2021 Pre-Draft Rookie Best Fits – Running Backs

Updated: April 20th 2021

This is the second part of our Rookie Best Fit series where we look to fit the player to the best team for their skillset based on the expected range for where the player will be drafted. In the first part, we looked at the quarterbacks which can be found here. This section will examine the running back class which has a strong top-end but lacks depth when compared to other recent classes. An overall suggestion if you are targeting a need at the position this year would be to try and be in the top 4 for standard leagues or top 8 in Superflex to secure one of the three biggest names. Otherwise, build some capital in the second or third round to take a couple of shots at the next tier of options. With that said, let us begin.

Michael Carter – North Carolina

DLF Ranking – 23rd (29th SF)

NFL Draft – 3rd Round

Best Fit – 3.71, Denver Broncos

Michael Carter lacks the overall size to be an every-down, 20+ carry NFL running back, but he does have quick feet and long speed to be an excellent 1b in just about any offense. Tarik Cohen comes to mind when watching him and if the Bears wanted to get younger Carter would be an excellent 1-for-1 transition. However, I do not think he will be there late in the third round and a team like Denver would be a great landing spot. Melvin Gordon has one more year left on his deal to share the backfield with Carter for now and the weapons on the outside would always leave favorable numbers on the line for him to use his short-area quickness.

Travis Etienne – Clemson

DLF – 2nd (5th SF)

NFL Draft – Late 1st/2nd Round

Best Fit – 2.35, Atlanta Falcons

The Todd Gurley experiment only lasted one season in Atlanta and currently, the Falcons only have Mike Davis as their most reliable runner. They also released Ito Smith leaving the depth chart wide-open for them to take a running back high in the second round. Etienne would immediately take control of the backfield and see between 200-250 touches in Atlanta’s offense. Coming from just down the road in Clemson would also give a big boost to his transition to the NFL.

Kenneth Gainwell – Memphis

DLF – 14th (18th SF)

NFL Draft – 3rd Round

Best Fit – 3.65, Jacksonville Jaguars 

On the surface, this would probably seem like a terrible landing spot as the team enjoyed a surprise breakout season from undrafted rookie James Robinson just last season. But the coaching staff has changed over which gives no player, especially a former UFA, any guarantee for touches. Gainwell draws immediate comparison to Antonio Gibson as both played the same dual-threat role at Memphis. If Urban Meyer is looking to bring more offensive collegiate flare like past coaches making the jump to the NFL then Gainwell would give him as much flexibility at the running back position with another RB/WR hybrid.

Najee Harris – Alabama

DLF – 3rd (6th SF)

NFL Draft – Late 1st/2nd Round

Best Fit – 1.24, Pittsburgh Steelers

Picking a running back in the first round is always a trade-off to taking other more impactful positions that a team could be drafting. Especially when it is the Pittsburgh Steelers who are one of the smarter organizations in the NFL when it comes to drafting and who might want to wait on the position till at least day two and take either a replacement for Bud Dupree or Ben Roethlisberger with their first selection instead. Still, the need at running back was a major focus all last season and taking a guy like Harris would give them a player that fits the Steelers RB model. He would immediately be considered the 1.01 for most rookie drafts and would be a good bet to lead the rookie class in rushing yards in 2021.

Khalil Herbert – Virginia Tech

DLF – 39th (53rd SF)

NFL Draft – 5th-7th Round

Best Fit – 6.194, San Francisco 49ers

Khalil Herbert will not have the draft capital to immediately take a backfield over but his talent should make him more likely to breakout than running backs taken around him. Landing in San Francisco on day three would be as great an opportunity as any due to the 49ers often using a platoon of runners but also are willing to feature a single runner if they showcase the skillset. Kyle Shanahan had a similar player while offensive coordinator in Atlanta with Devonta Freeman, who was also a later-round steal, and Herbert could play a similar role to Freeman in 2021. Like Freeman, Herbert has good zone-read ability and enough receiving capabilities to one day develop into a three-down back.

Kylin Hill – Mississippi State

DLF – 30th (30th SF)

NFL Draft – 5th-7th Round

Best Fit – 6.203, Houston Texans /6.223, Arizona Cardinals

Hill, like Herbert, will not have the draft capital to supplant a well-established veteran but could rise to the top in an offense with “meh” or aging talent. Houston does not have the draft capital to invest in a luxury position like running back early but with three (3) sixth-round picks could be looking to have younger options behind David Johnson and Mark Ingram. The same goes for Arizona who has no mid-picks and would either need to look at taking one of the first running backs off the board in the first/second round or go bargain shopping with one of their fifth through seventh-round selections. Hill may not be anything more than a backup for whatever team he ends up on but with the capital it would take to acquire him he only room to rise in value.

Chuba Hubbard – Oklahoma State

DLF – 25th (25th SF)

NFL Draft – 4th-6th Round

Best Fit – 5.156, Miami Dolphins

Chuba Hubbard lost a lot of value between 2019 and 2020 where he was being discussed in the top 3 with players like Etienne and Harris. Nevertheless, he still can develop into a primary ball carrier if he finds the right offensive scheme. There have been speculations that Miami could be in the market for a day two running back, one of which I will also recommend later, but if they either do not get their guy or prioritize other positions, Hubbard could be a fifth-round steal. Miami showed their commitment to the run game once Tua Tagovailoa took over last year and had success with guys like Myles Gaskin and Salvon Ahmed. Hubbard could easily compete for the starting role in an emerging offense with a “chip on his shoulder” mentality.

Jermar Jefferson – Oregon State

DLF – 31st (35th SF)

NFL Draft – 5th-6th Round

Best Fit – 6.185, Los Angeles Chargers 

Truthfully, I would like to see Jefferson in Seattle and their heavy draw and zone run offense but they have such low draft capital in 2021, as well as might not be ready to give up on former first-round pick Rashaad Penny, that they will likely pass on running back this year. The consolation would be the LA Chargers to compliment Austin Ekeler with the chance to take over in 2022. With Justin Herbert and his cannon arm to go with Jefferson’s first step speed, he would feast in yards per carry without defenders crowding the box.

Trey Sermon – Ohio State

DLF – 22nd (20th SF)

NFL Draft – 3rd Round

Best Fit – 3.66, New York Jets

The Jets are among the most wide-open depth charts for a rookie running back to come in and immediately take over a heavy workload. They are locked in for quarterback with their first of their two first-round picks and then will likely address the defense with their next two selections. At the top of the third round though if Ohio State’s Trey Sermon is still there, he could be an ideal fit for the Jets’ new regime. Sermon already showed that he could handle a heavy workload in Columbus and would move from a mid-second round rookie pick to a potential end of the first selection for those that prioritize RB opportunity when drafting.

Rhamondre Stevenson – Oklahoma

DLF – 36th (31st SF)

NFL Draft – 4th-5th Round

Best Fit – 4.123, Philadelphia Eagles

The Eagles love their hammer RBs from LeGarrette Blount to Jordan Howard so why not go back to the well for another big back in Rhamondre Stevenson. Stevenson has even been compared to Blount so it would make plenty of sense. While Miles Sanders would cap his ceiling as a fantasy prospect, Stevenson would give the Eagles an immediate upgrade over Jordan Howard right now and would receive his share of goal-line work. Like Blount, he has deceptive speed for being 230lbs so he could be the benefactor of a tired defense rotating in for Miles Sanders.

Javonte Williams – North Carolina

DLF – 7th (10th SF)

NFL Draft – 2nd Round

Best Fit – 2.36, Miami Dolphins

As I mentioned earlier with Chubba Hubbard, the Dolphins running back room is one of the more lacking in the NFL and they are a strong candidate to take one of the first rookies off the board, likely as early as the second round. The team appears to be doing everything they can to align the stars for Tua Tagovailoa to have success in his second year and taking Javonte Williams would go a long way to doing that. Williams has prototypical size and speed to be an every-down back and landing in Miami would likely cement him in the 1.03-1.05 range in standard leagues and a late first-round steal in Superflex leagues.

More Analysis by Nick Andrews

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 2021: Championship Game Preview

Updated: January 10th 2021

Welcome to The Watch List for the 2021 NFL Draft season, a resource to help RSO owners identify the players from the college game that deserve your attention.  To view my observations, follow me on Twitter @robertfcowper.  Check back throughout the season as The Watch List will preview the prospects you should be watching each week so you know who will be fantasy relevant and worth your valuable draft capital.

Well, we made it. The 2020 college football season was an interesting ride from start to finish, full of unexpected hurdles and plenty of last minute gameplan changes. It’s fun to debate the merits of a 4-team playoff but I think it’s fair to say that we got two deserving teams in the championship. Alabama, as usual, stood out among the SEC and added another chapter to the story of Nick Saban’s dynasty. Ohio State, controversially, has played half as many games as Alabama but proved they belong with a convincing win against Clemson in the semi-finals. Both teams are loaded with NFL talent on both sides of the ball. As is my custom on The Watch List, below I am sharing the draft-eligible offensive skill position players you should be keeping an eye on in the game. Much of these players are “name brand” guys so I have also included a few under the radar honorable mentions at the end. (In true 2020 style I’ll share a familiar caveat: it’s possible that players mentioned in this preview are ruled out of the game for covid-related reasons between writing and publication.)

Mac Jones, QB, Alabama

Mac Jones started the 2020 season mostly as an unknown quantity to fans like myself. He played well enough in relief of Tua Tagovailoa in 2019, but it was a small-ish sample size and he lacked the recruiting pedigree of typical Alabama stars. So, it was fair to question whether he could lead the Tide to greatness. Jones put the questions to rest quickly after a second game statement win over Texas A&M. He ultimately ended with 4,036 passing yards and 36 TDs to just 4 INTs. Jones came in third in Heisman voting but received the consolation prize of seeing his favorite target, DeVonta Smith, win the trophy. Jones reads the field well and throws a tremendous deep ball that is accurate and perfectly placed. If he comes out he’ll probably end up being a late first rounder but another season on campus might elevate him even higher.

Najee Harris, RB, Alabama

For non-superflex leagues, Najee Harris has made the best case this season for the 1.01 pick. Harris is a bear to bring down, fully utilizing his 6020/230 build in goal line and short yardage situations. Harris led the nation in rushing touchdowns this season (24) and was near the top in attempts (229) and yards (1,387); he is also a big part of the passing game (36-346-3). Based on his size and his dominant performance this season, it’s easy to compare Harris to former Alabama star Derrick Henry but Harris is a more balanced back than Henry. I have a years-long love of Clemson’s Travis Etienne but even I need to admit that it may be time to put Harris atop the 2020 running back class. Ohio State had the nation’s second-best rushing defense (just 89.0 yards per game) so we’ll get a great showcase game for Harris to end on.

DeVonta Smith, WR, Alabama

DeVonta Smith racked up the end-of-season accolades: SEC Offensive Player of the Year, AP Player of the Year, Biletnikoff Award, Maxwell Award, Walter Camp Award, Heisman Trophy, etc. Let me be the first last to tell you that DeVonta Smith is good. Smith is an innate route runner, he has great body control at the boundary, and he is quick and shifty after the catch. If Smith was twenty pounds heavier, he would probably be the highest rated receiver prospect in a decade. The biggest question about Smith is whether his size (6010/175) will reduce his impact in the NFL. #DraftTwitter is full of hot takes but I won’t add to them because Smith has been dominant for 2+ years and has never missed a game in college. Until he proves otherwise, Smith is my WR1 over LSU’s Ja’Marr Chase who sat out this season. We should relish the chance to watch DeVonta Smith in crimson one last time.

Jaylen Waddle, WR, Alabama

When I started writing this preview I did not include Waddle on my list because I didn’t think there was any shot he would play after suffering a fractured ankle earlier in the season. As of Sunday morning, word is that he may play though so he’s a necessary inclusion on this list. If Waddle does see the field it might only take one touch for him to make a difference. Waddle is the ultimate low-volume, high-impact player. For his career he averages just 4.75 touches per game (receptions, rushing attempts and returns) but an impressive 88.75 all-purpose yards per game. Like Smith, Waddle is undersized at 5100/180 but he’s a dynamo when he has the ball in his hands. He’s a true track star in football pads. Speed sells in the NFL and as such I expect Waddle to be a late first rounder at worst come April. If Waddle is able to play and prove he’s fully healthy it will only further improve his draft stock.

Justin Fields, QB, Ohio State

Whether he’s drafted 2nd or 3rd overall on April 29th, the team that drafts Justin Fields will be getting a cornerstone for their franchise for years to come. Fields is still my QB2 in this class and the toughness he showed in the semi-final against Clemson only solidified that for me. Sure, the six passing touchdowns were gaudy but it’s not the first time this season that he’s put up eye-popping numbers. In just seven games, Fields has scored 26 total TDs. Fields is listed at 6030/228 but looks even bigger than that on the screen. He’s a smart runner, reads the zone-read well and is a leader on and off the field. I love watching him sling it and that’s tough to admit as a lifelong Michigan fan.

Trey Sermon, RB, Ohio State

Leading into the 2019 season I was high on Trey Sermon. I thought he was the better of the two backs for the Sooners, over Kennedy Brooks, but he found himself on the wrong side of the time share. Sermon moved to Ohio State as a grad transfer for this season and now that he’s more comfortable in the offense he’s excelled. In the last three games against Michigan State, Northwestern and Clemson, Sermon has compiled 636 rushing yards and 4 TDs. His 331 yards against Northwestern were the second-most in a single game this year in the FBS. Sermon is a bit lanky at 6010/215 so he may not have the prototypical dimensions for a three down back in the NFL but I don’t think that will be his role. I believe Sermon can be a successful change of pace back in a zone running scheme where he can use his first-step quickness to get upfield. In past studies, I thought Sermon could also be a decent pass protector and pass catcher too. Sermon’s year-one role may only translate to a late round rookie draft flyer but I’d be interested in taking the chance because I think Sermon is better than he’s ever gotten credit for.

Chris Olave, WR, Ohio State

Between Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson, Justin Fields has a powerful one-two punch at receiver. Wilson, a sophomore, isn’t draft eligible yet so we’ll focus on Olave here. Olave is a crafty route runner who inevitably finds a way to get open for his quarterback. He’s not really a yards-after-catch threat but that doesn’t matter if he catches it on the run with his straight line speed. I noticed that Olave seems to modulate his momentum well as he tracks a deep ball, allowing him to slow down and get under the ball to catch it in stride. Receivers will often outrun the ball and then come back to it, but Olave manages to catch most of his deep balls while still moving forward which translates to more touchdowns. I don’t think I’ve ever noticed that by a receiver and am now excited to watch that closely during the championship game. Olave is just a junior so we don’t know yet if he’ll declare early but if he comes out ESPN’s Todd McShay predicts he’ll be a first rounder.

Jeremy Ruckert, TE, Ohio State

I recently wrote about Jeremy Ruckert in my TE tiers article and described him as underused in the Buckeyes attack. Between drafting that sentiment and publishing my article, Ruckert went out and scored twice against Clemson in the semi-finals. He’s undoubtedly a block-first tight end but he does have a knack for the red zone. I foresee Ruckert getting drafted ahead of some recognizable pass-catching tight end names because he will have an instant impact as a blocker.

Honorable Mentions

  • Brian Robinson, RB, Alabama: Robinson has been a four-year contributor for the Tide who should get a look in the NFL. He’s been in Harris’ shadow this season but shined when given the chance against Arkansas with 17 touches for 76 yards and 3 TDs. I profiled Robinson heading into the season and wondered if he could have a Josh Jacobs-esque rise after being a bit player for three years.
  • Miller Forristall, TE, Alabama: I hear Brad Nessler saying “Miller Forristall” in my dreams. It feels like he’s been around forever (actually, just since 2016) and yet had his best season in 2020 with 23 grabs for 253 yards. About half of his production has come in the last three gotta-have-them games so I’m thinking he’ll figure in this one too. Forristall may not have the fantasy upside as recent ‘Bama tight ends like OJ Howard or Irv Smith but he’ll be playing on Sundays.
  • Master Teague, RB, Ohio State: Master Teague, all All-Name Team nominee, started the season as the Buckeyes’ bellcow. Teague racked up 380 yards and 6 TDs in the first four games. He got hurt in the Big Ten Championship game trying to hurdle a defender and it’s unclear if he’ll suit up for this one. Teague is a former 4-star recruit with a bowling ball body at 5110/225. He’s a straight ahead runner who pairs well with the aforementioned Trey Sermon. If he goes pro I would expect Teague to get some attention as an early down runner.

 

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 Big 12 Season Preview

Updated: July 28th 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: Jalen Hurts, QB, Oklahoma.  An Oklahoma quarterback has won the last two Heisman trophies so this was a pretty easy prediction.  Hurts is an efficient quarterback who makes few mistakes.  I’m sure head coach Lincoln Riley will have Hurts playing in a more aggressive fashion this season which will help increase his counting stats.  In order to get serious Heisman consideration, I think Hurts will need to be on pace for 3,500 total yards and 40 TDs and leading his team to the playoff.

Underclassman to Watch: Pooka Williams, RB, Kansas.  Pooka starred as a freshman for the Jayhawks, earning All-Big 12 and Big 12 Freshman of the Year honors. In eleven games, he had over 1,400 yards from scrimmage (161 carries, 33 receptions) and 9 TDs; plus, he handled kick return duties.  His ability to combine hesitation with elite acceleration and long-speed is impressive.  I was also surprised to see how often he broke tackles or bowled over would-be tacklers despite his 5110/170 size.  One thing to keep in mind is that Williams was suspended this offseason during a domestic violence investigation; afterwards, he was subsequently suspended for the season opener.  If Williams can show personal growth off the field and add some girth on it, we’ll be talking about him near the top of the 2021 class.

Newcomer of the Year: Austin Kendall, QB, West Virginia.  There will be a changing of the guard in Morgantown this year.  Out goes QB Will Grier who led the Mountaineers attack the last two years; also leaving is head coach Dana Holgorsen who left for Houston.  Austin Kendall, a grad transfer, leaves Oklahoma to join new West Virginia head coach Neal Brown.  Brown recruited Kendall back when he was an assistant at Kentucky so presumably they already have a relationship.  Brown says the quarterback competition is open but all three preview magazines I consulted predict he’ll win the job.  Kendall ended up behind Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray at OU and escapes another season on the bench in Norman.  In very limited action in 2016 and 2018, Kendall completed 71.8% of his passes and tossed three touchdowns to zero interceptions.  He has two years of eligibility remaining so he’ll have two bites at the apple.

Coaching Carousel: Les “The Mad Hatter” Miles is back in our college football lives as he takes over at Kansas.  Les has a reputation as being a zealous play caller who is unafraid to take chances.  I think his personality can rub some people the wrong way, recently evidenced by some of the push back he’s receiving for the suspension of Pooka Williams.  He said he “stands by” the suspension even though it wasn’t his decision.  I won’t comment on the incident itself, but I have a feeling we’re going to end up with some troublesome sound bite from Miles regarding the situation before long.  Miles has a career coaching record of 142-55 and finished 9-3 in his final full season at LSU.  Kansas has only won nine games total in the last five seasons.  It’s a good hire for the Jayhawks to jump start the program, but I don’t think Miles is the type who can be the long term answer — time will tell.

Players to Watch

CeeDee Lamb, WR, Oklahoma

CeeDee Lamb has been a devy favorite for over two years now since he joined the Sooners as a touted 4-star recruit, eschewing offers of home-state titans Texas and Texas A&M.  I recall seeing Lamb play in his rookie season and thinking he looked a little light but he’s filled out his frame and is now listed at 6020/189.  As a freshman, he recorded 46 receptions for 807 yards and 7 TDs.  He improved in 2018 to 65-1,158-11, despite sharing the spotlight with Marquise “Hollywood” Brown.  In 2019, Lamb should be the unquestioned top target for new quarterback Jalen Hurts.

Before we delve into Lamb’s film, I wanted to share one intangible that came through as I watched.  Lamb is an alpha male.  He has an attitude and a swagger that I would love from my WR1 if I was a teammate or a fan.  I don’t know if it should factor into his evaluation but I felt it was worth mentioning.  This huge block in last year’s Red River Shootout is a example of what I mean.  It’s hard to see in the replay but he looks down at the flattened defender as if to add further insult to injury.

In the two games I watched, Texas and Alabama, Lamb continually made difficult plays along the sideline look routine.  He has superb body control with the instincts to toe-tap just as he’s going out of bounds.  The first play is a catch against Alabama where Lamb traps a back shoulder throw against his chest as he gets his feet in bounds (if I were to nitpick, I would say that Lamb does often body-catch the ball which can be, but hasn’t yet, been a concern).  The second play against Texas Tech looks similar but he makes the catch using his hands this time.

Lamb is a long strider who covers ground quickly when he wants to.  He’s also good at selling route fakes by manipulating his speed or using subtle body feints.  On this deep post he uses his speed and a head fake to gain enough space to make the play.  As usual, he’s able to get his feet in bounds, this time in the back of the end zone.

The two games I watched were lacking in the “oh my gosh did he just do that” department.  (That’s probably a testament to how natural he looks making difficult plays.)  I knew Lamb had a few incredible plays on his resume so I sought out some highlight reels so I could share a few.  These next two plays came against UCLA early in the season.  In the first play, Lamb one-hands the ball while streaking across the field.  In the second play, Lamb nearly makes the play of the decade by plucking the ball with one hand at full extension, sadly his feet come down on the line.

I currently have Lamb ranked as my WR2 behind Jerry Jeudy and ahead of Leviska Shenault.  He is a well-balanced wide receiver prospect who lines up all over the formation and is bound to make a huge impact this season.  Since Lamb has already been productive and shown a penchant for the unbelievable, I think he has a higher floor and a higher ceiling than most of the 2020 class.

 

Tylan Wallace, WR, Oklahoma State

When I first started my 2020 NFL Draft preparation back in May, I admittedly did not know much about Tylan Wallace.  I had heard of his name and must have seen him during the Bedlam matchup against Oklahoma but I didn’t remember much.  The receivers below in the Honorable Mentions section may have better name recognition right now than Wallace but I thought it was important to spotlight him here and give him his due.

As a freshman Wallace tallied just seven receptions, but he exploded as a sophomore.  His 2018 line finished at 86-1,491-12, which was enough yardage to finish second in the FBS.  Despite his dominance, Wallace didn’t earn much All-American recognition, perhaps confirming my thought that people are sleeping on him.

Wallace may not have the height of an elite outside receiver (6000) but he certainly has the catch radius.  He has strong hands that allow him to snag the ball away from his body at a full extension.  Combined with his strength, his leaping ability make him a frequent winner in contested situations.  In this first clip, you’ll see him take an inside stem, then extend as he comes across the middle.  He grabs the football in front of the defender before he can make a play on it.

In this clip, you’ll see Wallace make another first down catch at full extension.  The play is unlikely to end up on the evening highlight reels but it was an important play late in a close game and it readily shows how great his hands are.

Wallace also has excellent speed and acceleration.  I originally pegged him at 4.50 speed but he may be even quicker than that in confined space.  He quickly gets out of his breaks and is able to return to top speed immediately.  On this play against Kansas State, Wallace is running an out-and-up route but he slips while making his break.  He quickly gathers himself and bursts upfield, edging out the corner and the incoming safety.  Ultimately, Wallace wins the jump ball in double coverage for a big gain.

Wallace isn’t all hands and speed though, I also noted numerous times where he succeeded as a blocker.  I actually labeled him as a “feisty” blocker because it looks like he relishes the role.  Here’s just one example of the “feisty” blocks I saw from Wallace in my study.

It will be difficult for Wallace to improve on last year’s output but he should come close.  Hopefully he garners the national recognition he deserves because he’s a Top 10 receiver in the class.

Honorable Mentions

Kennedy Brooks, RB, Oklahoma: Brooks was the first of the two Oklahoma running backs I studied this Summer, which was before the recent news about a Title IX investigation. He’s been reinstated to the team but we don’t currently know the details. On the field, I noted that Brooks is an upright and downhill runner. He’s patient, follows his blocks and gets every yard that is available. I didn’t see too many examples in my film study, but I get the impression that he’s average or better in both pass protection and receiving. Brooks is just a redshirt sophomore so it’s unlikely he’ll do enough in a shared role to justify coming out early but he’s still somebody to monitor.

Trey Sermon, RB, Oklahoma: I was pleasantly surprised by Sermon’s film when I studied him earlier this offseason. Sermon runs with a slashing style and is ideal in a zone read offense. Because of his running style I assumed he was smaller than he is, but he’s listed at 6000/224.  In fact, he invites contact and has a great stiff arm. Sermon shows a high football IQ, specifically when it comes to pass protection and blocking for his rushing QB. Forced to decide between he and Brooks, I would take Sermon. Luckily, head coach Lincoln Riley doesn’t have to choose and will run both of them alongside QB Jalen Hurts. I expect another 1,000+ scrimmage yard season with double digit touchdowns, which might be enough to have Sermon declare in January.

Collin Johnson, WR, Texas: I watched Johnson’s film against TCU and was impressed by a number of his traits. He has a long and lean body type (6060/220) which he uses to reach balls others couldn’t. He hand-fights the corner well and ran a variety of routes in the game I saw. I also noted that he has excellent situational awareness: he knows where the marker is, when to fight for extra yardage and when to protect the ball. Johnson was on my 2019 NFL Draft radar before deciding to return for his senior season; part of his decision to return to the Longhorns was that he did not receive a high grade from the NFL. A 1,000 yard season in 2019 will improve his chances to be a Day Two prospect.

Jalen Reagor, WR, TCU: Reagor is an electrifying track star playing wide receiver. He has elite athletic ability which allows him to transcend his presumed role as a receiver with a 5110/195 frame. Reagor easily outleaps DBs and is able to high point the ball. He’s nearly uncoverable 1-on-1 and safeties don’t have the speed to turn and chase when playing Cover 2. I’m hesitant to put Reagor in my top five wide receivers until I’m able to study some game film instead of highlights — as of my writing there were no full clips available yet. Reagor’s upside is immense so keep an eye on him.

Grant Calcaterra, TE, Oklahoma: Calcaterra is the prototype of the new “big-slot” tight end.  He’s listed at 6040/221 and has 4.60 speed.  Per ESPN’s recruiting service, Calcaterra was the fastest TE in his recruiting class, running a 4.64 in 2017.  I haven’t watched him close enough to gauge his blocking ability but from what I’ve seen casually watching Sooners games the last two years he’s really just a receiver.  To check that assumption, I fast forwarded through his tape from Texas last season and saw just a single play where he lined up on the line of scrimmage.  At the end of that game, he made an incredible touchdown catch to seal the victory: contested, over the shoulder and one-handed.  Catches like that are why we need to pay attention to Calcaterra this season.

 

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

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

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

More Analysis by Bob Cowper

The Watch List: 2020 Rookie Mock Draft v1.0

Updated: May 21st 2019

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

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

1.01 | D’Andre Swift, RB, Georgia

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

1.02 | Jerry Jeudy, WR, Alabama

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

1.03 | JK Dobbins, RB, Ohio State

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

1.04 | Travis Etienne, RB, Clemson

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

1.05 | CeeDee Lamb, WR, Oklahoma

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

1.06 | Laviska Shenault, WR, Colorado

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

1.07 | Jonathan Taylor, RB, Wisconsin

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

1.08 | Albert Okwuegbunam, TE, Missouri

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

1.09 | Trey Sermon, RB, Oklahoma

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

1.10 | Justin Herbert, QB, Oregon

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

2.01 | Collin Johnson, WR, Texas

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

2.02 | Tyler Johnson, WR, Minnesota

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

2.03 | Jalen Reagor, WR, TCU

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

2.04 | Cam Akers, RB, Florida State

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

2.05 | Kennedy Brooks, RB, Oklahoma

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

2.06 | Najee Harris, RB, Alabama

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

2.07 | Eno Benjamin, RB, Arizona State

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

2.08 | Bryan Edwards, WR, South Carolina

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

2.09 | Tua Tagovailoa, QB, Alabama

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

3.10 | Tee Higgins, WR, Clemson

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

Honorable Mentions

AJ Dillon, RB, Boston College

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

Grant Calcaterra, TE, Oklahoma

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

 

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

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

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

More Analysis by Bob Cowper

The Watch List: 2018 Week 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