NFL teams have an entire year to prep for an upcoming draft class. Countless resources and hours are spent scouting and dissecting potential draft eligible prospects. All of this is done to draft 7 players. Some teams stockpile picks and end up drafting 10, 12 or maybe even 14 players. Now imagine if you will, having to draft 70 players. That’s quite the task for any pro football franchise, let alone eight of them. The coaching staffs and front offices in the XFL had their work cut out for them.
The process of scouting players was a collaborative effort between the league’s football operations department and it’s in house scouting department in ‘Optimum’, led by Eric Galko. The league conducted eight separate combine style showcases this past summer, where nearly 900 players worked out in front of coaches and team executives. Very late in the draft preparation process, the XFL added 295 players into their 1,000 plus player draft pool. 209 of those players that just missed the cut in the NFL in late August, ended up being drafted by XFL teams.
One of the areas that XFL teams leaned on with their player personnel departments, is having members of those offices, who were just recently in the AAF earlier this year. There’s Daryl Johnston (San Antonio to Dallas), Tony Softli (AAF Director of Scouting to Seattle), Josh Hinch (Orlando to Tampa), Randy Mueller (Salt Lake to Houston), Trip MacCracken (Arizona to NY), Dave Boller (San Diego to Dallas), Chris Thompson (Atlanta to NY), Robert Morris (San Antonio to Dallas), Will Lewis (Memphis to Houston), John Peterson (San Antonio to NY) and Trey Brown (Birmingham to St. Louis). This also extended to the individual coaching staffs. The experience of building a team in a spring pro football league, and the insider knowledge of the AAF’s 400 plus players was helpful.
The DC Defenders like the LA Wildcats, went a different route with their Director of Player Personnel positions. The Wildcats hired highly respected NFL personnel evaluator Joey Clinkscales, who was just recently with the Oakland Raiders. The Defenders GM/Head Coach Pep Hamilton leaned on one of his past connections in Greg Gabriel, from Hamilton’s time coaching with The Chicago Bears. Greg Gabriel brings to the Defenders, three decades of NFL scouting experience, including a decade as the Chicago Bears Director of College Scouting and most recently with the Philadelphia Eagles. Prior to working in Chicago, Gabriel spent two seasons scouting for his hometown Buffalo Bills and then 16 seasons in the New York Giants personnel department. Like most of the team personnel people in the XFL. Gabriel hit the trail, going to NFL camps this summer to scout players. One of the players that was heavily scouted by all XFL teams, in the NFL preseason this summer, ended up being the DC Defenders assigned quarterback.
QUARTERBACK ASSIGNMENT: CARDALE JONES- OHIO STATE
Can you win the day before the draft has even started? It sure felt that way when just hours before the XFL began their five phase player draft, Cardale Jones was officially announced as being the Defenders assigned quarterback. From day one, Cardale always seemed like the type of Quarterback that the league would be interested in. Jones recently revealed in an interview , that the XFL had been in contact with him for quite some time. Last year, XFL Executive VP Doug Whaley reached out to Cardale, a player he drafted in Buffalo, to let him know that the XFL has a spot waiting for him, if he were to become available. Cardale was scouted heavily by several XFL teams this summer. Tampa’s Marc Trestman and LA’s Norm Chow were in Chargers camp watching Cardale Jones. Why the heavy interest in a player that only started 11 games in college, and has just 11 career pass attempts in his NFL career?
At 6’5 250 pounds, with a strong arm and good mobility in the pocket, it’s never been a question of physical talent with Cardale Jones. He’s always had elite physical traits. What has really stood out the last two years is how well he has developed and matured as a Quarterback. You’d have to be looking very closely to notice that, since Cardale’s best work has been during the summer in the NFL the last two years. Cardale finally started to mature as a quarterback and make real strides in his development. Jones completed 68 percent of his passes this past summer, and earned the praise of his coaches in Los Angeles. Ultimately, Jones lost out to the numbers game in LA. His time had run out. With Phillip Rivers, Tyrod Taylor and draft pick Easton Stick in the mix at QB for the Chargers. There was no more room for Cardale. A month ago, Jones was signed to the Seahawks practice squad. A familiar place for him, a spot he held for the entire season last year with The Chargers.
Not ready and too much too soon would be the best way to describe Cardale’s career thus far. He started out as a backup for the Buckeyes, was thrust into a starting role, and became an instant superstar at Ohio State. He sprung onto the scene, lit the college football world on fire and won a National Championship. He was so great, right out the gate, that many people were discussing the possibility of him being a surefire top 5 pick in the NFL draft. Cardale decided to go back to school. The following year, Cardale ended up being a co-starter with the player he replaced due to injury the prior campaign, JT Barrett. The expectation level was through the roof for Jones but he didn’t live up to it. A year after potentially being earmarked as a first round pick, Cardale surprised many by declaring for the draft. His stock had taken a hit but Jones decision ultimately came down to supporting his family. Jones ended up being drafted in the 4th round of the 2106 NFL draft by the Buffalo Bills. Cardale’s immense talent and upside, got him drafted, and he was put into the role of being a third string developmental quarterback. Cardale only saw the field for Buffalo in relief duty. The Chargers ended up trading for Jones and his upside. Cardale spent 2017 as a backup, never seeing the field. 2018 is where Cardale started to show signs of his potential. It earned him another full season with LA. Jones credits being on the same team as Phillip Rivers, as one of the reasons for his growth as a Quarterback. Cardale’s improvement during this past summer, made it appear, as if he wouldn’t be a realistic target for any of the XFL teams….. However, Cardale ran out of room in LA, and the Seahawks signed him briefly as insurance for Russell Wilson and Geno Smith. Cardale looked as if he’d always be arrested in development. That’s ultimately the reason, he chose the XFL, despite having teams like the Dallas Cowboys and Jacksonville Jaguars show interest in signing him to their practice squads.
Cardale’s dream is to one day be a starting Quarterback in the NFL, but he is at a cross roads in his career, only 27 years old, but stuck in neutral. With the XFL, Cardale finally gets a shot to play, start and lead his own team in DC. This has the potential to be the type of story that Kurt Warner, Jon Kitna, Jake Delhomme, Brad Johnson and Tommy Maddox were, when being given an opportunity to shine in another pro football league.
PHASE 1- SKILL POSITION PLAYERS
WR Rashard Davis has the distinction of being the first pick overall in the XFL Draft. Would he have been the first pick overall if the draft format had every position involved? Did the Defenders reach for him? They could have gone with someone who has more of an established pro resume with their first pick. Taking Davis sends a clear message. The Defenders not only project Davis to be their #1 target in their passing game, but potentially the best receiver/weapon in the entire league. Davis was a superstar on the FCS level, but what got him that distinction was his electrifying open field skills as a returner. As a former dual threat quarterback in high school, The 5’9 Rashard Davis started out his college career as a gadget player. It wasn’t until his final year at JMU, that Davis broke out and was a game changer. As a senior he played in all 15 games, making 12 starts. He set a JMU and CAA single-season record with an FCS-best four punt returns for touchdowns. Davis had 15 punt returns for a JMU single-season record 426 yards and four scores. He also tallied 42 receptions for 530 yards and three touchdowns. Davis was named the CAA Special Teams Player of the year. Rashard went undrafted but was signed by The Philadelphia Eagles. He spent the entire 2017 season, on and off the Eagles practice squad. Davis earned himself a Superbowl ring as a member of the Eagles in his rookie season, to go along with his FCS championship, that he won in 2016. Davis would end up making the Eagles practice squad in his second season, only to be cut and then signed by Oakland. Davis would finish the year on the Raiders practice squad. This past April, he was cut by the Raiders, then claimed by the Chiefs, only to be released on cutdown day in late August. The fact that an FCS player was taken first overall sends a strong statement. Cardale Jones was there in the DC draft room and announced Davis as the first pick. Hopefully it’s a sign of many more connections to come between the two.
Tre McBride was the Defenders second selection in this phase. McBride is yet another player on the Defenders who was released at cutdown day by an NFL team (Jaguars). McBride is a small school product out of William & Mary, a track star, who ran a 4.3 at 6’0 and 210 pounds. It got him drafted in the 7th round by The Titans in 2015. Despite his skillset as a potentially dynamic receiver and returner. McBride at just 26 years old, has been on 5 NFL teams, but has never been able to break through. The Defenders also drafted former Penn State speedster DeAndre Thompkins at the receiver position in this phase. Thompkins is an undrafted rookie signed by the Eagles, who ran a 4.33 40 at PSU’s Pro Day. The Eagles obviously saw something they liked in him, because they reportedly paid him $85,000 guaranteed to sign, which was the third-most paid out among the NFL’s undrafted free agents. He was cut by the Eagles this summer, after battling a shoulder injury. In his Penn State career, Thompkins caught 83 passes for 1,245 yards and six touchdowns. He was also a factor in the return game, where he averaged 10.2 yards on 66 punt returns and scored two touchdowns. This is another projection pick by the Defenders, as Thompkins wasn’t a big receiving star in college but he is loaded with upside. Rounding out the receiver group in this phase is the son of former NFL great, WR Ed McCaffrey, and the brother of currently off the charts great running back, Christian McCaffrey. Max McCaffrey, only 26, has been on 5 different teams in the NFL, and has only 1 career catch. A heady player with good size and football smarts, McCaffrey could be headed to a potential slot role in the Defenders offense.
It can be argued that DC has the best running back duo in the entire league. Jhurell Pressley is another example of a talented runner, who hasn’t been able to rise up the depth chart in the NFL. Despite being a star in college at New Mexico, and running a 4.40 in the 40 yard dash coming out. Pressley went undrafted, and has been on 5 different NFL teams, but has never carried the rock in the regular season. It wasn’t until Jhurell Pressley joined the AAF and was allocated to the Arizona Hotshots, that he would finally get his chance to shine. The Defenders Offensive Line Coach & Run Game Coordinator Chris Scelfo, had one of the AAF’s best three headed backfield attacks with Pressley, Tim Cook and Justin Stockton. All three were drafted into the XFL. No surprise that Jhurell would be high on DC’s board. Teaming up with Jhurell will be the NCAA’s Division I all-time leading rusher in Donnel Pumphrey. The 5’8 176 Pumphrey, was drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles in the 4th round of the 2017 NFL Draft. It was considered a disappointment that he “only” ran a 4.48 coming out of college. Pumphrey ended up tearing his hamstring as a rookie, and missing the entire season. He did earn a superbowl ring with fellow teammate Rashard Davis. The following season, Pumphrey was released on cutdown day, claimed by the Lions on their practice squad, only to be cut again and return to Philly on their practice squad. Pumphrey didn’t make the Eagles roster at cutdown day over a month ago. If Pumphrey can stay healthy at his size, he can finally have the opportunity to display his talents on the field.
The Defenders drafted three tight ends in this phase. Khari Lee, Orson Charles and Adrien Robinson. Lee is a small school receiving star out of Bowie State in Maryland. Lee has spent time with 4 different NFL teams. Lee’s upside is such that he was actually traded for by the Bears, which is very rare for an undrafted free agent. While Lee at 6’4 and 235, is strictly a receiving talent. Orson Charles is an excellent in-line blocker, who has played fullback in the NFL. A former 4th round pick and John Mackey award finalist out of Georgia. Charles has been on six NFL teams as a role player. He spent the entire season last year with The Browns, lead blocking for Nick Chubb. This past summer, he was released by Denver at final cuts. Adrien Robinson is also a former 4th round pick. He has been with the Giants, Jets and Memphis in the AAF. Robinson’s end in the AAF made headlines, when he was charged $2,500 dollars for his own lodging on his credit card.
One of the best picks in the skill player draft was undrafted rookie Quarterback out of Buffalo, Tyree Jackson. The Defenders took him in the 9th round of this phase. Jackson was the MVP and Most Outstanding Offensive Player in the MAC. The 21 year old, 6’7 248 pound Jackson, declared early for the NFL draft. He was voted team MVP at the Senior Bowl, but went undrafted and then signed with The Buffalo Bills. Jackson spent the entire preseason with Buffalo, but did not make the final cut. Surprisingly despite his size and mobility, Tyree is not on an NFL roster. That might still change, but there’s no questioning the upside or quality of this pick.
PHASE TWO- OFFENSIVE LINEMAN
There are now 7 XFL Draft picks and counting, that have been signed by NFL teams since the draft. The Defenders top draft pick, Kyle Murphy was signed to the Texans practice squad a day after being drafted. A clear example that the DC front office valued a player that is NFL worthy. DC retains Murphy’s rights, should he become available again. Logan Tulley-Tillman has never been lacking for talent. The 6’7 former 4 star recruit that landed at the University of Michigan, had off field issues as Wolverine, and ending up transferring in college. His pro aspirations have been sidetracked as a result. Tillman is still fairly young and coming off of a season of development in the AAF. De’Ondre Wesley is a career NFL practice squader. The mammoth 6’7 330 pound tackle, has had some injury issues since coming out of BYU. Jon Toth is a former All SEC Center, who has also had stints in the NFL as a backup. Former UAB/Colts undrafted rookie Rishard Cook follows along a theme of summer NFL cuts on the Defenders. The 340 pound rookie helped the lead the way for one of the nation’s best rushing attacks. Chris Brown is a former 4 star recruit from USC, and another UDFA, that played with The Chargers this summer. Undrafted out of LSU, Toby Weathersby has spent time in the NFL with the Eagles and Pats, and was most recently with the Express in the AAF. According to Pro Football Focus, Center James O’Hagan earned the No. 1 pass blocking grade among all draft-eligible centers during the 2016 and 2017 seasons before returning to finish his career at Buffalo during the 2018 season. In 2018, O’Hagan took a slight step back in as a pass blocker (No. 4) but finished as the No. 1 overall center in college football thanks to his No. 1 run blocking grade. The New York Giants signed O’Hagan as an undrafted rookie free agent following the conclusion of the 2019 NFL Draft, as most teams passed over him solely due to his size. O’Hagan is a former teammate of Defenders Quarterback Tyree Jackson. Cardale Jones former Ohio State teammate Chase Farris, can play guard or tackle, after originally starting his college career as a defensive lineman. Casey Tucker also provides the same type of versatility. He played both tackle spots and guard at Arizona State.
PHASE 3- DEFENSIVE FRONT SEVEN
James Vaughters was a surprise 1st round pick, much in the same way that Rashard Davis was in the skill position draft. Vaughters has been a journeyman edge rusher since coming out of school at Stanford. Vaughters was at Stanford, when his now Head Coach Pep Hamilton was there, as was his former teammate, current XFL Director of Football Operations, Sam Schwartzstein. Vaughters has been with 4 NFL teams but his best gameday production has come in the CFL, where he won a Grey Cup Championship with the Calgary Stampeders. It led to Vaughters signing a contract with The Chicago Bears. Vaughters impressed during the 2019 NFL preseason with three sacks and two forced fumbles. Not only did his performances get the attention of Bears coach Matt Nagy, but they drew some pretty lofty comparisons too. Matt Nagy compared Vaughters pass rush ability and propensity for causing fumbles to Khalil Mack. Vaughters initially made the Bears practice squad to only be released in mid September. A month later, Vaughters is drafted onto an XFL team.
Charles Harris is another tweener edge rushing type who was also in Bears camp this summer. Elijah Qualls, a former 6th round pick of The Eagles in 2017, has prototypical Nose Tackle size at 320 plus pounds, but enough natural agility to be more than just a two down run stuffer. Leading the linebacking corps in the center of the Defenders defense should be Scooby Wright. A former 7th round pick and star linebacker in college, Scooby Wright was just recently released off of the Patriots practice squad on October 1st. Tracy Sprinkle, who had a five-year career at Ohio State, ran into many, many obstacles in his path to the NFL. Dealing with injuries throughout his career, Sprinkle went undrafted in the 2018 NFL Draft. He has since spent time in the AAF and with The Browns. Sam Montgomery is one of the better veterans, that is slated to play in the XFL. The former 3rd round pick out of LSU, has had a unique journey to say the least. He has played in multiple leagues, including 3 different NFL teams. Montgomery has always been stout against the run and dependable. Undersized Linebacker Jonathan Celestin has been a fringe player in the NFL for a few teams and has spent time on practice squads. His measurables and athletic ability have held him back, despite playing well and showing good instincts on the field. The XFL could be the perfect place for him to finally get a chance to prove himself. Keshun Freeman has had a similar path as Celestin. He’s an extremely high character player with leadership traits, who just hasn’t been able to stick in the NFL. He played in the Alliance with the Atlanta Legends. Daryle Banfield is an all Ivy league player, who also has the same character traits as Freeman. Banfield can play inside or outside, depending on the scheme used.
PHASE 4- DEFENSIVE BACKFIELD
The Defenders went Cornerback with their first 6 picks in this phase. Starting with former Browns DB Elijah Campbell, who ran one of the fastest 40 times (4.34), of the nearly 900 players who worked out for XFL teams at their eight Summer Showcases. From Campbell’s playing days at UNI, he has always had a nose for the football and is a good open field tackler. CB Des Lawrence has the prototypical size and length at 6’1, to project to be a good press and zone corner. A late bloomer in college, Lawrence has spent time with the Lions and in the Alliance. The Defender DB picks all leaned on physical traits and that’s no more evident that the selection of Cornerback Jalen Myrick. One of the fastest players in the XFL, the former 7th round pick of the Jaguars in 2017, ran a 4.28 40 at the combine. DC won’t be lacking for speed at corner. That’s for sure. Myrick was most recently with the Falcons, where he was cut on 8/31. Doran Grant is a young veteran corner, who can play the slot. Grant is a former 4th round pick of the Steelers. Former Alabama DB Bradley Sylve is a 6 foot corner with 4.3 speed with a highly decorated track background. He has spent time with the Bills, Saints and earlier this year with the Birmingham iron. Sylve came into football late in college, and is still developing. Reggie Cole has only two years experience playing Corner, after initially playing receiver. He was a standout player at UMHB, but is very raw.
Some football players are notoriously known for one play during their careers. Despite being a quality veteran safety his entire career, and a quality pick by DC. Rahim Moore is known for one moment in time. In the 2012-2013 NFL playoffs. Denver was leading Baltimore 35-28 with less than a minute left in the game. Baltimore lined up for what was essentially a Hail Mary towards the end zone. Joe Flacco unloaded a bomb to Jacoby Jones. Moore was well-positioned to make a play on the ball but misjudged the trajectory and the pass was completed to Jones for the game-tying touchdown. Baltimore would go on to win the game 38-35 in double overtime and eventually win Super Bowl XLVII. Here’s hoping that one day, Rahim plays the hero in his next playoff setting.
Safety Tyree Kinnel was a 4 star recruit and 3 year starter/team captain for Pep Hamilton’s former team at Michigan. Despite that, he went undrafted. Kinnel had a good preseason with The Bengals but did not make the roster in September. Carlos Merritt is a ballhawking cover safety from small school Campbell University. Ladarius Gunter has 18 NFL starts in his career, all with the Green Bay Packers. Despite being undrafted and having less than ideal 4.6 speed. . He’s still only 27 years old and has always gotten by being a physical corner. Gunter last played for the Orlando Apollos.
PHASE 5- OPEN DRAFT
There are some notable names in this group of 30 players, and some real sleepers. Since the Defenders went with 7 corners in their DB phase. It stood to reason that the safety position would be addressed again, and the most notable name in the group is former NFL 1st round pick, Matt Elam. He was an electrifying player in college. Elam never lived up to his billing in the NFL. A combination of injures, immaturity and off field legal troubles ended his NFL run after 4 seasons in the league. At 28 years old, Elam hasn’t played pro football since 2016. That’s why despite his talent and pedigree. Elam wasn’t drafted in the DB phase of the league. If he’s got his head on straight. He can rewrite his legacy.
The Defenders drafted a lot of players from NFL roster cuts, and from specific teams. The Bears and Eagles were heavily scouted. Two former stomping grounds for Greg Gabriel. One of the universities that is highly represented in this class is the University of Buffalo. Greg Gabriel’s home town. One of the best open draft picks who was also from Buffalo, is Defensive Lineman Kristjan Sokoli. A former 6th round pick of the Seattle Seahawks. Sokoli has had a strange journey in the NFL. He was a very good player in college playing next to Khalil Mack. Seattle drafted him, and tried to convert to be a center, a position that he never played before. Based on his great agility at 300 pounds, and his absurd strength. Sokoli was mis-cast and ended up being released a year after he was drafted. From the Colts to the Saints and to The Giants roster. Sokoli went back and forth playing on both sides of the football. In the summer of 2018, he appeared to be making real progress with The Giants. Sokoli unfortunately tore his ACL and has been out of pro football for over a year. It’s nice to see a player like him come back from that and get another shot.
Measurables were a big factor in the Defenders Draft and that extended to the pick of former Arizona Hotshots WR Deion Holliman, who has an absurd 65 inch vertical leap. LB AJ Tarpley from Stanford has good cover skills and can run and hit. He could be a starter on this team. At 6’4 335 pounds, 22 year old Former Oklahoma NT Du’Vonta Lampkin has untapped potential but he had characters issues in college. Lampkin prematurely came out for the NFL draft as a redshirt sophomore, and went undrafted. Every NFL draft season, there are countless numbers of players who declare early and don’t make into the league. The numbers game is difficult to begin with, but some “unfinished” players have no place to go if the NFL door closes on them.
DC’s draft stood out from the rest of the league’s other seven teams. That’s not to state that it was the best or worst. Much like Dallas and Houston, the Defenders draft had it’s own individual style and personality. The majority of the XFL teams had a specific formula for the types of players they drafted. The Defenders leaned more towards player upside and measurables, more so than any other team in the league. The offense under Pep Hamilton, Tanner Engstrand and Chris Scelfo, should be very good. Look for the Defenders to play power football and throw the ball down the field. The team has two big strong armed mobile quarterbacks who are built for outdoor football. On defense, it appears to me that DC may be leaning towards playing a 3-4 defense. Defensive Coordinator Jeffrey Fitzgerald has history coaching in both 4-3 and 3-4 defensive systems. One of the coaches he worked under is Chuck Pagano. No shock to see defensive players who spent time with the Chicago Bears this summer on the DC defense. Pagano is running his 3-4 base with the Bears, and there’s no doubt that Fitzgerald leaned on his mentor for some intel on players. Two of the more important players on the entire roster are Rashard Davis and James Vaughters. They were drafted in positions that suggest that they will be elite players in the league. Vaughters as a pass rusher and Davis as a game changer. If DC hits on these two, like they did with their Quarterback, the team will be a serious contender.
Mike Mitchell is a freelance sports writer, analyst, and a general lover of all football. Mike was one of the original XFLBoard.com Team Reporters in 2001, reporting on the New York/New Jersey Hitmen. We have welcomed him back to the XFLBoard and love his ongoing insightful contributions.