How XFL players fared in the NFL in 2021 (Part one)
Former XFL players continued to make their mark in the NFL in 2021.
Former XFL players continued to make their mark in the NFL in 2021. Heading into the final week of the regular season, there were 15 players who played in the XFL in 2020 that were on active NFL rosters, with three more on injured reserve. That was up from 14 at the end of 2020. Ten players were on practice squads, down from 19 the previous year.
This column begins my multi-part analysis of how those former XFL players performed in the NFL in 2021. Last year’s final part, including links to the prior three installments, can be found here. In this, part one of the series, I’ll look at those players from AFC non-playoff teams. Cap information unless otherwise noted courtesy of overthecap.com.
RB Austin Walter, New York Jets (Dallas Renegades)
In 2021: Walter was cut by San Francisco in May to make room for the signage of draft picks and undrafted free agents. He was claimed off waivers by the Jets but placed on injured reserve during the preseason. The Jets liked enough of what they saw to sign him back to their practice squad when Walter got healthy. He saw the most extensive action of his NFL career in 2021, playing in four games, rushing 26 times for a 3.9 yard per carry average. He scored a touchdown rushing and also caught two passes. With rookie Michael Carter battling injury, it was Walter and third-year RB Ty Johnson who shared the load. Walter was a practice squad elevation for most of his game action, until he was signed to the active roster on December 7.
What PFF tells us: Walter scored a slightly above-average PFF offensive grade of 61.1 (60.0 is average), up significantly from last year’s 50.9. He only played one snap on special teams, on kick coverage. That’s a departure from his time with the 49ers last year where he played extensively on coverage and return teams in his four games.
2022 outlook: Under contract for 2022 at $895,000, Walter will battle for third back duties with La’Mical Perine, who will be heading into his third season. The Jets have transformed their running back room into one of youth, as Carter and Johnson are both ascending players ahead of Walter on the depth chart.
OT Isaiah Williams, New York Jets (Tampa Bay Vipers)
In 2021: Williams did the roster dance with the Jets this year, getting signed and waived numerous times while also bouncing on and off the team’s practice squad. Still, not a bad showing for a player signed just prior to the final preseason game. All told, he spent almost three months of the season on New York’s 53-man roster, usually as a weekly inactive. Williams finished the season on the practice squad, then was added on a reserve/futures contract following week 18.
2022 outlook: Four Jets offensive linemen are unrestricted free agents in 2022, all of them backups and three of them guards. Williams’ ability to play both guard and tackle should help, but this looks like a position the Jets will seek to upgrade in the draft.
CB Elijah Campbell, Miami Dolphins (D.C. Defenders)
In 2021: Waived in final cuts by the Jets, Campbell was claimed by their AFC East rival, the Dolphins. He was inactive the first three weeks of the season then played weeks 4-9 and week 11 on special teams. He didn’t see any defensive snaps in 2021, but played over 140 on special teams. As the weeks wore on, he was playing a higher and higher percentage of ST snaps until suffering a knee injury in week 11 that earned him a trip to injured reserve.
What PFF tells us: The breakdown of Campbell’s special teams snaps was eerily even. He played 30 snaps each on kick coverage, punt coverage, and FG/XP block. He also played 26 on punt return and 17 on kick return, making him a core-four mainstay for the weeks he was active. Pro Football Reference credited him with two special teams tackles during that time.
2022 outlook: A new coaching staff in Miami will decide Campbell’s fate. He will be an exclusive rights free agent this offseason. According to NFL.com’s ERFA definition, an ERFA is “(a)ny player with fewer than three accrued seasons and an expired contract. If his original team offers him a one-year contract at the league minimum (based on his credited seasons), the player cannot negotiate with other teams.” Campbell’s recovery from his knee injury and his ability to play special teams will be two key factors in whether or not he is tendered a contract.
G Michael Dunn, Cleveland Browns (Seattle Dragons)
In 2021: Dunn played in 14 games with two starts in 2021. Those two starts came in weeks 15 and 16 at left guard in as the Browns were forced to shuffle their O-line due to injury and illness. He won a backup job in training camp after impressing in limited action, including during the postseason, in 2020.
What PFF tells us: Dunn played just four offensive snaps in two other games outside of his two starts. He was used inline as an extra blocker for those snaps. He earned a respectable 67.9 offensive grade on the year, playing significantly stronger as a run blocker (73.1) than as a pass blocker (42.7). While he only played offensive snaps in those four games, Dunn was used as a blocker on extra points and field goals, which explains his appearance in 14 games overall.
2022 outlook: Dunn is also an exclusive rights free agent in 2022. It’s difficult to find competent backup offensive linemen, so Dunn has value. Expect him to be re-signed by the Browns to at least compete for a backup spot in training camp.
LS Nick Moore, Baltimore Ravens (Tampa Bay Vipers)
In 2021: After Baltimore allowed long-time long snapper Morgan Cox to walk as an unrestricted free agent in the offseason, Nick Moore was uncontested for the job in the summer. He snapped on field goals, punts, and extra points in all 17 regular season games for the Ravens.
What PFF tells us: Pro Football Focus doesn’t grade long snappers. Pro Football Reference had Moore with four special teams tackles. Per statmuse.com, Moore led long snappers with four solo ST tackles, ranking second in combined tackles.
2022 outlook: Moore joins the parade of former XFL players who are exclusive rights free agents. He is trusted at the position and will come cheap, making it highly likely he’ll snap once again for Baltimore in 2022.
QB Josh Johnson, Baltimore Ravens (L.A. Wildcats)
In 2021: “Have arm, will travel” has been the mantra of Johnson for much of his pro career, and that expression was true for the 35 year-old once again in 2021. Johnson entered 2021 in August as an extra arm in camp with the New York Jets. With room for veterans on expanded practice squads, the Jets stashed him there as the regular season began. An injury to starter Zach Wilson in week 7 led to Johnson being elevated to the active roster to back up Mike White. White was injured in week eight and Johnson entered to complete two-of-four passes. He relieved White again the next week, this time on the second drive of the game, in what ended up being a shootout with the Indianapolis Colts, leading the Jets to 30 points and passing for three touchdowns. The Jets kept Johnson on the practice squad rather than sign him to the active roster, which allowed the Ravens to poach him on December 15 with starter Lamar Jackson nursing an injured ankle. In week 16, with Jackson still out and Tyler Huntley on the COVID-19 list, Johnson started in a loss to Cincinnati, completing 70% of his passes for two touchdowns. He finished the season 57-of-85 passing for 638 yards, with five touchdowns and two interceptions. He also rushed nine times for 28 yards, a 3.1 average.
What PFF tells us: Johnson’s grade of 73.3 was the highest of his NFL career. The bulk of that came from his passing grade, which was 76.5. His rushing grade was only 43.8. His running ability, once a positive, appears to have dwindled. Johnson’s age could mean that facet will no longer be a big part of his game going forward.
2022 outlook: Johnson is an unrestricted free agent his offseason. While his skill set meshes well with what Baltimore does on offense, I wouldn’t expect him back. Rather, at some point during the preseason or regular season, some team may once again call upon the hired gun Johnson to help them out of a jam.
DT Kahlil McKenzie, Baltimore Ravens (L.A. Wildcats)
In 2021: McKenzie was waived by the Cincinnati Bengals in final cuts, but soon after found his way to the practice squad of the Ravens. He played in five games, once being signed to the active roster, but mostly as a practice squad elevation. In October, coach John Harbaugh noted they were “cross training” McKenzie at both defensive and offensive line. McKenzie played DL in college but was drafted as a guard by the Kansas City Chiefs. He also played the interior of the offensive line in the XFL for the Wildcats, listed as the backup left guard and center on the team’s week one depth chart. McKenzie made four tackles (one solo, three assists) in 2021.
What PFF tells us: The most extensive action McKenzie saw in 2021 came in week three against Detroit when he played 15 snaps. That’s where he registered two of his four tackles. His overall defensive grade on the season was 71.0, a major increase from 44.4 in 2020. He also played just 41 snaps in ’21 compared to 101 in ’20. McKenzie’s run defense grade of 70.0 out-shined his pass rush grade of 59.6.
2022 outlook: McKenzie re-upped with Baltimore on a reserve/futures deal at the conclusion of the 2021 season. His ability to play on both offense and defense makes him more valuable, especially as COVID-19 continues to be an issue for teams. Nevertheless, there will always be competition as deep down on the depth chart as McKenzie is. Expect him to face a stiff battle for a roster spot again in 2022.
OT Storm Norton, Los Angeles Chargers (L.A. Wildcats)
In 2021: Norton made the Chargers as their top backup on the offensive line in 2021, and it wasn’t long before he took on a larger role. Starting right tackle Bryan Bulaga went down in the first week with injuries to his back and groin, landing him on injured reserve. Norton started the rest of the year (save for week 17 when he was active and played but did not start due to a stint on the COVID-19 list earlier in the week) at the right tackle spot. Norton had his ups and downs, the lowest of the downs perhaps coming in week 18 on a nationally-televised Sunday Night Football game when he struggled to contain Raiders’ DE Maxx Crosby with a playoff spot on the line.
What PFF tells us: The Chargers ended the season 10th in PFF’s ranking of offensive lines, though Norton graded lowest of the five starters at 60.2. He was scored with a 75.5 grade in run blocking but just 44.7 in pass blocking. Norton was also a cog on special teams as a blocker on field goals and extra points even while playing over 1,000 offensive snaps in 2021.
2022 outlook: Norton will be an exclusive rights free-agent in the offseason. While he likely didn’t persuade Los Angeles to keep him atop the depth chart at right tackle in 2022, Norton’s play may have convinced decision-makers that he has worth as an inexpensive backup. Despite his tumultuous year, Norton racked up valuable experience and the Chargers will likely bring him back.
TE Donald Parham, Los Angeles Chargers (Dallas Renegades)
In 2021: The primary backup to Jared Cook in Los Angeles, Parham still started nine of the 14 games he played in 2021. He was expected to take a significant step forward, and while he didn’t have a breakout season, Parham caught 20 passes for 190 yards for an average of 9.5 yards per reception and three TDs. He doubled his catch total from 2020. Parham’s season ended prematurely in a scary situation on Thursday Night Football in week 15 against the Kansas City Chiefs. After being carted off the field, Parham was diagnosed with a concussion and was placed on injured reserve.
What PFF tells us: Parham has been seen by many as an intriguing offensive chess piece due to his unique size (6’8″). Even so, the Chargers deployed him as a traditional tight end on 81% (322) of his offensive snaps this year. Another 59 snaps came in the slot, while he was split out wide on 17 snaps. By percentage, he took about 10% fewer snaps in the slot this year than in 2020. Parham finished with an overall grade of 69.7, 70.8 receiving and 64.2 run blocking. That’s a good sign for Parhams’s future, as his run blocking was once considered his weakness. Parham’s grade was tops among Chargers tight ends.
2022 outlook: The priority right now is Parham’s health. If he is cleared to continue football activities at some point in 2022, he’ll be brought back to LA as an exclusive rights free agent. Cook and Stephen Anderson are unrestricted free agents, so Parham could be in line to be a full-time starter for the first time at the NFL level next season.