This is part five of what will be an eight-part look at each XFL’s team’s 2023 season. The plan is to post two parts per week over the next month.
Part One: Orlando Guardians | Part Two: Vegas Vipers | Part Three: San Antonio Brahmas | Part Four: St. Louis Battlehawks
What went right
The Roughnecks handily won the XFL South division with a 7-3 record. They appeared to be the best team in the league through the first four weeks, compiling a 4-0 record and showing an unmatched offensive prowess. While the passing game in offensive coordinator AJ Smith’s version of the run-and-shoot tends to get much of the attention, the running game showed signficant life behind Max Borghi, Dejoun Lee, Jeremy Cox and Brycen Alleyne. It was Wade Phillips’s trademark defense, however, that carried the day: Houston led the XFL in sacks with 3.5 per game. They were also first in passing yards per game allowed, while finishing second in points per game.
What went wrong
Houston wasn’t just upset by Arlington in the playoffs: They were trounced on their own turf. The team’s decision to rest key players in week ten of the regular season against the same Renegades didn’t bear fruit. A three-game losing streak midseason didn’t end up costing them in the playoff seedings, but it served as a warning sign for an offense that was at best inconsistent the rest of the way after a hot start. QB Brandon Silvers, who ran a version of this offense in college at Troy (not to mention played under Smith in The Spring League), averaged just 5.9 yards per attempt and was benched at times for Cole McDonald. The lack of a deep threat was noticeable when star WR Jontre Kirklin was placed on injured reserve after week five. A couple of receivers with NFL pedigrees brought in mid-season, Jaquarii Roberson and Michael Bandy, didn’t provide the spark in the pass game that was expected.
The Roughnecks’ offensive line was in flux all season with players moving in and out of the lineup and several playing multiple positions. The one constant was C Alex Mollette, who started every game at the pivot and was the highest-graded lineman on the team per Pro Football Focus. Mollette, who entered the NFL as a rookie free-agent of the Indianapolis Colts last season, wasn’t a big name coming into the season, but he made a big impact. He was selected to the XFL Board’s All-XFL team and was one of two centers named to the league’s official All-XFL Team.
Orlando Guardian offensive tackles may still be having nightmares about trying to block LB Trent Harris. Harris racked up 4.5 of his league-leading 9.5 sacks in the week one and four bouts against the Guardians. His 12 tackles for loss also tied for the league lead. Harris teamed up with fellow edge rusher Tim Ward to give the Roughnecks a formidable 1-2 punch when rushing the passer. As an offense, you may be able to double-team one player…but it’s unlikely you’ll be successful trying it with two.
Special Teams MVP
For most XFL players, their ticket to the NFL will be punched via special teams play. The ability to play on coverage units could be a deciding factor for whether or not some of them make the back-end of a 53-man roster. LB Tavante Beckett excelled at this aspect of play in the XFL in 2023. He tied for first on the team in special teams tackles (eight), with just one missed tackle per PFF. He was a stalwart on the kick coverage and kickoff return as well as punt coverage units. This was all in addition to his duties on defense, where Beckett started nine games and played 455 snaps during the regular season.
Most likely to succeed (in getting NFL opportunities)
Harris ended the NFL season on the practice squad of the Las Vegas Raiders, so he was already close to sticking with a team before his breakout performance in the XFL in 2023. He’ll absolutely be in an NFL camp this summer. RB Max Borghi and a few offensive linemen like Mollette and OT Sage Doxtater may be desirable to NFL teams. A host of defenders have already tried out in NFL minicamps. It’s just a matter now of who signs and where. All three levels of the “D” could get heavily raided to provide training camp bodies.
QB concern level for 2024 (1-5)
Silvers, a veteran of spring football, could be back next year. Backup Cole McDonald was utilized in various ways this season, including short-yardage and on extra point conversion attempts. He had a few opportunities to stake his claim to the starting job either this year or in the future, but he didn’t stand out as a significant improvement over Silvers. Third-stringer Kaleb Eleby was a draftable NFL prospect in the eyes of some analysts in 2022. He didn’t get much of a shot there, leading him to the XFL. Eleby’s only playing time came in week 10 when Houston was resting its starters.
The run-and-shoot offense is supposed to be QB-friendly, yet Houston’s quarterbacks struggled more than one would expect. Does the fault lie with them, or the receiving group that was assembled? Bottom line: Silvers had his moments but wasn’t consistent enough. A playoff berth and his previous relationship with AJ Smtih could earn him another year as starter. The Roughnecks could also look to upgrade depending upon who is out there and who the coaching staff sees as a scheme fit. Let’s call this a 2.5.
Head coach hot seat rating (1-5)
Given his age (he turns 76 in June), Wade Phillips is not expected to be a long-term fixture as head coach of the Roughnecks. However, Phillips recently told the Denver Gazette that he’s planning on returning in 2024. “If they will have me back, I will be. I expect to be back, for sure.” The grind in the XFL isn’t the same as it is being a head coach – or assistant coach for that matter – in the NFL, so this role may suit Phillips at this stage in his life. Phillips has been fired a number of times from jobs at the highest level of football, but don’t expect that to happen here in the XFL. He’ll most likely be able to walk away when he’s ready to leave the sport behind. For those reasons, this is a 1.
Offseason needs for 2024
Houston’s wide receivers were not as dynamic as required in this particular offense; more players with the ability to stretch the field vertically would be helpful to whomever will be at quarterback. It would also open the quick passing game and underneath routes favored in the run-and-shoot. There are few other significant holes on offense or defense. Edge players Tim Ward and Trent Harris are top candidates to end up back in the NFL. That position then would need some depth. Nose tackle could use some added bodies as well. Houston released their only kicker, Austin Jones, last week. It’s an odd move at this point, which could signal he’s on his way back to the USFL, where he kicked in 2022. If Jones doesn’t return to the Roughnecks in January, Houston will be in the market for a a kicker – he was the only one on the roster.