Handicapping the XFL Western Division quarterback battles heading into minicamp

Part two of my look at camp QB battles across the league, this time focusing on the Western Division. A look at the Eastern Division teams can be found here.

 

Dallas Renegades: Landry Jones, Philip Nelson

Dallas Renegades: Landry Jones, Philip Nelson

Landry Jones was the first player signed to an XFL contract and is arguably the most accomplished quarterback in the league. He reunites with his college coach at Oklahoma, Bob Stoops, in a match seemingly made in heaven. If there’s any player you’d imagine being QB1 the day he walks in the door at minicamp, it would be Jones.

Philip Nelson was taken as insurance during the skill position phase of the initial XFL draft. In a league like this, where quarterback play will be at a premium and you don’t really know what the game will look like quite yet, it’s important to have a competent backup.

Nelson began his collegiate career at Minnesota, a three-star high-school recruit out of that state. He finished his career at East Carolina and impressed in front of NFL scouts at the 2017 NFLPA Bowl. It wasn’t enough to get a bite from NFL teams, however, and this past year he plied his trade in the AAF.

With only two QBs in camp, unless Dallas adds a third, Nelson should get his share of reps as Stoops will want to keep Jones fresh. Nelson could be a serviceable backup, but make no mistake, the success of the Renegades this season will rise or fall on the arm of Jones.

Odds to start: Jones 95%, Nelson 5%

 

Houston Roughnecks: Phillip Walker, Connor Cook

Houston Roughnecks: Phillip Walker, Connor Cook

There’s a distinct size difference between the assigned Walker, who stands 5’11”, and the early-round skill position phase draft pick Cook, who is 6’4”. Whoever the QB is will have to handle a sizeable workload with head coach June Jones bringing his pass-heavy run-and-shoot offense to the Lone Star State.

The player who makes the fewest mistakes may end up being the player who takes the reigns for the Roughnecks’ first game. Walker is one of the more professionally inexperienced of the allocated QBs, so it should come as no surprise that Cook was drafted early to provide competition.

Both Walker and Cook were players XFL fans had eyed for the league prior to the draft. Walker, out of Temple, went undrafted in 2017 but spent some time with Indianapolis over the last two years.

In January of 2017, Cook, who began the season as a third-stringer for Oakland after being drafted in the 4th round, became the first player to make his first start in a playoff game. He bounced around the league thereafter, on and off practice squads.

Cook’s success in college and NFL game experience should theoretically give him a leg up on Walker, but it’s really going to come down to who fits best in Jones’s unique offense. And right now, that seems to be close to a toss-up. The other question to consider is whether or not Houston will add another QB to the room before training camp in January.

Odds to start: Walker 55%, Cook 45%

 

Los Angeles Wildcats: Luis Perez, Josh Johnson, Taryn Christion, Jalan McClendon

Los Angeles Wildcats: Luis Perez, Josh Johnson, Taryn Christion, Jalan McClendon

Unless Joe Callahan is released from the Detroit Lions practice squad this week, LA will be the only team taking four quarterbacks to mini-camp. There seems to be a clear line of demarcation between the top two QBs (Perez and Johnson) and the next tier (Christion and McClendon).

Perez has been one of the QBs most visible in his team’s community since being assigned to the Wildcats. He won a Division II national title with Texas A&M-Commerce in 2017 while completing 70% of his passes and throwing 46 touchdowns. He started seven games for Birmingham in the AAF but didn’t put up impressive numbers.

After the league folded, he was a camp arm with Detroit and Philadelphia. Johnson’s reputation as a journeyman is widely known. He has spent time with 13 NFL teams since entering the league as a 5th round draft pick in 2008. As recently as last season, he started three games for Washington. Even now, he’s still drawing interest from NFL teams, most recently with Detroit sniffing around in an attempt to bring him back (his XFL contract blocked such a move).

Christion and McClendon were both open phase selections by the Wildcats. Christion had some NFL draft buzz this April, but he went undrafted and signed with Seattle. Christion’s strengths include his arm and his ability to move in and out of the pocket.

McClendon, at 6’5” and 219 pounds, is an interesting prospect. He played at North Carolina State before finishing his career in 2018 at Baylor, where he started just one game. It was enough to earn him an NFLPA Bowl invite and a spot on Washington’s training camp roster. Is a position switch in his future? Or could LA be hoarding quarterbacks hoping for an injury somewhere around the league in order to work a trade?

Odds to start: Johnson 50%, Perez 40%, Christion 9%, McClendon 1%

 

Seattle Dragons: Brandon Silvers, Chase Litton, Joe Callahan, BJ Daniels

Seattle Dragons: Brandon Silvers, Chase Litton, Joe Callahan, BJ Daniels

In an odd twist, the player with the most NFL experience in Seattle’s camp may be the one least likely to begin the season as their starting QB, that being BJ Daniels. With Joe Callahan on Detroit’s practice squad, he may be placed on some sort of exempt list to start minicamp. If he finishes the NFL season in Detroit, he may have a decision to make in terms of signing a futures contract with the Lions (if offered one) or declining it to come to training camp with Seattle.

Brandon Silvers and Chase Litton were both allocated to Seattle, with Callahan and Daniels being open phase selections. Silvers played at Troy University and was off the radar enough that he didn’t even attend an NFL training camp in 2018, failing to parlay a rookie minicamp invite with New Orleans into a contract.
Silvers impressed with the AAF, however, and was briefly with the New York Jets in the spring of this year. Litton was not available during the XFL draft as he was on the practice squad of Jacksonville. He was released in late October and assigned to the Dragons prior to the Supplemental Draft.

Litton declared for the NFL Draft in 2017 after his junior season at Marshall, only to go undrafted. He spent time in Kansas City before hooking up with the Jaguars. It appears that whomever wins Seattle’s QB job will have very little pro experience.

Unless that person is Daniels. Like other teams in the league, it appears Seattle has opted for a slash-type player. Daniels was a 7th round draft choice of San Francisco in 2013 after a successful career at South Florida. Throughout his NFL career, he has been tried at wide receiver and running back in addition to QB. He could give the Dragons a wildcat wrinkle in their offense under Jim Zorn.

Ultimately, it seems at this point to be a two-man race for the QB job between Silvers and Litton, and even that may be generous. If Silvers can continue the momentum he established in the AAF, it could be his job to lose.

Odds to start: Silvers 60%, Litton 30%, Daniels 10%, Callahan N/A

Handicapping the XFL Eastern Division quarterback battles heading into minicamp

As go the quarterbacks in the XFL, so goes the league. The quality of play will be directly tied to the quality of quarterback play, and while the XFL was able to acquire some of the best talent available at the position (by paying a premium for it), it remains to be seen if it’ll translate onto the field.

We’re coming up on yet another milestone in the rebooted version of the league, as minicamps open this week. It will be the first opportunity for quarterbacks to test out the new rules and work intensely with their coaches and playbooks. All eyes will be on them.

In addition to a higher salary, each quarterback assigned prior to the initial draft has become the face of the franchise. Whether it’s attending fan functions, calling season ticket holders, or being seen on social media, those quarterbacks have become ambassadors for their brand.

One would imagine they’d have a leg-up in the camp competition at that position, but who knows? There are no holdovers from previous years; theoretically, everyone walks in the first day with a clean slate competing to start. That includes the quarterbacks.

The original XFL’s starting QBs by league end didn’t resemble those at the helm in week one, and it wasn’t all due to injury. So just because a player wins the starting job in camp doesn’t mean they have a long leash once the season begins, especially because of the high stakes for the first season of the league from the standpoint of both the league and each individual team.

But since the QB position IS the most important and most visible (and most highly-paid) position in the league, let’s take a team-by-team look at what QBs they’ll be taking to camp and the odds they’ll exit camp as the starter (barring injury). We’ll start in the East:

DC Defenders: Cardale Jones, Tyree Jackson

DC Defenders: Cardale Jones, Tyree Jackson

DC will apparently be one of three teams that will only have two quarterbacks in camp. Jones and Jackson are similar players in some ways – both have prototypical size and arm strength, and neither have been able to turn those traits into accuracy and consistency.

Jones was a fourth-round draft pick of the Buffalo Bills in 2016, and with the likes of Tyrod Taylor and EJ Manuel in front of him on the depth chart, there was a thought that Jones could be the QB of the Bills’ future. Not only did that not happen, the Bills apparently had seen enough by July of the next year, sending him to the LA Chargers in a trade. Because of his limited game action in college, DC and head coach Pep Hamilton hope Jones, at 27 years old, is a late bloomer.

While Jones was assigned to DC, the Defenders picked up Tyree Jackson in the open portion of the draft. Like Jones, Jackson began his NFL career with the Bills after playing collegiately down the road at the University of Buffalo.

Jackson had draft grades as high as the third and fourth rounds (by Lance Zierlein of NFL.com) but ended up going undrafted. The Bills didn’t see enough in him to bring him back to the practice squad after he was released during final cuts. Just 22 years old, Jackson has the tools to be a starter in this league, but he may need more time to develop. Jones seems like a safe bet to lead the Defenders in their season-opener against Seattle.

Odds to start: Jones 80%, Jackson 20%

 

Matt McGloin, Marquise Williams, Garrett Fugate

New York Guardians: Matt McGloin, Marquise Williams, Garrett Fugate

Unlike their DC counterparts, McGloin and Williams are very different quarterbacks who may be used in different ways by head coach Kevin Gilbride. McGloin brings NFL and major college experience and is no stranger to QB competition.

He flourished in his final season at Penn State under Bill O’Brien, and parlayed that into a rookie free-agent deal with the Oakland Raiders. He made the team out of camp in 2013 and over the next four years, played in 13 games. He’s a pocket passer who won’t scare anyone with his running ability.

The same can’t be said for Marquise Williams. His straight-line speed at his Pro Day in 2016 didn’t impress, but at 6’2”, 220 pounds, he could play a variety of roles for the Guardians, just as he did with the San Antonio Commanders of the Alliance of American Football.

Because of his unique traits, I’m not sure he’ll be a threat to McGloin for an every-down QB role, but he could end up playing a handful of snaps on offense and perhaps even special teams for Gilbride. The fact that New York took Williams in the skill position portion of the draft tells me the coaches may already have a specific role in mind for him beyond playing under center.

In addition to spending a skill position pick on Williams, the Guardians also took Garrett Fugate in the open portion of the draft. Most NFL teams take three or four QBs to camp on their 90-man rosters, so it’s no surprise most XFL teams will carry at least three among their 71.

Out of Division II Central Missouri, Fugate got a late start on the draft process in 2017 when his senior season ended with a torn ACL and MCL. He has worked out for NFL teams and honed his craft in both the CFL and The Spring League. Fugate may not challenge for the starting role, but he’s an intriguing player to keep your eye on as camp progresses.

Odds to start: McGloin 60%, Williams 30%, Fugate 10%

 

Jordan Ta’amu, Taylor Heinicke, Brogan Roback

St. Louis BattleHawks: Jordan Ta’amu, Taylor Heinicke, Brogan Roback

St. Louis figures to have one of the most interesting QB battles in all of training camp. Ta’amu may be the least-heralded QB to be assigned prior to the XFL Draft. He has just one summer in an NFL camp under his belt, with the Houston Texans.

He was one of the most acclaimed quarterbacks in the SEC his senior season for Ole Miss. He’s shown the ability to make plays with his arm and his legs, but he just hasn’t done it at the professional level. He’ll get to work with experienced offensive minds in St. Louis like Doug Meacham, his offensive coordinator and QBs coach. But similar to Ta’amu, this is Meacham’s first foray into the pro coaching ranks.

Ta’amu will be challenged by another assigned QB, Taylor Heinicke. Projected as a possible late-round pick in 2015, Heinicke went undrafted and signed with the Minnesota Vikings. He has played in seven NFL games and started one – for the Carolina Panthers in 2018.

Heinicke’s small frame leaves him susceptible to injury. He suffered at least three major injuries in his short time in the NFL. If he can make it through camp healthy, he’ll have a good shot at unseating Ta’amu for the starting job.

Let’s not forget about Hard Knocks darling Brogan Roback. The Blond Bomber has spent time with the Cleveland Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers since his entrance into the NFL in 2018, and he was a skill position selection of the BattleHawks.

At Eastern Michigan, Roback holds the school record for touchdown passes and total offense, and is second in completions and passing yardage. He has a very real chance of making this a three-way competition at the QB spot in St. Louis.

Odds to start: Heinicke 40%, Ta’amu 35%, Roback 25%

 

 Aaron Murray, Taylor Cornelius, Vincent Testaverde Jr.

Tampa Bay Vipers: Aaron Murray, Taylor Cornelius, Vincent Testaverde Jr.

After bouncing around the NFL, Murray had to wait his turn in the AAF this spring. Murray shined in replacing starter Matt Simms, leading the Legends to their first victory in the short-lived league. It’s a performance he can use to springboard himself into the starting QB conversation in Tampa Bay.

The Vipers were allocated Murray, who had a successful career at Georgia before being drafted in the 5th round of the 2014 NFL Draft by the Kansas City Chiefs. While he never saw the field in a regular season game, he got some apprenticeship under fine offensive minds like Doug Pederson and Sean McVay.

Murray will be playing in the city in which he played high school, adding some extra motivation. This may also be the last opportunity for the 29 year-old to play in a major professional league and show scouts he’s still worthy of an NFL look.

Taylor Cornelius will look to play spoiler for the hometown boy’s return to south Florida. A graduate of Oklahoma State in 2019, he started just one season there, but ranked in the top 10 in FBS in passing yardage and touchdowns in Mike Gundy’s QB-friendly offense.

That wasn’t enough to get Cornelius drafted or even signed as a free agent. He had to earn a contract after rookie mini-camp with the Green Bay Packers. A camp arm, Cornelius was let go as the team trimmed its final roster to 53.
Because Cornelius was taken in the skill position phase of the draft, some importance must be attached to his spot. I don’t think it’ll be enough to unseat the veteran Murray, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the battle came down to the wire.

Tampa is also bringing Vincent Testaverde Jr. to camp. The son of Tampa Bay Bucs legend Vinny Testaverde, Testaverde Jr. camped with the Bucs during the offseason. While this seems like little more than a feel-good story, Testaverde Jr, also from Tampa, is intent on etching his name into pro football lore in the Bay area just like his father. It’s going to be an uphill climb to do that.

Odds to start: Murray 65%, Cornelius 30%, Testaverde 5%

Analyzing the Tampa Bay Vipers 2020 schedule

Today, the XFL released the schedules for each of its eight teams, as well as its television broadcast schedule. When the NFL releases its schedule each year, analysts and fans can debate strength of schedule, historical rivalries, and other quirks. Because each XFL team is basically an expansion team, we don’t have those kinds of discussion points at our disposal. That doesn’t mean there’s nothing to analyze, however. Taking a look at how the Tampa Bay Vipers’ schedule shakes out:

Tampa Bay Viper's Schedule

Tampa opens week one on the road against a division foe in New York. It’s no surprise the New York market would get a home game to start the season. It’s a 2pm Sunday start on Fox, the early game of a doubleheader. This rating will be key; we saw how the original XFL dropped after the curiosity factor wore off following week one. After fans sample one or both Saturday games to open the season, how many will be back for more on Sunday? That could be another reason the New York market got that game – the biggest media market means a better chance for a higher retention of viewers.

In week two, the Vipers travel across the country to visit Seattle. If Seahawks fans are any indication, this will be a difficult road matchup. And they do it on less than a full week’s rest, taking the Saturday evening timeslot. The cross-country excursion could be a challenge, but it occurs early enough in the season that the team should still be fresh. This is another Fox ballgame.

Tampa gets its home opener in week three, hosting Houston Saturday afternoon on ABC. This is likely to draw well regardless, but could be dependent upon the momentum of the entire league at this point. If by week three quality of play or ratings are down, fans could start to jump ship (pun intended, considering Raymond James Stadium) before Tampa even plays a home game. Tampa and St. Louis are the last two teams to play at home, both in this third week.

After two straight out of division games, Tampa faces DC, again at home, in prime time on Sunday night on ESPN2. The atmosphere should be raucous for that one. DC may end up the geographical rival of Tampa, at least in the early years, with no other teams close by. St. Louis would be the other contender for that mantle.

At the midway point of the season, Tampa goes back out to the west coast to face Los Angeles. It’s another primetime Sunday night game, this one at 9pm EST. That’s as accommodating as you can expect for a game on the left coast: Sunday night the week before, and Sunday night that week. Routine is important.

The Vipers come all the way back across the country for week six, as they host the BattleHawks. It’s a Saturday, 5pm EST start on FS2. It’s the only time they’re not on one of the major network or cable properties. There’s a lot of shifting of times and stations throughout the season, so you hope ABC/ESPN and Fox do a great job with promotion.

Week seven is the final cross-divisional game of the season when Tampa Bay locks up with Dallas. They’re back in Tampa for this one after being on the road for two weeks. Home cooking will be a relief by then and hopefully for the Vipers, spur them on for the homestretch of the regular season.

It’s the Defenders again in week eight, in DC, Saturday afternoon at 2pm EST on ABC. It’s the first game of week seven, a game that many east division foes will be keeping an eye on. The final three weeks are all interdivisional games, adding importance as teams jockey for playoff spots. There will have been a reasonable four weeks in between DC vs. Tampa contests.

Three weeks after doing battle with St. Louis, Tampa ventures out to Missouri to face them again. Two key divisional games in a row are away. This could be a trouble spot, just as the first two games of the season being away could cause problems.

They wrap up at home against New York, the team they squared off against in the opening weekend. Sunrise, sunset. It’s also the final game of the XFL regular season, so a lot could be on the line in this one, Sunday night on either FS1 of ABC.

Half of Tampa’s games are slated for broadcast networks, ABC or Fox (one more than half if the final game is picked up by ABC). Two games are on ESPN, and one each on ESPN2 and FS2. If Tampa Bay is to become a playoff team, they’ll have to overcome two away games in a row to start the season, and two away games in a row to lead off the important final three weeks of interdivisional slugfests. Other factors will certainly come into play throughout the season, but that’s what I see in digging into the Tampa Bay Vipers 2020 regular season schedule.

Tampa Bay Vipers XFL Draft Recap

With the XFL Draft now in the rear-view mirror, let’s take a look at how the Tampa Bay Vipers fared in each phase of the draft.

Quarterback Assignment: Aaron Murray, Georgia

A Tampa native, Murray was the first player with Florida ties, but certainly not the last, to become a Viper over the two-day draft period. While many assigned QBs had long been linked to the XFL, Murray was one that came out of left field. After a prolific college career in the SEC where he threw for 121 touchdowns and just 41 interceptions, Murray was selected by the Kansas City Chiefs in the 5th round of the 2014 NFL Draft.

A backup who bounced around practice squads, Murray found himself out of the league in 2017. He resurfaced with the Alliance of American Football earlier this year, playing for the Atlanta Legends. Murray’s strengths are his accuracy and his ability to move in the pocket, taking off as a runner when necessary. Head Coach Marc Trestman runs a version of the West Coast Offense, where Murray’s lack of arm strength can be hidden and his smarts can be utilized. Despite being a Tier 1 quarterback, I don’t believe he’ll be handed the job in camp and will have to fend off challenges from Taylor Cornelius and Vinny Testaverde Jr.

 

Phase One: Skill Players

If fortune favors the bold, the Vipers will be set up for a strong first season in the XFL. With the fifth overall pick in the round, Tampa made the first surprise of the day in picking TE Nick Truesdell. He was the first tight end selected, and the second one wasn’t chosen until pick 26. You could say Tampa pounced on the best tight end in the draft; you could also say that, because of the snake format, they had to wait until pick 12 to make their next choice, limiting their options of the top wideouts and backs.

Truesdell was on-and-off the New York Jets camp roster this summer after blowing up the AAF and leading all tight ends in receiving. He has taken a circuitous route to get to this point, with stops in the Indoor Football League and Arena Football League. He was one of two TEs taken by the Vipers in this phase, joined by Cole Wick out of Incarnate Word. Truesdell goes 6’5″ while Wick stands 6’6″.

Just ahead of Truesdell in AAF receiving was Seantavius Jones, who was Tampa’s second pick. Jones goes 6’4″, so whatever QB wins the training camp battle will have some big bodies to throw to. He was a part of a WR-rich New Orleans Saints team in 2014 and 2015. Four other receivers were taken during this phase, none under 6’0″. Given the picks here, it was clear this staff wasn’t going to be mesmerized by big names or big schools, as they took several under-the-radar players from small schools.

Rounding out the phase were two running backs and a quarterback. Not every team took a second QB in this phase, and while Cornelius was picked later (ninth round out of ten), he’s younger than Murray and could present a camp challenge in his first year as a pro. At 6’6″ and 232 pounds, the former walk-on from Oklahoma State won’t be overwhelmed by the competition. The running back selections were interesting. De’Veon Smith is a big back whose slow 40-yard dash time (4.85) at the 2017 NFL Combine likely led to his undrafted status. He’s almost exclusively an early-down runner.

He’ll be paired with Quinton Flowers, who played his college games at Raymond James Stadium, where the Vipers will call home. Flowers was a college QB who could be for the Vipers what Taysom Hill is for the Saints. If nothing else, he provides a contrast to what Smith brings to the table out of the backfield.

 

Phase Two: Offensive Linemen

Twelve of the first thirteen overall picks of this phase were offensive tackles. I’ll give you one guess as to what team bucked that trend. Yes, it was the Vipers, who selected UCF center Jordan McCray with the fourth overall pick. The same pros and cons of picking a TE over WR and RB also apply here. This was not a draft deep at the pivot, so McCray will anchor the line from the middle.

Tampa clearly scouted the AAF hard, as McCray participated there and has been in a number of NFL camps since 2014. That gives him experience in different types of offenses. The second pick may be their most intriguing, as the Vipers took OT Martez Ivey out of Florida (one of 15 players with Florida ties drafted by this franchise). Ivey was a heralded five-star recruit out of high-school who never developed into a top-tier tackle in college.

Offensive line coach Jonathan Himebauch will have a big piece of clay to mold during camp to get Ivey to where he needs to be for this team to be successful. Worth noting that Tampa took seven guards and just two tackles, so the expectation could be that those two tackles will bookend the line. If that’s the case, Ivey will be joined by Christian Morris from Mississippi. Some of the guards may be able to cross-train at tackle.

Andrew Tiller is a former sixth-round pick of the Saints and has 28 NFL games played to his name. Tre Jackson was a fourth-round pick of the New England Patriots in 2015. This doesn’t strike me as a strong group; there are players with substantial upside but who have underachieved or don’t have much experience. Then again, that may be symptomatic of the offensive line pool available.

 

Phase Three: Defensive Front Seven

Of the ten picks in this phase, four were defensive ends, two were defensive tackles, and four were linebackers. With the first pick in the phase, Tampa Bay this time went with the conventional wisdom, taking Oregon State pass rusher Obum Gwacham. Gwacham may not make it to mini-camp in December, as he has been on the NFL workout loop since being released by the Indianapolis Colts in final cuts. He tried out as recently as October 8 with the Colts.

Gwacham is an explosive athlete and a former WR, so he’s still learning the nuances of the defensive end position. He can play end or linebacker depending on coordinator Jerry Glanville’s scheme. That flexibility will be an advantage. Deiontrez Mount, Tampa’s second pick in this phase, has similar positional flexibility. A former Tennessee Titans draft pick, Mount, also like Gwacham, has NFL game experience. He’s more of a strength player who can run defend, posing as a compliment to Gwacham’s pass-rushing prowess.

Ricky Walker was a strong undrafted free-agent out of Virginia Tech this past year. He’ll work in the defensive tackle rotation with Josh Banks, who’s a little more stout than Walker. The Vipers posted a neat video of LB Lucas Wacha revealing his destination to the high-school football team he’s coaching:

The one other name that stands out from this group is the final choice, DE Devin Taylor. He was a fourth-round pick of the Detroit Lions in 2013 and has 63 NFL games to his name. He also, you guessed it, played in the AAF in the spring.

 

Phase Four: Defensive Backfield

Seven corners and three safeties were the count for this phase of the draft. First-and-second-round picks Arrion Springs and Picasso Nelson are young and inexperienced at the pro level, which makes the selection of Demontre Hurst in the third round all the more valuable. He has seven years as a pro under his belt, most of those years with the Chicago Bears, though he recently was in the CFL.

Springs had been a starter since his sophomore year at Oregon and can play inside or outside. Nelson was signed as an undrafted free agent out of Southern Mississippi by the Jacksonville Jaguars, but was never a real threat to crack their once-deep defensive backfield.

Micah Hannemann and Marcelis Branch are the top two safeties, but the final safety pick may be the most recognizable: Robenson Therezie out of Auburn, who made the Atlanta Falcons as an undrafted free-agent in 2015 and has played in 25 games.

This is another position where the Vipers chose youth over some of their more veteran counterparts.

 

Phase Five: Open

While some teams didn’t even draft specialists, Tampa Bay stocked up. They took two kickers, a punter, and a long-snapper. Andrew Franks was their first kicker taken. He spent two years with the Miami Dolphins where he connected on 78.4% of his field goals. At punter, the Vipers went with Jacob Schum who, like Franks, legged out two years in the NFL. Schum averaged 42.6 yards per punt with a 38.5 net with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2015 and the Green Bay Packers in 2016. Long snapper Nick Moore was in camp with the Saints this year. He was rated by many as one of the top snappers to enter the NFL Draft this past spring.

A second kicker, Matthew Wright of UCF, was also chosen. Like at the QB spot, it doesn’t hurt to have a little competition, especially when you’re either picking your 10th linebacker who has little chance of making the team, or creating real competition at a position. Wright left UCF last season as their career leader in field goals and points. He camped with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

After taking just two RBs in the skill position phase, Tampa Bay opted for three in the open phase, adding DJ May, Ralph Webb, and Jacques Patrick. Patrick may be the most intriguing: Heavily recruited out of high-school, he attended Florida State and is another size and power back. Webb is a speedster with a 4.48 40. May, a former linebacker who had injury and off-the-field issues at Wyoming, is worth a flier.

Tampa sacrificed a little size in the WR room when they took Auburn’s all-time leader in receptions, Ryan Davis, in the open phase. Davis is just 5’9″ and could end up in the slot. Freddie Martino is another player with both NFL and AAF field time. Same with LB Terrance Plummer, as the Vipers added some nice depth pieces in the final phase.

Vincent Testaverde Jr, whose father spent five years with the Bucs, will stay close to home. Vincent also attended Buccaneers training camp this summer. He’ll have to prove he was more than just a sentimental pick. DT Nikita Whitlock has crossed paths with members of this coaching staff in the CFL. He also doubles as a fullback.

 

Conclusion

While the XFL spurned the idea of allocating players by location, some teams sorted that out themselves, including the Vipers, whose draft has a distinct Florida flair. It’s great for marketing a team before the season begins, but ultimately wins and losses will determine fan support in South Florida. The scouts and coaching staff also seemed to value those who played in the AAF. It could make the transition to the XFL easier having already gone through a similar iteration recently.

Tampa Bay took the first tight end and center of the draft, and built their receiving corps around size to fit Trestman’s West Coast offensive philosophy. Offensive line and defensive back positions are largely untested based on the group they’ll bring to camp, but it’s possible those areas will be improved through the supplemental draft(s) the league will hold, and through usual training camp roster churn.

What Google Trends can tell us about interest in the XFL

The success of the XFL in 2020 and beyond is tied to the interest the league can drum up both locally and nationally for the teams, the players, and the product in general. Unfortunately, four months out from the first game, there’s no metric we can use to gain insight into how the league has taken hold thus far.

Merchandise sale numbers are unavailable to the media and general public; the same goes for season ticket deposits. There are no television ratings or game-day attendance numbers to analyze. One data point we can look at to see where interest in the league lies is with Google Trends.

Google Trends measures Google searches, where those searches emanate from, and what similar keyword searches are made. I’ve dug into the data of searches related to the XFL as well as all eight teams over a 365 day period (though the previous two months are the only ones relevant to the specific teams given the recency of the name reveals). The conclusions we can reach are limited at this point – but this information will be helpful to track as the season nears, as well as once it gets underway.

XFL

You can see that the highest interest level over the last 365 days occurred when the team names were revealed. That beat out a number of the other peak search periods, including the small bump you see in May during the time period of the LA head coach reveal, coinciding with the announcement of the league’s television deals. The earliest spike in the data is back in December of 2018 when the cities were officially announced. Then, over a longer time period of two weeks in February, the increase could be attributed to the announcements of Bob Stoops and Pep Hamilton as the league’s first two head coaches.

The next image shows searches by region over the same time period. For those concerned about the viability of St. Louis as a founding member, the fact that the most searches for the XFL have come from Missouri has to be a good sign. The only state represented on the top five that doesn’t have a team is Oklahoma, which comes in at number two. One would have to assume that is largely the result of Stoops being named coach. Even so, ranking second on the list is high and represents the value Stoops brings to the league.

Finally, it’s topics searched related to the XFL. This is another example of the power of Stoops, as he’s first in related topics as well as first AND second in related queries (while his team, XFL Dallas, comes in third there). Obviously the rumors of Antonio Brown’s status in football have linked him to the XFL despite league denials. That is a second-place related topic. The Seattle Dragons are the only full team name to register here alongside the XFL, as they’re fifth in related queries. Perhaps that nickname is the one that is really taking hold among the fanbase at large.

Team Searches

I won’t go through each individual team’s Google search results, because so many of them look similar: A huge spike at the time the name was announced, then very low ebbs and flows since then. But some of the teams have interesting regional splits and/or related searches. Take Dallas, for example:

Dallas Renegades

Dallas by region

The term “Dallas Renegades” has the highest search results from Texas, no surprise, and while it’s also no surprise that Oklahoma is second given the Stoops connection, it is somewhat surprising to see how close Oklahoma is to first place. Hopefully the Renegades can take advantage of the obvious interest from that state in making it a part of their market. There does seem to be a broad interest in this team in the northeast and southeast as well. Missouri even shows up once again in the top five.

DC Defenders

DC by region

While the DC area, Virginia, and Maryland should be the obvious top three searches, the Defenders apparently also have some fans in Pennsylvania and New York, which could mean the Guardians have some competition for fandom to deal with in the northeast.

Houston Roughnecks

Houston by region

Texas is a strong first-place for the Roughnecks. Louisiana is the state that comes in number two, but it’s not in the same ballpark as the number of Texas searches. Missouri once again shows up in the top five, as do other XFL states like Florida, Washington, New York, and California. You have to wonder if the fans in states with XFL teams may be searching to learn more about other teams in the league. It could also be a case of the larger states (Texas, California, Florida, New York) just naturally producing more of the results.

Los Angeles Wildcats

There doesn’t appear to be much interest in the Wildcats outside of California – it’s the only state that showed up in the regional results.

New York Guardians

The northeast states, plus the usual other areas like California, Florida, and Texas are the most interested in the Guardians. Interestingly enough, West Virginia makes the top ten. Also interesting: New Jersey tops New York in the state with the most searches, perhaps because MetLife Stadium, home of the Guardians, is in New Jersey rather than New York.

St. Louis BattleHawks

Missouri and Illinois are the two states that show up in searches for the BattleHawks. Battlehawks 1942, a video game from 1988, is among the related searches.

Seattle Dragons

Nearly the entire west coast shows up as prominent in searches for the Seattle Dragons, though Washington is far and away the number one location. There’s a pretty wide spread of where interest in the Dragons come from, which could be a good sign for merchandising purposes.

Tampa Bay Vipers

tampa by region

Unlike other teams, Tampa has its second-and-third-most searches coming from states that aren’t bordered by its own. Behind Florida comes Massachusetts and Indiana, with a significant chunk of search results coming out of the Midwestern or central states. It will be interesting to see how that translates going forward.

Conclusion

As of right now, this data is more of something to store in the back of the mind. If results procured during training camp or the season mirror some of the results seen here, then I think we can begin to make more sweeping proclamations. If nothing else, it could be a worthwhile guide for teams and the league to see where the most interest is coming from, and attempt to monetize that.

The case for officiating controversy – but at what cost?

Photo credit

The 2019 NFL season is only two weeks old and yet again, on-field officiating and penalties have become a major storyline for the league. In week one, there was a clock issue that cost the New Orleans Saints about 15 seconds as they were driving down the field before the half. Unlike the NFC Championship Game in January, they were able to overcome the blown call thanks to a last-second Wil Lutz 58-yard field goal.

The Saints were victimized again in week two, this time by a premature whistle. A Jared Goff fumble returned for a touchdown by Cameron Jordan was blown dead as an incomplete pass. While replay overturned the call and awarded New Orleans the ball, because the whistle blew, they would only get the ball at the spot of the recovery, and not the six points.

It’s not just the errors that are irking fans; the amount of laundry thrown during games has reached a boiling point with announcers and players as well. FOX NFL analyst and former Dallas Cowboys QB Troy Aikman in a podcast with Sports Illustrated called the amount of penalties “nauseating” and “maddening.”

Even New England Patriots QB Tom Brady, the recipient of some of the weakest roughing the passer calls in the last two decades, found Thursday night’s Jacksonville Jaguars vs. Tennessee Titans game hard to watch because of the penalties:

If it seems like there are more penalties called early this season, it’s because there have been. ESPN’s Adam Schefter Tweeted out the numbers:

Holding penalties specifically are on the rise, and it was an offseason point of emphasis as suggested by coaches. According to an NFL.com article by Judy Battista, offensive holding penalties are up 64% through the first two weeks of the season.

That’s not to mention the can of worms opened by allowing pass interference to be a reviewable play in 2019. Previously, judgment calls, of which pass interference is considered, had been immune from review. Even though “clear and obvious visual evidence” is the bar required to overturn a pass interference call (or non-call), that bar will be different depending on the set of eyes looking at it.

This all sounds bad for the league. It has slowed down the pace of play even more. It has players and coaches frustrated. It has fans running to social media even quicker than usual to voice their disgust throughout the world. Second-guessing NFL referees has become a cottage industry. You’d think at some point, the weekly officiating watch would affect the integrity of the game, but thus far, The Shield has not been pierced.

In fact, television viewership continues to grow. Week one this year was up 5% over week one of the 2018 season. Monday Night Football in particular saw double-digit percentage increases for both opening weekend games compared to last year. (Source: https://www.thewrap.com/nfl-week-1-tv-ratings/)

This is all prologue to the XFL, which has pledged a faster pace and fewer stoppages. It has also promised inventive rule changes, some of which we may be hearing about soon. We are now at about the time where the XFL should be writing its rulebook in pen. It’s not known whether the league will release its full rules upon completion, but if so, that could happen any day. It may be the next big reveal for the league, which also has the XFL Draft approaching next month.

While common sense would tell you the XFL should be trying to avoid the pitfalls the NFL has experienced with its officiating over the last decade or so, one has to consider the benefits of the controversies the NFL has found itself embroiled in with regards to this subject.

The disputed calls and no-calls have created storylines for the league and its teams beyond the box scores and win-loss columns. It has fed the talk-radio crowd and kept those issues in the news cycle for days. The more content you give fans and analysts to discuss, the less likely they will be to move on to another subject or sport. The NFL is king, even when the emperor is naked.

If there’s one thing the XFL needs, it’s to be in the consciousness of the sports fans as much as possible when the games begin. Fans are hungry not just for acceptable levels of on-field play, but also for controversy. The league tried to manufacture that in 2001 with the feud between New York/New Jersey Hitmen head coach Rusty Tillman and NBC color analyst Jesse Ventura, but fans didn’t buy it.

With new rules expected to be in place, there may be an adjustment period for players and referees when it comes to what happens between the lines. That could bring along with it some questionable calls from the officials. It’ll also be interesting to see what type of replay review, if any, the league settles on.

The XFL may not get the benefit of the doubt that the NFL has. Despite complaints by fans of how the NFL has become over-officiated, they keep showing up at stadiums and watching on TV. Will fans look the other way if roughing-the-passer penalties in the XFL are questionable, or if a quick whistle or two negate defensive touchdowns? Or will they use that as evidence that the XFL is not a quality product and decide it’s not worth their time?

As the XFL puts the finishing touches on its rulebook, one that will have a great influence on the success of the league, you have to wonder if there’s a devil sitting on the shoulder of commissioner Oliver Luck, telling him to keep some of the rules vague enough so that the XFL too can benefit from a little bit of officiating controversy, just as the NFL has.

What we can learn from the XFL’s other trademarked team names

Just as some folks had gone through the five stages of grief to reach “acceptance” with XFL team names and logos, which are now baked in to XFL fan consciousness, it was discovered that the league had trademarked five names for each team. One of the five was chosen, leaving four unused. We got a sneak peek at the Seattle team names some time ago, which caused debate amongst XFL fans about which one should be used – Dragons, of course, won out.

Now that the curtain has been pulled back a bit and a little more of the process is revealed, what can we learn about the league’s thinking as team names were selected? Some conclusions I’ve drawn in looking over the abandoned names:

1. Patterns emerge: Each set of names contains at least one nickname without an “s” on the end. The original XFL in 2001 (in)famously featured only half the league using plurals in its team names. This could be mere coincidence, or it could’ve been a concerted effort on the part of the XFL to possibly try the tact again. Perhaps if they had chosen that direction, each team would follow that same pattern; therefore, you can almost identify what each team name would be had they went with that grouping.

Prior to the release of team names, another point fans speculated about was the possible inclusion of alliterative names. Only one was selected in DC Defenders. Out of the 40 names, only two others featured alliteration: Seattle Surge and LA Legion. It wasn’t a complete dismissal of alliterative names, but you can tell it also wasn’t something on which the XFL marketing department focused.

Finally, while some team names are area-specific, others are not. The XFL managed to tie-in all team nicknames to the locality and history of the city. Other possibilities seem like it would be a tougher task. The Surge, for example, is generic enough that it could be used for any city. Same for LA Legion, or New York Grind. I’m sure if these names were selected, the league would’ve been able to make a local connection. With the leftover nicknames, each city had one or two that seemed to apply specifically to that city (St. Louis Archers, for example), with one or two that were not.

2. Safe choices won out: Not everybody was happy with all eight team nicknames at first, but none were extravagantly off-the-wall like those in 2001. That’s not to say none fitting that description were trademarked, however. Houston Roughnecks is unique and wasn’t everybody’s cup of tea, but Houston Octane? Or Houston Wildcatters? Those may have caused a few more eye rolls.

The St. Louis Battlehawks is another nickname that drew the ire of some. I can’t imagine what the reaction would’ve been had they gone with the St. Louis Greywolves. I’m not saying these names are bad; on the contrary, some of them are quite fun. But in an effort to win over the casual fan, the XFL left more risky choices on the table.

3. Uniqueness was a high priority: Prior to the release of the nicknames and logos, fans weren’t sure what direction the XFL would go with the names, other than the fact they wouldn’t be as in-your-face as in 2001. Would they go the traditional route, with animals and the like? Or would they carve their own path?

The group of trademarked names showed that indeed, the XFL wanted to stand out. Even if the LA Wildcats is a name that has been used before, many of those made public are not. The Houston Comets is the only nickname that not only isn’t unique, but the entire Houston Comets name is lifted from a defunct WNBA franchise that last played in the city in 2008. But that’s the exception.

This was not a list of names that had a lot in common with college teams, former minor league professional teams, or other sports team nicknames. Many were wholly unique to the XFL naming process. And who knows? If the XFL is a success and the league expands within the next several years, some of those trademarked nicknames may come back into play for an expansion franchise. Based on those unused monikers, I’d frame that as a positive.

The hunt for potential XFL talent continues: A list of the deepest position groups for every NFL team (pt. 2)

Part two of my look across the NFL at the deepest position groups for every time continues with the NFC. (Look for part 1 here)

Arizona Cardinals

Linebackers: Arizona’s 3-4 scheme means they have a high number of linebackers in camp. Right now, they have enough to have a full fourth string and then some. But there’s quality along with quantity here. Andre Branch was just brought aboard as a rush linebacker behind the ageless Terrell Suggs. Branch isn’t guaranteed a roster spot. Looking at the third-and-fourth teamers, a couple names stick out: Tanner Vallejo and Hayes Pullard are both special teams mavens. Jeff Holland was recently picked up after being waived by Denver, and he showed well at times last season. Vontarrius Dora and Pita Taumoepenu are youngsters who could attract attention on the waiver wire. Undrafted rookie Dante Booker won’t crack the rotation, but his Ohio State pedigree could give him a practice squad opportunity.

Atlanta Falcons

Defensive Line: Curiously, the Falcons list five starters on the defensive line on their unofficial depth chart, and only two linebackers. Vic Beasley, one of the ends, acts as a hybrid pass rusher. Atlanta has a bit of starting experience among their backups, including Jack Crawford, an 11-game starter last year at tackle, and former Tampa Bay 1st round pick Adrian Clayborn. After a year out of football, 2014 2nd round pick Ra’Shede Hageman returns to try to make an impact. He’s battling with 2018 3rd rounder Deadrin Senat for a backup tackle spot. There aren’t many “name” rookie free agent gems buried here, but instead, a couple of second-year prospects in Austin Larkin (Purdue) and Jacob Tuioti-Mariner (UCLA). Given the five starters listed, it’ll be interesting to see how many bodies Atlanta keeps at this position.

Carolina Panthers

Quarterbacks: Cam Newton has been dinged up over the years due to his aggressive style of play, resulting in some significant playing time for backups. Will Grier is a rookie 3rd round pick out of West Virginia, and he’ll almost certainly make the team. Will Carolina keep another backup as insurance in case the rookie isn’t ready to be the number two man? That battle will come down to Kyle Allen and Taylor Heinicke, two former undrafted free agents. Allen looked the part in his lone start last year, while Heinicke saw action in six games in 2018. Allen could have interest on waivers if he gets cut, while Heinicke may not. Either of the two would be solid options for XFL teams looking for a quarterback.

Chicago Bears

Special Teams: We have an honest-to-goodness specialist battle here. The placekicking job will be handled by either Eddy Pineiro, acquired in the offseason from Oakland; or Elliott Fry, who kicked in the AAF. Either man will have a lot of pressure to fill the void after Cody Parkey so publicly doinked the Bears out of the playoffs with his miss last season. On the long-snapping front, Patrick Scales hasn’t been as automatic as one would hope from the position, so he’s being tested by John Wirtel, a rookie out of Kansas. Wirtel was not a highly-ranked long snapping prospect in this year’s draft, but few snappers are challenged in camp and the XFL will need eight of them.

Dallas Cowboys

Defensive Line: There’s a good mix of youth and experience on Dallas’s front four, creating a lot of competition in camp. The Cowboys devoted three draft picks to the position this year. Seventh rounder Jalen Jelks is competing with 5th rounder Joe Jackson for a backup end spot. They’re getting an opportunity with DeMarcus Lawrence and Tyrone Crawford both on the physically-unable-to-perform list. Versatile veteran Kerry Hyder is in danger of not making the team. Two valued rookie free agents in Daniel Wise (Kansas) and Ricky Walker (Virginia Tech) may be battling for one practice squad spot. AAF alum Shakir Soto is also vying for a spot. Preseason game action may determine the rotation and roster spots.

Detroit Lions

Tight Ends: All six tight ends on Detroit’s camp roster are NFL-caliber players. Jesse James, a free-agent recruit from Pittsburgh, and 1st round pick TJ Hockenson are locks. The Lions will either keep three or four, depending on how numbers work out elsewhere on the squad. Logan Thomas is a converted QB who is still learning the position. Jerome Cunningham is a journeyman block-first guy, as is Austin Traylor, who can also double as a fullback. Isaac Nauta could end up being a steal as a 7th round pick this year; he tested poorly but produced in college. If the Lions like his long-term outlook, they may try to keep him either as the third or fourth tight end.

Green Bay Packers

Defensive Line: The starting three are set here; it’s now a competition for the final two or three spots. Speedy Fadol Brown, late of Oakland, is squaring off with practice squadder James Looney and 2019 5th rounder Kingsley Keke for one or two backup end positions. Keke has the advantage there. At backup nose tackle, it’s likely Tyler Lancaster’s spot to lose after he impressed as an undrafted free-agent last season. That means two large men will be on the street: 332-pound second-year man Deon Simon, and 331-pound rookie Olive Sagapolu (who is athletic enough to do a standing backflip). You can’t teach size.

Los Angeles Rams

Defensive Backs: The Rams boast a top cornerback tandem in Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters. Troy Hill and Nickell Robey-Coleman, two former AFC East denizens, back them up. Darious Williams and Donte Deayon duke it out for the backup nickel job behind Robey-Coleman. This year’s 3rd rounder, David Long, may end up getting a redshirt year due to the depth. At safety, Eric Weddle and John Johnson patrol the backfield, while heralded Taylor Rapp and Marqui Christian fight for playing time. Penn State 7th rounder Nick Scott may make it as the final safety, beating out Oklahoma alum Steven Parker and Iowa rookie free agent Jake Gervase. A team could keep up to three DBs on the practice squad.

Minnesota Vikings

Offensive Line: Three draft picks spent by the Vikings along the line are in three very different spots on the depth chart after the first preseason game. Center Garrett Bradbury, a 1st rounder, is already entrenched as a starter. Dru Samia, a 4th rounder, is on the third team, but has some upward mobility and will make the roster as a backup. And 6th round pick Oli Udoh has the look of a practice squad player at this point. Samia’s presence could spell the end of the line for third-year man Danny Isidora and former starter Dakota Dozier. Longshots like John Keenoy, Cornelius Edison, and Storm Norton also have some upside to their game.

New Orleans Saints

Running Backs: Rookie free agent Devin Ozigbo out of Nebraska has already made his way to second-team all-purpose back behind Alvin Kamara. He has passed Jacquizz Rodgers for that role and may put Rodgers out of a job. Fourth-year man Dwayne Washington is a valued special-teamer and if he makes the club, it’ll be via that route. Kerwynn Williams has bounced around the league and is another set of legs on the New Orleans roster. They may only keep three true running backs. This position is so deep that there’s even a battle at fullback between incumbent Zach Line and former Detroit Lions draft pick Mike Burton.

New York Giants

Linebackers: Once a sore spot, this position has been built into a strength by general manager Dave Gettleman. It’s expected the Giants will keep eight linebackers. On the inside, 5th round pick Ryan Connelly looks safe as a backup, leaving former starter B.J. Goodson and special teams stalwart Nate Stupar battling for the last spot. That would put former Bear Jonathan Anderson out as well. On the outside, there may not be as much competition. Rookie free agent Jake Carlock impressed in the first preseason game. Edge rusher and former 5th round pick in 2017 Avery Moss may not be locked in. Joey Alfieri and Keion Adams are also quality depth players who may find themselves without a home in September.

Philadelphia Eagles

Running Backs: Some were surprised the Eagles spent a 2nd round pick this year on Penn State’s Miles Sanders, given their treasure trove at the position. The Eagles truly use a committee approach with their backs. Sanders and Jordan Howard are in. Corey Clement has been brought along slowly due to injury this summer, but he’s expected to make the team. Darren Sproles is also back for another year; hard to see Philly cutting him. They may be able to sneak one more in, but those four also might be it. That leaves Josh Adams, who led the team in rushing last year, off the roster. He’d be joined by Saints 2018 6th rounder Boston Scott, 5’9” Donnel Pumphrey (the all-time leader in Division I rushing yards), and 2016 5th round pick Wendell Smallwood. Those are some quality credentials to be without a home.

San Francisco 49ers

Defensive Line: As noted by The Athletic’s Matt Barrows, the 49ers may keep as many as 10 linemen here because three are scheduled to become unrestricted free agents next spring. Even so, some talent will end up getting cut. One name that stands out is Damontre Moore, currently listed as a fourth-team end. Moore was a 3rd round pick in 2013 and played in the AAF this spring. Tackle Jordan Thompson is already in the XFL’s rolodex after participating in one of the Summer Showcases. This will be a tough group for him to crack. Kevin Givens was a top undrafted signing at the tackle position. Sixth-year vet Jay Bromley and second-year man Jeremiah Valoga are in danger of not making the squad.

Seattle Seahawks

Defensive Backs: The Legion of Boom they are not, but Seattle still has talented depth in its secondary. While most of the attention of XFL fans is on the QB race in Seattle, former Miami 2nd round pick Jamar Taylor is battling to make the roster, just to show how competitive this unit is. Jeremy Boykins and Simeon Thomas are fringe NFL talent at the position. Longtime Seahawk DeShawn Shead was brought back this summer, but it’s not a lock he makes the team. Shead will try to leapfrog Shalom Luani, who was acquired in a trade with Oakland last season; and Jawuan Johnson, a rookie free agent from TCU. Most of the other spots on the depth chart seem set; just one or two corner and safety jobs may truly be on the line.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Quarterbacks: New head coach Bruce Arians was brought in to straighten Jameis Winston out. That remains a work in progress as does the battle to be Winston’s backup. Veterans Blaine Gabbert and Ryan Griffin could both end up making the roster if Arians chooses to carry three QBs. At this point, though, having both Gabbert and Griffin seems redundant. Neither has practice squad eligibility left, and neither are likely to cause other teams to run to their to their phones to sign them. The wildcard here is Nick Fitzgerald, who has spent the preseason on the Non-Football Injury List. Once thought to be a top prospect at Mississippi State, Fitzgerald went undrafted. If healthy, his skillset could match what XFL offenses are looking for. Tampa could also decide to stash him on injured reserve for the year.

Washington Redskins

Wide Receivers: The Athletic’s Ben Standig reports that starter and 2016 1st rounder Josh Doctson is in danger of not making the team. He’d likely be in demand from other NFL teams, but it shows how fluid the receiving corps is in Washington. This year’s draft picks Terry McLaurin and Kelvin Harmon are up to the second-team on the depth chart. Trey Quinn mans the slot. Brian Quick has never lived up to his 2nd round potential but could find new life in the XFL. Jehu Chesson and Robert Davis are interesting young size/speed guys and it’s likely one but not both will make the team. Steve Sims Jr. from Kansas is an interesting rookie free-agent making up the back-end of the position.

The hunt for potential XFL talent continues: A list of the deepest position groups for every NFL team (pt. 1)

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.

Baltimore Ravens

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.

Buffalo Bills

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.

Cincinnati Bengals

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.

Cleveland Browns

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.

Denver Broncos

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.

Houston Texans

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.

Indianapolis Colts

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.

Jacksonville Jaguars

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.

Miami Dolphins

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.

Oakland Raiders

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.

Pittsburgh Steelers

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.

Tennessee Titans

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.

Connecting the dots: Finding the commonalities among Tampa Bay’s coaching staff, and with Summer Showcase players

XFL Tampa Bay Head Coach Marc Trestman has hired a bevy of coaches familiar to him. How is this cadre of coaches connected to players that tried out in the Tampa Summer Showcase?

In the football coaching profession, networking is critically important. Taking time out to introduce yourself to a colleague at a high-school coaching clinic could, years down the line, lead to a job in the college or professional ranks.

This fraternity of coaches was at play when each XFL Head Coach and General Manager was assembling his staff. It was likely difficult enough attracting experienced leaders of men to a start-up football league after the Alliance of American Football had flamed out in such spectacular fashion; then take into account trying to put together a staff of assistants after most college and NFL teams had already set theirs for the upcoming year.

In Tampa Bay, Head Coach and GM Marc Trestman drew from many of his stops to hire assistants. He took advantage of his knowledge of the Canadian Football League and shopped there, the next-best place to find assistants after Division I college and the NFL.

Below I’ve taken a deep dive into Trestman and his assistants hired thus far, to see where their paths have crossed. I’ve also attempted to cross-reference their coaching stops with names listed from the XFL Summers Showcases.

While not always the case, familiarity can be helpful when building a team from scratch. Some of the player names that appear across multiple coaching stops would be something to file away for when XFL contracts are handed out and the XFL Draft commences in October.

Head Coach: Marc Trestman: The offensive mad scientist will attempt to outwit fellow outside-the-box offensive minds like June Jones and Kevin Gilbride in the XFL. Trestman’s travels have taken him from the college ranks (University of Miami and North Carolina State) to the NFL (five offensive coordinator jobs and head coach of the Chicago Bears) to the CFL (head coach of Montreal and Toronto).

Much of his staff in Tampa Bay comes from the Great White North. His quarterbacks coach, Josh Neiswander, was a player for him when Trestman was head coach in Montreal. Running backs coach Josh Moore served that same position with Trestman in Toronto and was his assistant head coach with the Bears in 2014.

Offensive line coach Jonathan Himebauch worked under Trestman in both Montreal and Toronto. Offensive assistant Justin Poindexter and linebackers coach Mike Archer both coached with Trestman in Toronto. And offensive coordinator Jamie Elizondo was an assistant for Trestman in Montreal in 2008.

Interestingly, all of Trestman’s offensive assistants in Tampa have a connection to him, while only one defensive assistant does. Clearly, he knows offense will be key in the XFL and hired those already familiar with his concepts.
One player connection that has already been made is QB Ryan Mallett, who was in Baltimore when Trestman was offensive coordinator there in 2015 and 2016. While Mallett was a backup, he had the best completion percentage of his career and best passer rating (in a year with more than 16 pass attempts) in 2015.

Trestman also crossed paths with XFL tryout players S Will Hill, S Matt Elam and WR Chuck Jacobs while in Baltimore. As head coach in Chicago, Trestman coached RB Mike Ford, FB Tony Fiammetta, LB Khaseem Greene, DT Will Sutton and WR Rashad Lawrence.

Will Trestman feature a fullback in his XFL offense? While in the NFL, he had access to Fiammetta, more of a blocker, in Chicago. In Baltimore, he had do-it-all Kyle Juszczyk. While NFL offenses are making that position extinct, Trestman has a history of utilizing it in different ways.

Moving north, in Toronto, Trestman was a part of Argonauts teams that featured LB Khalil Bass, S Marcus Ball, LB Terrance Plummer, G Brandon Washington, DE Rakim Cox, WR Dexter McCluster, and QB Greg McGhee.

Offensive Coordinator: Jamie Elizondo: Elizondo started his career as an assistant with Montreal of the CFL in 2008, soon after his playing career ended. He had a couple of short stints in college with Syracuse (WR coach) and Columbia (OC/QB coach). He was last offensive coordinator for the Ottawa Redblacks.

Tampa Bay has yet to announce a wide receivers or tight ends coach. Those positions could be filled internally, with Elizondo a candidate to coach WRs in addition to his coordinator duties. Despite coaching for three different CFL teams, Elizondo’s path has not crossed anyone else on the Tampa Bay staff besides Trestman.

His connection with Summer Showcase players is nearly as sparse: He was a coach in Ottawa when LB Khalil Bass was on the roster in 2017, and when LB Quentin Gause played for them in 2018.

Defensive Coordinator: Jerry Glanville: The man in black returns to pro football in the states for the first time since he was head coach of the Atlanta Falcons in 1993 (not counting a stint for the Hartford Colonials in the UFL in 2011, where the team folded before he could coach a game).

Glanville began his coaching sojourn at Western Kentucky in 1967. Most recently, he had returned to the game after nine years away, becoming the defensive coordinator of the CFL Hamilton Tiger-Cats in 2018.  Glanville was able to pluck DBs coach William Fields from that same Hamilton staff, bringing him along to Tampa. Special teams coach Frank Gansz Jr. was also in Hamilton and is now a part of Trestman’s Tampa staff.

LB Khalil Bass is a name that pops up quite a bit throughout these coaching stops, and while he never played for Glanville, he interestingly attended Portland State after Glanville was head coach there from 2007-2009. Small school…small world.

WR Rashad Lawrence, LB Lucas Wacha, and FB Nikita Whitlock were on Hamilton’s roster in 2018 while Glanville coached there. Because Glanville is on the defensive side, his connection to Wacha, a linebacker, may matter a little more for this exercise than the offensive players. But I thought it was worth noting.

Special Teams Coordinator: Frank Gansz Jr.: Junior followed his father into coaching special teams, as Frank Gansz Sr. worked in the NFL for almost 25 years. Gansz Jr. attended The Citadel and coached at the US Military Academy beginning in 1990. He was special teams coach for the NY/NJ Knights of the World League in 1992-1993, which was the precursor to NFL Europe.

He coached special teams in the NFL for the Oakland Raiders (1998-2000), Kansas City Chiefs (2001-2006), and Baltimore Ravens (2006-2008). He’s also coached elsewhere at the college level with the University of Houston, UCLA, and SMU. Gansz Jr. coached tight ends for five years in Houston, which makes it possible that he could coach tight ends in Tampa in addition to his special teams duties.

Like most others on the staff, Gansz Jr. also coached in the CFL, but only one year, with Hamilton in 2018, where he coached with Fields and Glanville. In addition to those players listed with Glanville in Hamilton, Gansz Jr. coached at SMU while DE Taylor Reed was there, and at UCLA while S Rahim Moore was a player. Perhaps the most useful connection is that he was special teams coach at UCLA while Jeff Locke played. His work with Locke got the punter drafted in the fifth round of the 2013 NFL Draft.

Quarterbacks Coach: Josh Neiswander: Neiswander has the thinnest coaching CV of anyone on Marc Trestman’s first XFL staff. He played quarterback at Angelo State college, then later with the Montreal Alouettes of the CFL from 2011-2013. I couldn’t find any record of collegiate or professional coaching experience for Neiswander after his playing career ended.

Neiswander played for Trestman when Trestman was head coach of Montreal in 2011 and while Jonathan Himebauch was the offensive line coach there.

Running Backs Coach: Josh Moore: Another veteran of the CFL coaching ranks, Moore comes to Tampa having last been Toronto’s RBs coach for the 2017 and 2018 seasons. He has worn many hats in the coaching game, from college recruiting coordinator, running backs coach, and tight ends coach, to high-school offensive coordinator, to pro assistant to the head coach and RBs coach.

Moore crossed paths with offensive assistant Justin Poindexter and linebackers coach Mike Archer while in Toronto. He was RBs coach for Trestman there, following him from the Chicago Bears, where Moore was the assistant to the head coach in 2014. Moore has many of the players in common with those listed under Trestman from their time together.

Offensive Line Coach: Jonathan Himebauch: This has to be a little strange for Himebauch, who played in the only season of the original XFL back in 2001 for the champion Los Angeles Xtreme. Since then, coach Himebauch has bounced from college to the CFL and earlier this year, to the AAF.

The one constant has been his job as offensive line coach, aside from a high-school stop-over in 2005 as head coach. He coached under Trestman in both Montreal and Toronto, assisting him along with the others previously mentioned.

Himebauch saw a lot of familiar faces at the Summer Showcases. He coached at Wake Forest when FB Nikita Whitlock played there in 2012-2013. While in Edmonton in 2014, he was joined by RB Kendial Lawrence, S Dexter McCoil, and S Robert Sands. Add in the players who also played for Trestman, et. al. in Toronto in ’17-18.

Then you have the AAF alum, many of whom were invited to the Showcases. It’s a long list of San Antonio Commanders, the team for which Himebauch coached. In the interest of brevity, I’ll note specifically the offensive linemen, since those would be whom Himebauch would be most familiar: C Dillon DeBoer, C Brian Folkerts, OT Fred Lauina, OT Andrew McDonald, G Cyril Richardson, and OT Maea Teuhema.

Offensive Assistant: Justin Poindexter: A graduate of Howard University, Poindexter began coaching in 2010 at Gonzaga High-School. He moved on to become a tight ends coach and assistant offensive line coach, a recruiting assistant, a game charter for the Cleveland Browns, and a defensive quality control coach. He too could have a hand in coaching the tight ends. Poindexter was set to become Toronto’s running backs coach this year before being hired by Trestman for the XFL.

While at Howard, QB Greg McGhee played there. They’d meet up again when Poindexter was in Toronto with the Argonauts. He coached at Southern University where DE Aaron Tiller, DT Trae Tiller, WR Willie Quinn, RB Lenard Tillery, and TE Dillon Beard played. Poindexter was a recruiting assistant at Northwestern while DT Jordan Thompson and WR Flynn Nagle plied their craft.

In Cleveland with the Browns, he was familiar with CB Trey Caldwell, WR Rannell Hall, RB Raijon Neal, S Rahim Moore, LB Scooby Wright, TE Connor Hamlett, WR Matt Hazel, CB Najee Murray, and WR Kasen Williams over the course of two seasons.

Defensive Line Coach: Lawrence Hill: Not much is known about Hill. He was a high-school head coach at one time, as well as West Texas A&M defensive line coach. We may have to wait for the Tampa Bay media guide to come out to learn more.

Linebackers Coach: Michael Archer: Archer has spent a lot of his coaching career in the college game. He was a linebackers coach for the Pittsburgh Steelers for seven years from 1996-2002, when the Steelers had some phenomenal talent at that position like Levon Kirkland, Chad Brown, Joey Porter, Mike Vrabel, and Jason Gildon.
Archer was brought to the CFL in 2017 to be a part of Marc Trestman’s staff in Toronto. He was promoted to defensive coordinator from linebackers coach for the 2018 season. He has spent a number of years as a defensive coordinator in college, as well as assistant head coach and safeties coach.

In addition to the usual suspects he coached, along with others aforementioned in Toronto, he crossed paths with WR Tobias Palmer while at North Carolina State in 2011 and 2012. He was at Virginia when DT David Dean was there in 2014 and 2015.

Defensive Backs Coach: William Fields: Fields not only coached in the CFL, but he played there as well. He started as a pro scout for the B.C. Lions, then moved into the high-school and college ranks. He came back to B.C. in 2014, then jumped to Montreal, Hamilton, and finally Edmonton. At most of those stops, he was an assistant DBs coach, whereas in Tampa he’ll be leading the room.

In 2015, he was coaching DBs as well as defensive quality control in B.C. when RB Timothy Flanders and QB Greg McGhee were on the roster. When he moved to Montreal in 2016, he worked with CB Khalid Wooten. In Hamilton in 2017, Fields encountered S Will Hill, DE Ryan Mueller, DT Jason Neill, FB Nikita Whitlock, and Wooten again. Whitlock, Wooten, WR Rashad Lawrence, and LB Lucas Wacha were part of the Hamilton roster in 2018 with Fields as assistant DBs/special teams coach.

Strength & Conditioning Coach: Darren Krein: No member of Marc Trestman’s Tampa coaching staff has more NFL coaching experience than Krein. He has been an assistant or head strength and conditioning coach in the league since 1997, save for the year 2000. During that time, he coached RB Marcus Thigpen, LB Josh Kaddu, OT Andrew McDonald and RB Jonas Gray in Miami in 2012, then Thigpen and Kaddu there again in 2013.

Sticking with Miami, WR Matt Hazel and WR L’Damian Washington were roster members in 2014, with Hazel and LB Jeff Luc a part of the team in 2015. Krein moved to Indianapolis where he coached DE Kristjan Sokoli, LB Antonio Morrison, and LB Deiontrez Mount in 2016, then RB Matt Jones, Morrison, RB Christine Michael, and G Isaiah Williams in 2017.

Just because coaches are familiar with players doesn’t mean they’re an automatic fit. But we’ve seen that in building a staff, Marc Trestman prefers an air of familiarity, mixed with new faces. So if names like QB Greg McGhee, FB Nikita Whitlock, LB Khalil Bass, WR Rashad Lawrence or others who pop up frequently in this column end up in Tampa’s camp this fall, you’ll know why – I’ve connected the dots for you.