Early XFL Standouts Who Should Be Catching the Eye of the NFL

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystFebruary 24, 2020

Early XFL Standouts Who Should Be Catching the Eye of the NFL

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    Three weeks into the rebirth of the XFL season, there are a couple things we know. We know that the Houston Roughnecks look like the class of the league. We also know that the Tampa Bay Vipers, um, do not.

    There are other things that we think we know—or maybe not. We thought entering Week 3 that the D.C. Defenders were one of the XFL's better teams and the Los Angeles Wildcats were one of the worst.

    After watching the latter pour it on the former Sunday, some re-thinking may be in order there.

    The NFL futures of some of the early standouts in the XFL fall into that latter category. The players who have stood out over the last few weeks are (for the most part) a combo platter of late-round picks and undrafted free agents. A few saw some time on a 53-man roster. But for each that did, there are two who are practice squad vagabonds.

    There's no way to know that any will parlay this into success at the game's highest level.

    However, after watching some of the XFL's young (with due respect to players like Wildcats quarterback Josh Johnson, he's 33 and bounced around the NFL for years) stars tear it up over the early part of the season, it's not unreasonable to think that some have earned the notice of NFL teams.

    And another opportunity to try.

         

P.J. Walker, QB, Houston Roughnecks

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    Matt Patterson/Associated Press

    On some level, it's silly to start proclaiming any XFL player an MVP front-runner three games into the season.

    With that said, Houston Roughnecks quarterback P.J. Walker is the front-runner to be named the league's MVP after leading his team to an undefeated record while posting gaudy stats and thrilling fans.

    Walker won the XFL's first-ever "Star of the Week" award and entered Week 3 leading the league in passer rating and third in passing yards. 

    Walker's third game may well have been his best—the former Temple Star passed for 306 yards and three touchdowns and picked up 34 yards and another score on the ground.

    That dual-threat ability is what's made Walker so fun to watch, but while many have been surprised by Walker's success, Roughnecks head coach June Jones isn't one of them.

    "He's an accurate passer," Jones said, via ESPN's Sarah Barshop. "He can make all the throws, and when plays break down, he's done what I thought he would do and that is scramble around and make things happen."

    For his part, Walker is just glad to be playing football again.

    "[It's] bringing the joy back to the game," Walker said. "Me just going out there having fun, playing with the guys, and also just progressing every day."

    After two seasons bouncing on and off the practice squad for the Indianapolis Colts, Walker sat out the 2019 season after getting released just before the season began. However, the Pittsburgh Steelers tried to sign Walker last year ahead of a matchup with Lamar Jackson and the Ravens, only to be rebuffed because Walker was under contract with the XFL.

    The Steelers won't be the only team that inquires about Walker after the season—especially if he keeps lighting up XFL defenses.

Jordan Ta'amu, QB, St. Louis BattleHawks

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    Brandon Wade/Associated Press

    A massive separator has demarcated the haves and have-nots in the XFL: quarterback play.

    While many of the XFL's teams have scuffled mightily offensively, at least three have moved the ball consistently. The St. Louis BattleHawks (what a name, folks) have been one of those fortunate three, and the play of Jordan Ta'amu has been a big reason why.

    Heading into this week's action, only Cardale Jones of the D.C. Defenders had amassed more passing yards than Ta'amu's 493. The former Ole Miss starter also ranked third in the league in rushing entering Week 3 with 109 yards.

    His stats in a blowout win over the New York Guardians on Sunday weren't especially gaudy, but he showed off his ability to extend the play with his legs early in the second half with one of the most impressive plays of the XFL season.

    Ta'amu's success has been one of the bigger surprises of the XFL season to date, but BattleHawks head coach Jonathan Hayes insisted he isn't surprised at all.

    "Am I surprised at what Jordan is doing? No, not at all," Hayes said, per Dean Criddle of the Belleville News-Democrat. "He keeps growing with the team. He does a great job with [offensive coordinator] Chuck Long, and the rest of the offensive coaches do a great job with him in making sure he understands where his strengths are on the field."

    Ta'amu has been equal parts accurate and athletic, and he has avoided (for the most part) making mistakes with the ball.

    Given that, NFL teams are figuring out where Ta'amu's strengths are on the field, as well.

Cam Phillips, WR, Houston Roughnecks

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    Matt Patterson/Associated Press

    The Houston Roughnecks are arguably the best team in the XFL—in no small part because the Roughnecks have the best pitch-and-catch duo in the league. We've already talked the "pitch" half of that duo in P.J. Walker, but the "catch" half deserves some run as well.

    From a statistical standpoint, there hasn't been a more impressive player in the XFL than Roughnecks wide receiver Cam Phillips—and it isn't especially close. After scorching the winless Tampa Bay Vipers for a jaw-dropping 194 yards and three scores on eight catches, Phillips now has 324 receiving yards for the season and leads the league with seven touchdown grabs.

    You read that right—seven. The former Virginia Tech standout has now scored three times in each of the last two games for the Roughnecks.

    As Nick Natario wrote for ABC 13 in Houston, Phillips said his rapport with Walker stems from hours and hours on the practice field together.

    Either that, or the fact that they go out to eat a lot together.

    "We go eat a lot and joke and laugh," Phillips said. "We've had chicken and waffles [and] burger places down here. Really, just trying to see the city. I think that's helped to carry that over on the field."

    Whatever works.

    A 6'0", 201-pounder who originally signed with the Buffalo Bills after going undrafted in 2018, Phillips spent last year out of football after getting cut by the Bills in August.

    If Phillips keeps scoring three touchdowns a game, teams will be lining up to invite him to training camp this summer.

Donald Parham, TE, Dallas Renegades

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    Brandon Wade/Associated Press

    On one hand, Dallas Renegades tight end Donald Parham has the measurables that many NFL teams drool over. He's 6'8" and 257 pounds with good speed and a background playing basketball. He was one of the stars of practices at the 2019 Senior Bowl.

    On the other hand, Parham didn't even start playing football until his senior year of high school. He's a raw prospect who was used primarily as a slot receiver at tiny Stetson University. And Parham's skills as a blocker are—let's just say that he's a work in progress.

    It's not a surprise that Parham had trouble cracking an NFL roster last year—he signed with the Detroit Lions as an undrafted free agent and spent some time with the Washington Redskins, but by the end of September he was out of the NFL.

    However, Parham is taking every advantage of the opportunity the XFL has afforded him to show off the physical talents that made him an intriguing prospect a year ago. He's emerged as the top pass-catching option for Landry Jones with the Renegades, pacing all XFL tight ends in receiving yards through two weeks.

    He extended that lead in Week 3, exploding for five catches for 101 yards and two scores—including a 65-yarder in which Parham made the Seattle secondary look slow.

    There's precisely zero doubt that NFL teams watching Saturday's game are considering just how effective Parham could be as his knowledge of the position grows.

    And at just 22 years old, he has an awful lot of football ahead of him.

Tre McBride, WR, Los Angeles Wildcats

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    Over the first two games of the 2020 XFL season, Nelson Spruce was the man in the passing game for the Los Angeles Wildcats. He was easily the team's most targeted wideout and paced the league in receiving yards with 181.

    But after watching the 1-2 Wildcats drop the proverbial piano on the 2-1 D.C. Defenders in Week 3's most surprising game, I would be remiss were Tre McBride not also included in this piece.

    There was a certain irony in watching McBride embarrass the D.C. secondary Sunday evening. The 27-year-old began the season on the Defenders roster before he was dealt to Los Angeles for Rashad Ross in a swap of pass-catchers.

    There was more than a little seller's remorse on Sunday—although given how disastrously the first half went for D.C., it wasn't the only kind of remorse the team felt.

    While Spruce was whisper-quiet early against the Defenders, McBride went off. The former William & Mary standout, who has been on the practice squad or active roster for the Tennessee Titans, New York Jets, Chicago Bears, Washington Redskins and Jacksonville Jaguars, reeled in three passes for 73 yards and a pair of touchdowns in the first half alone.

    He narrowly missed a third long score on a well-thrown pass from former NFL journeyman Josh Johnson.

    McBride topped the century mark in the game and might have had an even bigger night were it not for a shot to the helmet in the third quarter. He caught that ball, too.

    It's not just that big half that will get McBride noticed by NFL teams. Or the speed that enabled it. Or the fact that McBride has NFL experience—he actually started three games for the Bears in 2017 and scored a touchdown for the Titans in 2015. 

    It's all those things and the fact McBride also returns punts.

    There's a reason he was a second-round pick in the XFL draft. So far as the reason he was traded goes, your guess is as good as mine.

Nelson Spruce, WR, Los Angeles Defenders

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    XFL/Getty Images

    It's understandable if Los Angeles Wildcats wide receiver Nelson Spruce was a little conflicted in Week 3 of the XFL season.

    On one hand, after two straight losses to open the year, the Wildcats got right in a big way with an emphatic win over the previously undefeated D.C. Defenders.

    On the other hand, after piling up over 180 receiving yards as the go-to guy for the Wildcats in the first two games (leading the XFL in receiving yards in the process) Spruce went catchless in a first half that saw eight different teammates snag at least one pass from Josh Johnson.

    However, while Spruce may have lost his status as the XFL's top receiver in Week 3 (a debatable point), one down half won't come close to erasing him from the minds of NFL teams.

    Over the season's first two weeks, the 6'1", 205-pound Spruce was targeted 24 times, hauling in 17 for 181 yards and two scores. When he finally did notch his first catch of Sunday's game in the third quarter, it was a toe-dragging 21-yarder.

    It's not the first time Spruce has come on big early.

    Back in 2016, he caught six passes for 51 yards and a touchdown in his preseason debut for the Los Angeles Rams. But the former Colorado standout got hurt in that game, as well. After spending most of his rookie season banged up, Spruce was let go by the Rams. Stints with three more NFL teams and the San Diego Fleet of the Alliance of American Football followed.

    Spruce was fifth in the AAF in receiving yards (426) and second in catches (38). Should he continue to remain toward the top of the XFL leaderboard, he's going to get another shot at making an NFL roster.

    If his 45-yarder in the fourth quarter and final stat line (3/75/0..in a half) was any indication, Spruce will indeed be among the XFL's most prolific receivers in 2020.

Bunmi Rotimi, DL, New York Guardians

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    It's getting rather difficult to find nice things to say about the New York Guardians. After getting stomped 27-0 by the D.C. Defenders in Week 2, the Guardians followed that up by getting blasted in St. Louis by the BattleHawks.

    While the best thing going for the Guardians may be their uniforms, there have been a few bright spots on defense.

    Enter defensive lineman Bunmi Rotimi.

    In his first game in the XFL, Rotimi notched a sack. In his second, the 275-pound Old Dominion product logged a forced fumble. Through two weeks, he had piled up an impressive 12 tackles (with four tackles for loss) and led the league, per Arif Hasan of The Athletic, in quarterback pressures.

    He kept it up and then some in St. Louis with seven more total tackles and two tackles for loss.

    In many respects. Rotimi is emblematic of the kind of player the XFL could most benefit. A walk-on at ODU, he was signed as an undrafted free agent by the Chicago Bears in 2018. But it wasn't a great fit; he's on the small side for a 3-4 end but lacks the athleticism to play outside linebacker.

    However, now that he's again playing strong-side end in a four-man front and showing out, NFL teams running the 4-3 could see value in a player who can consistently push the pocket and potentially kick inside in sub-packages.

    There won't be any summer vacation for Rotimi in 2020. He's going to be spending the dog days scratching and clawing for a spot on an NFL roster.

Tarvarus McFadden, DB, Tampa Bay Vipers

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    Steve Luciano/Associated Press

    Not much has gone right for the Tampa Bay Vipers this season. Per CBS Sports, the oddsmakers at Caesars Palace gave the Vipers the highest projected win total in the XFL entering the season.

    The Vipers are 0-3 and didn't score an offensive touchdown until Week 3.

    However, it hasn't all been bad for the Vipers. The first touchdown in franchise history came courtesy of defensive back Tarvarus McFadden, who has been a bright spot on a bad team.

    There was a time when it appeared that McFadden was destined for NFL stardom. While at Florida State in 2016, the 6'2", 205-pounder led the nation with eight interceptions and won the Jack Tatum Trophy. However, while McFadden earned second-team All-ACC honors as a junior, his big-play numbers fell off a cliff.

    After a disastrous showing at the 2018 combine that included a 4.67-second 40-yard dash, McFadden went undrafted. He bounced around practice squads for three teams before washing out of the NFL altogether.

    That 40 time sticks out like a sore thumb, and McFadden's XFL success comes with the caveat that it came, well, in the XFL.

    Tampa getting torched by P.J. Walker and the Roughnecks Saturday doesn't help matters either.

    But McFadden has the size many NFL teams covet, his ball skills are solid and he's shown the ability to be an impact defender at a high level.

    He may never be a star, but if McFadden continues to stand out, he's going to get another shot to make an NFL roster as depth in the secondary and/or a special teams player.

Godwin Igwebuike, S, Seattle Dragons

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    Like many of the young players featured in this piece, Seattle Dragons safety Godwin Igwebuike has already seen quite a few NFL locker rooms. After signing as an undrafted free agent with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2018, Igwebuike was waived, claimed by San Francisco, waived the following April, claimed by the Eagles, waived again and then claimed by the Jets before getting cut in August. 

    However, unlike many of the young players here, Igwebuike actually did make it into an NFL game. A few, in fact—he made two special teams tackles in 2018.

    There's a reason that Igwebuike was claimed off waivers by at least three different NFL teams. After tallying 78 total tackles and intercepting two passes at Northwestern in 2017, Igwebuike put on an impressive show at the 2018 combine—his 40 time, bench press, three-cone drill, 20-yard shuttle, 60-yard shuttle, vertical jump and broad jump all ranked inside the top 10 among safeties. His long-shuttle and three-cone times were the best at the position.

    He's not short on physical gifts—and the 5'11", 213-pounder has been showing off those physical gifts in the XFL.

    Igwebuike's numbers haven't been eye-popping, but his stat line in Saturday's loss to the Dallas Renegades was certainly respectable—six total stops and his first professional interception.

    More importantly, Igwebuike has been a steady force at the back of the Dragons defense. He has been solid in run support and hasn't gotten caught out of position in coverage.

    Frankly, Igwebuike likely would have gotten at least one camp invite this year based solely on his athletic numbers. But with every time he takes the field and fares well in the secondary in the XFL, the number of NFL clubs willing to give him a look will only grow.

Cardale Jones, QB, D.C. Defenders

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    D.C. Defenders quarterback Cardale Jones already boasts a resume of which most XFL players could only dream.

    Jones led the Ohio State Buckeyes on a magical run to a national championship in 2014 and spent two years on the 53-man roster in the NFL. He even saw game action with the Buffalo Bills in 2016, completing six of 11 throws for 96 yards.

    However, while Jones was arguably the most highly touted quarterback in the XFL entering the season, he told ESPN's NFL Live (via Nick Kosko of 247 Sports) that his ultimate goal is the same as his lesser-known teammates: to get back to the National Football League.

    "That's a goal of ours," Jones said. "But we're trying to take it day by day and step by step. I'm pretty sure if we do what we know what we're capable of the NFL is definitely in our near future."

    Over the first two weeks of the XFL season, Jones and the Defenders looked like arguably the best team in the league. He led the XFL in passing yards, was tied for second in touchdown throws and showed off the ability to challenge defenses vertically that ensured he would never again have to pay for a meal in Columbus, Ohio.

    During Week 3, the 6'5", 253-pounder admittedly came crashing back to earth. In the first quarter against the Los Angeles Wildcats, he had zero passing yards against the league's worst pass defense entering the week and completed more passes to L.A. defenders than he did to Defenders receivers.

    It was a reminder that intermediate accuracy and decision-making are areas in which Jones struggles at times. So was interception No. 3 on the first series of the second half. It was an ugly outing.

    But Jones has the best arm talent in the XFL. He can make throws no other signal-caller in the league can. And as bad as Week 3 was, the first two were promising.

    Given that we just saw an NFL season in which David Blough made multiple starts, there are going to be teams who want a longer look (again) at that arm talent this summer.