, but he has a long stride and runs with strength and determination.  He showed this perfectly later in the Hawaii game:

It’s a shame he wasn’t able to hit paydirt on that one but the play is still very instructive.  He uses a combination of acceleration, field awareness and power moves to stay in bounds and shed tacklers for extra yardage.  Honestly, it was the play that made me decide to feature him here.

Williams lit up Hawaii to start the season for 9-188-2.  What’s more impressive is that he followed up that effort with solid games against Power 5 opponents.  In those games against Colorado and Arkansas, Williams totaled 18-203-2.  Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that a Colorado State receiver is racking up the yards because the Rams have produced two mid-round NFL prospects over the last few years in Rashard Higgins (5th round) and Michael Gallup (3rd round).  Williams will be hoping to continue the trend.  Williams only has 43 career receptions so this may be a bit premature but I think he has the pedigree and athletic ability to earn himself a mid- to late-round draft grade if he keeps up his statistical pace and comes out in 2019.

 


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

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

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

More Analysis by Bob Cowper

The Watch List: 2018 Big 12 Preview

Updated: July 21st 2018

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

Storylines to Watch

  • Heisman Favorite:  Will Grier, QB, West Virginia.  It feels like cheating when I take the best passer in the conference as my Heisman favorite.  Alas, that’s the way it goes these days.  Grier threw for 3,490 yards in 2017 but he’ll need to approach 4,000 if he’s to be a true Heisman contender.
  • Darkhorse Heisman Candidate:  Kyler Murray, QB, Oklahoma.  Murray has name cachet already because of his impending baseball career.  He was selected 9th overall by the Oakland A’s but still plans to play football in 2018.  If Murray is playing well, which I anticipate, he will get a lot of buzz because he has a story media outlets can sell.
  • Offensive Player of the Year:  David Montgomery, RB, Iowa State.  No offensive player will mean more to his team this season in the Big 12 than Montgomery will to the Cyclones.  He is not a breakaway runner but he has amazing balance and tackle breaking ability.  He’ll have a number of “how did he do that” highlights again this season.
  • Defensive Player of the Year:  Joe Dineen, LB, Kansas.  Dineen was a Second-Team All-American last season after a 133 tackle season.  He led the Big 12 in tackles and tackles for loss in 2017 (and was top five in the nation in both stats).  He also added 2.5 sacks.  He may not draw the NFL Draft hype that Texas Tech LB Dakota Allen will but Dineen will again prove to be a bright spot on a poor Kansas team.
  • Newcomer of the Year:  Keaontay Ingram, RB, Texas.  Ingram was ranked the #6 running back in the class by 247Sports and #10 by Phil Steele.  Ingram is listed at 6010/190 which is good size for an incoming freshman.  He hails from Texas and received an offer from just about every school in the Big 12 and Big Ten so it was a good get for the rebounding Longhorns.  Per 247Sports, Ingram had 39 total TDs and over 2,500 total yards last season.  Texas’ leading rusher last season, with 385 yards, was QB Sam Ehlinger so the depth chart is wide open for Ingram to earn a role.
  • Underclassman to Watch:  Ceedee Lamb, WR, Oklahoma.  Lamb was the Sooners third leading receiver last year (46-807-7) as a true freshman.  While the numbers weren’t stellar, Lamb stood out to me a few times when I watched OU play, specifically against Texas Tech.  He took over that Tech game, earning 147 yards and 2 TDs on 9 receptions.  He was a bit inconsistent in 2017 but I would expect that to even out as he gains more experience.  He’ll need to adjust to a new quarterback again this season but I’m expecting a 60-1,000-8 season from Lamb which would put him in the NFL Draft conversation for 2020.
  • Best QB-WR Tandem:  Will Grier and David Sills, West Virginia.  I wanted to avoid listing West Virginia or Oklahoma here to add a little variety to the preview but there just aren’t enough good quarterbacks right now in the Big 12.  Grier and Sills are the name brand tandem to watch.  Grier also has WR Gary Jennings to target.  Last year Jennings led the team in yards and receptions but isn’t the scoring threat that Sills is while playing over the middle from the slot.  A sleeper QB-WR tandem to keep an eye on is Iowa State’s sixth year senior QB Kyle Kempt and WR Hakeem Butler.  Kempt battled injuries but was efficient when he played (145.9 rating, 15 TD to just 3 INT); Butler has great size at 6060 and averaged 17.0 yards per catch.
  • Best RB Corps:  Oklahoma.  The Sooners have one of the best backs in the conference in junior Rodney Anderson (more on him below) but it’s more about the supporting cast.  Lincoln Riley’s backfield also boasts sophomore Trey Sermon who had a great true freshman season (744-5 rushing and 16-139-2 receiving) and is a devy league darling.  New to the mix this season will be redshirt sophomore Kennedy Brooks and freshman TJ Pledger.  Both Brooks and Pledger were 4-star recruits according to 247Sports.  OU’s third-stringer was good for over 500 yards last year so I expect both to contribute.  Defenses will also need to be wary of QB Kyler Murray who has wheels; he rushed for 142 yards on just 10 carries last season in limited duty.
  • Coach on the Hottest Seat:  David Beaty, Kansas.  It should be no surprise to find Beaty in this ignominious position after a 1-11 season in 2017.  In his three seasons with the Jayhawks, Beaty has just 3 wins (and 33 losses).  Kansas won’t be good this season but they will be improved.  I’m thinking that four wins saves Beaty his job and that might not be a stretch given the experience this squad has.

Teams to Watch

 Kansas Jayhawks (1-11 in 2017)

As I mentioned above, Kansas is very experienced.  So much so that Phil Steele ranks them as #1 in his NCAA Experience Chart for 2018.  The Experience Chart is a favorite tool of mine to aid in finding under-the-radar teams for the upcoming season.  While the Jayhawks may not posses much talent, their consistency and maturity will help.  The team returns 19 starters but even more importantly is the depth that they return: they have the second most letter winners returning in the nation.  The two returning quarterbacks, Carter Stanley and Peyton Bender, split time last year due to ineffectiveness and injury.  Leading rusher Khalil Herbert (663-4) is back, as is WR Steven Sims (59-839-6) who also doubles as a return man.  The aforementioned LB Joe Dineen leads the defense.  Kansas should start with two wins against Nicholls and Central Michigan.  It’s feasible they split the next two games, home against Rutgers and at Baylor.  That could be the extent of their wins for the season but because of their experience I would not count out the possibility of getting to four and saving David Beaty’s job.

 Oklahoma State (10-3 in 2017)

I’ll be watching Oklahoma State closely this season, but not because I expect them to improve upon last season.  Instead, I’m half-expecting Mike Gundy’s team to implode in 2018.  The Cowboys lose QB Mason Rudolph, WRs James Washington and Marcell Atemen and three of their four top tacklers.  In contrast to Kansas, OK State is one of the least experienced teams in the nation (ranked #119).  They do return RBs Justice Hill and JD King but the offense may struggle for the first time in years.  Senior QB Taylor Cornelius is the presumed starter but graduate transfer Dru Brown could beat him out.  Whoever is under center will be hoping that WRs Jalen McCleskey and Dillon Stoner can pick up the slack after the departures of Washington and Ateman.  If you’re a bettor, Oklahoma State will be an interesting team to handicap.  The schedule starts favorable with four straight home games (Missouri State, South Alabama, Boise State, Texas Tech) and then features two winnable road games before their bye week (Kansas and Kansas State).  I would pick them to win most of those games, but chances are you can safely take the points against Boise State, Texas Tech and Kansas State.  It’s possible that the Cowboys are 6-1 and riding high heading into their October 27th matchup against Texas, but I think it will be fool’s gold so don’t let them sucker you into a late season bet.

Players to Watch

Honorable Mentions

  • Justice Hill, RB, Oklahoma State:  Hill has put together two very encouraging seasons in his first two years as a Cowboy. He averages 5.5 yards per carry and topped 200+ carries and 1,000+ yards in each season. In 2017 he increased his scoring production with 15 rushing TDs. He also got heavily involved in the passing game with 31 receptions and 190 receiving yards. He’s a bit undersized at 185lb but I would expect him to bulk up a bit after another offseason of training. Hill’s production was mostly overshadowed by the high powered passing offense led by former QB Mason Rudolph and WR James Washington. With that passing battery moving onto the NFL, Hill will see a larger share of the offense.
  • David Sills, WR, West Virginia: David Sills, listed at 6030/201, is a quarterback-turned-receiver who led the nation in touchdown receptions in 2017. Sills only caught 60 balls for 980 yards, both just third best on the team. Sills has had an interesting path to being one of the conference’s top receiver prospects. You may recall that years ago then USC head coach Lane Kiffin offered a scholarship to a middle schooler. That player was Sills. He ultimately went to WVU instead where he was unable to earn playing time as a quarterback. He left the school to go the JUCO route before returning to the ‘Neers for a second stint, this time at WR. You could spin this as either a positive (he’s determined) or a negative (he must not be that good if it took so long to find the field as a receiver) so I’ll reserve judgment for now. Sills has one of the leading quarterback prospects tossing him the ball so I anticipate another big season, although that touchdown rate will be impossible to keep up.
  • Collin Johnson, WR, Texas:  If you’re looking for a high upside X receiver at the next level, look no further than Collin Johnson. He is massive at 6060/220 and would have been one of the biggest receivers in the 2017 class. The Longhorn offense struggled at times in 2017 while they switched between Shane Buechele and Sam Ehlinger. Neither signal caller was particularly great last year but Ehlinger offers some dynamism as a rusher so he’ll likely be the starter (he led the team with 381 rushing yards). At least whoever starts will boast some experience which should help Johnson improve on his 54-765-2 campaign. I want to see Johnson prove himself to be a red zone threat with that size so let’s hope the offense overall is improved. As the cliche goes, you can’t teach size.
  • Denzel Mims, WR, Baylor:  Mims had a few huge games last year for an atrocious Baylor team. Against Oklahoma, he went for 11-192-3. Meanwhile, against Texas Tech he had 12 grabs for 152 yards and a score. Unfortunately, both of those outings, plus two other 100+ yard games, weren’t enough to push the Bears past their opposition. Part of me worries that too much of his production may have come in garbage time (full disclosure: I haven’t studied the play-by-play to see when the bulk of his yards came, it’s just a thought I had while researching). His 6030/200 frame comes with 4.50 speed so if he can prove his value to the team we’ll be talking about him as an NFL Draft hopeful.
  • Dalton Risner, OT, Kansas State:  Risner measures in at 6050 and 300lbs and was a potential NFL Draft prospect in 2018 before deciding to return to to school.  He had offseason shoulder surgery, surely one of the reasons he decided to return.  Risner is a two-time First-Team All-Big 12 performer who has starting experience at both C and RT.  That versatility will help increase his stock for the 2019 draft.
  • Dakota Allen, LB, Texas Tech:  Allen is a leading IDP prospect but that’s probably not why you might recognize his name.  In 2016, Allen transferred to East Mississippi Community College after being dismissed from Tech for burglary.  EMCC is better known as “Last Chance U” and is the topic of a popular Netflix documentary series.  Allen featured in the show’s second season.  Tech’s coaches thought enough of the young man to give him another chance so here we are.  Allen had 101 tackles in 2017 to go along with 2 sacks and 2 INTs.  It’ll be interesting to hear what his narrative is, whether a story of redemption or of character concerns.

Will Grier, QB, West Virginia

For much of 2017, Will Grier was overshadowed by Baker Mayfield and Mason Rudolph in the Big 12 but that all changes this year when Grier figures to be the conference’s best.  I briefly discussed Grier’s backstory last season so I won’t rehash it here and will instead focus on the stats and the tape.  Grier completes nearly 65% of his passes and has a 3:1 TD:INT ratio for his career.  Last season with West Virginia, Grier finished in the top ten in the NCAA in passer rating (162.7), yards per attempt (9.0) and touchdowns (34).  Those positive stats are backed up by some positive traits that I noticed while watching tape.
When you watch Grier, it’s immediately clear that he has a confidence and a swagger that not all quarterbacks share.  He trusts his arm and is not afraid to let it fly.  He has one of the strongest arms of QBs I have watched so far this offseason.  He can launch it 50 yards downfield on the run but can also quickly fire the ball to the sideline on a quick screen.  That arm strength costs him some touch though, which was evident on a number of fade patterns near the end zone.  As good as his arm strength is, Grier’s best attribute for me was his pocket presence.  He does not get rattled as he slides and steps up.  His feet are active while in the pocket which allows him to escape and evade with ease (his spin move reminded this Cowboy fan of one Tony Romo).  All the while, he keeps his eyes downfield and scans through his progressions.  I did note a few negatives in Grier’s game as well.  His short yardage accuracy and mechanics can improve.  He has a tendency to jump-pass short throws which often fell incomplete (or worse) in my study.  Grier also had a few balls batted down at the line of scrimmage.  The jump-pass tendency and the batted balls combine to lead me to believe he’s closer to 6000 than 6020 as listed.  Grier shows the ability to anticipate receivers and lead them, especially on deep post routes where he’s adept at splitting the safeties, but that anticipation can be inconsistent.  Grier is seemingly capable of the impossible, like his on-the-run hail mary touchdown against Kansas State, but he does have some work to do on the little things.
He’ll be hoping to continue on the path to the NFL Draft that Mayfield and Rudolph walked last season.  Grier is a top ten prospect at the position for me right now so I would anticipate him going sometime in Day Two come next April.

David Montgomery, RB, Iowa State

David Montgomery was one of my favorite players to watch last season even though I wasn’t writing about him in a fantasy context since he was just a true sophomore.  This year I’m excited to look at him through the fantasy lens.  Montgomery’s highlight reel runs last season were abundant.  According to Pro Football Focus, Montgomery broke their record for most missed tackles forced in a season, breaking Dalvin Cook’s record by more than 10%.  Montgomery rushed for 1,148 yards and added 36 receptions for 296 yards.  He had 11 rushing TDs which is good but not great, ranking 3rd in the conference.  The biggest cause for concern is Montgomery’s yards per carry: 4.4.  Of the fifty backs currently in my 2019 database, only two had averages lower than Montgomery and neither is remotely close to his quality.
The low yards per carry average, in my opinion, is a result of Montgomery’s boom-or-bust tendency.  I don’t actually track the stat but it felt like he had more no-gain runs than other running back prospects I studied this offseason.  When Montgomery breaks loose though, he’s dangerous.  He has fantastic change of direction, cutting ability and contact balance.  It doesn’t matter where on his body he is contacted, he can usually keep his progress moving forward for extra yards.  He repeatedly used a back cut at the line of scrimmage paired with enough acceleration to get around the whiffing defender.  Montgomery is such a good pass blocker that I stopped taking notes on positive blocks.  He’s also successful in the passing game, displaying good hands that he uses to snag the ball away from his body more often than not.  Iowa State trusted his route running ability enough to have him running patterns from motion or lined up wide.  When split out, he often runs a short stop route; out of the backfield he’s adept at finding space in the middle of the zone.  On numerous occasions, Montgomery flashed a nifty spin move as he caught the ball on swing passes; it was super effective at making the first defender miss.  He does lack elite speed but all of his other attributes help cover up the deficiency.
Since Montgomery is a factor in the passing game, he has the potential to be a three down back in the pros.  Right now he’s my RB1 for 2019 and I would anticipate him being in the 1.01 conversation for next season.  (Film watched: Texas 2017, Oklahoma State 2017)

Rodney Anderson, RB, Oklahoma

Before I get into Anderson’s successes on the field last year, I first need to touch on the injuries that kept him off the field in 2015 and 2016.  In 2015, Anderson suffered a broken leg in the second game of the season (he had just one carry before the injury).  Before the 2016 season even started, he broke a bone in his neck which forced him to miss the entire season.  At the time, coach Bob Stoops was quoted as saying, “there’s no paralysis or anything like that.”  Hardly reassuring.  Anderson also has a potential red flag in an alleged sexual assault from 2017.  Ultimately the district attorney declined to press charges, saying that they were “unwarranted,” but I can’t help but think it will ding his NFL Draft stock.  It’s a shame that his injury history may be disqualifying to many fantasy owners, myself included, because Anderson put out some great tape in 2017.
The word I wrote most often when watching Anderson’s tape was “momentum.”  He runs with great power and above average speed and often powers over and through defenders.  While he may not have elite top speed, his acceleration appears to be elite after my limited watch of his film.  Despite his 6020/220 size, Anderson is able to change direction and stop on a dime when necessary.  On numerous occasions he was stopped cold in the backfield only to step back to find a small seam to gain some positive yardage.  Anderson is a good pass blocker and I think with more experience could become one of the best at the position in next year’s draft class.  My biggest gripe with his film against Georgia was his poor showing in the passing game.  I am sure he has the talent, because he showed it in other games, but his routes rarely afforded him any space and his hands failed him on at least two plays against Georgia.  Hopefully further film study will put that concern to rest.
In 2017 when I was writing about Clemson WR Mike Williams, who also suffered a broken neck, I said: “Ultimately, I am too hesitant to take Williams…At this point, I’d rather be the guy who misses on Williams… [rather] than the guy who takes him despite the neck injury…and is stuck with a bad contract.”  That’s basically where I am with Anderson at the moment.  There’s no doubt he has talent but because of the sunk cost of drafting bust rookies in the RSO format, I will be avoiding him.  (Film watched: Georgia 2017, 2017 Highlights)

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

  • Stats: espn.com, sports-reference.com, cfbstats.com, herosports.com, fcs.football, foxsports.com
  • 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

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

More Analysis by Bob Cowper

The Watch List: Bowl Game Previews, Part VI

Updated: December 30th 2017

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

Monday, Jan. 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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