The Watch List 2021: The Battle for 1.01

Updated: July 15th 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 Summer as The Watch List will preview the top prospects and let you know who is fantasy relevant and worth your valuable draft capital.

Will we or won’t we? It’s too soon to know whether we’ll have a college football season in the Fall or how it will impact the pre-draft process for 2021 prospects. I’ve held off on writing and research the last few weeks — honestly, it was hard to find inspiration with so many question marks — but I’m back at it today bringing you three players I think have a chance at being the 1.01 in 2021 rookie drafts. In my opinion, the three players that have distanced themselves from the field at this point are RB Travis Etienne, RB Chuba Hubbard and WR Ja’marr Chase. (WR Rondale Moore of Purdue may be in the conversation as well but he’s coming off a season-ending injury and I’ve already written about him this offseason.) This potential three-man race is reminding me of 2017 when we had to decide between Christian McCaffrey, Leonard Fournette and Corey Davis at the top of rookie drafts. I personally ranked them Fournette, Davis and McCaffrey but I recall many analysts had Davis leading their lists. McCaffrey, as we know with the benefit of hindsight, was the best selection but at the time he was atop fewer rankings than Fournette or Davis. The 2021 top tier, featuring two running backs and one wide receiver, looks to be an equally tough race to handicap. (Note: I sorted these three alphabetically, I’m not yet ready to put them in order!)

 

Ja’Marr Chase, WR, LSU

  • Measurables: 6010/200
  • 2018 Stats: 13 games, 23 receptions, 313 rec yards, 13.6 ypr, 3 rec TDs
  • 2019 Stats: 14 games, 84 receptions, 1,780 rec yards, 21.2 ypr, 20 rec TDs

In the English language we lack a superlative to describe just how truly prolific the LSU passing offense was in 2019. Quarterback Joe Burrow’s 60 passing touchdown mark may not be broken any time soon but what really caught my eye was that the Tigers had two players pacing the country in receiving touchdowns. Ja’Marr Chase led the nation with 20 while teammate Justin Jefferson had 18. Chase also led the FBS in receiving yards (1,780), won the Fred Biletnikoff Award and was named a consensus All-American. What a season! Can Chase match his output on a reloading LSU offense?

I watched three videos of Chase to get a good barometer of his game: games against Alabama and Auburn and a season-long highlight package. I was impressed with Chase’s ability to help keep a play alive while his quarterback looks for an open receiver. I’d bet the average length of play on Chase’s targets was the longest in the country. When he is targeted, Chase uses his short-area quickness and leaping ability to find slivers of space. He adjusts well to the ball when it’s in the air and loves coming back to the ball to make the grab. His hands appear to be sticky and strong, with most catches secured away from his body. I was surprised with how physical Chase was on certain plays. This completion against Auburn shows Chase fighting with the corner all the way across the field. Burrow places the ball well, but Chase did well to get enough separation to make the play possible.

Chase also showed his physicality on this play later in the Auburn game. He takes his route outside along the boundary and leans on the corner. The leverage gives him enough space to create a one-handed, over-the-shoulder masterpiece.

I did notice, however, that Chase was not consistently willing to engage in plays that weren’t going his way. I saw a few half-hearted attempts at blocks or decoy routes. The worst example was on a key play late in a one possession game against Alabama. Chase completely blew off his blocking assignment on a play that appeared designed to run to his side. His running back still converted the score but I want to see my top receiver trying to dominate his defender with the game on the line.

As I watched Chase, I vacillated on my opinion. His highlights are eye-popping, I think he’ll be a versatile slot receiver in the NFL, but there were moments where I wanted more from him. He is still young and it’s clear he is a talented player so I don’t want to be too critical in my evaluation. Chase has the upside of a first round pick and another Biletnikoff-winning season will put him in contention for the 1.01.

Travis Etienne, RB, Clemson

  • Measurables: 5100/210
  • 2017 Stats: 13 games, 107 carries, 766 rush yards, 7.2 ypc, 13 rush TDs; 5 receptions, 57 rec yards, 11.4 ypr, 0 rec TDs; 19 kick returns, 20.5 ypr
  • 2018 Stats: 15 games, 204 carries, 1,658 rush yards, 8.1 ypc, 24 rush TDs; 12 receptions, 78 rec yards, 6.5 ypr, 2 rec TDs
  • 2019 Stats: 15 games, 207 carries, 1,614 rush yards, 7.8 ypc, 19 rush TDs; 37 receptions, 432 rec yards, 11.7 ypr, 4 rec TDs

Travis Etienne is my favorite player in the college game at the moment. I started writing about him back in September 2017 and here we are nearly three years later. In last year’s ACC preview, I started Etienne’s writeup by saying, “Travis Etienne may hold the record for the player I have written about the most in my The Watch List series.” Well, here we are again! Since I last wrote about Etienne, all he did was lead the ACC in rushing again and win his second ACC Player of the Year award. Etienne is no one-hit wonder either: he led the NCAA in touchdowns from scrimmage in 2018. He already owns the record for most rushing touchdowns in modern ACC history and should put that record out of reach in 2020.

Any sports fan with a pulse has seen Etienne crushing defenses the last three years as Clemson rose to the top of the totem pole. I’ll keep it simple… Etienne is a long strider with breakaway speed, he is surprisingly difficult to bring down because he combines power and balance, and he has become a reliable receiver. To help illustrate the strengths of Etienne’s game, I picked out three of my favorite plays from late in the 2019 season. In this play against Virginia in the ACC Championship Game, you see Etienne read his off-tackle cut before setting his sights on the end zone. He fends off two leg tackles and then stiff arms the safety for five yards, making it impossible for the defender to get his hands on him to bring him down.

Etienne played a key role against Ohio State in the semi-finals, scoring three touchdowns. The first points for the Tigers came on this option play that was doomed after the pitch. Etienne is twelve yards from the goal line with two defenders in his face. He stretches the defense towards the sideline, hand fights with the defender, and somehow finds a way through the crowd to the promised land. As Etienne scores there are eight Buckeyes in the frame who all had a chance to bring him down at some point. This play, along with the one against Virginia, show Etienne’s strength and balance, as well as his determination to succeed.

His second receiving touchdown of the Ohio State game shows his evolution as a pass catcher and I’ll bet it was a play they held onto for a key situation. The linebackers cheat up which lets Etienne sneak behind them. QB Trevor Lawrence delivers a Tebow-esque jump pass over the line of scrimmage which Etienne hands-catches as he spins upfield and accelerates. His movement is so fluid in that moment that I found myself rewinding repeatedly to watch it again. The linebacker was just a yard away when Etienne caught the pass but he had no hope of tackling him in the open field. Two defensive backs do get to Etienne but neither could bring him down before the touchdown. The cherry on top? It was the go-ahead score that put Clemson into the national championship game.

I’ll be rooting for Etienne in 2020 and hope he can end his Clemson career on a high note. He’s my pick to be the top running back on NFL draft boards in 2021 and deserves strong 1.01 consideration for rookie drafts.

Chuba Hubbard, RB, Oklahoma State

  • Measurables: 6010/207
  • 2018 Stats: 13 games, 124 carries, 740 rush yards, 6.0ypc, 7 rush TDs; 22 receptions, 229 rec yards, 10.4 ypr, 2 rec TDs; 23 kick returns, 22.2 ypr
  • 2019 Stats: 13 games, 328 carries, 2,094 rush yards, 6.4 ypc, 21 rush TDs; 23 receptions, 198 rec yards, 8.6 ypr, 0 rec TDs

When I wrote about Chuba Hubbard in early September 2019, I suggested that “it’s not crazy to think that Hubbard will be leading the FBS in rushing at the end of September.” Not only did Hubbard dominate in September, he had continued success the rest of the year too and finished as the leading rusher in the nation. He also led the way in rushing attempts and touchdowns too so it should be no surprise that he was a consensus All-American and Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year.

Since he was just a sophomore and not draft eligible, I didn’t watch Hubbard too closely after the beginning of the season. However, I did want to share one observation I made at the time about the “nuance” that Hubbard runs with. The play I was referring to was a touchdown scamper against Oregon State. “The replay angle allows you to better see the play develop. He stretches the defense horizontally as he awaits the pitch. Once he secures the ball he gets upfield and uses a nearly imperceptible hesitation move to get around his engaged blocker.” I forgot all about that play but fell in love with it again once I revisited it.

Hubbard is a high-volume running back who had a combined 57 carries in the two games I watched (Texas and TCU from 2019). He is a balanced runner who shows some pop and some speed but lacks elite power or quickness. Hubbard shines when he is able to run north-south rather than east-west. Instead of trying to stretch the defense, Hubbard excels when he’s able to keep his pads parallel to the line of scrimmage and use his vision and patience to find the best crease. That patience can turn into indecisiveness at times but it’s usually a positive rather than a negative. Against Texas I noted a number of good blocks in pass protection which is a great skill for a young running back to have already.

This run against Texas was a good example of Hubbard’s ceiling. He takes the handoff at the twenty and strings the play along, continuing towards the sideline with no clear running lanes. As a defender fights off a block, Hubbard needs to decide whether he should try to cut it inside or continue to the outside. He sees his receivers have their blocks sealed so he has a shot at the end zone from the outside. He shrugs off a weak arm-tackle attempt, slows his momentum to stay in bounds, keeps his balance, and uses his body to protect the ball as he absorbs a hit at the goal line.

Hubbard may not have the explosiveness that Etienne has but he still has long speed, which you can see on this play against TCU. Hubbard gets the ball at about the five yard line and has his choice of two huge off-center holes. He takes the left side, runs past two potential tacklers and then outruns three guys trying to catch him. It was the first of two important second half touchdowns against the Horned Frogs.

I sure hope we have football in 2020 so I can watch Hubbard’s game evolve. All-round backs who can block are always going to be in demand in the NFL and from what I’ve seen so far he has the potential to be a top draft pick if he comes out in 2021.

 

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.

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