The Watch List 2021: Early QB Tiers

Updated: November 18th 2020

Throughout the rest of the season 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.

Future Pro Bowlers

  • Justin Fields, Ohio State

  • Trevor Lawrence, Clemson

Almost everybody in the football world — NFL front offices, amateur draftniks like myself, fantasy football players — has had their eye on the 2021 NFL Draft for years. The crown jewel of the draft class, and the reason everybody has been talking about this draft for three years, is undoubtedly Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence. Between he and Ohio State’s Justin Fields, this quarterback class is top heavy with a sizable tier break between the top two and the field. Lawrence might have been the first overall pick out of high school, let alone after his successful freshman and sophomore seasons. So far in 2020, Lawrence has continued to play at a high level and has been even more efficient than the last two campaigns; his completion percentage, yards per attempt, TD:INT ratio and passer rating have all improved. Lawrence is a once-every-ten-year prospect who mixes supreme size, plus athleticism, and a quiet confidence. He has missed two games to date after testing positive for covid, but we have no reason to believe he won’t fully recover and star once again in the College Football Playoff.

It’s hard to believe, but Justin Fields is off to an even hotter start in 2020 than Lawrence. Through three games, Fields has accounted for more touchdowns (13) than he’s thrown incompletions (11). His college career started out a bit rocky at Georgia before transferring to Ohio State, but it’s clear the move worked out perfectly for Fields. Off the field — pun intended — Justin Fields is a leader who helped ensure the Big Ten played in 2020.

I fully expect Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields to be the top two picks in the 2021 NFL Draft and look forward to cheering them on for years to come.

Surefire First Rounders

  • Trey Lance, North Dakota State

  • Zach Wilson, BYU

Prior to the start of the season, Trey Lance was the consensus QB3 in this draft class. Unfortunately for Lance fans like myself, we only got to see him play once this season due to the patchwork nature of the FCS football season. That has opened the door for BYU’s Zach Wilson to be the next off the board.

If you looked up the term “passing efficiency” in the dictionary you’ll see an entry that says: See Lance, Trey. In seventeen games as a starter, Lance has thrown 30 passing TDs to just a single INT. For good measure he’s also added 16 rushing TDs. Two important notes, 1) Lance is playing against a lower level of opponent in the FCS, and 2) he has a small sample size of starts. But, his skill is apparent when you watch the tape. When I recently wrote about Lance I ended by saying, “Lance oozes natural talent, confidence and charisma that has me as excited as I was when studying Patrick Mahomes back in 2017.” Trey Lance still has a lot to prove during the draft process but he’ll be a first rounder and I predict he will climb back up overall rankings once teams start seeing him in person.

Zach Wilson came on strong midseason in 2018 and earned attention from #DraftTwitter. His 2019 season was a bit of a disappointment though, including missing some time to injury. 2020 has been a revelation for Wilson and the undefeated Cougars. When I previewed Wilson heading into Week 1, I quipped that “he has a bit of a ‘je ne sais quoi’ about him.” Wilson keeps plays alive, is a threat to pickup chunk yardage with his legs, and has a knack for making big plays. Like Lance, Wilson hasn’t faced the toughest competition this year but he’s been impressive nonetheless. I think there’s too much mustang in Wilson for him to be a day one NFL starter but his intangibles and raw ability will make him a late first at worst.

Preseason Shortlist Picks

  • Tanner Morgan, Minnesota

  • Jamie Newman, Georgia/Wake Forest

  • Brock Purdy, Iowa State

  • Kyle Trask, Florida

This next grouping comprises four players who I had high hopes for heading into the 2020 season and whose current draft value is all over the place now. Jamie Newman, a dual threat with great size who in 2019 led Wake Forest to one of its best seasons in recent history, opted out. He’ll need to wow NFL teams at the combine and throughout the predraft process. Perhaps Tanner Morgan should have opted out as well because it’s been a rough start to the season for him and the Gophers. After a strong sophomore season, Morgan was a popular pick for an under the radar pocket passer prospect but I suspect his stock is sliding now. I haven’t had a chance to watch much Brock Purdy this season, but from what I have seen it does not appear that he took the step forward that I hoped for. Purdy and the Cyclones are atop the Big 12 right now so he’ll have two more statement games remaining: one against Texas on Black Friday and again in the Big 12 Championship game.

Of the four prospects in this tier, Kyle Trask has clearly done the most to improve his 2021 draft stock. The Gators are currently the favorites to represent the SEC East in the conference championship. The reason they are in the driver’s seat for the division is that the unflappable Trask led Florida to a resounding 44-28 win over Georgia; Trask threw for a career-best 474 yards and tossed 4 TDs. He leads the NCAA in touchdown passes (28) and has not had fewer than four in a game this season. Against Arkansas last weekend, Trask threw for 6 TDs for the second time this season. His unmatched production this season surely has him in the hunt for the Heisman. I was critical of him in the spring, but after what I’ve seen this season Trask feels like a high floor prospect who has a shot at being a first rounder.

Regular Season Risers

  • Mac Jones, Alabama

  • Kellen Mond, Texas A&M

  • Desmond Ridder, Cincinnati

The three passers in this cohort are my picks to be the biggest risers when we compare their preseason and postseason draft values. Because of that, I thought it felt appropriate to place their tier here, just after the players we were talking about most in the preseason.

Mac Jones has lit the SEC on fire in his short stint so far as the starter. He’s leading the conference in a number of metrics including yards per attempt and passer rating. Sure, he has better targets than some NFL teams but he delivers them an accurate deep ball. Jones puts good touch on his ball and loves to pump fake (which is a skill I love seeing in college quarterbacks). Jones might also be the rare player who comes in bigger than his listed 6020/214 measurables. He is only a junior, and since this year won’t count against his eligibility, Jones could stay on at Tuscaloosa for another two seasons even with his trend line pointing due north.

Conversely to Jones, Aggies’ QB Kellen Mond is a veteran fourth year starter with 28 career wins. Mond has led A&M to a surprising 5-1 start and a #5 ranking. Unfortunately, the Aggies lost to Alabama earlier in the year so they would need a two-loss implosion from the Tide to win the division. Wins against LSU and Auburn would surely signal who is next-best in the division though. Kellen Mond’s arm, toughness and athleticism always jump off the screen when I watch him so I’m not sure why he isn’t rated higher by draft fans, maybe it’s something I’m not seeing with his mechanics. If there’s a “why the hell was this guy drafted that late” player on this list five years from now, it’ll be Mond.

I just recently wrote about Desmond Ridder and how he looks like “the whole package” to me. Since I published that, all Ridder did was account for four scores in a blowout 55-17 win over East Carolina. Don’t sleep on Desmond Ridder.

Winners with Question Marks

  • Ian Book, Notre Dame

  • Shane Buechele, SMU

  • Sam Ehlinger, Texas

  • D’Eriq King, Miami

This quartet is my biggest question mark when it comes to draft value. Somebody with the athletic gifts that D’Eriq King possesses could have a meteoric rise to the first round if he finishes strong and impresses at the combine (although I think it’s safe to say at this point that we’re not looking at another Kyler Murray-esque leap to first overall). His combination of deep ball arm, speed and elusiveness is rare but I’m sure teams will question his size and durability.

Shane Buechele and Sam Ehlinger, former teammates at Texas, are both flat out winners. Buechele found his forever home at SMU where he currently owns a 17-5 record as the starter. He currently leads the FBS in a number of passing stat categories. Buechele is a leader and has helped rehab the image of a school that’s long been associated with past transgressions. Ehlinger’s record of 28-15 isn’t as impressive but he’s led the Longhorns to so many victories by sheer force of will. I’ve never watched Ehlinger and thought “wow, he’s a great passer” but I have thought “wow, I’d love to have that guy on my team.”

Admittedly, I have been a debbie downer when it comes to Ian Book through the years. I haven’t quite come around on him as a pro prospect — I always feel like I’m waiting for a mistake — but I cannot argue with his performance in this upside down season. College football is better when Notre Dame is in the playoff hunt and we have Book to thank for that (along with Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah of course).

I’ve casually watched these four play in — and win — a lot of college football games. I will need to give them their due film study in the offseason to see if they have the skills to push into Day Two territory.

Transfers Forging a New Path

  • KJ Costello, Mississippi State

  • Feleipe Franks, Arkansas

  • Brandon Peters, Illinois

These three players are each starting for a different Power 5 squad than they started their career with. I’m always interested in closely watching big-name transfer quarterbacks to see how the change of scenery impacts their chance at stardom.

In the case of Brandon Peters, he’s probably wishing he had stayed at Michigan. The Wolverines are off to an awful start and a good portion of the blame rests on new signal caller Joe Milton who is not yet ready for prime time. That could have been Peters’ job if he had stayed. I’ve been a fan of Peters since I saw him live in his first game action in Ann Arbor and still think he has an outside shot at making an NFL roster. Unfortunately, we haven’t seen much of Peters yet this season because of a positive covid test.

Both KJ Costello and Feleipe Franks have caught my attention at different points this year. In his first game for Mississippi State, Costello completed 36 of 60 passes for 623 yards and 5 TDs. Things have gone down hill for Costello since then though: he has just one more touchdown pass to eight interceptions and missed the last game with a head injury. Costello has a prior history of concussions so that is a bit concerning. Feleipe Franks started the season with a middling outing against Georgia in the season opener but has been on a tear since (with the team going 3-3 in those six). In those six contests against some of the SEC’s best, Franks has 15 touchdowns and just one pick; he’s also adding important yards on the ground too.

All three of these guys were highly rated 4-star recruits with NFL size and above average physical traits. Some NFL team is bound to give them a shot as a late rounder as a project quarterback.

Riddle Wrapped Enigmas

  • Adrian Martinez, Nebraska

  • McKenzie Milton, UCF

  • Kenny Pickett, Pitt

If we were choosing up teams for a Thanksgiving day pickup game, the three guys on this list would be in the running for an early pick. Martinez has a ton of natural talent but has never put it together in Scott Frost’s offense. In fact, as I was working on this article, Martinez was sidelined in favor of Luke McCaffrey. If the Martinez era is officially over in Lincoln, I hope we see Martinez transfer somewhere else for one last hurrah. Speaking of Scott Frost, McKenzie Milton was his prolific quarterback during that magical undefeated 2017 season at UCF. Milton suffered a catastrophic leg injury in 2018 and is hoping to return to the field before he ends his college career. Between the injury and his small frame, it’s unlikely Milton gets any NFL Draft love but I’ll be rooting for him to complete his comeback. Kenny Pickett has a cult-like following and I’m one of those fans. He hasn’t truly shown us NFL-worthy traits but he’s a fun guy to watch and has been solid for Pitt. Pickett has a swagger and confidence that comes through whenever I see him play.

These three players may never see a regular season snap in the NFL but I’ll bet we see some preseason highlights from them whenever they attempt to make the jump to the pros.

Small School Sleepers

  • Zerrick Cooper, Jacksonville State

  • Aqeel Glass, Alabama A&M

  • Levi Lewis, Lousiana-Lafayette

  • Zac Thomas, Appalachian State

The four guys in this final tier should be priority free agents if not a seventh round flyer. If given the chance they just might be able to make an NFL roster. Although it would take some crazy dominoes to fall for them to be fantasy relevant any time soon, I think you should still file their names away.

Heading into 2019, I identified Zerrick Cooper as my pick to win the Walter Payton Award, the FCS equivalent of the Heisman. Cooper wasn’t named an award finalist but he did throw for over 3,400 yards and scored 34 total touchdowns. Against Florida State earlier this season, Jacksonville State held a lead at halftime and scared Seminoles fans half to death; Cooper completed 22 of 30 passes for 232 yards in the game, adding a score on the ground. Cooper has good size at 6030/225 and is a transfer from Clemson.

Unfortunately we did not get to see Aqeel Glass at all this season since the SWAC moved their season to the spring. I highlighted Glass a few months ago and chose him as my top small school quarterback sleeper (Cooper would be a close second). He’s tall (6050) with good pocket mobility. He was near the top of the FCS in key passing stats in 2019 and I’d expect the same in 2020 if he takes the field.

Levi Lewis and Zach Thomas are bound to be compared to each other. They are two of the Sun Belt’s best-ever quarterbacks. They will both end their careers with over 6,000 passing yards and 60 total touchdowns. Lewis and Thomas are both undersized dual threat quarterbacks who are comfortable outside of the pocket and can keep plays alive. Lewis is a lefty which is interesting because there are so few of them at the NFL level. Of the two, I would guess that Thomas has the better pro portfolio. A December 4th matchup will be fun to watch and could have Sun Belt Championship implications.

 

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: Week 1 Preview

Updated: August 30th 2020

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 top prospects and let you know who is fantasy relevant and worth your valuable draft capital.

The struggle of the spring and summer is perhaps more prologue than peak. It’s late August as I type this, and we’re days away from college football starting, and yet I have no idea where to begin. Typically this would be the time when I would be putting the finishing touches on the preliminary version of my rookie draft, but I’ve honestly lost the pundit’s path. Part of that is the upheaval and uncertainty surrounding the 2020 season, and part of that is how insignificant college football feels right now in America. Instead of trying to forecast the innumerable unknowns of our next draft season, I am going to take things a week or two at a time and highlight some draft eligible players you should focus on. Here’s who I’ll have my eye on in Week 1.

Thursday, September 3

Spencer Brown, RB, UAB

As a true freshman in 2017, Spencer Brown helped the Blazers earn an 8-5 record in their comeback season. Brown racked up 1,329 yards and 10 TDs that season and then followed with a 1,227-16 sophomore campaign. His efficiency dipped in 2019 as he battled injury but he still led the team in rushing (566-5). Brown is a power runner with a 6000/220 frame without receiving upside (just 15 career receptions). In 2018, I wondered whether Brown was “a one hit wonder or a star in the making.” I suppose he’s at least a two-hit wonder with his future still uncertain. Brown is unlikely to be a fantasy asset in 2021, but I’d bet he makes a camp roster and sometimes that opportunity is all a young running back needs.

Tim Jones, WR, Southern Miss

Admittedly, I had never heard of Tim Jones before doing research for this piece but he landed on Phil Steele’s preseason first team All C-USA squad so I figured I should check him out. Jones is primarily deployed from the slot which enabled him to collect 73 balls last year, enough to lead the team. He’s of average build (6010/192) and looks like he has a little giddy-up but is not a speedster. The highlight reel I watched showed him winning in myriad ways: in traffic, down field over the shoulder, lined up outside, in the air, etc. Jones may be the quintessential well-rounded mid-major receiver which probably isn’t enough to get drafted but it is enough to root for on Thursday night.

Saturday, September 5

Kenneth Gainwell, RB, Memphis

(Editor’s note: since this piece was posted, Gainwell has announced that he will be opting out of the 2020 season.)

Kenny Gainwell, without a doubt, is the most likely future fantasy star who will see the field in Week 1. As a redshirt freshman in 2019, Gainwell exploded for the potent Tiger offense. He earned 1,459 rushing yards on 231 attempts (6.3 ypa), 610 receiving yards on 51 receptions (12.0 ypr), and scored 16 total TDs. His stats are even more impressive when you consider he was sharing touches with Antonio Gibson (Washington) and Patrick Taylor (Green Bay) at times last season. Gainwell has great acceleration; he can make one smart cut at the line of scrimmage and then be behind the DBs before you blink. He also has enough pop to bounce off a tackle and fight for extra yards. Gainwell is also a superb receiver. He’s trusted as a pass catcher so much that he was split out and running receiver routes at times. If you can only watch one game this weekend, make it this contest between Memphis and Arkansas State. The Red Wolves allowed 215 rushing yards per game last year (114th worst in the NCAA), so there’s potential for Gainwell to feast in a primetime feature.

Brenden Knox, RB, Marshall

Heading into the 2019 season, I wrote that I would flag Knox’s name for 2021, so here we are. Knox, currently a late round draft prospect, might not normally get such a spotlight in the season’s opening weekend but I’m hopeful he can make the most of the national ESPN spotlight. Knox finished strong in 2018 as a freshman (578-4 in five late season starts) and similarly dominated the second half of 2019 (988-7 in eight conference games). Knox runs with above average speed, contact balance and elusiveness. He does well between the tackles even though he seems smaller than his listed size of 6000/223. From the bits I’ve seen, I think Knox can be a reliable receiver and pass blocker too. Knox is on the short list of players most likely to increase his draft stock with so many teams sidelined.

Monday, September 7

Zach Wilson, QB, BYU

I became obsessed with Zach Wilson when I saw him play a few times as a true freshman in 2018. He has a bit of a “je ne sais quoi” about him: even though he has flaws I really enjoy watching him. Wilson receives a lot of comparisons to Johnny Manziel, which I definitely see. He keeps plays alive with his feet and can turn a dead play into a touchdown with an effortless looking toss down field. It’s not all rainbows though, as Wilson’s efficiency dropped significantly last season. Apparently Wilson has not yet been named the starter for the 2020 Cougars but I would assume he gets the nod. I doubt Wilson is on NFL radars, especially as a true junior, but he’s fun to watch and should provide a captivating ending to the holiday weekend if he’s named the starter.

Matt Bushman, TE, BYU

Bushman has been receiving some much-deserved attention this offseason. He was named to the Mackey Award preseason watchlist, was named the Cougars most improved player in camp, and landed at TE6 on Phil Steele’s list of draft eligible prospects. Bushman has put up three solid years of production, with an average line of 42-573-3, and is poised to finish his career strong. He’s a receiver first who has soft, natural hands. Bushman also has some YAC in him, making plays after he secures the grab. Last year, I said that Bushman was one of the best underclassmen blocking tight ends I had watched, but after watching his 2019 tape against Washington I’m not as sure. At worst, he’s an average college blocker who could turn into a versatile two-way tight end in the NFL if he fills out his 6050/240 body. BYU starts the covid-impacted season with road games at Navy and at Army which will both be national telecasts on ESPN and CBS, respectively. Those opening service academy contests, before the other top tight end prospects start their season, will be key for Bushman to make the case as a Day Two contender.

 

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
  • 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