The Top USFL Players Who Could Get Looks from NFL Teams in 2022
The USFL is back! Well, sort of. The new version of the USFL has few ties to the 1980s product outside of image and branding. It is spring football, though, which gives football fans something to watch during the NFL offseason.
It will also give players an opportunity to continue to hone their skills while putting extra reps on tape. That's huge because the NFL doesn't have a developmental league outside of college.
NFL Europe used to help players bridge the gap between the college and pro games—and it delivered future stars like James Harrison, Adam Vinatieri, Jake Delhomme and Kurt Warner—but the league folded in 2007.
The National Football League seems to be taking interest in the USFL as a possible developmental league, as NFL Films is partnering with the USFL and Fox Sports on a documentary series that covers the league's inaugural season.
Yes, that means NFL Films will be documenting a lot of players this spring.
We'll examine seven of those players who could get a look from NFL teams this fall—if they perform on the field, of course. They have the physical tools, upside and positional value needed to earn an NFL opportunity (or another one, in many cases) and to become spring-league stars.
Players are listed in alphabetical order.
Mekhi Brown, DE, Tampa Bay Bandits
NFL teams are always on the lookout for pass-rushing help, and they'll likely keep an eye on Tampa Bay Bandits defender Mekhi Brown.
Brown played for Alabama for three years before a sideline incident in the 2017 national title game put him in the spotlight for the wrong reasons. After being called for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, Brown got into a physical altercation with an Alabama staff member.
"It was a critical moment in the game and I messed up," he said the following spring, per Mike Organ of the Tennessean. "After it was over, I knew, if I was going to do all that, all the foolishness, I'd have to make up for it. That's what I'm doing."
Brown had decided to transfer to Tennessee State prior to the title game, and he had four sacks in nine games during his first season. He didn't log a sack in 2019 but had 12 solo stops in five games. He'll get an opportunity to continue building his resume under a seasoned NFL coach, Todd Haley.
Additionally, Brown will get to polish his skills under the guidance of former NFL Pro Bowler and Super Bowl-winning assistant coach Pepper Johnson, the Bandits' defensive coordinator. If Brown flashes this spring, some NFL team will give him a shot.
BJ Emmons, RB, Tampa Bay Bandits
Bandits running back BJ Emmons has gotten some looks in the NFL, spending time on the practice squads of the Seattle Seahawks, Las Vegas Raiders and Jacksonville Jaguars. He could earn another look because running back depth and special teams contributors are valuable.
Emmons took a winding path to the NFL, where he was an undrafted free agent last season. He began his college career at Alabama and appeared in seven games for the Crimson Tide, rushing for 173 yards on 4.9 yards per carry with a touchdown.
After suffering a foot injury, Emmons transferred to Hutchinson Community College and later Florida Atlantic. Though not heavily utilized by the Owls in 2019 or 2020, he found the end zone seven times in 88 carries.
The 6'0", 220-pound back has the physical tools to be an NFL contributor, which is why he got multiple practice-squad opportunities. If he can prove himself for the Bandits under Haley, he'll likely see an NFL opportunity again.
Haley spent three seasons (2009-2011) as the Kansas City Chiefs' head coach, and his last NFL job came as the Cleveland Browns' offensive coordinator in 2018.
John Franklin III, WR, Tampa Bay Bandits
John Franklin III is one of many former college quarterbacks who have tried a position switch in the NFL. Primarily a backup and gadget player in college, Franklin had stints at Florida State, East Mississippi Community College, Auburn and Florida Atlantic.
Where Franklin shined was as a runner. At Auburn, he averaged 9.3 yards per carry. At Florida Atlantic, he averaged 14.3 yards per rush. This earned Franklin a look with the Chicago Bears as an undrafted free agent in 2018, though he never appeared in a regular-season game.
Franklin did see the field with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2019, rushing once for 11 yards. He also made the active roster in 2020, when he didn't play but still became a Super Bowl champion.
While a free agent last season, Franklin was handed a three-game suspension for misrepresenting his COVID-19 vaccination status. The pending suspension might play a factor in an NFL team's willingness to sign him, but so will his play with the Bandits.
If Franklin can prove himself valuable as a runner and receiver, he could get an opportunity with a team that seeks its own version of Cordarrelle Patterson in 2022. Offensive coordinator Bob Saunders—who was an assistant receivers coach for the Browns in 2018—will help continue Franklin's development as a pro.
CJ Marable, RB, Birmingham Stallions
The Bears signed running back CJ Marable as an undrafted free agent last year but waived him at the end of training camp. Now with the Birmingham Stallions, the former Coastal Carolina star will have a chance to prove that Chicago—and the 31 clubs that didn't pick him up—made a mistake.
Marable is undersized at 5'7" and 196 pounds, but he's dangerous in space and capable as a pass-catcher.
"He has the tools that fit a zone-scheme rushing attack, and his ability to hit chunk pass plays out of the backfield could give his draft profile more life," NFL Media draft analyst Lance Zierlein wrote of Marable in 2021.
With the Chanticleers in 2020, Marable tallied 887 rushing yards, 228 receiving yards and 19 touchdowns while averaging 5.3 yards per carry.
Marable will get the chance to prove himself on a pro playing field under the guidance of running backs coach Larry Kirksey, who has NFL experience coaching for the San Francisco 49ers, Detroit Lions, Jacksonville Jaguars, Denver Broncos and Houston Texans.
If Marable shows his size isn't a limiting factor, the 25-year-old will get fresh looks from the NFL.
Anthony Ratliff-Williams, WR, Houston Gamblers
While kick returning doesn't carry the same importance in the NFL because of rules changes, it's still a notable phase of the game. Teams with a capable return specialist have an advantage. Those without are looking to find one.
Houston Gamblers wideout Anthony Ratliff-Williams could be a valuable returner and has seen some opportunities in the NFL. Though he's never appeared in a game, he has spent time with the Las Vegas Raiders and Seattle Seahawks.
At North Carolina, Ratliff-Williams was a dynamic multi-role player, and that's presumably how Houston will use him. In 2018, he caught 42 passes for 689 yards, rushed 11 times for 83 yards and returned 28 kickoffs for 598 yards.
He was even more prolific as a returner in 2017, fielding 34 kickoffs for 895 yards and two touchdowns.
With the Gamblers, Ratliff-Williams will work under former New Orleans Saints special teams coordinator Greg McMahon. If he shows he can still be an explosive special teams threat, NFL squads without established kick returners will come calling.
Jordan Ta'amu, QB, Tampa Bay Bandits
NFL teams need quarterback depth, and most USFL quarterbacks are likely to get consideration in the fall. This includes signal-callers like Kyle Lauletta, Shea Patterson and 2016 first-round pick Paxton Lynch.
We'll highlight former Mississippi star Jordan Ta'amu, who is only 24 years old and appears on the cusp of sticking with an NFL team. He spent time on the practice squads of the Chiefs, Lions, Washington Commanders and Carolina Panthers last season.
An undrafted free agent with the Texans in 2019, Ta'amu has been on and off NFL practice fields ever since. He was a dangerous dual threat at Mississippi, finishing his 2018 campaign with 3,918 passing yards, 342 rushing yards, 25 combined touchdowns and eight interceptions.
He also shined with the XFL's St. Louis Battlehawks during their pandemic-shortened 2020 season.
If Ta'amu can continue to develop as a pro passer, he will have a chance to forge an NFL career. That's an opportunity he can get from the Bandits and the USFL.
"Certain players, depending on their college, need more time to develop," Ta'amu's agent, Kenny Zuckerman, told The Athletic's Daniel Kaplan. "... We love these kinds of leagues, and it just gives guys the ability to play more football and get more film, which gives some [a] better chance to get the golden ticket and play in the NFL."
Under the guidance of Haley and Saunders, Ta'amu could become one of the USFL's brightest stars—and it will be a surprise if he isn't at least back on an NFL practice squad in the fall.
Jeff Thomas, WR, Pittsburgh Maulers
Talent has traditionally found its way to the NFL, even if character concerns get in the way. Former Miami wide receiver Jeff Thomas was dismissed from the team in 2018 but returned only to be suspended two games for a violation of team rules.
Yet Thomas got an opportunity with the New England Patriots in 2020 because he is undoubtedly talented.
"Thomas' impressive athleticism and talent were wasted by subpar quarterbacking and self-sabotage," Zierlein wrote of Thomas before the 2020 draft. "On tape, he creates chunk plays as a vertical threat, on crossing routes and with wide receiver screens and jet sweeps. He relies on athletic gifts over route acumen, but that can be corrected."
In 2019, Thomas appeared in 10 games and caught 31 passes for 379 yards and three touchdowns.
Now with the Pittsburgh Maulers, Thomas will look to show he's still an explosive playmaker. He'll be guided by seasoned NFL veteran Kirby Wilson, the Maulers' head coach, who has coached for the Patriots, Commanders, Buccaneers, Arizona Cardinals, Pittsburgh Steelers, Minnesota Vikings and Browns.
At only 23 years old, Thomas can still have a lengthy NFL career. If he handles himself like a pro and produces on the field, he'll get another opportunity at the highest level.