How XFL players fared in the NFL in 2020 (part two)
Part 2 – A detailed analysis of former XFL players who finished the season on non-playoff NFC team rosters.
Part two looks at former XFL players who finished the season on non-playoff NFC team rosters. Part one can be viewed here.
QB P.J. Walker, Carolina Panthers (Houston Roughnecks)
In the XFL: Walker was the clubhouse leader in the race for XFL MVP when the season ended prematurely. Walker, the team’s QB assignment, beat out veteran Connor Cook for the starting position in camp, then led Houston a 5-0 record. He completed nearly 65% of his passes for 1,338 yards and 15 touchdowns to just four interceptions. The Temple alum excelled in the run-and-shoot offense of head coach June Jones.
In the NFL: Walker battled with 2019 3rd round pick Will Grier for the backup QB job behind Teddy Bridgewater, and camp ended with that competition resulting in a stalemate. Grier and Walker alternated between second-string and third string throughout the early part of the season. Eventually, Walker became the unquestioned number two. He managed to play in four games, making his season debut in a nationally televised Thursday night contest against the Atlanta Falcons, briefly filling in for an injured Bridgewater.
Walker started against the Detroit Lions in week 11, leading the team to a 20-0 victory and completing 70% of his passes. Bridgewater was benched in the season finale, and Walker played the second half, throwing three interceptions. For the season, he finished with 368 yards, completing 57.1% of his passes with one touchdown and five interceptions.
What PFF tells us: Walker’s final grade was 56.8, about ten points lower than Bridgewater, who himself was at the bottom of starting QB grades. In addition to his QB duties, Walker was used as a decoy receiver, playing five snaps split out wide.
2021 outlook: With Bridgewater wobbly, Walker could’ve given the Panthers something to think about heading into the offseason had he performed well in the second half of the week 17 game. Instead, he went 5-of-14 passing with three interceptions. Walker is signed for $780,000 next year and will become an exclusive-rights free-agent in 2022, making him a cheap backup option for another year. Carolina will have a decision to make on Bridgewater, who carries a $23 million cap hit into 2021.
TE Colin Thompson, Carolina Panthers (Tampa Bay Vipers)
In the XFL: Another XFL third string TE who made his way to the NFL, Thompson was the blocking option behind Nick Truesdell and DeAndre Goolsby with the Vipers. He came to Tampa Bay via the second open phase of the draft after spending time in NFL camps with the New York Giants and Chicago Bears. For Tampa, he caught one pass for 13 yards.
In the NFL: Thompson signed on with the Panthers and head coach Matt Rhule, who was Thompson’s college coach at Temple. He was one of three tight ends released at final cuts but was re-signed prior to week one. Thompson returned to his blocking roots with Carolina, playing in 15 games but catching just one pass – a 7-yard touchdown reception against Tampa Bay in week 10. He ended the season third on the depth chart at TE behind Ian Thomas and Chris Manhertz.
What PFF tells us: Thompson was Carolina’s highest-graded TE at 58.2. He played offensive snaps in every game he was active, but also played extensively on special teams, namely on the kick return unit. He played 24 offensive snaps in week 12 against Minnesota, his season high. Because of his blocking specialty, he played more than twice as many run snaps as pass snaps.
2021 outlook: Playing on a one-year contract in 2020, Carolina quickly signed Thompson to an extension at the end of the season (financial terms were not disclosed). He was set to become an exclusive-rights free agent. Thompson has a good chance to stick again in 2021 given his relationship with Rhule and his blocking and special teams ability.
S Kenny Robinson, Carolina Panthers (St. Louis BattleHawks)
In the XFL: Robinson was the test case for the XFL’s provision that allowed players with collegiate eligibility to join the league. Dismissed from West Virginia, Robinson was drafted by the BattleHawks in the 5th round of the defensive backs phase. He started at free safety and finished fourth on the team in tackles with 21. He also had a sack, two tackles for loss, and two interceptions. Robinson showed NFL teams he could play special teams, making two tackles in that phase.
In the NFL: Robinson parlayed his XFL performance into a 5th round NFL draft selection by the Panthers. However, he didn’t make the roster out of camp. Signed to the practice squad, Robinson languished there until October 20th, when he was signed to the active roster. He took the spot of S Juston Burris, who was placed on injured reserve. Robinson was active on gameday for seven of the nine games after he was promoted. His main responsibility was on special teams, where he had one tackle. He closed the season as a third-string safety.
What PFF tells us: Robinson played just five defensive snaps, grading out at an average 60.0. Most of his playing time came on kick return and kick coverage teams, also playing some on punt returns and punt coverage.
2021 outlook: Prior to the season, Robinson signed a four-year, $3.62 million contract, with a $332,204 signing bonus. Nobody ahead of Robinson on the 2020 depth chart is a free agent, so he’ll have to show some growth from year one to two to carve out a role on the team next year.
P Hunter Niswander, Dallas Cowboys (D.C. Defenders)
In the XFL: Niswander was an open phase selection by the Defenders, the only punter they drafted. He had no competition in camp and averaged 44.6 yards per punt during the season, good for second in the league. He was also the holder for kicker Ty Rausa on field goals.
In the NFL: Unlike most players on this list, Niswander didn’t go to training camp. The need for teams to have specialists ready in case of injury or COVID emergency led to the Cowboys signing Niswander to their practice squad in October. A few weeks later, Dallas placed their punter, Chris Jones, on injured reserve. Niswander stepped in and punted in the remaining eight games. He finished ninth in the league with a 47.2-yard average with a net of 42.0 on 26 punts. Ten of his 26 punts landed inside the 20 yard-line.
What PFF tells us: Pro Football Focus was not as kind to Niswander as his stats would suggest. They rank him 30th at his position in the league with a grade of 58.3
2021 outlook: Niswander’s contract is for three years, making him a restricted free agent after the 2022 season. He’ll make $780,000 next year if he makes the team. His competition, Chris Jones, has a cap hit of $2.5 million next season, so that could play a factor into which one makes the team, provided their performances are even throughout camp. Even if he doesn’t make the team next year, Niswander should be a popular phone call on the tryout circuit when injuries at the position inevitably come up.
LB Edmond Robinson, Atlanta Falcons (Houston Roughnecks)
In the XFL: The well-traveled Robinson, a 7th round pick of the Minnesota Vikings in 2015, was selected by Houston in the third round of the front seven phase. He was a starting linebacker in Houston’s 3-4 defense. Robinson made 22 tackles, had two sacks and three tackles for loss. He also forced and recovered a fumble for one of the more underrated XFL defenses.
In the NFL: Robinson signed with the Falcons at the end of March. He was cut when Atlanta trimmed their roster at the end of camp but was subsequently signed to the practice squad. The team took advantage of the new practice squad elevation rules this year, as Atlanta made him active on gamedays for six of the first nine games, all the while retaining his place on the practice squad.
Robinson was finally signed to the active roster on November 10th, where he remained for the rest of the season. He was among the leaders on the team in special teams tackles with 12 while adding three defensive stops and a quarterback hit. Robinson is a third teamer at LB in Atlanta’s 4-2-5 defensive system.
What PFF tells us: Robinson received poor marks for his defensive work, grading out with a 40.8 overall score on 46 total snaps for the year. His best grade was on the pass rush, a respectable 67.5. Most of his work came at the end of the line of scrimmage as a rush linebacker. For the most part, though, Robinson’s value is as a special teams maven.
2021 outlook: Robinson will be an unrestricted free agent this offseason after making $750,000 in 2020 on a one-year deal. A squad looking to improve its special teams coverage units may scoop Robinson up later in the free agent period when bargains can be had.
RB Austin Walter, San Francisco 49ers (Dallas Renegades)
In the XFL: Austin Walter was a supplemental draft selection by the Dallas Renegades in November 2019. Walter backed up Cameron Artis-Payne and Lance Dunbar at the running back position, carrying the ball just four times for 19 yards on the season. He also caught two passes for 31 yards. His most usage came in the return game, where he was the team’s kick returner. He returned 17 kicks for 431 yards and a 97-yard touchdown, one of just two kickoff returns for touchdowns leaguewide.
In the NFL: Walter originally came into the NFL as an undrafted free agent with the 49ers in 2019, so the coaching staff was familiar with him when they signed him to the practice squad in September. Walter’s first action on the season came when he was elevated for the week nine game against Green Bay after a COVID-19 outbreak hit the Niners. On November 11th, he was signed to the active roster. For the season, Walter played in four games and caught one pass for 27 yards, rushing once for three yards. He also returned five kicks for 93 yards, good for an average of 18.6 yards per return.
What PFF tells us: Walter’s 12 offensive snaps all came in week 10 against New Orleans. He had a 50.9 offensive grade. Walter played 22 snaps on kick return, 14 on kick coverage, and seven on the punt return team.
2021 outlook: Tevin Coleman and Jerick McKinnon are unrestricted free agents, and Jeff Wilson is a restricted free agent. Walter is an exclusive rights free agent after he made $610,000 last season with the 49ers. The running back room could look very different next season. It won’t cost San Francisco much to bring Walter back as an ERFA to get a longer look at him in camp since he wasn’t with the team this past summer.
G Willie Beavers, Atlanta Falcons (Dallas Renegades)
In the XFL: A former 4th round pick of the Minnesota Vikings, Beavers added a veteran presence to Dallas’s offensive line. He was the team’s starter at left tackle despite being a guard by trade. Beavers was a first-round draft choice by the Renegades in the offensive line phase.
In the NFL: After a late-August tryout with the Falcons, Beavers ended up signing with the team’s practice squad a month later. He did not play in any games in 2020, but was signed to a reserve/futures contract earlier this month.
2021 outlook: Atlanta’s offensive line has some good young talent, but most teams could use quality depth at that position. Beavers has the experience and positional versatility that could give him a leg-up. The team will also have a new coaching staff in 2021, giving Beavers and the others on the roster a clean slate.
DT Walter Palmore, Dallas Cowboys (Houston Roughnecks)
In the XFL: An open phase selection by Houston, Palmore didn’t have to travel far as he was originally signed as a rookie free-agent in 2019 by the NFL Texans. Palmore was inactive for three games, playing in two. He had six tackles and a half-sack as a backup nose tackle in Houston.
In the NFL: Palmore was added to the Dallas practice squad in October. He spent some time on the practice squad COVID-19 list. His only practice squad elevation came in week 17 against the New York Giants. In that game, Palmore had a tackle and a quarterback hit.
What PFF tells us: The 320-pound Palmore played 19 snaps against the Giants, mostly as a run-stopper. He actually graded out better as a pass rusher, but his overall grade was just 31.9.
2021 outlook: Palmore signed a reserve/futures contract after the season. Dallas recently fired defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, so he’ll have a new leader on that side of the ball in 2021. Palmore will vie for a backup spot in camp next year.
CB Saivion Smith, Dallas Cowboys (Houston Roughnecks)
In the XFL: Smith was a supplemental draft selection by Houston after spending 2019 training camp with the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Alabama grad backed up Ajene Harris at one corner spot. He had eight tackles and a pass defensed on the season. Smith played the first two games of the season, but was inactive for the final three.
In the NFL: Smith was an early NFL signee despite not playing much in the XFL. He signed with Dallas in April but was cut at the end of camp. Smith spent a month on the active roster early in the year, then was released and re-signed to the practice squad. He was elevated twice during the season, but finished the year on the practice squad injured list with a fractured hand. He played in a total of six games, starting a week 14 contest when starter Anthony Brown was inactive. Smith helped limit Cincinnati to just seven points in that game. For the year, he notched three total tackles.
What PFF tells us: Smith played defensive snaps in just three of the six games he played, including 61 in the game he started. His defensive grade was 52.1. He played predominantly as a wide corner rather than in the slot. Smith also played on various special teams units while he was active, with the most snaps coming on kick coverage and FG/XP block teams.
2021 outlook: Smith signed a reserve/futures deal with Dallas. Not much went right for the Cowboys in 2020 and that included the performance of the defense. Smith will be given an opportunity to compete for a spot at the end of the roster.
TE Tyree Jackson, Philadelphia Eagles (D.C. Defenders)
In the XFL: After initially losing out on the starting QB job in D.C. to Cardale Jones, ineffectiveness on the part of Jones led to Jackson appearing in relief in week five. In that game, he lead the Defenders to a win over St. Louis. It appeared that Jackson had inched ahead of Jones for the starting job by that point, but COVID-19 shut down the league before a permanent decision could be made. Jackson completed 11 of 18 passes for 46 yards and a touchdown during the XFL season, adding nine carries for 48 yards.
In the NFL: Jackson was an intriguing product coming out of the University at Buffalo in 2019 and was signed as an undrafted free agent by the Bills. He was deemed a raw project with intriguing measurables (6’7”, 250 pounds). It seems interest in him as a pro quarterback was exhausted, leading to a position change in order to extend his career. He tried out for the Indianapolis Colts and Seattle Seahawks as a tight end during the 2020 season, ultimately landing a reserve/futures contract with Philly at that position.
2021 outlook: It may depend on just how much of an offseason there is in the NFL. For someone like Jackson, a full offseason of work, delving into the playbook at a new position would be of great help. If he’s not afforded that because of the ongoing pandemic or because of changes agreed upon by the NFL and NFL Player’s Association (eliminating OTAs has been floated by the NFLPA head), it would put him behind the eight-ball. Best-case scenario is likely a role on the practice squad to open 2021.
WR Austin Proehl, San Francisco 49ers (Seattle Dragons)
In the XFL: The son of former NFL receiver Ricky Proehl, Austin made it into the XFL record books by scoring the first touchdown of the reborn league. He came to the Dragons in the second open phase of the XFL draft. As a starter in Seattle’s three-receiver sets, Proehl led Seattle with 16 catches for 225 yards and three touchdowns. He was also the main punt returner for the Dragons.
In the NFL: Proehl was a 7th round draft choice by the Buffalo Bills in 2018, later playing with the Tennessee Titans and Los Angeles Rams. After working out for the Chicago Bears in the summer of 2020, he was signed to a reserve/futures contract by the San Francisco 49ers at the conclusion of this season.
2021 outlook: Proehl projects in the slot for the 49ers. If he can show value on special teams, he has a chance to latch onto one of the final receiver spots, or possibly make the practice squad.
QB Josh Johnson, S.F. 49ers (L.A. Wildcats)
In the XFL: The NFL journeyman, veteran of 14 NFL teams in 13 seasons, was the second quarterback assigned to the Wildcats, prior to the November supplemental draft. Johnson won a training camp battle with the first assigned QB, Luis Perez, leading to Perez’s trade to New York. The 34-year-old was one of the top passers in the league in Norm Chow’s L.A. offense, completing 60% of his passes for over 1,000 yards, 11 touchdowns and two interceptions. He led the league in quarterback rating.
In the NFL: With practice squad spots available to more experienced players in 2020, Johnson signed on there with the 49ers on November 11th. He went on the COVID-19 list on December 22nd – poor timing as he was in line for potential playing time with starter Jimmy Garoppolo and backup Nick Mullens both nursing injuries heading into week 16. Instead, the 49ers had to sign Josh Rosen off Tampa Bay’s practice squad to back up C.J. Beathard against Arizona.
2021 outlook: The 49ers may be looking to start over again at the QB position with Garoppolo at risk of being a salary cap casualty. Nick Mullens is under contract for 2021, but he’s likely not under consideration to start. C.J. Beathard is a free agent and Josh Rosen an exclusive rights free agent. If San Francisco retains all of their backups, it’ll be a crowded room during camp. But don’t bet against Johnson’s savvy to break out of the pack and solidify a backup spot.