Where XFL players fit in to preseason NFL depth charts
Former XFL players are featured on NFL team depth charts.
As is customary, NFL teams have put out unofficial depth charts on their official team sites in advance of their first preseason game. These depth charts are compiled by each team’s PR/communications department rather than the coaching staffs themselves (hence “unofficial”). Nevertheless, it’s a glimpse into how positional battles are shaping up early in training camp.
Among those dotting these depth charts are former XFL players. We’re now into the second NFL season since the XFL last played a down, yet XFL players continue to compete for jobs across the league. A lot of roster churn has taken place since I analyzed how XFL players fared in the NFL in 2020 (part four, as well as links to the other three parts, can be found here).
It’s important to note that the NFL is down to three preseason games for most teams after adding a 17th regular season game beginning this season. In theory, it’s less of an opportunity for fringe players to make an impression. The NFL has also changed cut-down dates for when teams need to trim their roster: The roster must stand at 85 by August 17, down from the maximum 90; by August 24, five more players must be cut to get to 80; then the final cut to 53 by August 31.
Dozens of transactions are made each day by teams during the summer – in fact, two former XFL players were signed in the few days it took me to write this – so consider this simply a snapshot in time. If you’re an XFL fan and are looking for a reason to watch every snap of NFL preseason games, here is a guide to the players to look out for (and the uniform numbers they’ll be wearing) as they fight for roster spots this summer, as well as where they stand on their team’s depth chart.
Buffalo: The Guardians were just finding their groove at the quarterback position with Luis Perez when COVID caused the league to shut down. One of the beneficiaries of that consistency at QB over the second half of the year could have been WR Tanner Gentry (#87 – Guardians). Gentry started out the year on injured reserve, but when activated, did not dress for the ensuing two games. The once-heralded undrafted free agent out of Wyoming would have been a nice depth piece for New York as they positioned themselves for a late-season playoff run. Buffalo has three receivers starting on their depth chart; Gentry finds himself fourth-string behind Emmanuel Sanders at one of those positions.
New England: LS Brian Khoury (#46 – Defenders) shares first team duties with six-year vet Joe Cardona. Cardona is currently injured and expected to miss some time, hence the recent signing of Khoury. It’s unlikely Khoury will unseat Cardona, provided Cardona gets healthy, but by snapping in at least the opening preseason game, Khoury will be able to provide some tape for other teams.
New York Jets: The Jets’ depth chart lists two starting corners and a nickel; that’s where CB Elijah Campbell (#26 – Defenders) is placed. He sits as third-team nickel CB behind Javelin Guidry and 2021 fifth-round draft pick Michael Carter II. Campbell was on-and-off the Jets’ practice squad in 2020, but it’s unclear how much value that holds with a new coaching staff in place for this season.
One of the most impressive quarterbacks of XFL 2020 was NFL journeyman QB Josh Johnson (#9 – Wildcats). Johnson is in his second stint with the Jets, the first coming in 2015. At this point, he’s a camp arm listed behind 2nd overall draft pick Zach Wilson, Mike White, and James Morgan. The backups are not exactly a formidable group, so if the Jets keep three and he impresses in the preseason, he could snag a spot.
Another player who bounced on-and-off a roster last year was LB Edmond Robinson (#51 – Roughnecks) with the Atlanta Falcons. Robinson played mostly on special teams, which is where he’ll likely be competing for a spot with the Jets. In their 4-3 alignment, he is listed as third-team LB behind converted safety Hamsah Nasirildeen and Blake Cashman.
RB Austin Walter (#35 – Renegades) was part of Bob Stoops’s backfield in Dallas; with the Jets, he finds himself sharing fourth-team RB duties with the other Michael Carter, and Josh Adams. Despite returning a kickoff for a touchdown in the XFL’s abbreviated season, he’s not listed in the top four kickoff returners for Gang Green.
Baltimore: Perhaps the player with the most job security of any former XFL player heading into the 2021 NFL season is LS Nick Moore (#46 – Vipers). Moore was kept on Baltimore’s practice squad all last year; he then replaced longtime Raven Morgan Cox in a cash-saving move. Moore is unchallenged as the team’s deep snapper.
Cincinnati: The athletic traits of seldom-used backup QB Eric Dungey (#5 – Renegades) has allowed the Syracuse product to find his way into a few NFL camps. In Cincinnati, he’s behind Joe Burrow and Brandon Allen, battling Kyle Shurmur for the third-string spot either on the 53-man roster or practice squad.
It wasn’t his performance in the XFL that got him a job despite 27 catches in five games, but rather his appearance in the Spring League in 2021 that allowed WR Reece Horn (#15 – Vipers) to latch on with the Bengals. The 6’3″ specimen’s size is intriguing, but in Cincy’s starting three-receiver set, he finds himself behind Tee Higgins and Mike Thomas on the third team.
DT Kahlil McKenzie (#69 – Wildcats) saw the most extensive action of his NFL career last season. He played in seven games, making eight tackles. To make the team again this year, McKenzie will have to beat out massive 346-pound rookie Tyler Shelvin for the third-string nose tackle spot. He’s behind starter DJ Reader and backup Josh Tupou on the depth chart.
Spending his entire 2020 season on the Cincinnati practice squad, RB Jacques Patrick (#31 – Vipers) will get a second chance to crack the regular season backfield rotation. Based on his position on the depth chart, he may need to leap-frog another player to do so. He’s behind Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine. There’s a four-way logjam on the third team, where Patrick is behind Trayveon Williams but ahead of rookies Chris Evans and Pooka Williams, Jr.
Cleveland: Despite being buried on the depth chart in St. Louis to the point that he was a healthy inactive most weeks, TE Connor Davis (#86 – BattleHawks) made the New York Jets practice squad last year and has an opportunity again this year, this time with the Browns. It’s a steep climb, however, as he’s seventh on the depth chart of seven tight ends on the roster. Because they also employ a fullback, the Browns may only keep three, at most four, at the position.
A great story amid the Browns’ playoff run last season was G Michael Dunn (#68 – Dragons). Cut at least seven times since entering the league in 2017, Dunn was pressed into starting duty in Cleveland’s Wild Card playoff game against Pittsburgh. He performed well until suffering a season-ending injury. This year, Dunn enters camp a solid bet to make the team as a backup left guard to Joel Bitonio. He needs to continue to beat out third-team G Drew Forbes to make the team. A profile of Dunn’s saga was recently written by The Athletic (subscription required).
Pittsburgh: Listed at two positions on the team’s roster page, LB/LS Christian Kuntz (#46 – Renegades) is only listed on the depth chart at long snapper, where he’s on the second team behind Kameron Canaday. If he can prove he can play multiple positions (or maybe even just multiple coverage teams on special teams), he could give himself a leg-up in that battle.
Special teams will also be the ticket for LB Tegray Scales (#40 – Renegades) to make the squad. The former Indiana Hoosier played four games there for Pittsburgh last season. According to the team’s depth chart, he’s in a battle with former safety Marcus Allen to back up Robert Spillane at the RILB position.
Tennessee: TE Gabe Holmes (BattleHawks) signed just yesterday, replacing Donnie Ernsberger, who was released with an injury settlement. A graduate of the XFL’s Team Nine, Holmes settles in as the seventh tight end on the roster. The late start in camp makes him the ultimate underdog in attempting to make the team.
Denver: The tantalizing speed of WR De’Mornay Pierson-El (#15 – BattleHawks) has allowed the football vagabond to continue to get work. Pierson-El brings up the rear on the depth chart at one of Denver’s two starting receiver positions, slotting in sixth.
Denver has a loaded secondary, which will make it difficult for CB Saivion Smith (#39 – Roughnecks) to break through. He’s on the fourth team at RCB, notably ahead of seventh round rookie Kary Vincent, Jr., and Essang Bassey, who is recovering from a torn ACL. Smith played in six games for Dallas last year, making three tackles.
Los Angeles Chargers: The number one selection in the offensive line phase of the XFL Draft, OT Storm Norton (#74 – Wildcats) made the Chargers team last year and started three games. He’ll likely play the role of swing tackle again, as he’s listed behind RT Bryan Bulaga on the team’s initial depth chart.
The XFL was the perfect place for 6’8″ TE Donald Parham, Jr. (#89 – Renegades), the talented but raw prospect who just needed experience and coaching. He got that in Dallas and parlayed it into a backup job with Los Angeles in 2020. He turned 10 catches into three touchdowns. Expect a bigger role for Parham this year, as he backs up aging starter Jared Cook. He’s ahead of five others on the depth chart.
He’s forever in the record books as the recipient of the first touchdown pass in XFL 2020, but it will take more than that for WR Austin Proehl (#86 – Dragons) to make the Chargers. Currently, the son of former NFL receiver Ricky Proehl is the fourth-team WR behind Keenan Allen and others, below Josh Palmer on the fourth team, but above John Hurst.
Dallas: Unlike others on this list, P Hunter Niswander (#7 – Defenders) has already played a preseason game when Dallas faced Pittsburgh in last week’s Hall of Fame Game. Tasked with both punting and kicking duties on the night, Niswander boomed three punts for a 50.3 yard average, but was less than stellar on field goals, knocking down just one of three tries and becoming the butt of jokes on social media. His punting competition, Bryan Anger, was rested while kicker Greg Zuerlein is on the physically unable to perform list. Niswander is listed on the depth chart as a backup to both spots. Niswander impressed punting in eight games for Dallas this year, but is in a real battle to retain the job.
NY Giants: Another recent signing is DT Elijah Qualls (Defenders). The Giants have already updated their depth chart to reflect this, placing Qualls on the fourth team at the big DE spot on the three-man line, behind Dexter Lawrence, BJ Hill, and David Moa. He’ll provide preseason depth.
Philadelphia: One of the storylines that would’ve developed over the last half of the XFL 2020 season was what D.C. would have done at quarterback. Cardale Jones was the much-heralded starter, but was hot-and-cold. Tyree Jackson (#80 – Defenders) relieved him a few times but was inconsistent as well. Who would Pep Hamilton have given the reigns to in the second part of the season? Now, Jackson is trying his hand at TE and is impressing lots of analysts. Preseason action will be big for him and may determine whether he makes the roster or the practice squad. Zach Ertz, Dallas Goedert, and Richard Rodgers are the top three TEs in Philadelphia, with Jackson grouped on the fourth team below Jack Stoll and above Jason Croom and Caleb Wilson.
Washington: The curious case of QB Taylor Heinicke (#4 – BattleHawks) took on near mythical status last season after he nearly out-dueled eventual Super Bowl winner Tom Brady in the NFC Wild Card game. Washington liked enough of what they saw to give Heinicke a two-year, $8.75 million deal this offseason. Not bad for a player who was a backup in the XFL. Washington signed Ryan Fitzpatrick and his beard to start at QB this season, but Heinicke is knocking on the door as second-string. Barring a preseason collapse, he should hold off Kyle Allen and Steven Montez for that spot.
DT Bunmi Rotimi (#57 – Guardians) was active for Kevin Gilbride’s team in 2020, making 25 tackles in five games from his spot on the defensive line. Out of the NFL last year, Rotimi was another player who was signed off of his performance in this year’s Spring League season. In Washington’s 4-3 defense, he joins Daniel Wise on the fourth team at DE behind Chase Young and others.
On Monday, Washington signed C Jon Toth (#61 – Defenders). The Football Team is Toth’s fifth, though he has yet to play a regular season down. Washington is pretty strong at center with Chase Roullier, Tyler Larsen, and Keith Ismael all ahead of Toth.
Also on the fourth team at his position is DT Gabe Wright (#62 – Roughnecks). Wright has the pedigree as a fourth round pick of the Detroit Lions in 2015, but hasn’t translated that into a consistent NFL career. Wright’s path is blocked by Daron Payne, Tim Settle and Devaroe Lawrence, all ahead of him at one of the two DT positions.
Green Bay: D.C’s inconsistent pass game hurt the production of WR DeAndre Thompkins (#6 – Defenders), but in a week two 27-0 victory over the Guardians, he showed what he was capable of. In that game, he caught six passes on nine targets for 67 yards and a touchdown. He didn’t make it out of training camp with Pittsburgh last season, but will try again this year in Green Bay. The odds don’t look much better, as he’s sixth on the depth chart behind Davante Adams at one receiver spot.
Detroit: XFL specialists have gotten a lot of attention from NFL teams in the past year, and LS Scott Daly (#47 – Guardians) hopes to continue that trend. Standing in his way is 18-year NFL veteran Don Muhlbach. If the Lions feel the flawless Muhlbach is too expensive to carry on the roster this season or has lost something off his fastball, Daly could be ready to pounce. He’s currently the second-team snapper.
While Tyree Jackson’s position switch has gotten all the press clippings, he’s not the only former XFL player trying his hand at a new spot. RB Godwin Igwebuike (#35 – Dragons) is a former safety turned running back. QB-to-TE isn’t unheard of (Tim Tebow is giving it a try this year, and Washington just gave Logan Thomas a $24 million extension), but S-to-RB is rare. Igwebuike was a key player on Seattle’s defense, making 21 tackles and intercepting a pass. In Detroit, he shares fourth team duties with Michael Warren, Dedrick Mills, and fullback Jason Cabinda.
Atlanta: OL Willie Beavers (#72 – Renegades) was a first round pick of Dallas in the offensive line phase of the XFL Draft. He spent all of last season on Atlanta’s practice squad. Right now, Beavers is surprisingly listed as first-team RT, ahead of usual starter Kaleb McGary, who returned from the PUP list on Monday, and rookie Jalen Mayfield. Sometimes teams like to make their rookies earn their way up the depth chart. In the case of Mayfield, a third-round pick, it’s unlikely he doesn’t make the team. Beavers’ ability to play multiple positions on the line will help.
Carolina: XFL Tampa Bay spent a high draft pick on OT Martez Ivey (#73 – Vipers) to play left tackle for them. He helped anchor their offensive line. He has the requisite size (6’5″, 315 pounds) to be effective, and he gets his chance with a team that is no stranger to giving opportunities to XFL players. Right now, Ivey is fourth team at LT behind Cameron Erving, Trent Scott, and Greg Little.
The one player to forego college eligibility to play in the XFL, S Kenny Robinson (#27 – BattleHawks) impressed enough to be selected by Carolina in the 5th round of the 2020 NFL Draft. He was stashed on the practice squad, but called up to the active roster in October and played in nine games. Based on the opening depth chart, Robinson is in a solid place to make the team as the primary backup to FS Jeremy Chinn. He’ll have to fend off challenges from Doug Middleton and Brian Cole to stick.
Like Taylor Heinicke, TE Colin Thompson (#86 – Vipers) went from XFL backup to making an NFL team. And Thompson wasn’t just a backup in Tampa – he was the third-string TE. Thompson caught just one pass in Carolina last season, but played in 15 games and started four. The Panthers start two TEs, and Thompson is second-team at one of those spots, behind Ian Thomas and ahead of Stephen Sullivan.
The most impressive QB in the XFL in 2020 was QB PJ Walker (#6 – Roughnecks). He was rewarded with a spot in training camp last year in Carolina. He beat out Will Grier for the backup job and led the team to a victory in his only start, in place of the injured Teddy Bridgewater, against Detroit. Walker once again finds himself in a dogfight for the number two job with Grier. Both could again make the team.
New Orleans: In his second stint with the Saints after signing there as an undrafted free-agent in 2016, WR Jake Lampman (#19 – Vipers) was one of the Team Nine players cycled off that roster at the midpoint of the XFL season. He landed in Tampa Bay with the Vipers, but never played a down; days later, the league ground to a halt because of COVID. Lampman has six games of NFL experience, which could give him a leg-up over others competing to land on the Saint’s opening day roster. He’s going to have to work his way up from the bottom, however, as he’s on the fourth team at one of the two starting receiver positions.
Tampa Bay: A big receiver in Los Angeles, TE De’Quan Hampton (#6 – Wildcats) is now an average-sized tight end in Tampa Bay. He impressed in a HUB tryout camp in May to earn an opportunity this preseason. Tampa starts two tight ends, and Hampton is fourth-string at one of those spots, behind OJ Howard, Cameron Brate, and Jerell Adams.
LA Rams: K Austin MacGinnis (#18 – Renegades) returns to LA this season after losing a three-way kicking battle in camp last year. The Rams thought enough of him to keep him on the practice squad, and even elevate him for a game, though he did not kick. Rather than turn to MacGinnis to solve their kicking woes, LA instead plucked Matt Gay off the Indianapolis practice squad. In seven games, he hit 87.5 percent of his kicks. MacGinnis is currently the backup to Gay.
Seattle: The only team that has not posted a depth chart to their official site as of this writing is the Seahawks. That is the team for which DT Walter Palmore (#64 – Roughnecks) plays. He was signed in May after playing in Dallas last season. He saw action in Week 17, making one tackle. Despite the lack of a depth chart, Palmore profiles as a deep backup in Seattle.