More XFL alumni make NFL rosters in 2021 than in 2020
A chance to play with the XFL has given many players more meaningful careers.
At this time last year, after NFL teams had cut down their rosters to the mandatory 53-man limit, four former XFL players had made their respective teams. Another 11 players were signed to initially-established practice squads. Improbably, even without a 2021 XFL season, the number of former XFL players occupying NFL roster spots is more than double that of last year. Currently there are 11 XFL alumni on active rosters, with an additional nine on practice squads for a total of 20, compared to just 15 to begin last season.
What accounts for this difference? Players who made rosters out of camp last year stuck this season, too. Some of last year’s practice squad players survived cut-downs and made main rosters this year. Others, once considered training camp long-shots, impressed enough to stick around in a year when the pool of rookies was shallower than in the past due to the additional year of eligibility afforded all college players as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Then there were some that used other alternative football leagues in place of the XFL in 2020 and 2021 to get noticed and earn spots.
Last year’s four XFL players who made teams out of camp all did so once again. In Carolina, QB PJ Walker (Roughnecks) battled Will Grier for the backup job for the second summer in a row. This year, however, Walker was the only one standing at the end: Grier was cut after serving as the third-string QB last year. He was eventually claimed by Dallas. Walker will back up a new quarterback as former #1 overall draft pick Sam Darnold replaces Teddy Bridgewater as starter. Darnold is no more proven in his ability at the NFL level than Bridgewater, which makes his seat a little warm already.
Despite Carolina spending a 3rd round draft pick on a tight end this year, TE Colin Thompson (Vipers) still made the roster. He profiles as a deep backup for the Panthers. Carolina was not satisfied with any of its fullback options in camp, burning through rookie undrafted free agent Mason Stokke and veteran Rod Smith before settling on Giovanni Ricci, a converted TE. Thompson has experience playing some fullback with the Vipers, which means he could see time there if Ricci falters or if the Panthers decide they can’t keep five TEs/FBs.
In Los Angeles, OT Storm Norton (Wildcats) and TE Donald Parham (Renegades) came into training camp much more assured of their positions on the roster than they did last year. Parham is a candidate for a “breakout season” per The Athletic (subscription required). He’s expected to back up Jared Cook and play extensively in two tight-end sets. The 34-year old Cook signed a one-year deal with the Chargers in the offseason, meaning 2022 could be Parham’s year to take over the #1 TE role.
Norton operated as LA’s swing tackle last season, and figures to serve in the same capacity this year. He played just six games, but started three last season. Norton received reps at both left and right tackle during the preseason to prepare him for the part. He should be active for more games than he was in 2020.
Joining these four holdovers on active rosters to start the season is Miami CB Elijah Campbell (Defenders). Campbell had five tackles and three special teams tackles this preseason for the New York Jets. After playing in three games for the Jets last year, he was waived in final cuts. A day later, he was claimed by the Dolphins. If he’s active on game days, it’ll likely be to play special teams.
In the AFC North, two long snappers are among the three at that position from the XFL that will be playing on Sundays. Nick Moore (Vipers) was uncontested for that role in Baltimore’s training camp. He was often a practice squad protection by the Ravens last season, and the team unsurprisingly moved on from veteran Morgan Cox in the offseason. The signs were there that Christian Kuntz (Renegades) was in a real battle with incumbent snapper Kameron Canaday in Pittsburgh. Kuntz snapped on nearly 80% of the special teams hikes in exhibition games, and even started ahead of Canaday deep into the preseason. Pittsburgh made further changes to their special teams, releasing six-year vet Jordan Berry in favor of 7th round rookie Pressley Harvin III.
The Browns were expected by some to put G Michael Dunn (Dragons) on injured reserve once rosters were set, which would allow him to return after a minimum of three weeks. He nursed a back injury during the preseason. As of this writing, he had yet to be placed on IR. Dunn was in a comfortable position to earn a roster spot entering the preseason thanks to his work late in the 2020 season and in the playoffs for Cleveland.
QB Taylor Heinicke (BattleHawks) backed up Jordan Ta’amu in St. Louis for five XFL games, and he’ll back up Ryan Fitzpatrick in Washington to begin the season. Fitzpatrick is a stop-gap option as a starter; if Washington is out of contention late or if the 38 year-old Fitzpatrick shows signs of decline, it could be Taylor Time. Heinicke was the fourth QB to start a game in Washington last year and was an unlikely hero of their playoff game against Tampa Bay.
The third long snapper with an XFL pedigree on an NFL roster is Scott Daly (Guardians) in Detroit. Daly replaced the venerable Don Muhlbach, who had snapped in Detroit since 2004. A new staff led by hard-nosed head coach Dan Campbell decided to go in a different direction. Daly gives the Lions more coverage skills on punts.
Detroit is betting on the potential of RB Godwin Igwebuike (Dragons), who played safety in the XFL. As the fourth running back on the depth chart, they won’t be counting on him to contribute in the backfield right away. What may get him active on game days is his special teams value: He averaged nearly 30 yards per kick return in the preseason and could fulfill that role in the regular season.
Another player who switched positions from his XFL days is TE Tyree Jackson (Defenders) of the Philadelphia Eagles. Jackson had a productive camp and was on his way to earning a roster spot before suffering a bone fracture in his back during practice. The former QB was placed on short-term IR after cut-down day, meaning the Eagles expect him back at some point during the season.
Practice squad rules were changed drastically last year to mitigate the effects COVID-19 could have on rosters. Those changes were kept in place for 2021. Among them: Teams are allowed up to six veterans on the 16-man practice squads; four players each week may be protected by their teams, meaning other teams can’t sign them and add them to their rosters; and two players each week can be elevated to the game day roster without having to pass through waivers to be put back on the practice squad afterward.
WR Tanner Gentry (Guardians) was a late-season add to the practice squad of the Buffalo Bills in 2020. After signing a reserve/futures contract with the team in the offseason, he impressed enough this summer to earn a practice squad spot for 2021. He’s one of two receivers that will start the season there in Buffalo. QB Josh Johnson (Wildcats) is an example of that veteran practice squad exemption. As neither of the quarterbacks on the New York Jets roster have regular season experience, the 35 year-old Johnson was kept into the regular season to buttress the position. He’ll be the de facto third-stringer.
Joining Johnson on New York’s practice roster is OT Isaiah Williams (Vipers). Williams wasn’t signed until August 23rd, seemingly as depth for the final preseason game. He looked good enough in practice and in that game, where he played 58% of the offensive snaps, to get brought back after final cuts. RB Jacques Patrick (Vipers) spent all of 2020 on the Cincinnati Bengals’ practice squad, and starts the 2021 season there again. The good news: Cincinnati kept just three backs on their 53-man roster. The bad news: Patrick is one of three backs the Bengals kept on the practice squad. That means he may not be the first (or second) choice should Cincy need to promote a back, and also means it’s a position that could be cut if they feel they need depth at another position.
WR Austin Proehl (Dragons) joins Norton and Parham with the Chargers. The 5’10” Proehl is one of four receivers on the Los Angeles practice squad, but one of only two, along with first-year man Michael Bandy, who profile as slot receivers. Proehl can also return punts, a spot he manned with the Dragons in the XFL. Washington kept two XFL defensive linemen on its initial practice squad, DE Bunmi Rotimi (Guardians) and DT Gabe Wright (Roughnecks). Rotimi in particular was active in the preseason, with 15 tackles in three games, including 1.5 sacks. Both could provide rotational support if called up to the main roster.
OT Willie Beavers (Renegades) saw extensive playing time for the Atlanta Falcons in the preseason due to injuries along the offensive line. He played at least half the offensive snaps in all three games, including 100% of them in the final contest. Atlanta saw enough to call him back after cut-down day for a spot on the practice squad. Carolina’s 5th round draft pick in 2020, S Kenny Robinson (BattleHawks) returns to their practice squad to begin 2021. Robinson played in nine games last season and is the only safety on the practice squad. He is a prime candidate for game day elevations.
NFL rosters will change frequently throughout the season as teams tweak and fill gaps where needed. Some of these former XFL players may not survive the year in these spots, but others may yet join them as well.