The XFL works. Though its 2020 season was cut short, its 5 game run proved a resounding success in many ways. It garnered widespread national attention through its deals with ESPN, Fox and ABC. In just a short amount of time, teams grew dedicated fanbases, and the league proved that spring football is indeed viable.
Perhaps most importantly, the XFL showcased a wealth of football talent waiting in the wings, and served as a platform for these players to establish themselves in the pros.
A remarkable 58 XFL players made their way to the NFL this season, and this number continued to grow as the regular season came to a close. NFL scouts clearly believed in the league as a showcase for talent, and by the end of the regular season, 35 will still on rosters per our own @ByMikeMitchell.
This far exceeds the numbers of any alternate or spring football league that’s come before, as the AAF had 21 signings after its collapse, and even the original XFL run in 2001 saw 42 players make it to the NFL. The XFL was a massive success in terms of helping players put film out there and prove themselves to the football world. This will go a long way to attracting more talent down the road as guys try to move their careers forward.
We have the full listing of XFL signings up on the site, but let’s take a look at the players who saw the field and made an impact this year.
QB Taylor Heinicke – Washington Football Team
NFL: 443 Passing Yards, 2 TD, 1 Int, 85.6 Pass Rate, 9 Rush, 68 Yards, 1 TD
The man of the hour, Heinicke made a huge splash in the playoffs as he dueled Tom Brady in the Wild Card round. Though the Washington Football Team fell 23-31, the former BattleHawks backup had an electric performance, keeping the 7-9 team alive, and there lies the kicker.
Taylor Heinicke wasn’t even a starter in the XFL. He was QB2 behind the emergent talent of Jordan Ta’amu, who is currently sitting behind Patrick Mahomes.
Though he had strong ties to Washington head coach Ron Rivera from the time they spent together in Carolina, his time in the XFL proved that he was still very much keeping his football career alive.
His career trajectory is textbook for what young prospects could hope for. After a record-setting run at Old Dominion in college, he went undrafted in 2015 and spent time with the Vikings, Patriots, Texans and Panthers before finding his way to the XFL. Then he got the call from Washington, proved himself at the end of the regular season then made his start in the playoffs.
His name is now being floated as the team’s possible QB of the future over Alex Smith.
QB PJ Walker – Carolina Panthers
XFL: 1338 Pass Yards, 15 TD, 4 Int, 104.4 Pass Rate, 24 Rush, 99 Yards, 1 TD
NFL: 368 Pass Yards, 1 TD, 5 Int, 45.8 Pass Rate
The XFL News Hub 2020 MVP signed with his college coach Matt Rhule after setting the league on fire with the Houston Roughnecks. He battled with Will Grier for the Carolina Panthers’ backup spot, won, and played in 4 games, starting 1.
In his first ever NFL start, he led the Panthers to a 20-0 shutout of the Detroit Lions, showcasing the playmaking ability XFL fans knew all too well.
He was again called up in the regular season finale as Teddy Bridgewater was benched against the Saints, but had a rough outing in mop-up duty, throwing 3 picks as he tried to play hero ball in the already-lost game.
While this may have left a bitter taste to cap off his otherwise fantastic 2020 performances, PJ Walker made history as the first skill player on offense to start in the NFL, and he proved that his talent could indeed translate at the next level.
RB/KR Austin Walter – San Francisco 49ers
XFL: 4 Rush, 19 Rush Yards, 2 Rec, 31 Yards, 17 Kick Returns, 431 Yards, 1 TD
NFL: 1 Rush, 3 Rush Yards, 1 Rec, 27 Yards, 5 Kick Returns, 93 Yards
The 24 year old speedster was used on the 49ers much like he was on the Renegades. Though he didn’t quite break through the depth chart at running back, he did flash his trademark speed on a big 27 yard catch and run, and was leaned on as a returner when the 49ers were short at skill positions due to injury.
He was an electric returner for Dallas, setting the XFL record for longest touchdown on a 97 yard return, and hopefully he can build on his NFL showing this year.
TE Donald Parham – Los Angeles Chargers
XFL: 24 Rec, 307 Yards, 4 TD
NFL: 10 Rec, 159 Yards, 3 TD
Ever since the XFL Draft in the fall of 2019, I’ve been high on Donald Parham and he keeps exceeding all expectations. After torching defenses all spring for the Dallas Renegades, he built himself a role in LA. His first 2 receptions in the NFL went for touchdowns, and his role only grew as the season progressed.
The 6’8″ target has a 7 foot wingspan, and with good speed up the seam and soft hands, its no surprise he found such early success in the XFL. NFL corners proved to be little match against him, and I have a feeling he’s just getting started in this league.
TE Colin Thompson – Carolina Panthers
XFL: 1 Reception, 13 Yards
NFL: 1 Rec, 7 Yards , 1 TD
Colin Thompson wasn’t even the starting tight end with the Tampa Bay Vipers, but he still managed to catch the eye of his Matt Rhule playing behind Nick Truesdell and DeAndre Gooslby.
Thompson played for Rhule at Temple, and though he was primarily brought in to be a blocking tight end, hauled in his first touchdown in the pros in Week 10. He is the first player on this list to improve his stats after jumping from the XFL to the NFL, that’s pretty remarkable in and of itself.
OT Storm Norton – Los Angeles Chargers
XFL: 5 Starts, 80.2 PFF Grade
NFL: 3 Starts, 6 Games Played, 65.1 PFF Grade
He was a stalwart blindside protector for Josh Johnson and the LA Wildcats, and after the XFL season ended he got the chance to stay on the west coast and play ball.
The Chargers have been searching for stability at offensive tackle for years, and while he was initially brought in as a depth piece, Norton worked his way up to the swing tackle spot and stepped up to the plate when Bryan Bulaga got hurt. He was rock solid in his performances this year, and is a good bet to contribute again in 2021 on the second year of his deal.
OG Michael Dunn – Cleveland Browns
XFL: 5 Starts, 79.5 PFF Grade
NFL: 1 Start, 7 Games Played, 60.0 PFF Grade
Dunn was the XFL’s highest graded interior lineman according to Pro Football Focus, and he caught the attention of the Cleveland Browns in doing so.
This season, he primarily saw snaps on special teams, serving on the line for field goals and extra points. However, when 3x Pro Bowl Guard Joel Bitonio was out on the Reserve/COVID list for Cleveland’s historic playoff showdown in Pittsburgh, Dunn was the next man up.
He now famously met QB Baker Mayfield just before the game in the locker room, but went out and held his ground in a solid performance. At left guard, he paved the way for Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt to reach 124 yards on the ground, while committing no penalties and helping the unit hold the rush-happy Steelers to zero sacks.
Unfortunately, he suffered a calf injury and is now in Injured Reserve, but he put his name out there, and now has good film in both the NFL and XFL.
DT Walter Palmore – Dallas Cowboys
XFL: 6 Tackle, 0.5 Sacks, 1 QB Hit, 1 TFL
NFL: 1 Tackle, 1 QB Hit
Walter Palmore played just one season of high school football, before taking the JUCO route and turning heads. He had 8 sacks in his first two years, made the top-100 JUCO list and transferred to Missouri, where he became a steady presence at defensive tackle.
He became a good rotational piece for the Houston Roughnecks in the XFL, flashing his talents for disruption. The Dallas Cowboys brought him in, and with just 19 defensive snaps all year, made a stop and got to the quarterback. He was signed to a Reserve/Future contract and will hope to catch on in Dan Quinn’s defense next year.
LB Edmond Robinson – Atlanta Falcons
XFL: 22 Tackles, 2.0 Sacks, 3 QB Hits, 3 TFL, 1 FF, 1 FR
NFL: 15 Tackles, 1 QB Hit
Edmond Robinson was a key figure in the middle of an aggressive Houston Roughnecks defense that led the league in sacks and turnovers. He signed on with the Atlanta Falcons and became a mainstay of their special teams unit.
In addition to contributing for coverage units, he also cracked the defensive lineup, and hopes to be a part of their solution on that side of the ball moving forward.
S Kenny Robinson – Carolina Panthers
XFL: 21 Tackles, 2 Int, 2 PD, 1 Sack, 1 QB Hit, 1 TFL
NFL: 1 Tackle
He was the XFL’s first college-eligible player, opting to come to the burgeoning league over another year at West Virginia. He made an impact with the BattleHawks as a ranging free safety, and made history again as the XFL’s first player selected in the NFL Draft.
Taken in the 5th Round by Carolina, he had the opportunity to sit and learn behind Tre Boston and Justin Burris this year, while also seeing the field in limited snaps. While he has yet to make a major impact in the NFL, remember he is just 22 years old, and I have a feeling his football story is just getting started.
CB Saivion Smith – Dallas Cowboys
XFL: 8 Tackles, 1 PD
NFL: 3 Tackles
Smith made himself known on the Houston Roughnecks defense in just two starts. He earned a spot on the Cowboys roster as a special teamer, playing a majority of snaps in that unit.
When injuries to the secondary struck in Dallas, he made his first NFL start versus the Bengals, and helped hold their offense to just 7 points on the day. He has since been resigned to a Reserve/Future contract, and will hope to grow his role next year.
K Matthew Wright- Pittsburgh Steelers
NFL: 4/4 FG, Long of 46, 7/7 XP
Matthew Wright was selected by the Tampa Bay Vipers in the XFL Draft, but was ultimately beat out by Andrew Franks for the kicker job. He found his way to the Steelers practice squad, and was actually the 2nd XFL kicker with a stint there after Matthew McCrane.
When incumbent Chris Boswell went down, he came in and nailed every single kick asked of him. He also handled kickoff duties, and proved himself as a clutch performer. The Steelers even protected him on their practice squad once Boswell returned, and with this good of film on tape, his NFL future looks bright.
K Sergio Castillo – New York Jets
XFL: 5/9 FG, Long of 44
NFL: 8/13 FG, Long of 55, 6/7 XP
Castillo served as the Roughnecks kicker in the spring, and made his way to the New York Jets and got his opportunity when Sam Ficken went down with a groin injury.
He started out hot, making 7/9 field goals in his first 4 games. In a blowout loss to Seattle, he had a bad day, missing 3 field goals as the Jets lost 40-3. He was waived afterwards, but was re-signed to the practice squad.
Placekicking is as much a mental game as a physical one, and while he fell apart to end the year, he did prove that he could come in and make good performances.
K Taylor Russolino – Denver Broncos
XFL: 9/10 FG, Long of 58
NFL: 0/1 FG, 1/3 XP
The Broncos have found good talent in spring leagues, and the AAF’s gave them NT Mike Purcell and CB Devante Bausby. Unfortunately, Denver’s first XFL signing did not go as planned.
St. Louis BattleHawks fans know just how good Russolino can be, and he was arguably the XFL’s best kicker this spring.
However, on a windy day in the Mile High City, he missed 2 extra points and a field goal attempt from 51. We know he can be better than this, and hopefully this won’t be the last we see of him in the NFL. Broncos ST coach Tom McMahon said “It got big for him, the wind-he didn’t handle it right. He’ll get better.”
P Hunter Niswander – Dallas Cowboys
XFL: 44.6 Y/P, 8 In20
NFL: 47.2 Y/P, 10 In20
The DC Defenders’ punter was 2nd in the XFL with a rock solid average of 44.6 Y/P, and was 3rd with 8 punts downed inside the 20. His performances caught the eye of the Dallas Cowboys, and he was signed to their practice squad.
He was promoted to the active roster when Chris Jones went down, and proved to be a surprising upgrade at the position. His season totals are better than the Cowboys have seen in years, and he could well take over this job in 2021.
LS Nick Moore – Baltimore Ravens
XFL: 5 Games
NFL: 1 Game
Moore was a UDFA with the New Orleans Saints in 2019, and first saw the field in the XFL. He was rock solid for the Tampa Bay Vipers in the, and after the league shut down was immediately signed to the Ravens roster.
He hung around their practice squad this year, and when incumbent LS Morgan Cox was placed on the Reserve/COVID list, Moore was called on and made his first NFL appearance in Week 12.
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