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How XFL players fared in the NFL in 2021 (Part two)

Former XFL players continued to make their mark in the NFL in 2021.

QB Taylor Heinicke, Washington Football Team.

QB Taylor Heinicke, Washington Football Team.

Part two of my analysis of former XFL players in the NFL in 2021 looks at players on NFC teams that did not make the playoffs. Part one can be found here. Cap information unless otherwise noted courtesy of overthecap.com.

QB Taylor Heinicke, Washington Football Team (St. Louis Battlehawks)

In 2021: Heinicke broke camp as the backup to Ryan Fitzpatrick. That lasted all of two quarters, as in the opener, Fitzpatrick suffered a hip subluxation that shelved him for the rest of the season. Enter Heinicke. He led Washington to a 7-10 (7-8 in games he started) record and kept them in the playoff hunt until late into the season. Heinicke completed 65% of his passes for 3,419 yards, 20 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. He also averaged 5.2 yards per carry on 60 rushing attempts, getting it done on the ground when needed. He’s a player teammates rally around and enjoy competing alongside. One of the more unlikely full-season starters, Heinicke outplayed quarterbacks with much more advanced pedigrees.

What PFF tells us: Pro Football Focus’s formula ranked Heinicke 25th out of the 32 starting QBs in 2021. By grade, he was 33th out of 39 qualifiers at 59.4. The breakdown was 58.9 passing and 59.3 rushing.

2022 outlook: Heinicke is signed for 2022 with a $1.5 million base salary and a $2.875 million cap hit. It’s a reasonable number for an accomplished backup. Fitzpatrick is a free agent and it’s hard to imagine Washington re-signing him. They may take a shot at another free-agent Band-Aid at QB, or they could draft one with their first-round pick (11th overall). It’s a long-shot to think Washington goes into camp with Heinicke as the starter.

C Jon Toth, Washington Football Team (D.C. Defenders)

In 2021: Toth began the season on Washington’s practice squad but injuries and COVID protocols led to Toth being needed on the active roster by December. He was in line to start in week 15 and would’ve been Washington’s fifth starting center on the season, but Keith Ismael was cleared and activated in time to start. Toth still hung on as a backup through the end of the season. In total, he saw action in the final six games.

What PFF tells us: Toth played seven offensive snaps, all coming in week 17, finishing with a grade of 54.3. On his five pass-blocking snaps, he was given a 0.0 grade. His run blocking grade finished at 65.4 on two snaps. He also played 17 snaps on field goal/extra point protection.

2022 outlook: Tyler Larsen, one of Washington’s backup centers pressed into starting duty due to injury, is an unrestricted free agent. Chase Roullier should return as starter, with Toth pretty far down the depth chart. Even as an exclusive rights free agent, there’s no guarantee Toth will return to the Football Team in 2022.

DE Bunmi Rotimi, Washington Football Team (New York Guardians)

In 2021: After his XFL experience, Rotimi played in The Spring League for the Jousters in 2021. That got him a training camp look with Washington, coming aboard in July. Rotimi was signed to Washington’s practice squad to start the season. With DE Montez Sweat going on injured reserve, Rotimi was signed to the active roster before week 11. He had been a practice squad elevation a few times before that. Rotimi ended the season as third-team defensive end behind James Smith-Williams and Casey Toohill in Washington’s 4-3 alignment. Even so, Rotimi saw significant snaps down the stretch. He totaled 10 tackles and a sack in 2021.

What PFF tells usRotimi played just over 200 defensive snaps as well as a handful on special teams. He finished with a grade of 47.0, broken down as 59.0 in run defense, 47.2 in pass rush, and 33.7 in coverage (he played two snaps out wide as a slot corner). Rotimi rotated in for 20 snaps or more in each of the final five weeks of the year.

2022 outlookLike many of his fellow XFL alumni, Rotimi will be an exclusive rights free agent come March. Washington could non-tender him, but it wouldn’t cost much to bring him back and give him a shot in the summer. He may have produced enough to get that look.

Scott Daly Guardians

Scott Daly, New York Guardians

LS Scott Daly, Detroit Lions (New York Guardians)

In 2021: In yet another rebuilding year for the Detroit Lions, Daly won the role of long snapper over longtime incumbent Don Muhlbach after signing with the team in May. Daly played in all 17 games, making one tackle on special teams.

What PFF tells us: Sadly, PFF does not grade long snappers.

2022 outlook: Daly made $660,000 in 2021, which may have been a factor in Detroit choosing him over Muhlbach, who was scheduled to make $1.175 million. An ERFA this off-season, Daly will be an inexpensive option again in 2022. There’s been no indication Detroit will look elsewhere at the position in 2022.

RB Godwin Igwebuike, Detroit Lions (Seattle Dragons)

In 2021: The prevailing wisdom during training camp was that, in making the switch from safety to running back, Igwebuike would be placed on the practice squad where he could continue to get reps and learn the intricacies of the position. Instead, Igwebuike impressed enough to make the 53-man roster out of camp. He mainly played special teams to start the year, eventually working his way into backfield rotation. Igwebuike ended up playing in all 17 games, rushing 18 times for 118 yards (6.6 average), including a 42-yard TD run against Pittsburgh. He also caught seven passes for 60 yards. On special teams, he returned 28 kicks for a 24.9 yard average (good for fourth in the NFL among qualifiers) and made seven tackles.

What PFF tells us: Igwebuike played 102 snaps on offense, the bulk of that work coming in weeks 13 and 14, where he played 28 snaps in each game. Those were two games in which Detroit was without its starting back, D’Andre Swift. Of those 102 snaps, 78% came with Igwebuike lined up in the backfield. Detroit also utilized him inline (attached to the line of scrimmage – four snaps), in the slot (one snap) and split out wide (15 snaps), showing his versatility. Igwebuike was also a core-four special teamer, playing on punt coverage and returns, as well as kick coverage and returns. He finished the season with an offensive grade of 66.6 – 72.8 in the run game, 58.4 receiving.

2022 outlook: Igwebuike is an ERFA who made $780,000 this year. While Detroit found some contributors at running back from deep on their depth chart, Igwebuike’s value on special teams as well as the sizable gains he made at a new position made him worth the investment. It’s likely Detroit re-signs him to compete for a role again in 2022.

CB Saivion Smith, Detroit Lions (Houston Roughnecks)

In 2021Smith’s nomadic NFL career took him to five cities during the 2021 calendar year. He signed a reserve/futures contract with Dallas after the 2020 season, but was released before mini-camp. He spent time in training camp with both Seattle and Denver. Smith began the regular season on Denver’s practice squad, but was let go in late October. He latched on with San Francisco’s practice squad and was signed to the active roster for their week 14 tilt with Cincinnati. Smith played 11 special teams snaps and was waived the next day. He was claimed off waivers by Detroit and played in two more games, solely on special teams, notching 14 total snaps and one special teams tackle. He was inactive for week 17 and then waived before the final weekend. Following week 18, he was signed by Detroit to a reserve/futures deal.

What PFF tells us: While Smith played in three games, his lack of defensive snaps limit how much Pro Football Focus can tell us. They broke down his special teams snaps, with 13 coming on kick coverage, seven on punt return, and five on FG/XP block.

2022 outlookDetroit ranked near the bottom of the NFL in defensive rankings in 2021. Expect them to focus free agency and/or the draft on adding pieces on that side of the ball. Those additions will push out players at the bottom of the roster like Smith, which is what happened to him in Dallas in 2021 after the Cowboys drafted eight defensive players.

P.J. Walker, Carolina Panthers

P.J. Walker, Carolina Panthers

QB P.J. Walker, Carolina Panthers (Houston Roughnecks)

In 2021: After spending much of the 2020 training camp and regular season battling Will Grier to be the backup QB in Carolina, Walker won the job outright in 2021. He worked behind Sam Darnold until Darnold went on I.R. The Panthers opted to sign an old friend in Cam Newton rather than hand the reigns to Walker for an extended period. Walker did start while Newton was getting up to speed, and in that start, he led Carolina to a victory over Arizona. Walker went 22-for-29 passing for 167 yards and an interception in that game. It was perhaps his most impressive performance of the season for an offense that finished near the bottom of the NFL in most categories and cost coordinator Joe Brady his job late in the season. Once Darnold returned, Walker was relegated to third QB duties for the final week. Walker was less stellar when asked to relieve the starter mid-game, resulting in a final line of 36-of-66 passing (54.5%) for 362 yards, one TD and three interceptions. He rushed seven times for just 13 yards.

What PFF tells us: None of Carolina’s three QBs stood out with their Pro Football Focus final grade this year. Walker was last at 52.0 behind Darnold (55.2) and Newton (53.1). Walker’s grade was 4.8 points lower than last year’s, so within the expected range.

2022 outlookThe Panthers re-signed Walker to a one-year contract the day after the regular season concluded. Walker would’ve been an ERFA this off-season. He’ll be under contract for $895,000 and with Darnold carrying a cap hit of $18 million in 2022, Carolina may seek to upgrade the totality of the QB room either in free agency, with a trade, or through the draft – or a combination of the three. It’s hard to imagine head coach Matt Rhule, heading into a make-or-break year, hitching his wagon to Darnold once again.

S Kenny Robinson, Carolina Panthers (St. Louis Battlehawks)

In 2021: For the second year in a row, Robinson was a victim of the numbers game at final cuts and for the second year in a row, he was signed back to Carolina’s practice squad the next day. This year, he was signed to the active roster in mid-October after being a practice squad elevation on two occasions. Robinson backed up FS Jeremy Chinn and even started the final week of the season when Chinn was out with an injury. Robinson recorded his first NFL touchdown on a blocked punt in week six against Minnesota. He was inactive for weeks 10-14 but played over 50% of the snaps on defense in each of the final three contests. In 10 games, Robinson made 18 tackles (12 solo, 6 assist) on defense and three tackles on special teams.

What PFF tells us: Robinson ended the season with a defensive grade of 60.3. He lined up as a free safety on 125 of his snaps, but also played down in the box on 30 snaps. He was a slot corner for 23 snaps and on the defensive line, likely as a blitzer, on four snaps. He also played over 30 snaps on each of the core four special teams units. Robinson’s best score was in his run defense, where he graded at 74.9. His coverage grade was 55.7, indicating the possibility he could play either safety spot.

2022 outlook: The rookie deal Robinson is playing under will increase his salary in 2022 to $895,000, up from $780,000 in 2021. He’s under contract for two more seasons, after which he’ll become a restricted free agent. Both head coach Matt Rhule and defensive coordinator Phil Snow have spoken highly of the progress made by Robinson in 2021. Carolina’s secondary is versatile, which makes it hard to envision what role Robinson’s may be in 2022. Robinson could be battling for a starting role, or he could be once again fighting to stay on the roster.

Colin Thompson, Carolina Panthers

Colin Thompson, Carolina Panthers

TE Colin Thompson, Carolina Panthers (Tampa Bay Vipers)

In 2021: One of four tight ends that made the Carolina roster following training camp, Thompson played in 11 games (with two starts) in 2021, including nine of the first 11. On December 14, after week 14, Thompson was waived but quickly re-signed to the practice squad. He only appeared in one more game the rest of the season as a practice squad elevation in week 17. Thompson recorded no receptions and was targeted in the pass game just once all season. He did make one tackle on special teams.

What PFF tells us: In 101 offensive snaps, Thompson was lined up attached to the line of scrimmage in the traditional TE spot on 99 of those snaps. He was mostly used as a run blocker, as Carolina ran on 71% of the offensive snaps in which Thompson was involved. The majority of Thompson’s special teams snaps came on the kick return and FG/XP block teams. His PFF grade was just 33.6, broken down as 48.9 run blocking and 45.5 receiving.

2022 outlook: Thompson signed a reserve/futures contract with the Panthers at the conclusion of the 2021 season. Ian Thomas is the only unrestricted free agent of Carolina’s TE group. While Thompson has carved out a nice two-year career after the closure of the XFL, it was hard not to imagine he might be one of the players referenced in a recent article in The Athletic (subscription required) in which an agent mentioned, in reference to Rhule’s reverence for players he coached in college, that “…the Panthers have Temple and Baylor players who wouldn’t make a roster anywhere else in the league.” Thompson played for Rhule at Temple.

OT Willie Beavers, Atlanta Falcons (Dallas Renegades)

In 2021: Beavers received extensive playing time in the preseason at both left and right tackle for Atlanta. His performance wasn’t enough to earn him a spot on the opening-day roster. Instead, he was signed to Atlanta’s practice squad. Unlike many of his XFL contemporaries, Beavers was never elevated to the active roster on game day. The Falcons’ offensive line was remarkably healthy during the season, with their top three offensive tackles missing only three games combined.

2022 outlook: Atlanta’s OL ranked 27th in PFF’s final rankings, so the team is likely to upgrade this spot in the off-season. Jason Spriggs, a backup at both tackle spots, is an unrestricted free agent, as is Matt Gono, who spent the year on the physically unable to perform list. If the Falcons focus only on upgrading the starting spots, Beavers could sneak into a swing tackle role as he enters his third season in Atlanta’s system.

Greg Parks is a columnist for Pro Wrestling Torch (pwtorch.com). He covers the XFL for XFLBoard.com. He has written extensively about the XFL. He resides in Naples, Florida. Follow him on Twitter @gregmparks.

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