The first wave of invitations have gone out for the XFL Draft pool, mainly featuring players who participated in the league’s Summer Showcases. Players have begun posting those letters on social media, so we’re getting a look at who will eventually be eligible for selection by XFL teams in October.
Another wave of invitations will go out in September, after NFL rosters are trimmed prior to the start of the regular season. Players on the street will have to decide whether to accept an XFL offer or hope for an injury or the natural churn of NFL rosters and practice squads opens a spot for them.
With the NFL preseason under way, there are many intriguing camp battles to keep an eye on for future XFL players. Below I’ve highlighted one deep position group per team, featuring roster battles that could result in quality players being cut and ending up in the XFL.
A couple of caveats: First, some players who are cut from these position groups may have NFL practice squad eligibility and could be stashed there. In 2014, the NFL increased the size of practice squads from eight to ten and increased the amount of NFL experience a player eligible for the practice squad can have, thereby opening spots up to a wider group.
Second, injuries are a part of life not just in the NFL but in football in general. An injury or two during the preseason can make these deep position groups shallow in a snap (quite literally). Even for die-hards, the NFL preseason can be a slog; hopefully with this handy guide, even third and fourth quarters of these games will hold some interest for XFL fans once you know for whom to be on the lookout.
Part One will look at the AFC teams. Part two in the coming days will look at NFC teams.
Defensive Backs: No undrafted rookies were signed to stock the back end of Baltimore’s defensive backs position group. That’s how deep this section of their roster is. Hard-hitter Chuck Clark was second on the team in special teams tackles last year, but he may be pushed out this year. Like Clark, there are a number of defensive backs who will win or lose a job based on their special teams play, including Cyrus Jones, Bennett Jackson, Brynden Trawick, Maurice Canady, and Stanley Jean-Baptiste. All have NFL experience to some degree, which could disqualify them from a practice squad spot.
Wide Receivers: The Bills don’t have one standout receiver, but they run eight-or-nine deep. Teams tend to keep about six, so talented players on the back end will be looking for work. Among them: Ray-Ray McCloud and Isaiah McKenzie are two diminutive slot receivers fighting to back up Cole Beasley. Second-year man Cam Phillips has potential, as does 2019 undrafted rookie David Sills V, who was projected by some to be a mid-round pick. Victor Bolden Jr. and Duke Williams are veterans looking to make their mark on special teams. Buffalo could carry up to two receivers on their practice squad from this group, but even then, someone is going to get away.
Wide Receivers: The wildcard here is John Ross, a 1st round pick in 2017 who has yet to get untracked. He has nursed more injuries during this training camp, something that has dogged him during his short pro career. Perhaps he’ll get more time with a new coaching staff in place. A.J. Green and Tyler Boyd are firmly entrenched as starters, with Alex Erickson likely safe as one of the league’s top kick returners. After Ross, there’s Josh Malone and Cody Core who had up-and-down 2018 seasons. Auden Tate is a 6’5” target and 7th round draft pick in 2018. Stanley Morgan Jr. (Nebraska) and Ventell Bryant (Temple) are two intriguing rookie free agents. Because Cincinnati starts three receivers in their base offense, they could conceivably keep as many as seven on the final roster.
Quarterbacks: There’s no doubt that Baker Mayfield is the man in Cleveland, injecting new life into the moribund franchise. The question is, who backs him up? Drew Stanton has acted somewhat as a mentor to Mayfield and would give Cleveland an experienced and able number two. But challenging him is Garrett Gilbert, the best QB in the AAF. Gilbert could make the team as a number three, but Cleveland may decide they need numbers elsewhere and only keep Mayfield and Stanton. Gilbert would likely be a top passer in the XFL. Don’t sleep on David Blough, a rookie free agent out of Purdue: While he’s unlikely to crack the roster, he led the Boilermakers in their upset win over Ohio State last season.
Quarterbacks: Denver has their quarterback of the present (Joe Flacco) and their quarterback of the future (Drew Lock). Will Denver feel comfortable enough by the end of the preseason to situate Lock as the primary backup to Flacco? If so, the Broncos will likely keep those two only, freezing out veteran Kevin Hogan and rookie free-agent Brett Rypien. If not, Hogan could make the team as a backup with Lock as the third string. Hogan has shown he can be an effective backup in the league. Rypien was given a large signing-bonus to sign with Denver after the draft and was a favorite of some in the online draft community. Rypien would likely be sought-after on the waiver wire from QB needy teams.
Tight Ends: There are five players fighting for what will likely be three spots here, and all five can make a case during the preseason for being on the opening-day roster. Jordan Akins and Jordan Thomas, two 2018 draft picks, have a leg up, as does 2019 3rd rounder Kahale Warring. That would theoretically leave Darren Fells and Jerrell Adams on the outside looking in. Fells is a seven-year NFL veteran, making him an attractive XFL candidate if he doesn’t make the Texans. Adams impressed at the NFL Combine in 2016 and was a 6th round draft pick of the New York Giants that year. Younger than Fells, Adams too could be what the XFL is looking for at this position.
Defensive Line: The Colts run a 4-3 defense under coordinator Matt Eberflus, so they’ll likely keep eight or nine linemen. The team’s depth is such that 2nd round pick Ben Banogu is still stuck on the third team (though admittedly depth charts this time of year mean little). Caraun Reid and Grover Stewart are two young nose tackles at risk of not making the team, and both have a fair amount of NFL experience. Sixth-round pick Gerri Green is trying to fight Kemoko Turay and XFL Summer Showcase participant Obum Gwachum for one end spot. A couple of ‘tweener end/outside linebackers, Carroll Phillips and Dadi Nicolas, will likely need an injury or two to make the squad, but have pass rush skills.
Running Backs: After Leonard Fournette, it’s going to be a battle royal to see who gets touches. Alfred Blue and Ryquell Armstead are the most likely at this point. The fourth back spot is where the competition really gets tricky. Veteran Benny Cunningham is in the mix, along with Roc Thomas, who will be suspended for the first three regular season games for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy. Thomas Rawls, who previously made an impact in Seattle, is another name to keep an eye on. Specifically, Cunningham and Rawls would presumably not have practice squad eligibility and therefore the XFL may be an option for them if they don’t break camp with the Jaguars.
Kansas City Chiefs
Quarterbacks: Two young quarterbacks could become available after cut-down day. Second-year man Chase Litton spent last season on Kansas City’s practice squad. If the Chiefs like him well enough, they could make room for him as their third QB on the 53-man roster. Chad Henne is Kansas City’s backup, so they could be looking toward the future in keeping a third quarterback behind long-term starter Patrick Mahomes. Competing with Litton is Kyle Shurmur out of Vanderbilt, the son of New York Giants head coach Pat Shurmur. As a coach’s son, Shurmur has the intelligence to succeed at the pro level. Will that be in the NFL or elsewhere?
Los Angeles Chargers
Special Teams: Not as many teams carry “camp legs” anymore, partly because of the restrictions put on practices in the most recent collective bargaining agreements – they’re just not needed. After finally finding a long-term solution at kicker in Michael Badgley, the Chargers now have a punting competition in camp. Ty Long, a kicker-turned-punter who made his mark in the CFL, is battling rookie Tyler Newsome out of Notre Dame. Newsome may be best known for putting up 30 reps on the bench press at the NFL Combine this year, more than some linemen. In addition, long-time Charger Mike Windt could have to fight to keep his long-snapping job over Cole Mazza, who snapped at the highest level of college football at Alabama, as well as in the AAF.
Defensive Line: This position just got deeper as the Dolphins signed Arizona Cardinals bust Robert Nkemdiche, stashing him on the Physically Unable to Perform list for the time being. If he gets healthy and shows out, that will knock another player off the roster. Miami has talented tackles and ends on their third-team depth chart, including prized undrafted rookie Jonathan Ledbetter out of Georgia. Looking for a nose tackle? Plugger Joey Mbu (313 pounds) could fit the bill. Former draft picks DE Tyrone Holmes (has shined as a pass rusher) and Adolphus Washington (athletic 2016 third rounder) are also on the bubble in South Florida. They’ll be pushing second-teamers Jonathan Woodard, Vincent Taylor, and Akeem Spence.
New England Patriots
Cornerbacks: Depending on special teams needs, teams usually keep five-to-six cornerbacks on the roster. Either way, New England will have difficult decisions in that department. Stephon Gilmore and Devin McCourty are the starters, with Jonathan Jones and J.C. Jackson currently the backups. The last spot or two will come down to Keion Crossen, who was a 7th round pick last year and played special teams; Obi Melifonwu, a converted safety and Raiders 2nd round pick in 2017; rookie Joejuan Williams, who New England took in the 2nd round this year; and athletic Ken Webster, a 7th round rookie currently on the PUP list.
New York Jets
Defensive Line: Long the strength of Jets teams, the defensive line is again a deep position for Adam Gase’s squad. They stick with a 3-4 alignment and add a 1st round draft choice this year to the room. A couple 2018 draft picks could be pushed for a roster spot in DE Nathan Shepherd (3rd round) and DE Folo Fatukasi (6th round). The Jets have four undrafted rookie free agents on the defensive line this year, so if one makes the team and one other makes the practice squad, that means two more will be available. Perhaps the most intriguing are Tennessee’s Kyle Phillips and Appalachian State’s Myquon Stout.
Defensive Backs: There’s a lot of competition in the defensive backfield in Oakland. Karl Joseph and Erik Harris are battling over the starting strong safety job. Former starter Jordan Richards, a 2015 Patriots 2nd round pick, could be on the outside looking in at that spot. At corner, Nevin Lawson’s four-game suspension for PEDs opens up a short-term spot. Nick Nelson, a 4th rounder last year who perhaps played before he was ready in 2018, could be the beneficiary. Three defensive back draft picks could push names like Curtis Riley (a 16-game starter with the Giants last year), Tevin Mitchel (a former nickel back with Washington), and DJ Killings (a well-traveled reserve corner) off the team.
Linebackers: Traditionally a strong spot for Pittsburgh, that’s once again the case in 2019. Three 2019 draft picks are listed at linebacker, though Sutton Smith, a Northern Illinois product converting from DE, has already been tried out at numerous spots. Special teams ace Tyler Matakevich will be pushed by one of those draft picks, 6th rounder Ulysses Gilbert III. Oli Adeniyi seems to have solidified a backup job with his play in camp. Third team ILB Robert Spillane has seen NFL action. Tegray Scales was a surprise undrafted player in 2018 who spent some time on the Indianapolis Colts practice squad. The Steelers are so deep here that Scales is relegated to fourth team OLB.
Offensive Line: With LT Taylor Lewan suspended the first four games of the season, the Titans will be able to keep an extra lineman, one who may be available again after those four weeks are up. A couple backup jobs are being contested this summer. Giant 6’7” Tyler Marz and six-year vet Austin Pasztor are battling for swing tackle until Lewan comes back. Only one of Aaron Stinnie and Jamil Douglas could end up making the team. Some interesting deep reserves: OT Cody Conway, a rookie free agent from Syracuse; OT David Quessenberry, who overcame non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma to return to football; and C Hroniss Grasu, a 2015 3rd round pick of Chicago out of Oregon.
Greg Parks is a columnist for Pro Wrestling Torch (pwtorch.com). He covers the XFL and the Tampa Bay franchise for XFLBoard.com. He has written extensively about the XFL. He resides in Naples, Florida. Follow him on Twitter @gregmparks.