While the six XFL showcases during the summer have helped league personnel discover players worthy of invitations to the November draft pool, much of the energy going forward will be dedicated to scouting NFL training camps, now in full swing, to find players who may play key roles in the success of the XFL in 2023.
“We’ll also look at guys in NFL training camps, and we look at guys from 65 to about 85 (on the 90-man roster), the guys that won’t make the practice squad or are fringe practice squad players but need some development, need some more time to mature, to grow, or just more time on the field to prove that they can play. Those are the guys we’ll focus on,” said XFL Senior Vice President of Player Personnel Doug Whaley on Tyler Dunne’s Happy Hour in June. XFL personnel are already touring NFL training camps. Houston offensive coordinator AJ Smith shared a photo on Twitter of him visiting Los Angeles Chargers practice.
The XFL will be in competition with the USFL for many of the same players. Recently, Whaley and Senior Director, Player Administration and Officiating Russ Giglio outlined XFL contracts, benefits and roster composition, among other details, for players and agents on a Zoom call. A full write-up of what was discussed can be found here.
Where can we look for potential XFL players on NFL training camp rosters? Start with the deepest positions on each team. That’s what I’ve done in this two-part column: I’ve scoured each team’s roster, listed the position in which the team is deepest, and thus feature quality players on the back-end who may not make the squad. I did this three years ago in 2019 as the XFL was on the same search for players for the 2020 season (part one here, part two here). You’ll recognize some names from that series who went on to play in the XFL.
Even if some of these players are cut, they may make practice squads (which have now ballooned to 16 players per team) or decide to forego the USFL or XFL, instead opting to wait for injuries to occur and a chance to sign with an NFL team mid-season. But there will be players here who will be offered a spot in the XFL draft pool this fall.
Part one will focus on AFC teams. Part two, which will appear in the coming days, will focus on NFL teams.
Linebackers: Shocking, I know, that Baltimore’s deepest position is on defense. Mike Macdonald takes over as defensive coordinator and is likely to keep much of the departed Don Martindale’s system (he previously coached under Martindale in Baltimore). There are a combination of veterans and rookies looking to stand out at the backup level this summer; those veterans include Vince Biegel, Steven Means, and Kristian Welch. Five rookie free agents were brought in to compete, several of them from prominent programs, like Josh Ross (Michigan), Jeremiah Moon (Florida), and Zakoby McClain (Auburn). Navy’s Diego Fagot is another name to keep in mind in the middle of the D. Bet on Baltimore keeping two-to-three linebackers on their practice squad to start the season, leaving many good football players at this position looking for an alternative.
Wide Receivers: Buffalo’s initial 53-man roser in 2021 featured seven receivers, one or two more than the norm. Even if they keep seven again this year, some quality players will end up being cut. One of them includes a former XFL player, Tanner Gentry, who has an uphill fight to make the team. Two sixth-round picks, Isaiah Hodgins (2020) and Marquez Stevenson (2021), could be facing off against each other for one roster spot. Isaiah McKenzie has impressed in camp thus far from the slot, working behind veteran Jamison Crowder. Also in the slot mix is Tavon Austin, a nine-year veteran gadget receiver who has shown the ability to run the ball throughout his career. If Austin is out, he’d be more apt to try the workout scene than sign with the XFL.
Tight Ends: Cincinnati is carrying seven tight ends on its 90-man roster this summer. They’ll likely bring three or four into the regular season. Hayden Hurst is their new starter, snagged from Atlanta in the offseason. Backing him up are blocker Drew Sample and special teamer Mitchell Wilcox. A couple intriguing names behind them are Thaddeus Moss, whose collegiate injury woes have followed him to the pros; Nick Eubanks, underutilized as a receiver at Michigan; and Scotty Washington, a 2020 undrafted free agent from Wake Forest making the transition from receiver to tight end. A place like the XFL would help speed up that learning process.
Defensive Line: There are six players who are all but locks on the Browns’ line, leaving several players battling for what could be just two more spots. Former Patriot Chase Winovich is one of those players not guaranteed a spot, despite notching 11 sacks over his first three NFL seasons. It’s mostly veterans on the bubble at defensive end. Two were signed as unrestricted free-agents in April in Stephen Weatherly and Isaac Rochell. On the inside at defensive tackle, rookie free agents Glen Logan (LSU) and Roderick Perry II (Illinois) are likely trying to impress to make the practice squad. The loser of that fight could be of interest to the XFL.
Defensive Backs: Denver drafted three defensive backs this year, hoping to increase competition at both corner and safety. They succeeded. Fifth round pick Delarrin Turner-Yell will try to stave off fourth-year man PJ Locke for the backup strong safety position. Seventh round corner Faion Hicks will likely have to beat out Essang Bassey, who Denver acquired off waivers from the rival Chargers in February, to make the team. As a fourth round pick, Damarri Mathis should have a pretty clear road to a roster spot. East Carolina rookie free agent corner Ja’Quan McMillian is a player XFL scouts saw in person at his pro day. Safeties JR Reed and Jamar Johnson, and corner Donnie Lewis Jr. are talented players who may have to use the preseason to impress other teams around the league.
Quarterbacks: In some ways, due to their depleted roster, Houston has more competitive positions that are up for grab than most teams. It will be another rebuilding year, but unlike most teams that are rebuilding, Houston doesn’t have a quarterback competition. They’ve settled on 2021 third round draft pick Davis Mills. At least, for now. If Houston finishes with a top-five pick in the 2023 draft, there may be a QB too good for them to pass up. Behind Mills, it’s basically a three-horse race for the backup job(s). Kyle Allen, late of Washington, is the favorite. Also in the fray are Jeff Driskel and Kevin Hogan. Remember, the XFL wants to throw significant money at signal-callers and to work with them throughout the fall; guys like Driskel and Hogan aren’t sexy names, but they’ve got NFL experience and could be worth going after.
Linebackers: Indianapolis added some interesting undrafted free agents at this spot, and a few of them shined during offseason workouts according to reports. Jojo Domann out of Nebraska probably has the best chance of the UDFAs to make the squad. Another impressive spring performer was Sterling Weatherford, who is making the move from collegiate safety to pro linebacker. Finally, there’s middle linebacker James Skalski from Clemson. He’s played in his share of big-time games while a member of the Tigers, but has the tag of being too slow and not athletic enough to successfully make the jump to the NFL. The XFL is where players like that should be able to make a home and get a chance to prove those doubters wrong.
Running Backs: It’s yet another regime change in Duval, where the hope is Doug Pederson will bring some stability to the franchise at the head coach position. His stable of running backs should help take the pressure off second-year quarterback Trevor Lawrence. Travis Etienne and James Robinson both return from injury, with Snoop Conner, a fifth round pick in April, providing depth. Three other backs will vie for either the final roster spot at the position, or for a practice squad role. They are Ryquell Armstead (felled by a bad bout of COVID in ’20, but back in Jax after stops with the Giants and Packers); Nathan Cottrell (has one carry in 12 games, but is a good special teams coverage player and can return kicks); and Mekhi Sargent (an undersized second-year bruiser out of Iowa).
Kansas City Chiefs
Quarterbacks: Chad Henne has performed admirably when called upon to fill in for Patrick Mahomes. But at 37 years old, will the Chiefs trust him enough to keep him as the only backup on the roster? Shane Buechele spent the first part of last season on Kansas City’s practice squad before being signed to the 53-man roster in Novemer. He was inactive for every game after that. Buechele had an impressive preseason last year and if he is cut again, he’ll be a practice squad candidate, but also a candidate for the XFL to pursue aggressively. If the Chiefs do only keep two QBs, they will almost certainly stash one on the practice squad. Battling Buechele is Dustin Crum, a rookie free agent from Kent State. The offense he played under doesn’t always translate well to the NFL, so he may need some developmental time either on a practice squad or in a league like the XFL.
Las Vegas Raiders
Offensive Line: The Raiders’ line is in flux, with jobs to be won or lost all across the line of scrimmage, from starters to backups. Dylan Parham (third round) and Thayer Munford (seventh round) are two rookies looking to make an impact. The only rookie free agent signed on the line was Bam Olaseni, a large human (6’7″, 339 pounds) out of Utah. A familiar name to longtime football fans is Tyrone Wheatley Jr., son of former NFL running back Tyrone Wheatley. Wheatley Jr. is a converted tight end who played in The Spring League in 2021, now trying to earn a backup job in Vegas. Other bubble players to watch are versatile lineman Alex Bars, and another big Ute, Jackson Barton.
Los Angeles Chargers
Defensive Line: The Chargers only kept five defensive linemen on the roster last season, but could keep six this year in their 3-4 alignment under second-year coordinator Renaldo Hill. There aren’t many jobs to be won here, so some young players are likely to receive a lot of preseason snaps to showcase themselves for other teams – or other leagues. Among them are Joe Gaziano, who played in 14 games last season; Andrew Brown, a former five-star recruit who ended up as a fifth round pick in 2018 out of Virginia; and Forrest Merrill, a backup nose tackle from Arkansas State who spent most of last season on the team’s practice squad. One interesting name: Carlo Kemp, who starred in the USFL this spring and whose contract may revert back to that league if he’s cut.
Running Backs: Miami’s running backs have struggled statistically the last few seasons, due in large part to subpar offensive line play. Nevertheless, the team brought in Chase Edmonds, Raheem Mostert, and Sony Michel this offseason to sit 1-2-3 on the depth chart. Holdovers like Myles Gaskin and Salvon Ahmed, two of Miami’s top three rushers last season, are likely competing for one roster spot. Contending with them are 2021 seventh round draft pick Gerrid Doaks, who despite Miami’s rushing woes, never made it off the practice squad; and ZaQuandre White, a rookie free agent from South Carolina who most draft prognosticators had as a mid-to-late round selection.
New England Patriots
Special Teams: Few teams carry multiple backup specialists in training camp. New England is one of those teams. Nick Folk is the incumbent placekicker, heavily favored to retain the job over Tristan Vizcaino. Vizcaino entered the league in 2018 and has mostly been a camp leg during that time. He won the kicking job with the Chargers last summer, but was released at the end of October. Quinn Nordin, who as a rookie UDFA beat out Folk for the kicker job in last year’s camp before landing on IR, looms on the non-football injury list. Punter Jake Bailey will probably have a tougher time beating out his competition, rookie free agent Jake Julien. Julien was not high on most draft analysts’ punter rankings (yes, such things DO exist), but Bill Belichick is known to zig when others zag. It’s also worth mentioning long snapper Ross Reiter, who was recently cut. He spent time in the offseason program as a challenger to Joe Cardona. As we’ve seen with the previous iteration with the XFL, being a long snapper in the league can help vault you into an NFL job.
New York Jets
Defensive Line: Long known for their 3-4 defense, the Jets have switched to a 4-3 under head coach Robert Saleh and defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich. New York is so deep here they opted not to sign any undrafted free agent defensive linemen. On the interior, it appears as if the final spot could come down to Nathan Shepherd, Jonathan Marshall, and Tanzel Smart. On the edge, even rookie fourth-round pick Michael Clemons isn’t guaranteed a spot. The depth is such that a 10-year vet with a second round pedigree like Vinny Curry could be looking for work come September. Former draft picks Bradlee Anae (fifth round, 2020) and Jabari Zuniga (third round, 2020) are in the mix at the ends, but, along with 2021 UDFA Hamilcar Rashed Jr., will struggle to make it.
Special Teams: Despite spending a seventh round draft choice on Pressley Harvin III last year, the punter’s erratic rookie season led to the Steelers bringing in a real challenger to his position this offseason, in the person of Cameron Nizalek. Nizalek played for the Atlanta Legends of the Alliance of American Football in 2019, finishing second in punting average. Veteran Chris Boswell seems entrenched as the kicker, but Pittsburgh signed an impressive rookie free agent, Wake Forest’s Nick Sciba. Sciba made 89.9% of his field goals in college and received a draftable grade from some scouts. The lone unchallenged specialist is former Dallas Renegade long snapper Christian Kuntz.
Tight Ends: A couple of players coming off injuries could make this position group stronger, depending upon how they rebound during camp. The top three tight ends appear set in Austin Hooper, Geoff Swaim, and rookie Chig Okonkwo. Beyond that, three players will make the case for a fourth tight end to be kept on the 53-man roster, or short of that, on the practice squad. Two of them are coming off 2021 injuries: Tommy Hudson, a third-year player out of Arizona State who starts the summer on the physically-unable-to-perform list; and Briley Moore, a Kansas State product who flashed last year before an injury wiped out his rookie season. They also have Thomas Odukoya from the Netherlands as an International Pathways Program player, meaning there is a practice squad exemption for him to be kept.