This is part six 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 | Part Five: Houston Roughnecks
What went right
Seattle rode its prolific passing attack to a playoff berth in the XFL North. They earned it, defeating the St. Louis Battlehawks in week nine to stave off elimination, then doing enough against the Vegas Vipers in a week ten victory to keep St. Louis behind them in the tie-breaker. QB Ben DiNucci led the league in passing and was as fun a player to watch (and listen to) as there was in 2023. The only challenge to that mantle may have come from his teammate, WR Jahcour Pearson, who was tops in receptions and receiving yards. Their rushing attack was more than just complimentary: Seattle led the league in yards per carry. Ron Zook’s defense allowed the fewest points per game of any team and the second-fewest yards per game.
What went wrong
As good as DiNucci was, he would’ve been better had he cleaned up his penchant for turnovers, many of them coming deep in opponent territory. The Sea Dragons ran the ball just five times (twice by a running back) against DC in the playoffs, despite signing former NFL Pro Bowl running back Phillip Lindsay late in the season. Seattle gave up 28 second-half points to the Defenders in that game. To start the season, the team went 0-2 in tough-luck losses to DC and St. Louis, putting themselves behind the eight-ball out of the gate. They were also the victims of inconvenient scheduling: Two Thursday games and a Friday game were among the hurdles Seattle had to overcome.
It was no surprise that the DiNuccis and McCarrons of the XFL came in and performed well in 2023. Perhaps the biggest surprise came in a tiny package: All 5’7″ of WR Jahcour Pearson took the league by storm as DiNucci’s favorite target. Pearson made splash plays where he showed incredible ability to stay upright and spin out of tackles. He also displayed the 4.42 speed he ran at Ole Miss’s pro day last spring. And to think, part of the discovery process that led Seattle to Pearson was his performance at YouTube star Deestroying’s $10,000 one-on-one challenge.
The defense had just 10 takeaways on the year but S Qwynnterrio Cole was in on three of them via interceptions. Cole also led the team in tackles with 48 and had three tackles for loss. An HBCU All-American at Alcorn State before transferring to Louisville, Cole entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent of the Las Vegas Raiders in 2022. Though he wasn’t among the first wave of players invited to try out at NFL minicamps, he could be on the short list for some teams who will be seeking secondary help this summer.
Special Teams MVP
One of the only players in the league to hold the job of both primary kickof returner and punt returner for his team, KR/PR Kelvin McKnight shined on special teams for the Sea Dragons. He finished second in the XFL in kick returns and kick return yardage, and first in punt returns and punt return yardage. McKnight played just 89 snaps on offense across ten regular season games, and was not a starter on coverage teams. The coaching staff felt so strongly about McKnight’s abilities in the return game that he was kept on the roster all year long despite not being a factor in any other phase.
Most likely to succeed (in getting NFL opportunities)
Six of the 11 XFL players who signed NFL contracts on the first day in which they were permitted were from the Sea Dragons. That includes DiNucci (Denver Broncos), as well as four defensive players. There’s a path for DiNucci to make the Broncos as their third quarterback. Pearson had a few workouts lined up and attended minicamp with the San Francisco 49ers. He’s likely to get a contract at some point. Defensive linemen Niko Lalos and Austin Faoliu could at the very least stick on a practice squad throughout the NFL season. Long snapper Thomas Fletcher, who Head Coach Jim Haslett referred to as the best snapper he’s been around as a coach, is a candidate to get a spot with a team if injuries strike at that position.
QB concern level for 2024 (1-5)
Right now, Seattle’s starting QB is Steven Montez, who played just one game in 2023. With a full season under offensive coordinator June Jones, Montez could perform admirably as a starter in 2024. If DiNucci isn’t on an NFL roster by the end of the year, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him return to the XFL – he seemed to have fun playing every week, something he hadn’t done since college. Even if DiNucci doesn’t come back, Seattle could be comfortable with Montez and Harrison Frost as their one-two punch. Naturally, just like most every other team in the league, they’ll probably be open to upgrading at the position if the opportunity arises. Because Montez is unproven at the pro level and DiNucci is currently in the NFL, I’ll label this a 3.
Head coach hot seat rating (1-5)
Jim Haslett was the curmudgeon of the XFL head coaching ranks, often getting into spats with his starting quarterback during games, the audio caught by ESPN’s mics. Like family, it was all forgotten soon after. Haslett was able to lead a turnaround after an 0-2 start, taking Seattle to the playoffs. He did well in managing personalities like DiNucci and Josh Gordon, among others. He also navigated the team through the unexpected passing of DE Chris Smith. At 67, Haslett would be third-oldest NFL head coach were he leading a team in that league. His coordinators, Ron Zook (69) and June Jones (70), are also aging up. All three of them could be a package deal – when one goes, so could the rest. That said, Haslett could have a few good years left before he hangs up his visor. He’s certainly not on the hot seat from the league. This is a 1.5.
Offseason needs for 2024
Based on the NFL signings thus far, Seattle could have far more needs and roster spots to fill than other teams heading into ’24. As most things in football do, it starts with the quarterback and how comfortable Seattle is with Montez and Frost. If DiNucci sticks (or if Frost or Montez, who both tried out for NFL teams recently, get the call to the big leagues), QB will be a need. The Sea Dragons may have to replace quite a few pieces on defense, specifically along the line. At the very least, depth could be needed there. I wouldn’t expect Phillip Lindsay to return at RB, leaving Seattle thin at that spot, even as de-emphasized as that position is in this offense.