Notable performances from XFL players in NFL preseason, week two

Houston Roughnecks  #13 Jontre Kirklin celebrates a touchdown with Cedric Byrd.
Houston Roughnecks #13 Jontre Kirklin celebrates a touchdown with Cedric Byrd.

The following are notable performances from XFL alumni in week two of the NFL’s preseason slate of games:

*TE Tyree Jackson (Defenders), firmly on the bubble in Philadelphia, showed his special teams wares by playing on both blocking and coverage units. He also made the longest reception of the game for the Eagles, finding a hole over the middle for a 35-yard catch-and-run from QB Tanner McKee. It was one of two receptions he reeled in on the evening.

*Starting his third straight exhibition game, G Michael Dunn (Sea Dragons) was part of Cleveland’s backup offensive line tasked with blocking Philadelphia’s starting defense, at least for the first series. Dunn started at right guard – a week after starting at left guard – and played there the entire first half. Fellow XFL O-Linemen OT Derrick Kelly (Brahmas) began the second half playing left tackle against the Eagles. He alternated by series playing left and right tackle. Elsewhere for the Browns, DE Chuck Wiley (Roughnecks) picked up a late-game sack as Philly tried to move the ball downfield with under 2:00 to go.

*Though he contributed early in the game as second-team gunner on punt coverage, WR Gary Jennings (Battlehawks) of the Panthers made things interesting late when he caught a 20-yard TD pass from QB Jake Luton on 3rd-and-5 beating Giants CB Darren Evans (Renegades) for the score.

*After leading the team in defensive snaps last week, DT Kobe Smith (Brahmas) appeared in some first-quarter action for the Giants alongside first-and-second-string players.

*Following a strong week one, RB Godwin Igwebuike (Dragons) was given the opportunity to return the opening kickoff for the Falcons, playing with the first-string special teams unit. On offense, he was bumped up to the second-team offense and made some plays in pass protection. Igwebuike carried 14 times for 61 yards (4.4 avg.) and returned two kicks for 44 yards. DT LaCale London (Battlehawks) flashed on back-to-back plays in the third quarter for Atlanta. He first stopped a Cincinnati running back for a one-yard loss after tossing aside the pulling guard. On the next play, he dropped back into coverage in the middle of the field and was in on the tackle of the receiver.

*After not playing in the first preseason game, QB Taylor Heinicke (Battlehawks) took over for starter Desmond Ridder on the second drive and played until almost midway through the fourth quarter. He finished 13-of-21 for 162 yards, making several nice downfield throws. The newest Falcon, and ninth former XFL player signed to the team, is DE Delontae Scott (Brahmas). He played only 10 snaps but among them, registered half a sack.

*The XFL’s most well-known 2023 NFL Draft-eligible player, LB Willie Taylor III (Renegades) was idle last week. With Jacksonville resting many of its starters this week, Taylor entered the game on the second drive, seeing time with the second-team defense. Taylor played as both a stand-up rusher at the end of the line of scrimmage, as well as with his hand in the ground as a defensive end.

*Though Detroit only called upon its kicker three times against the Jaguars (two kickoffs and one extra point), those opportunities were all handled by Riley Patterson. K Parker Romo (Brahmas) did not see the field. Perhaps he’ll get the final preseason game to himself, or perhaps this was a big hint as to the direction the kicking competition is headed. We’ll find out soon enough.

*For players looking to secure a spot at the bottom of the roster, as many former XFL talents are trying to do, making a mark on special teams is the best way to get noticed by coaches. CB Bryce Thompson (Sea Dragons) opened eyes in that way for the Dolphins against the Texans on Saturday: He had three tackles on special teams. He also played the most defensive snaps on the team.

*Inconsistency has plagued QB PJ Walker (Roughnecks) since he entered the NFL. While he’s expected to back up Justin Fields in Chicago, his play through the first two preseason games has not inspired confidence. Against Indianapolis, Walker started and played the first quarter. Squaring off against Indy’s backups, Walker finished 1-of-4 passing for six yards and he was sacked twice. Both Nathan Peterman (10-of-18, 115 yards, 1 TD) and Tyson Bagent (9-of-10, 76 yards) played better, raising questions about how secure Walker’s spot is on the team.

*Sometimes, just as telling as how many snaps someone plays is when they don’t play at all. In the Pittsburgh vs. Buffalo game, a bevy of former XFL players were involved. A few of them took a seat, however. WR Marcell Ateman (Battlehawks) was apparently a healthy scratch for the Bills. LS Rex Sunahara (Brahmas) took all the snaps last week, but gave way to his competition, LS Christian Kuntz (Renegades), who handled all long snaps this week. Finally, WR Hakeem Butler (Battlehawks) was also inactive; he was waived/injured by the team on Monday, meaning he’ll be put on injured reserve when he clears waivers.

*Meanwhile, S Kenny Robinson (Battlehawks), who has impressed in camp thus far, played over half of the defensive snaps for the Steelers, with a portion of them coming alongside members of the second-string defense. He tied for the team lead with four tackles and also contributed one on special teams. On the downside, he was beaten by TE Dalton Kincaid for a long gainer. Fellow DB Lavert Hill (Battlehawks), playing in his first preseason game after being recently signed, knocked away a third-down pass during his time on defense, which began midway through the fourth quarter.

*Listed as an offensive tackle, OT Liam Ryan (Defenders) predominantly played guard with DC in the XFL in 2023. He saw some emergency action at center when the team lost both Mike Maietti and Ty Clary to injury. Ryan’s time on offense for Seattle against Dallas came at center as well.

*Though he lasted only a few days with the Falcons, NT Matthew Gotel (Brahmas) was able to latch on with the Seahawks and played for them against the Cowboys. He had a tackle for loss and one other tackle (two total) on the night.

*RB Abram Smith (Defenders) played just two offensive snaps for Minnesota – and received two carries – this week against Tennessee. He did play on 54% of special teams snaps, though. If you’re wondering about QB Jordan Ta’amu (Defenders): While the XFL announced his signing on Friday, that transaction was not processed until Monday, so he was not eligible to play last weekend.

*While he didn’t catch a pass, TE Alize Mack (Brahmas) did earn the start for the Titans in their second preseason game, joining many other regular-season starters on the field.

*In Green Bay, P Daniel Whelan (Defenders) punted in the first half, while Pat O’Donnell had the injury-abbreviated second half. Whelan landed both of his punts inside the 20 yard-line, with no returns.

*Starting at right tackle for New Orleans with Ryan Ramczyk not playing, OT Storm Norton (Wildcats) committed two penalties – a holding and a false start – during his first half of action against his former team, the LA Chargers. These are some of the same issues that have plagued him in his three years in the NFL since excelling in the XFL in 2020.

*On the first play from scrimmage in the third quarter, rookie QB Jake Haener scrambled right and found a wide-open WR Jontre Kirklin (Roughnecks) downfield. Kirklin added yards after the catch to gain 53 in total. Kirklin caught a TD pass that was called back for pass interference later in the drive. In addition to catching three passes, Kirklin took an end-around for eight yards.

*The path for WR Darrius Shepherd (Battlehawks) to make the Chargers was as a returner; he was, after all, the best return man in the XFL in 2023. However, he’s battled an injury throughout most of training camp and hasn’t played in either of the two preseason games. He was signed in large part to compete with fourth-round rookie WR Derius Davis for return duties, but Davis has excelled at the role including taking a punt back for a touchdown last week.

*DE Niko Lalos (Sea Dragons) was an absolute terror in the backfield for New Orleans. Early in the fourth quarter, he and DT Jack Heflin (Roughnecks) combined to drop RB Elijah Dotson for a two-yard loss. On the next play, Lalos sacked QB Easton Stick on fourth down. On LA’s final offensive drive of the game, Lalos had a series of three plays in a row where he batted down a pass at the line of scrimmage, then sacked Stick on the next two plays, showing good pursuit on both. His final scorecard on the night: Five tackles, four tackles for loss, three sacks, and a pass defended.

*With QB Tyler Huntley injured in the previous preseason game, QB Josh Johnson (Wildcats) got another opportunity to show he deserves to be the number two quarterback behind Lamar Jackson in Baltimore. Johnson started and easily drove the Ravens down the field on the first drive against Washington’s second-team defense, leading to a 26-yard TD pass to rookie WR Zay Flowers. He played the entire first half and went 10-of-12 passing for 145 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. His INT came in the end-zone on a pass that bounced off the hands of WR James Proche. Worth noting: ESPN’s announcers mentioned that in their pre-game meeting, Ravens offensive coordinator Todd Monken was effusive in his praise of Johnson.

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