Just over a week ago, NFL teams pared their rosters down to the 53-man regular season limit. The next day, a bevy of waiver claims were made from those cuts, shuffling others off the roster of the claiming teams. Sixteen-man practice squads also began to fill out. Even then, teams have continued to tinker with their rosters as week one has recently gotten underway.
From those preseason cuts will come the top-end of XFL rosters. At least, that’s what league personnel are hoping. XFL front office execs and coaches were scouting NFL training camps this summer to find players suitable for the XFL. But it’s not a one-way street; players have to want to play for the XFL, too. With competition from the USFL, and the temptation to stay an NFL free agent, working out for teams during the season in hopes of getting signed, the XFL will have to sell agents and players on the opportunity the XFL will bring.
We don’t know yet how well that message has resonated. There have been no leaks about recently cut players agreeing to join the XFL draft pool, and no quarterbacks yet publcily signed to work with new league Director of Quarterback Development Jordan Palmer in advance of training camp, a new wrinkle the league has added this go-round. What we do know is who was cut as teams were mandated to trim their rosters this summer, and what players are still available. That list is ever-changing as teams sign and release players from their roster and practice squad throughout the season.
As the regular season gets underway, I present to you one player from each position that the XFL should consider. These players were waived as teams got to the 53-man limit and are currently free agents. I tried to choose players who may realistically opt for the NFL; long-time veterans of the league and former starters are more likely to be on the short list of teams seeking upgrades or injury replacements mid-season. These are younger players the league may target, in lieu of simply choosing to identify the most recognizable names (Inside the League’s Neil Stratton, who has a relationship with the XFL, tweeted recently that he expects the XFL to go after younger, less experienced players than the USFL).
QB: Carson Strong: This may be an obvious choice, but it’s obvious for a reason. Strong is really the perfect prospect for the XFL. A highly-touted player while at Nevada, Strong was graded as a first-round pick in the 2022 NFL draft class by at least one newsstand magazine. However, due to concerns about an injured knee and his mobility, he went undrafted. Regardless, there was competition to sign him after the draft, won by the Philadelphia Eagles, who paid Strong a signing bonus of $20,000 out of a $320,000 guarantee. Despite this, the Eagles gave Strong few practice reps and he threw only four preseason passes. Strong could wait around for a practice squad opening (the Broncos have already had him in for a tryout), but that won’t give him the opportunity to show teams he can play at the professional level. A season in the XFL with high-level production could make him a hot free agent next spring.
RB: Max Borghi: Given some of the offensive coordinators hired by XFL head coaches, throwing the ball will be a priority. Borghi is one of the most accomplished pass-catching backs on the market, having played in Washington State’s wide-open offense. Not only did he score 32 rushing touchdowns during his four years in Pullman, he also caught 156 passes, including 86 as a sophomore. Borghi played for three NFL teams this summer after signing with the Indianapolis Colts as an undrafted free agent. Borghi’s style may suit the XFL’s expected fast-paced action.
FB: Johnny Stanton: A familiar name for XFL diehards, Stanton was signed by the Los Angeles Wildcats in 2019 but was released before the season began. He was beaten out for the fullback job by Winston Dimel. The fullback position is not used in every offense, but Stanton has a leg-up on a roster spot because he can also play tight end. That versatility and the athleticism Stanton possesses (he’s a former quarterback as well) helped him stick with the Cleveland Browns off-and-on since 2020.
TE: Derrick Deese, Jr.: The son of a former NFL offensive lineman, Deese went undrafted out of San Jose State this April. He signed with the Detroit Lions and made it all the way to final cuts, even signing to their practice squad. He only lasted a few days before being released. Because of this, Deese may resurface on Detroit’s practice squad or one elsewhere in the NFL. Working against Deese in his quest for an NFL roster spot: His unimpressive Relative Athletic Score, and his reputation as a block-first tight end.
WR: Josh Hammond: Hammond has limited regular season experience, playing in just two games in three years since graduating from the University of Florida. Players entering the NFL in 2020 had few opportunities to work out in front of teams prior to the draft – the early stages of COVID-19 led to the cancellation of most pro days as well as any private workouts that would normally take place. Hammond impressed at times with the Jacksonville Jaguars but after three offseasons without a consistent NFL home, it may be time to try a different route.
OT: Ben Petrula: I spotlighted Petrula in my Pro Day column back in April, so why wouldn’t I select him as a possible XFL fit here? Petrula was with the Cleveland Browns until final cuts and wasn’t picked up for the practice squad. In Cleveland’s first preseason game, Petrula played a team-high 84% of the snaps. He followed that up by playing 59% of the snaps in game two before sitting for the third game, so he did earn valuable pro reps in those contests.
OG: Lamont Gaillard: One of the more experienced players to appear on this list, Gaillard has played 13 games across three pro seasons. Also unlike most, Gaillard was an NFL Draft selection, in the sixth round by the Arizona Cardinals in 2019. The fact that Gaillard failed to make the Cincinnati Bengals, a team that had one of the weakest offensive lines in 2021, doesn’t speak well to his immediate NFL future. Offensive linemen with experience are always sought after, however, making Gaillard a potential midseason pickup for a team desperate for reinforcements at the position. Otherwise, using the 2023 XFL season as a prove-it opportunity could find him in an NFL camp again next summer.
C: Dohnovan West: An early entry into the 2022 NFL Draft as a junior, West was ranked as high as the fifth-best center by one long-time scouting site. Lindy’s NFL Draft Preview magazine had him as the draft’s second-ranked center, with a second-round grade. Only six centers were drafted out of a relatively strong class, meaning some draftable prospects would be left to find homes as undrafted free agents. Unfortunately for West, he landed in San Francisco, which already had two well-regarded centers in Jake Brendel and Daniel Brunskill. It was somewhat surprising to see West bypassed for a practice squad spot. Leagues like the XFL need strong offensive lines, so they should be quick to pick up the phone to acquire players of West’s caliber.
DE: Zach VanValkenburg: A player who seems like he still hasn’t reached his ceiling, VanValkenburg joined the University of Iowa football team for his final two seasons after playing at Division II Hillsdale College. Hawkeye defenders are always well-coached and disciplined coming from coordinator Phil Parker, who has been in Iowa City since 1999. VanValkenburg was brought in by the Las Vegas Raiders as a free agent, but didn’t make the squad. He played in all four preseason games and notched a sack in the final one.
DT: Kevin Atkins: If any XFL defensive coordinators plan to run a 3-4 defense, you could do worse in the middle of your line than Atkins. At a biscuit over 300 pounds, Atkins can clog the middle in the run game but also has enough pass rush juice to have registered seven sacks as a senior at Fresno State in 2021. This write-up of Atkins speaks to what makes him unique as a nose tackle.
LB: JaCoby Stevens: An intriguing prospect coming out of LSU due to his positional versatility, that inability to master one position may have cost Stevens a job in Philadelphia. He played at least three positions in Baton Rouge, and as a senior was awarded jersey number seven, representing the top playmaker on the squad. At just 212 pounds, he was light to play linebacker in the NFL, and his 4.62 40-yard dash time was fine but not overly impressive. Stevens was a sixth-round pick of the Eagles in 2021 and was kept on the practice squad for most of the season. The team has the same decision makers this year as they did in 2021, so it’s not a good sign that Stevens was not given a chance on the practice squad again this year out of camp this year.
CB: Jordan Miller: The University of Washington had two top cornerbacks entering the 2019 NFL Draft in Miller and Byron Murphy. Murphy was taken early in the second round while Miller heard his name called in the fifth. His rookie season ended with a suspension for violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs. He has since bounced around the league with three other teams. Miller was a depth signing of the Buffalo Bills in July before being let go at final cuts. This feels like it could be the end of the NFL line for him; a fresh start in the XFL might be beneficial for his football career.
S: Bubba Bolden: I cheated a little bit and went back to the second cut-down date, where teams got down to 80-man rosters, to pick Bolden. In my look at the deepest position groups on each team in training camp, I picked the safeties for the Seattle Seahawks. With three top college free agents, I surmised that one may make the team and one may make the practice squad, leaving one for the XFL. Turns out it was Joey Blount who made the team, Scott Nelson who was signed to the practice squad (recently released), and Bolden who was left out. His tackling issues, the part of his game where some believe he needs to improve most, could be remedied in a league like the XFL.
K: Jose Borregales: Unlike the dark days of COVID, teams aren’t keeping as many specialists on their practice squads as they once did. Borregales signed on to Tampa’s practice squad last season after he was brought to camp as a rookie free agent out of Miami. This year, he was once again unable to beat out veteran Ryan Succop for the kicker spot. Most teams seeking a kicker mid-season would prefer to rely on a veteran, meaning Borregales may decide to show out in the XFL in 2023.
P: Cameron Dicker: The football equivalent of the “get you a man who can do both” meme, Dicker both kicked field goals and punted in college. In the NFL, he was signed as a punter by the Los Angeles Rams, and then the Baltimore Ravens. Dicker seemed to be more highly-ranked as a kicker than punter in pre-draft previews; would an XFL team want him to do both? Would Dicker want to do both, potentially improving his chances of being signed by an NFL team? Regardless of what position he plays, he’s a top specialist that would help any XFL squad’s special teams unit.
LS: Harrison Elliott: The only long snapper released at the three cut-down days was Elliott. Elliott is an interesting story as he graduated from the Air Force Academy in 2015 and attended mini-camps with the Denver Broncos (in 2015) and the Indianapolis Colts (in 2016). Since then, he had been teaching long snapping to high-schoolers and college players. Elliott’s signing was seen as surprising by those covering the league given how long he had gone without playing. Elliott is unlikely to be in demand as an injury replacement during the regular season. His story embodies what the XFL seems to want to be.