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:,,,,,,,,
  • Recruiting:,,,
  • Film: 2021 NFL Draft Database by Mark Jarvis,
  • Draft info and mocks:,,,,,
  • NFL rosters, depth charts and contract info:,
  • Draft history:
  • Combine info:,,,
  • 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:
  • Odds & Gambling Stats:

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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