The Watch List: 2019 Rookie Mock Draft 2.0

Updated: April 13th 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.

In this installment of The Watch List, I’ll be sharing version 2.0 of my 2019 Rookie Mock Draft.  This labor-intensive exercise will soon be worthless once the NFL Draft ends but it’s still a helpful tool for a rookie ranker like myself.  Let’s skip a lengthy preamble and get to it!

1.01 | N’Keal Harry, WR, Arizona State

Harry has an enticing combination of high floor and high ceiling which has kept him atop my rookie mock draft for the entire season. At various times in his career, he’s shown us that he can do it all – win in the air, manufacture yards after the catch, overpower defenders – and I trust that he will put it all together in the pros. I expect him to earn targets in Year One and be a valuable fantasy asset by Year Two.

1.02 | Kelvin Harmon, WR, NC State

If Harmon fared better at the NFL Combine he would have challenged Harry for my top choice. A disappointing combine, though, isn’t enough for me to forget what I saw from Harmon when I watched him all season. He appears to be a nuanced route runner who has the play strength and body control to live on the outside. Harmon will be a good compromise for owners who miss out on Harry but aren’t willing to take the risk on Metcalf.

1.03 | DK Metcalf, WR, Ole Miss

Metcalf may go down as the most polarizing player for #DraftTwitter. His upside is evident but so are the question marks. Metcalf is a physical specimen unlike anybody we’ve seen recently. His size, speed and strength are almost literally off the charts. Unfortunately, his small sample size and injury concerns cloud the outlook for fantasy owners. I am very unlikely to own Metcalf in any of my RSO leagues but would consider him more in pure dynasty formats where there is no clock on his development.

1.04 | Hakeem Butler, WR, Iowa State

If I were forced to choose between Butler or Metcalf for my fantasy team, I think I would ultimately choose Butler. I think that is far from consensus and unlikely to happen in many RSO drafts though so that’s why I list Butler after Metcalf in this mock draft. (Side note: I always vacillate on whether these rookie mock drafts should mirror my rankings or what is most likely to happen in a typical league.) In my most recent NFL Draft preview article, I described Butler as “a speedy 6053/227 behemoth with a wingspan that would make a pterodactyl jealous.” I think that perfectly sums up why he continues creeping up draft boards, mine included. https://cms.realitysportsonline.com/the-watch-list-2019-nfl-draft-previews-sleepers/

1.05 | David Montgomery, RB, Iowa State

Finally, our first running back! Like Harry has been my top wideout, Montgomery has been my top rusher in the class for nearly two years. Other names have ebbed in popularity since I started writing about this running back class, but Montgomery has always remained constant. Montgomery lacks the long speed to be a breakaway runner but he more than makes up for it with tremendous contact balance that allows him to keep plays alive as he pinballs off defenders. He is also a plus receiver and pass blocker which will help him see the field early.

1.06 | Marquise Brown, WR, Oklahoma

The Sooners’ diminutive duo of QB Kyler Murray and WR Marquise Brown combined for numerous spectacular plays in 2018, cementing Brown’s “Hollywood” moniker. He’s lightning quick with a Mach 2 top speed – the type of player that friends would need to agree to bench when playing NCAA 14. When I studied Brown earlier this season, I was happy to see that he was not just a quick slot receiver. In fact, according to PFF’s play data, less than half of Brown’s receptions came from the slot (32 of 75). The obvious knock against Brown is his size (5093/166) but a creative offense will find a way to utilize him in space. If a team invests significant draft capital in him you can be sure that fantasy owners will take the hint.

1.07 | AJ Brown, WR, Ole Miss

The forgotten man of the 2019 draft class is AJ Brown. I honestly don’t have a good reason as to why he fell from 1.04 to 1.07 since September. It really just comes down to an excitement around Metcalf, Butler and Hollywood Brown that I don’t feel for AJ Brown. If he wasn’t in Metcalf’s shadow, we would be talking more about Brown because he performed well at the combine and put up an SEC leading 1,320 yards in 2018. I believe that Brown will be a fantasy asset whose value is independent of quarterback play because his ability to win in the slot will appeal to both savvy veterans and struggling sophomores seeking a safety valve. As somebody who owns a number of picks in the 1.07-1.09 range, I am secretly glad to see Brown fading in popularity.

1.08 | Noah Fant, TE, Iowa

The difference between Fant and TJ Hockenson for the TE1 spot is minimal. Fant is more athletic while Hockenson is the better blocker. Fant had the better 2017, while Hockenson led the way in 2018. For fantasy purposes, I think Fant makes an earlier impact because he’s more likely to see targets as a rookie. For reality purposes, I’m leaning towards Hockenson because he’s the more complete tight end right now. It’s close and the tie will ultimately be broken by team fit. Counterintuitively, I lean Fant because I think he comes off the board second, meaning he’s more likely to land in a better situation.

1.09 | Josh Jacobs, RB, Alabama

Two months ago we were talking about Jacobs’ rise and how he could emerge as the unquestioned RB1 in this class. I never quite made that jump, although I did propel him to RB2 after his late season dominance. Jacobs ran a disappointing 4.60 at his pro day but it’s important to remember that straight-line speed is only part of the evaluation. I’m currently thinking that Jacobs is drafted first but for our purposes here I’m not ready to have him leapfrog Montgomery until we see just how much draft capital is invested in both players. Both are well-rounded backs who contribute as receivers and pass protectors, but Mongtomery has the much longer track record.

1.10 | Dwayne Haskins, QB, Ohio State

I have been a strong proponent of the “2.01 Rookie QB” in my time playing on RSO. I always figured that, much like in the real NFL, locking up a young starting QB on a team-friendly deal was exorbitantly valuable. I still think that’s the case, but two things have slightly tweaked my thinking. First, my RSO leagues are superflex and I think that is becoming more popular. The most frequent ranking question I get is how to adjust for superflex and I feel that having the first quarterback come off the board in the second round is not as illustrative as it was four years ago. Second, RSO now has a fifth year option for first rounders. I don’t have the numbers to back this up, I’ll save that for my more mathematically inclined colleagues, but my gut feeling is that an extra year of somebody like Mitch Trubisky is worth more than the difference in salary between 1.10 and 2.01. Put another way, the salaries at 1.10 and 2.01 are both below market value for a young and startable QB in many leagues, so you might as well maneuver to 1.10 and get the option.

Haskins emerged as my QB1 once it was clear that Oregon’s Justin Herbert was eyeing a return to Eugene. He’s a solid pocket passer who has the arm strength and accuracy for the NFL. His mobility is limited though which will be a stark difference between him and Kyler Murray (or even Daniel Jones). Haskins may end up as the second quarterback off the board but if I was choosing between him or Murray to be the leader of my RSO franchise, I would make the safer pick.

2.01 | Kyler Murray, QB, Oklahoma

If Kyler Murray isn’t the first quarterback selected in your rookie draft, I guarantee you that he’ll be taken with the successive pick. There will be at least one Kool-Aid drinker in every league and if that person doesn’t reach for Kyler early in the first, they certainly will once the quarterback bubble bursts to make sure they get him before a run starts. As an RSO owner, I would be okay with Murray at 2.01 but will miss out on him if my leagues value him more highly. If the naysayers are proven right and his body cannot withstand the NFL, your dead cap number at 2.01 will be less than half as much than if you had taken him early. If the yaysayers are proven right and his dynamism and cannon-like arm make for a singularly talented prospect, you’ll have the bargain of all bargains.

A suggestion for RSO commissioners: have a proactive rule in place should Murray (or anybody) decide to quit football and return to baseball during his career. Some keeper and dynasty leagues I play in don’t have foolproof rules regarding players who stop playing but don’t clearly retire (i.e. Marshawn Lynch, Ladarius Green). Since Murray’s case may not be a true “retirement” I think you should address it now to avoid a messy league vote later.

2.02 | TJ Hockenson, TE, Iowa

See: Fant, Noah.

2.03 | Darrell Henderson, RB, Memphis

Henderson has unbelievable per-touch numbers the last two seasons. Over 387 combined touches, Henderson averaged 9.26 yards from scrimmage (3,584 total). I don’t know if that’s a record or not but I’ve never seen production like that sustained over two full seasons. He’s undersized at 5083/208 but he runs with a downhill style that belies his shorter stature. If the traditional stats aren’t enough to sell you on Henderson’s potential, check out PFF’s advanced metrics. He’s their second ranked back in Elusive Rating and first in Breakaway Percentage and Drop Rate. We might all be sleeping on Henderson. (In fact, while writing Henderson’s blurb, I decided to flip-flop him and Anderson. How could I be so impressed with all of his stats and not give him the edge over the oft-injured Anderson.)

2.04 | JJ Arcega-Whiteside, WR, Stanford

I fell in love with JJAW early in the season when he started the campaign on fire (17-408-7 after four games). He’s long and strong which is helpful because he’s not a great leaper. He can still win contested catches due to his play strength and wingspan. He didn’t test at the combine so his pro day was going to be huge and he did not disappoint. Arcega-Whiteside ran a 4.49 forty which far exceeded my expectation. Pro day times are always favorable to a player so I doubt he’s truly that fast but it did make me reconsider what was probably his biggest negative. In my opinion, Arcega-Whiteside has the potential to be a team’s starting boundary receiver but he lacks the athletic upside that some others in the class possess.

2.05 | Rodney Anderson, RB, Oklahoma

If not for his history of serious injuries (ACL, broken leg, broken neck bone), Rodney Anderson would be my RB1. I studied him early in the season and he just popped off the screen. He runs with great momentum, using his power and speed to run over defenders. He’s agile enough to quickly change direction at speed. Due to the small sample size (just 17 receptions in 17 career games) it’s tough to know how talented he is as a receiver. If 2.05 was my first rookie pick of the draft, there isn’t a chance I’m risking it on Anderson. However, if I have a nice cache of draft capital I’m going to take a shot and hope he stays healthy.

2.06 | Parris Campbell, WR, Ohio State

I still have not come around fully on Parris Campbell. I fully admit it may be because I am a Michigan fan, even though I try not to let that tint my evaluations. My rebuttal about Campbell was always that he was a one-trick pony and didn’t produce enough to be considered a top receiver prospect. Well, I was quite surprised to see that Campbell ended 2018 with ninety (!) receptions. He did muster 24 of those in the final three contests but I can’t spin that as a negative when I would usually applaud a player for showing up when it mattered most (one of those three games was a 6-192-2 explosion against my Wolverines). When it comes to advanced stats, Campbell stands out as well. According to PFF, he is top five in Yards Per Route Run, Slot Receptions and Slot Receiving Yards. Campbell added a stellar combine performance to all of those great stats. He finished in the 90th percentile or higher in the following categories: 40 yard dash, short shuttle, vertical jump, broad jump. Campbell is definitely somebody that I need to study more closely after we see who drafts him.

2.07 | Miles Sanders, RB, Penn State

After Saquon Barkley left for the NFL, Sanders never really earned the buzz that I thought he might once he became the lead back. I’m guilty of this myself because I didn’t devote any time during the season to studying Sanders. Now, as the NFL Draft approaches, my fellow analysts are starting to remember the promise with which Sanders arrived to Happy Valley as a highly touted teenager. Some have put Sanders as high as RB1 but I’m not ready to catapult him yet until I have a chance to study him more closely. He did put together a solid combine and his basic stats are very good: 1,274 rushing yards, 9 rushing TDs, 24 receptions, 139 receiving yards. Stay tuned.

2.08 | Damien Harris, RB, Alabama

The order of Damien Harris and Josh Jacobs is a tough one. Up until my last batch of rankings, I had Harris higher because he beat Jacobs for touches and had the higher pedigree coming out of high school. Jacobs’ late surge though showed that he just might be the better three-down back at ‘Bama. Harris checks in at 5101/216 so he has middling size to go with mediocre 4.57 speed. Despite never eclipsing 150 carries in a season, Harris has been consistent, managing two 1,000 yard seasons and cresting 3,000 career rushing yards. He’s a good receiver but not a great pass blocker. Best case: Harris is just good enough in short-yardage situations, in the open field and in pass protection that he earns an every down role. Worst case: Harris is just small enough and slow enough to get passed over in his team’s pecking order.

2.09 | Mike Weber, RB, Ohio State

Similar to Harris, I think Weber has a wide range of possibilities in the NFL. He’s an all-round back who I think will greatly outperform his draft position. I foresee a narrative where Weber impresses in training camp and earns a spot in the rotation before Week 1. I just recently wrote about Weber for my NFL Draft sleepers article, so check that out for a deeper dive. LINK: https://realitysportsonline.com/Content.aspx?articleID=the-watch-list-2019-nfl-draft-previews-sleepers

2.10 | Irv Smith, TE, Alabama

Irv Smith has one of the more bizarre “spider graphs” I have ever seen on Mockdraftable (LINK). He’s very small for the position (6023/242, 8th percentile) but quick (4.63, 83rd percentile). He also has short arms so any hope of him punching above his weight as a blocker is unlikely. The knee-jerk reaction is to label Smith as a big slot, but I also foresee him being used in an h-back role. Lining Smith up off the line of scrimmage, or in motion along the line, allows him to avoid getting jammed at the snap. Instead, he is able to use his speed to get open in the flat or to spring up field past slower linebackers.

3.01 | Anthony Johnson, WR, Buffalo

Johnson went the JUCO route out of high school, playing one season each at two different schools before getting an offer from Buffalo (and South Alabama). He was very productive for the Bulls, finishing his career with 133 receptions, 2,367 yards and 25 TDs. Johnson plays bigger and stronger than his 6017/209 frame and ran surprisingly well at his pro day (unofficial times reported were between 4.41-4.50). He’ll be a solid, if not exciting, addition to any NFL offense.

3.02 | Preston Williams, WR, Colorado State

Another JUCO transfer WR, Preston Williams excelled in his one season at Colorado State, totaling 1,345 yards and 14 TDs on 96 receptions. He’s a lanky receiver who adjusts to the ball well and has an innate ability to make spectacular catches. Williams is a 5-star talent that some team will get for a discount because of his off the field concerns.

3.03 | Devin Singletary, RB, Florida Atlantic

“Motor” Singletary put up fantastic numbers on the field the last two seasons (3,266 rushing yards and 54 TDs), unfortunately, his combine measurables left much to be desired. He is tiny at 5071 and ran just 4.66. He looks faster and stronger than those numbers suggest so we’ll need to see him perform in the preseason before investing much capital in him

3.04 | Deebo Samuel, WR, South Carolina

The catch (pun intended) with Samuel is that he’s been injured far too often in his career so I just haven’t seen enough of him to form a strong opinion. We finally got a full season out of Samuel in 2018 and he did produce: 62-882-11. He’s great with the ball in his hands and also adds a dimension as a kick returner (29.0 career average, 4 TDs) which will increase the chances that he makes an early impact. I wanted to put Samuel higher but I just had a hard time justifying it for a receiver who has a history of injuries and didn’t standout at the combine.

3.05 | David Sills, WR, West Virginia

I’m higher on Sills, for fantasy purposes, than many others. I think he will have an instant role in the NFL as a redzone threat and be deployed similar to Mark Andrews in his debut season. I’m expecting a rookie stat line of 25-200-6 which would have utility during bye weeks.

3.06 | Andy Isabella, WR, UMass

Isabella is beguiling because based on his size (5083/188) you would assume he’s just a dink-and-dunk slot receiver. To the contrary, he finished second in PFF’s Deep Receiving Yards stat and led in Yards Per Route Run. After watching some tape it’s easy to see why he is so successful at the deep ball: he’s fast and tracks the ball incredibly well. I have never seen so many over-the-shoulder catches. So, while he may look like a prototypical Patriot pass catcher, we shouldn’t discount his versatility and upside.

3.07 | Alexander Mattison, RB, Boise State

Alexander Mattison intrigues me like no other mid-tier back. I’ve tried to steer away from comps this year as they can be counterproductive but I keep coming back to Kareem Hunt when I see clips of Mattison play. He’s a powerful runner and a good receiver. He’ll be a fifth rounder with little hype but I think he’s worth a late stash in your fantasy draft.

3.08 | Benny Snell, RB, Kentucky

Snell seems destined to be a two-down back in the NFL. He can succeed in short yardage situations and runs with a bruising mentality. He’s been extremely durable despite a large workload (39 games, 737 carries) which you could spin as a “tread on the tire” negative but I’m not worried because I don’t expect him to be an every down player anyway.

3.09 | Daniel Jones, QB, Duke

Just about every time you read about Daniel Jones, you will inevitably also hear the name David Cutcliffe. Cutcliffe earned his quarterback whisperer title working with the Mannings, so I can understand the excitement. Jones is big, athletic, throws well on the move and is smart. He’s going to be drafted higher than you expect, maybe in the first twelve picks.

3.10 | Myles Gaskin, RB, Washington

Gaskin was the ultimate compiler at Washington. He managed to stay healthy throughout 52 career games, amassing 945 career carries and four straight thousand yard seasons. Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that he was so durable at his size (5091/205) because he’s stronger than others in his cohort (24 bench reps). His smaller stature will mean some teams won’t believe he can be an every down starter but he’s worth grabbing late in your draft just in case.

4.01 | Tyre Brady, WR, Marshall
4.02 | Justice Hill, RB, Oklahoma State
4.03 | Bryce Love, RB, Stanford
4.04 | Jace Sternberger, TE, Texas A&M
4.05 | Brett Rypien, QB, Boise State
4.06 | Emanuel Hall, WR, Missouri
4.07 | Miles Boykin, WR, Notre Dame
4.08 | Jalin Moore, RB, Appalachian State
4.09 | Drew Lock, QB, Missouri
4.10 | Emmanuel Butler, WR, Northern Arizona
5.01 | Trayveon Williams, RB, Texas A&M
5.02 | KeeSean Johnson, WR, Fresno State
5.03 | Terry McLaurin, WR, Ohio State
5.04 | Josh Oliver, TE, San Jose State
5.05 | Donald Parham, TE, Stetson
5.06 | Keelan Doss, WR, UC Davis
5.07 | Penny Hart, WR, Georgia State
5.08 | Devine Ozigbo, RB, Nebraska
5.09 | Tony Pollard, RB, Memphis
5.10 | Tyree Jackson, QB, Buffalo


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.  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 writing a full report for a player, I typically pick two games of film to watch.  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 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, foxsports.com, mcubed.net, expandtheboxscore.com, washingtonpost.com
  • Recruiting: 247Sports.com, espn.com, sbnation.com, rivals.com
  • Film: 2019 NFL Draft Database by Mark Jarvis, youtube.com (but be wary of highlight only reels)
  • Draft info and mocks: draftcountdown.com, draftscout.com, mattwaldmanrsp.com, draftek.com, thedraftnetwork.com, nfl.com
  • NFL rosters 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, 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, Cover 3 College Football
  • Logos & Player Media Photos: collegepressbox.com (the media home for FWAA members)
  • 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 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 MAC Preview

Updated: June 2nd 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:  Anthony Johnson, WR, Buffalo.  It takes a dominant season for a Group of 5 player to end up on the Heisman ballot (see: Rashaad Penny finishing fifth after a 2,248 rushing yard season with 28 total TDs).  If anybody in the MAC has the potential to dominate enough to get noticed by voters, it’s Johnson who went 76-1,356-14 last year.
  • Darkhorse Heisman Candidate:  Nathan Rourke, QB, Ohio.  Rourke was a force in 2017 but he’ll likely be discounted by Heisman voters in 2018.  He accounted for 39 total touchdowns (17 passing, 21 rushing, 1 receiving).  He’s the conference’s leading returner in terms of passing yards and fourth in rushing yards.  Four of his five starting linemen are back so I would expect Rourke to have continued success in 2018.
  • Offensive Player of the Year:  Nathan Rourke, QB, Ohio.  Do I need to say more?
  • Defensive Player of the Year:  Khalil Hodge, LB, Buffalo.  Hodge’s 153 tackles were second best in the FBS last year.  He had 13 more tackles than the second best tackler in the MAC.  His sacks and forced turnovers are just gravy.
  • Newcomer of the Year:  Tyler Wiegers, QB, Eastern Michigan.  Wiegers is a graduate transfer from Iowa where he made five appearances and threw just six passes.  Wiegers will compete with redshirt sophomore Isaac Stiebeling for the starting role.  If coach Chris Creighton was confident in what he had seen of Stiebeling the last two years he probably would not have brought in Wiegers so I assume it’s his job to lose.
  • Underclassman to Watch:  Shakif Seymour, RB, Toledo.  As a true freshman, Seymour played second fiddle to starter Terry Swanson who is now gone.  Seymour has great size for a back at 5110/218.  He averaged 6.1 yards per carry and showed that he can factor in as a pass catcher too.  Now that he’ll get the lion’s share of the touches, I expect his stats to double in 2018.
  • Best QB-WR Tandem:  Tyree Jackson and Anthony Johnson, Buffalo.  Both Jackson and Johnson are on my 2019 NFL Draft watch list so it makes sense that they would be my conference leading tandem.  Johnson totaled 47 receptions, 898 yards and 11 TDs in his eight games with Jackson at the helm.  That’s a great season for most players, let alone an eight game subset; in fact, those yardage and touchdown totals would have been good enough for 3rd in the conference for the full year.
  • Best RB Corps:  Ball State.  Junior RB James Gilbert started 2017 well with 207 yards and 3 TDs before a season ending thumb injury in the third game.  True freshman Caleb Huntley filled in admirably, finishing with 1,0003 yards on 210 carries.  In those first three games they played together, Huntley had 182 yards to Gilbert’s 207 which makes for a nice one-two punch.  Huntley has the frame to handle the every down work (5110/225), and three more years of eligibility, so I expect him to emerge as the lead ball carrier by the end of the year.
  • Coach on the Hottest Seat:  Chuck Martin, Miami Ohio.  According to CoachingTreeHotseat.com, Martin has outperformed his team’s projected wins three of the last four seasons.  That sounds encouraging until you realize the record over that span is just 16-33, that’s just how bad the team was projected to be.  Martin has eleven returning senior starters per Athlon Sports so there’s no excuse for the Redhawks to miss a bowl game again in 2018.  Miami Ohio has had a rough decade and though little of that is Martin’s fault fans must be restless.

Teams to Watch

  Eastern Michigan (5-7 in 2017)

Eastern Michigan started and ended the season quite well.  The issue was the six game losing streak in between.  During that stretch the Eagles lost all six games by seven points or less, with the average loss being less than four points.  One bounce of the ball can turn the tide in games that close and to lose six of them in a row is extremely unlucky.  EMU had the second best defense in the conference in terms of points allowed, passing yards allowed and total yards allowed.  A strong defense, two returning running backs (Ian Eriksen and Shaq Vann) and better luck, should help them get past the growing pains of breaking in a new quarterback.  Head coach Chris Creighton got Eastern to its first bowl game in 2016 since the 1980s and I expect him to repeat that success in 2018.

 Buffalo (6-6 in 2017)

The Bulls improved to 6-6 last year, after a tough 2-10 campaign in 2016, but it could have been better.  Like Eastern Michigan, Buffalo was the victim of a number of close losses: all six were ten points or less, including two by just a single point.  The 2017 Bulls suffered through some quarterback injuries (three different players started a game).  The starter for 2018 will be Tyree Jackson who played in five of the team’s wins last season.  Between Jackson, WR Anthony Johnson and LB Khalil Hodge, Buffalo has a nucleus of NFL Draft hopefuls that few teams in the Group of 5 can match.

Players to Watch

Honorable Mentions

  • Riley Neal, QB, Ball State:  Neal is an interesting name to file away.  He currently has little buzz but that should change come September after Ball State visits Notre Dame and Indiana.  Those two games will give Neal a national spotlight.  Should he play well, draftniks will start talking him up.  Neal has elite size at 6060/225 and his rate stats have progressed nicely over his first three seasons.  Unfortunately, his 2017 season was cut short due to a leg injury.  In the three games he did play in, Neal was completing 67.7% of his passes and threw for 659 yards.
  • Nathan Rourke, QB, Ohio:  Rourke is a college fantasy football player’s dream.  As I mentioned above, he’s the conference’s leading returning passer (2,203 yards)  He also has the fourth most rushing yards of any returner (907).  He even caught three passes in 2017 for 36 yards and a score.  Rourke managed to play in all 13 games last season but underwent surgery this offseason so that will be something to monitor.  His size (6020/210) and number of carries (137) combine to worry me that it’s a matter of time before he sustains a serious injury.  At this time Rourke is more of a fun college player to watch than an NFL Draft prospect.
  • Jonathan Ward, RB, Central Michigan:  Ward’s stats stood out to me not because of anything he did as a runner but instead what he did as a receiver.  As a sophomore in 2017, Ward totaled 48 receptions, 470 yards and 3 TDs.  His 48 receptions were sixth best in the FBS among running backs.  He did well on the ground too, adding 1,024 yards rushing and 10 scores.  Ward has good height at 6000 but needs to add a few pounds (estimates range between 185-195lbs).  If he repeats his 2017 production this season he might come out and take his chances as a late round flyer.
  • AJ Ouellette, RB, Ohio:  Ouelette is not a flashy prospect but he strikes me as the type of steady player who can latch onto the bottom of an NFL roster as a priority UDFA.  He missed all but three plays of 2016 with an injured foot but rebounded in 2017 with 1,006 yards and 7 TDs.  As a freshman in 2014, Ouellette featured prominently as a receiver with 21 grabs and 3 receiving TDs.  His receiving production fell off a bit since then but it’s good to see that he has that in his game.
  • James Gardner, WR, Miami Ohio:  Gardner has elite size at 6040/216 so that alone puts him on my radar.  He has back-to-back seasons of decent production, although I want to see more in 2018.  Between 2016 and 2017, Gardner averaged 46 receptions, 837 yards and 8 TDs.  His 19.7 yards per catch average in 2017 ranked 15th in the FBS.  Gardner is one of the few receiver prospects in the conference who has a returning senior quarterback throwing to him so that should help keep his production improve further.
  • Diontae Johnson, WR, Toledo:  I was torn on which Toledo WR I should more deeply study, either Diontae Johnson or Cody Thompson.  I decided on Thompson because he has better size but that doesn’t mean Johnson is a slouch. Johnson excelled in 2017 in Thompson’s absence with four of his biggest games coming after Thompson’s injury.  Johnson’s season totals were: 74 receptions, 1,278 yards and 13 TDs.  He’s an electric playmaker who is fantastic with the ball in his hands either after the catch or when returning kicks.  I watched two 2017 highlight reels and despite his 5110/181 size, he often lines up outside.  In those highlights he showed an ability to make contested catches.  After a quick study, it appears he has the tools to be a solid slot receiver in the NFL.
  • Max Scharping, OT, Northern Illinois:  Scharping is listed at 6060/320 and is a two-time All-MAC selection.  DraftScout.com currently has him listed as the 7th ranked OT in the 2019 senior class.  If he can prove that he is a worthy tackle, rather than having to move inside at the next level, he’ll gradually move up draft boards.
  • Sutton Smith, DE, Northern Illinois:  Smith burst onto the scene in 2017 with a FBS-leading 14 sack season (plus 30 tackles for loss).  Smith is a former high school running back who measures in at just 6000/220.  Those measurements would have made him the shortest and lightest DE/OLB prospect in the 2018 class.  He’s likely too small to get draft consideration but if he repeats his 2017 production he’ll have us talking about him nonetheless.
  • Khalil Hodge, LB, Buffalo:  Rising senior linebacker Khalil Hodge is a name to keep in mind for IDP players.  Hodge is a tackling machine with 276 tackles over the last two seasons.  His 153 in 2017 was second most in the FBS.  In 2017 he also improved his stat line by adding 3 sacks, 2 forced fumbles and 2 INTs.  He’s a completely different player but sharing a name and alma mater with NFL standout Khalil Mack could help Hodge get even more attention.

Anthony Johnson, WR, Buffalo

Anthony Johnson is a former JUCO transfer who showed up in a big way for the Bulls in 2019.  His line was an impressive: 76-1,356-14.  Many of those touchdowns were of the spectacular variety: one-handed, over-the-shoulder, toe-tapping, etc.  When you watch Johnson, he appears to play bigger than his 6020 height suggests so I expect him to test well at the NFL Combine.  He uses his length and jumping ability to high point the ball and snag contested throws.  I particularly like to see him go over and through defenders when he’s coming back for the ball, dominating them with his size and strength.  Johnson does lack elite speed which hurts him when releasing off the line and when running after the catch.  He does however appear to use his hands well when fighting off a press corner which helped him get enough separation on a number of plays.  He also uses leverage well, especially on some of the over-the-shoulder touchdown grabs, gaining just an extra inch of space.  Johnson is utilized in a variety of ways and frequently comes in motion (maybe to aid in his release and getting up to speed).  He is featured on trick plays and screens in addition to his regular route tree.  I did note a few plays where his breaks looked slow rather than quick and crisp.  Johnson’s ability to consistently win at the catch point and to dominate smaller defenders will help him rise up draft boards this fall.  Right now I’m thinking that he will be fantasy relevant for 2019.  (Film watched: Western Michigan 2017, Minnesota 2017, Highlights 2017)

Tyree Jackson, QB, Buffalo

I usually use “elite” to describe the top end of a specific trait; standardized adjectives make it easy for readers to compare and contrast as they read through my content.  I don’t have a superlative for Jackson’s size though because it’s even better than elite.  Let’s go with A++++.  Jackson measures in at 6070/245.  He pairs that size with deceiving speed and rushing ability, which is rare for a passer of his height.  As a thrower, Jackson has a monster arm.  Compared to all of the other FCS and Group of 5 quarterbacks I’ve studied so far, his arm is the strongest without a doubt.  There are multiple plays in my notes where the ball flew 50+ yards in the air.  Unfortunately, Jackson sacrifices accuracy with that strength.  He often misses behind his receivers and lacks anticipation.  I do not often see him reading the field and going through progressions so that’s something else I will need to see him showcase in 2018.  Like most quarterbacks in his range, pressure can really rattle him and force ill advised throws.  Wherever you think Jackson will go in the NFL Draft in 2019 (I’m betting he comes out), I guarantee that he will go higher.  There are very few prospects that have his measureables and NFL coaches will feel that they can fix the issues in his game.  I will not be surprised if we’re talking a Pat Mahomes like rise for Jackson come March 2019.  (Film watched: Minnesota 2017)

Cody Thompson, WR, Toledo

Thompson stood out to me during my preliminary MAC research because of his 20.0 yards per catch average over his career.  Thompson led the MAC in that stat in both 2015 and 2016 and was Top 10 in the FBS both years too.  His 2017 season was cut short due to injury, but his average through those first five games was impressive again: 19.2.  I watched two of Thompson’s games from 2016 to get a feel for his game pre-injury.  He is not the quickest, I’m thinking he has 4.60 speed.  He does well when he has the ball in his hands, utilizing good balance and a killer spin move to fight through defenders.  Speaking of his hands, Thompson too often body-catches the ball rather than using his hands.  His hand placement may also need work.  Against BYU he had a big 78 yard touchdown reception but on the highlight you can see his hands are very wide and the ball nearly goes through his hands before he grasps the back half of it.  Thompson was utilized all over the field, including from the slot and in motion.  One of the biggest reasons he was deployed that way was to take advantage of his blocking ability which is above average to good for the position.  He shows a willingness to engage with the defender and has good technique but he does lack the strength to hold the block for long.  Thompson lacks a high ceiling but will latch onto the bottom of an NFL roster and should contribute situationally and on special teams.  (Film watched: BYU 2016, Fresno State 2016)


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.  Then 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