How XFL players fared in the NFL in 2020 (part four)
Final roundup of a four-part series analyzing the performance of XFL players in the NFL.
This is the final part of a four-part series analyzing the performance of former XFL players that played in the NFL in 2020. This part focuses on players from NFC playoff teams and current free agents who were on NFL team rosters or practice squads during the 2020 season.
Check out the previously published parts:
- Part 1, featuring players on AFC non-playoff teams.
- Part 2, featuring players on NFC non-playoff teams.
- Part 3, featuring players on AFC playoff teams.
QB Taylor Heinicke, Washington Football Team (St. Louis BattleHawks)
In the XFL: Heinicke’s NFL experience (with four teams over four years) made him valuable to the XFL. He was a QB assigned to the BattleHawks prior to the supplemental draft. In one of the more intriguing quarterback camp battles, he lost out to Jordan Ta’amu in St. Louis. Heinicke did not attempt a pass but provided a veteran presence in the QB room for the young Ta’amu.
In the NFL: Washington brought Heinicke aboard their practice squad in December amid the chaos they were experiencing at the QB position. With Alex Smith injured and Dwayne Haskins ineffective, Heinicke played in the second half of a week 16 contest against Carolina. While he was unable to lead the team to victory, he completed 12-of-19 passes for 137 yards and a touchdown. Smith returned for week 17 but was out again due to a calf issue for the Wild Card playoff game against Tampa Bay.
Heinicke very nearly outdueled Tom Brady in that game. Washington did not win, but Heinicke threw for over 300 yards and a touchdown, also rushing for a TD. He kept Washington in the game until the very end, and received national publicity for his efforts.
What PFF tells us: Taking into account both his week 16 and playoff game performance, Heinicke registered a 92.3 overall grade with PFF. In fact, his PFF grade was the second-highest quarterback grade handed out by PFF in a Wild Card game since 2015.
2021 outlook: Heinicke will be a restricted free agent this offseason, giving Washington the right of first refusal. The release of Haskins paves the way for Heinicke to perhaps grab the number two QB job behind Smith for 2021. If nothing else, he probably won’t have to use his engineering degree for a while.
K Austin MacGinnis, Los Angeles Rams (Dallas Renegades)
In the XFL: MacGinnis was drafted in the first open phase of the XFL draft by the Renegades. He faced no competition for the job in camp. MacGinnis was a perfect 10-for-10 in field goals on the season, with a long of 46 yards.
In the NFL: Participating in a three-way kicking competition in camp, MacGinnis and Lirim Hajrullahu lost out in a close battle to rookie draft pick Sam Sloman. Sloman lasted seven games before getting the boot. MacGinnis was signed to the practice squad on October 28th but was not one of the three kickers to play in a regular season game for the team. He finished the season on the practice squad behind Matt Gay, a former Tampa draft pick who was signed by the Rams off Indianapolis’s practice squad in November.
2021 outlook: Gay kicked well for the Rams, leading to the belief by some that he can be the long-term solution Los Angeles is looking for at the position. MacGinnis was signed to a reserve/futures contract, so he’ll compete for the spot in camp with Gay. MacGinnis could be an option for a kicker-needy team at some point during the 2021 season if he doesn’t win the Rams’ job.
WR Jeff Badet, Washington Football Team (Dallas Renegades)
In the XFL: A highly coveted receiver in the XFL draft, the speedy Badet was reunited with his college coach Bob Stoops in Dallas. He was the number four overall pick in the first round of the skill position phase of the XFL draft. Badet was a starter in Dallas’s three-receiver offense under Hal Mumme. He caught 16 passes for 108 yards (6.8 yards per reception) on the season.
In the NFL: After a few stray tryouts during camp, Badet signed with Washington’s practice squad in September. He was elevated from the practice squad to the gameday roster twice, then signed to the active roster in November. He lasted there about a month before being released. Badet was signed to a reserve/futures contract after Washington was eliminated from the playoffs.
What PFF tells us: Badet played in three games for Washington in 2020. Over those three games, he played 21 offensive snaps, 19 on pass plays. He was targeted once, but didn’t catch any passes. Sixteen of his snaps came with him lined up wide, five in the slot. He finished with a grade of 46.4. He did not participate on special teams while active.
2021 outlook: Without apparent special teams value, at least for Washington, he may struggle to make the team in 2021. Washington has a lot of young receivers he’ll have to leapfrog to make an impression. As long as he has his speed (4.27 40 yard-dash at Oklahoma’s Pro Day in 2018), he’ll be in demand on the workout circuit.
K Taylor Russolino, Free Agent (St. Louis BattleHawks)
In the XFL: When BattleHawks draft pick Elliott Fry decided to continue pursing an NFL career, Russolino was added to the St. Louis training camp roster on December 19th. Russolino parlayed that signing into a 90% field goal percentage with an XFL-long 58 yarder.
In the NFL: Former XFL announcer Pat McAfee went to bat for Russolino with Denver’s special teams coach Tom McMahon. It led to Russolino signing to the team’s practice squad in December. When the team’s starting kicker, Brandon McManus, ended up on the COVID-19 list, Russolino was selected to kick in a nationally televised week 15 tilt with the Buffalo Bills. It was a disappointing outing for Russolino, who missed his only field goal attempt (from 51 yards) and was 1-for-3 on extra points in admittedly windy conditions.
What PFF tells us: Naturally, Russolino’s PFF grade was not great. His field goal grade was 27.6 while his kickoff grade was 60.0. He failed to register a touchback on four kickoffs.
2021 outlook: Despite his pristine XFL numbers, it may be difficult for Russolino to get another shot in the NFL after his one-game stint with Denver this season. Presumably, kickers will not be in such high demand in 2021 if the pandemic gets under control.
K Sergio Castillo, Free Agent (Houston Roughnecks)
In the XFL: A veteran of the CFL, Castillo was a supplemental draft choice of the Roughnecks. He made just 55.6 of his field goals, including 2-6 from beyond 40 yards.
In the NFL: In October, Castillo signed with the New York Jets practice squad. He was summoned to the gameday roster to replace an injured Sam Ficken in week seven. When Ficken was placed on injured reserve, Castillo was promoted. He was the Jets’ kicker for more than a month and showed out decently. That is, until a week 14 loss to Seattle where he missed three field goals. He was released after that game. In six games, he made 8-of-13 field goals and 6-of-7 extra points. Castillo was later re-signed to New York’s practice squad.
What PFF tells us: Castillo received low marks for his field goal kicking, coming in at 29.6.
2021 outlook: Castillo was not signed by the Jets to a reserve/futures contract after the season. Like Russolino, he’ll probably struggle to get a job somewhere else in 2021 due to the woes he experienced in 2020. This season did prove there are capable kickers on the market who can be called up on in a pinch.
C Jon Toth, Free Agent (D.C. Defenders)
In the XFL: The Kentucky graduate was D.C.’s starting center and fourth-round draft pick in the offensive line phase. He helped pave the way for a run game led by Jhurell Pressley and Donnel Pumphrey, and that kept Cardale Jones and Tyree Jackson upright at the QB position.
In the NFL: Toth was signed by the Cleveland Browns near the end of training camp. He didn’t make the team but was later signed by the Detroit Lions for their practice squad. After the season, he was not retained for 2021, though Detroit has signed very few to reserve/futures contracts; he may yet be brought back.
2021 outlook: Offensive line depth is always at a premium in the NFL and Toth has been around long enough to be known as a reliable guy who can be added for depth. It remains to be seen if that depth includes a spot on an NFL regular season roster.
CB Josh Hawkins, Free Agent (Dallas Renegades)
In the XFL: Hawkins proved to be one of the best defenders in the XFL in 2020. He was a 5th round pick in the defensive backs phase by Dallas and a starting corner for coordinator Chris Woods. Hawkins has 11 tackles, four passes defensed and two interceptions.
In the NFL: Hawkins was one of the first XFL players to sign on in the NFL, going to the Atlanta Falcons in April. Hawkins spent the regular season on and off the practice squad of the Falcons, Carolina Panthers, and Detroit Lions.
2021 outlook: Currently a free agent, Hawkins could continue his roster dance in 2021. It’s something he had done prior to his XFL stint, so he’s no stranger to the numbers game.
WR De’Mornay Pierson-El, Free Agent (St. Louis BattleHawks)
In the XFL: Selected in the third round of the skill position phase of the XFL draft, Pierson-El started for St. Louis in the slot and became a favorite target of Jordan Ta’amu. He hauled in 23 passes to lead the team, for 209 yards (9.1 average) and two touchdowns.
In the NFL: Pierson-El went undrafted out of Nebraska in 2018 and played in the NFL and AAF prior to his XFL experience. A former Raider, Pierson-El went back to the black-and-silver in 2020 when he signed with them on April 30th. After being cut at the end of camp, Pierson-El spent nearly a month on the team’s practice squad in September and October.
2021 outlook: While the slot receiver position has increased in value over the last decade, it also means more players are adept at playing the position coming out of college. Pierson-El is still young at just 25 years old, but he may be nearing the end of his NFL line.
DE Will Clarke, Free Agent (St. Louis BattleHawks)
In the XFL: A supplemental draft pick, Clarke came to the XFL as a former 3rd round pick of the Cincinnati Bengals in the NFL. He started for St. Louis at defensive end in their 4-3 alignment, making eight tackles with three quarterback hurries and a sack.
In the NFL: Clarke spent a little time with Detroit during training camp and during the 2020 season was on the practice squad of New Orleans. He was not elevated to gameday action during that time.
2021 outlook: Clarke’s pedigree as a high draft pick may allow him to get a few more looks, but the fact that there was little interest in him in camp and during the season means he’ll struggle to find meaningful work in 2021.
TE Khari Lee, Free Agent (DC Defenders)
In the XFL: Lee was on the receiving end of the signature play of the XFL’s first game, a flea flicker that he caught for a 39-yard touchdown. Lee was the first TE taken by the Defenders in the draft, in the 5th round of the skill player phase. He nailed down the starting job in camp and caught eight passes for 91 yards and two touchdowns on the season.
In the NFL: Lee played with the Atlanta Falcons during 2020 training camp before being let go with an injury settlement prior to week one. He spent about a week on the practice squad of the Lions midway through the season.
2021 outlook: Lee has intriguing size at 6’4” and 255 pounds. That could keep teams calling on his services for a little while longer. The days of block-first, big tight ends are waning, making Lee somewhat of a dinosaur in the modern-day NFL.
K Giorgio Tavecchio, Free Agent (LA Wildcats)
In the XFL: Tavecchio ended up kicking in just one game for the Wildcats, signing with the team following an injury to Nick Novak. Tavecchio missed his one field goal attempt, from beyond 50 yards.
In the NFL: “Have leg will travel,” and Tavecchio has done just that. He’s been a pro since 2012 and has some regular season NFL experience. In 2020, he spent two weeks on Tennessee’s practice squad before being released.
2021 outlook: There are a lot of kickers on the market in 2021, many who were on practice squads in 2020 as potential COVID replacements. Tavecchio will continue to have to stand out in tryouts to get gainful employment in 2021.