In their own words: NFL head coaches, front office personnel on the value of spring football

Bill Belichick, head coach New England Patriots.
Bill Belichick, head coach New England Patriots.

To this point, the XFL and USFL have combined to put over 100 players in NFL training camps this summer. While it remains to be seen how many of them will survive cut-down day to make 53-man rosters next week, NFL decision-makers clearly value the experience and talent these players bring to the table. The stated goal of the XFL has been clear from the time the new ownership group took over: Give players a platform to show their wares and earn another shot at the NFL.

We know the XFL’s (and USFL’s, to an extent) perspective and purpose. NFL coaches and personnel figures have been asked during media availability this summer about their own assessment of the two spring leagues and what they can offer. Below are a few quotes, as well as my own analysis, of what has been said publicly by top NFL team brass about leagues such as these.

“I think it’s the development to be able to play and then find this talent and bring them in and now let’s see if they can play at this level against this competition. I think it’s huge. It’s big. Because ultimately, you can try to develop, you can do all these things, but if you can’t play the game and get reps after reps of real-time game, it’s hard to accelerate it. It’s hard. You only have three preseason games…it’s invaluable.” – Dan Campbell, Head Coach, Detroit Lions

The dirty little secret about NFL training camps is that the real, game-like reps simply aren’t there on a consistent basis for players buried deep on the depth chart. Then they get 10-15 snaps in a preseason game and it’s difficult to truly evaluate them, again, because of the limited reps. In a spring league like the XFL, those players are featured. They have more of an opportunity to gain meaningful practice snaps and they have the ability to put substantial game film together to be analyzed by NFL scouts and coaches.

Campbell’s quote acknowledges the jump in competition that these players make when signing onto an NFL team from a spring league. As he notes, they have to show they can play on that level to survive. Some can, and they’ll make a career in the NFL out of being a small fish in a big pond. Others will go back to the XFL and USFL as a big fish in a small pond. Either way, players have the chance to make a living playing the game of football.

“If you need depth at a certain position, generally what you see throughout the league is teams would try out anywhere between three to six, seven players at that position. It’s pretty obvious that they’re looking for someone to play that spot, and a lot of those players don’t have very much experience. Either they’re rookies to first-year players or are in another league. So a lot of the times, those workouts have an effect on bringing in the player at this time.

“If you bring in a player right now, he needs to be kind of ready to go. It’s not like you have time to have a month of training with them and all that. If you sign a player in February, that would be different. I would say the workout, the conditioning, the fact that it looks like the player’s ready to go, works in his favor in terms of signing a player in that situation. The players that are coming from that league probably have a little bit of an advantage, in that they’re in good condition, they’ve been playing, their techniques or whatever at their position they’ve been working on, and they are maybe a little more proficient on those.

“Sometimes, after those workouts, the conversation is somewhere along the lines of, ‘Well, this guy probably would be a better player or a better guy to work with, but he’s just not in good condition. He’s just not ready to go. This other guy is ready to go, he’s in good shape, his fundamentals are pretty good.’ Again, we understand what the players are — they’re available. It gives them an opportunity, kind of, I would say, to take the time and the skills they’ve been doing in the spring, and as long as they’ve been continuing to work and stay on top of that, a lot of the times they just look better than the other guys you’re comparing them to.

“I think it definitely gives them an advantage.” – Bill Belichick, Head Coach, New England Patriots

Despite his reputation as being tight-lipped when talking to reporters, Belichick can be verbose when it’s a subject he’s passionate about (like long snapping). In his response to a question about recent signings the Patriots have made of players from both the USFL and XFL, he offered his usual unique insight on the topic. We saw a number of XFL players invited to rookie mini-camps in May, with several of them earning contracts off of those tryouts. When competing against rookie tryout players who last played in games five months prior, it makes sense that XFL players would have a conditioning advantage.

That would certainly extend to tryouts that continually occur throughout camp and referenced by Belichick early in his response. Players can train and work out and stay in shape while waiting for that phone call but it doesn’t compare to actual game-shape, of which USFL and XFL players would still be in this time of year.

“I’m appreciative of opportunities for guys to continually develop skills. People finish their college eligibility, they’re not necessarily finished products. Leagues such as those (USFL and XFL) provide an opportunity for those guys to continually improve. Then they get to show those improvements when they get in environments like this. We respect any man out here, we don’t care by what means they get here. I’m appreciative of the game-readiness of guys coming off those seasons, it’s been a good thing for us.” – Mike Tomlin, Head Coach, Pittsburgh Steelers

The Steelers have long been at the forefront of signing spring league players. They signed six Alliance of American Football players in the initial wave back in 2019. In the first month or so after XFL 2020 players were made available to NFL teams, Pittsburgh signed nine from that league. And this year, they’ve featured five XFL 2023 alumni in camp. What Tomlin says on the subject, therefore, carries substantial weight.

Tomlin mentions “game-readiness,” echoing similar comments made by Belichick. The key quote here is the idea that some players still need time to develop. More and more, college players are entering the NFL ready to contribute immediately. Quarterbacks, for example, were once drafted in the first round with the expectation that they’d sit and learn for a few years before taking over as the starter. Not anymore. Even someone as raw and relatively inexperienced as Anthony Richardson will likely begin the season as The Man in Indianapolis.

Given the restricted number of padded practices and practice dates overall in the off-season, with an eye toward player health, opportunities for those who are not yet finished products to develop in an NFL training camp are limited. Any additional practice and playing time, then, is valuable to player development and the seeds sown in those areas by the XFL and USFL become ripe to be harvested by NFL teams.

“I think when you look at those other leagues, it provides opportunity for reps, and constructive reps. Guys that you see flash at times in practice, you don’t see them in high-volatile situations where they have to adjust to sudden change. I think you’re getting a bigger picture and sample size of them in these alternative leagues. It’s better for the league (NFL) in general. And I think the fact that we’ve had guys that have played there and done well it shows that we’re identifying the right traits.

“As they develop, there’s always opportunity to circle back on them. Maybe there’s a deficiency that becomes a strength, or an area that is now functional on a 53-man roster or a 90-man roster. That’s why those alternative leagues have value. It may not be a guy that’s going to be a front-line starter but maybe an eventual depth guy. We’re always going to (turn over) every stone and see if there’s any value for us in any of those supplemental leagues.” – Brandon Brown, Assistant General Manager, New York Giants

Naturally Brown, offering a front office perspective, focuses on scouting terms like “traits” and “functional” skills. It does give insight as to how teams approach the evaluation process for leagues like the XFL. The idea is that not only do you play in these leagues to get pro tape of yourself out there, but also to improve in areas in which you may be lacking. It’s difficult to get better, and work on your deficiencies, if you’re the low man on the depth chart at your position and you’re not getting much in the way of 11-on-11 practice snaps.

This is part of the reason I was surprised the XFL went after head coaches with such limited experience. If one of the major goals of the XFL is to put players into the NFL, then one would think they’d recruit experienced coaches and teachers who can help players improve whatever flaws they may have in their game. But instead of going after tenured NFL coaches, as XFL 2020 did with names like Jim Zorn and Winston Moss, the XFL turned to novice head coaches who built young staffs, often short on time spent coaching at the highest levels. Then again, the St. Louis Battlehawks have had by far the most players work out for NFL teams, and they had a first-time head coach, a first-time offensive coordinator, and a first-time defensive coordinator. It seemed to work out for their players.

“He’s a guy that’s worked extremely hard. He was on the practice squad last year. He went and played in the XFL this year. I think that was good experience for him to get out there and play. He’s been putting some good stuff on tape. It’s a position that we’re pretty deep at so there’s a lot of competition there. We’ll evaluate where that tape was, but he did do some good things tonight.” – Dennis Allen, Head Coach, New Orleans Saints

This was Allen speaking about DE Niko Lalos, who played for the Seattle Sea Dragons this spring, and who tallied three sacks in the Saints’ week two preseason game. Lalos was a unique situation, as Allen noted: He was on their practice squad last year, but did not sign a futures contract after the season. He went to the XFL, produced, and was re-signed by New Orleans in the off-season. It reminds one of the NFL Europe days, when teams would allocate players to the league and retain their rights.

The Saints likely held interest in Lalos and tracked his progress during the XFL season. They knew what kind of player he was from being on the team in 2022 in a practice squad capacity, and probably hoped he’d get experience and reps in the XFL and be able to come back and compete again in camp in 2023, which is what he has done. Allen’s comments sum up the most frequently cited positives of these spring leagues: The ability of players to develop their skills, gain a consistent amount of game reps, and stay in playing shape for when that NFL call comes.

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