The Birmingham Stallions are the first champions of the new USFL. The Stallions topped the Philadelphia Stars 33-30 at the home of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. I watched the vast majority of the league’s games in its inaugural season. I did so because it relates to my role as a football writer/commentator, but also because the games, on the whole, were quite competitive and entertaining if you enjoy football, which I still do. Other than the bottom feeding Panthers & Maulers, the League was fairly well balanced and competitive. The vast majority of the games were decided well into the 4th Quarter.
This league, far exceeded the playing levels of both the AAF or XFL, in the main because of better Offensive production than the most recent two. We may get to see if XFL executives, including the primary figurehead/owner Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, have learned anything from this league. QB play was sporadic for most teams, but as the season progressed even that aspect of the game improved. With a few exceptions, the coaching felt a whole lot better to my set of eyes, than either of the previously mentioned leagues. Of interest to me was the success of several head men, who made their names and careers coaching at the collegiate level previously. SKIP HOLTZ (yes, son of LOU) and KEVIN SUMLIN showed a feel for their players previously lacking in most NFL-wanna-be collegiate hires.
I don’t think we should expect to see a stampede of signings from this league to join NFL rosters before Training Camps open. But there were clearly a few dozen players who showed enough over the past 10+ weeks to warrant consideration for Training Camp and pre-season battles for some slots at the bottom of NFL rosters. There will not be any kind of “Draft” conducted for these USFL players. From the NFL’s perspective they are all Free Agents and are eligible to sign with the team of their choice. If any desire to head up north to the CFL, there are likely some whose rights are already held by some CFL teams, thus limiting some options there.
CASE COOKUS, the tall (6’4), slim one who played collegiately at Northern Arizona, might have been a candidate for some team looking for a developmental, 3rd string QB. He’s 26-years old and has had cups of coffee a couple of times with NFL teams. He was the guy who led the STARS to the league championship game over the last two months of the regular season. In fact after a strong 3rd Quarter performance, it looked like COOKUS might lead the STARS to a comeback victory in the championship game until he was lost to a leg injury in the 4th quarter. In fact, I even took a few moments to ponder what NFL franchises might have upgraded their QB3 slot by signing him.
How about the BENGALS, BROWNS, BEARS, BRONCOS, TEXANS, STEELERS, SEA HAWKS, or 49’ers as a landing spot for COOKUS? I would have said yes to any of them, but he is unlikely to be signed anywhere for now due to the injury, which is essentially a broken leg. For now Cookus will settle for being able to attend his scheduled wedding in two weeks. Good luck young man. Life in general, sports in particular, can deal out some tough luck for any of us.
Many of this season’s USFL standouts are not exactly “kids” by pro football standards. But quite a few are between 24-28 years of age. Barring a few surprises we aren’t taking about guys who will suddenly scratch out a 10-year career in the NFL. But a 26 year old, who could provide an NFL team with a WR5, who also returns punts, could help a roster for 2-4 seasons is still an available roster add. In 2022 the NFL minimum age for 3 seasons of experience or less still falls below the magical Million-$ mark. In 2022 the Rookie minimum will be $705, 000; 2nd Year, $870, 000; 3rd year, $940, 000. Past that everything is over the $1-million mark per season. Most NFL rosters need to have couple of dozen players to fit into these lower 3 salary slots, especially if you have high-end STAFFORD & DONALD slots at the top of your salary scale like the RAMS… even more so when you roll in a KUPP-like 3rd contract.
The League MVP was KaVONTAE TURPIN of the Generals. He’s a jitter-bug Return Specialist-Wide Receiver- Gadget Play star who offers both speed and quickness. His 5’9, 155 lb. frame is limiting, but his explosion with the ball in his hands works on any field, in any league. Find him for a dozen touches a game and he may explode for a big play or two. Even when not being targeted he must be accounted for in coverage. He makes the kind of plays that swing both momentum and the scoreboard. I would expect multiple teams to inquire about his services between now and opening of Training Camps.
Near the top of my list among the big guys is CAMERON HUNT, an IOL, who played college ball at Oregon and was signed as a RFA by the Raiders. At 27, he is in the upper-extreme age wise, but he’s honed his game in the “minors” so to speak and could be ready to make an NFL team as a back-up along the Interior OL. He is a much better player today them he was coming out of college. He made the All*USFL first team at a Guard slot.
The All*USFL OC is also a prospect of interest around the NFL. JARED THOMAS, is his name, and the Northwestern grad, is 25, with nice size at 6’4/310, as well as solid athleticism. He anchored a solid OL unit for the Breakers this Spring.
On the defensive side of the ball several well seasoned players might have a solid shot to find employment with an NFL team. Chief among them was DE/ER CHRIS ODOM of the Generals. At 6’4/260 the 27-year old has taken his lessons from NFL Training Camps & Developmental Squads and turned himself into an exceptional Edge-Rusher, who can also play the run. He recorded 12.5 Sacks to lead the USFL. Guys who can get to the QB are in such high demand I cannot imagine him not signing somewhere over the next few weeks.
A player I will be tracking is LB DONALD PAYNE, who actually had starting time for parts of 3 seasons with the Jaguars. He was also a Special Teams ace. He disappeared from NFL ranks after needing surgery on both feet in 2019. Light, at 6’/225, he showed in USFL action that he can still find the football, leading the League with over 100 tackles, in 10 games. He also displays some coverage ability over the middle of the field. Assuming he can pass an NFL medical exam he could fill several roles for an NFL team. In fact I would advocate that the Jaguars themselves take a hard look at his ability to upgrade the bottom of their roster.
CHANNING STRIBLING, CB, of the Stars, led the League in Interceptions with 7. Throw in double digit PBU and you have the kind of ball hawk that the pass-happy NFL can’t seem to find enough of. Every team in the NFL carries double-digit DB on their 53-man rosters, plus several more on their Developmental Squads. He is light at 175 lbs, but most of that weight is in sinewy muscle mass. At 27, I can recall his name on multiple Training Camp rosters in recent years. He surely wants, and deserves, yet another chance at the big time after his work in the new league.
The most productive TE in the USFL was SAL CANNELLA, of the Breakers. At 6’5/230, he’s not the inline, run blocking specimen that leads your team’s running game, but split out in the slot, or coming in motion as an H-Back he’s a big target, with soft hands. And he is willing and able to block when asked to. He led his team in receptions for most games, topping it off in their play-off loss by catching 12 balls for 154 yards. He deserves another shot for a TE3 job in the NFL.
One of the weaker spots on most USFL teams was that of Placekicker. Overall, most teams tried multiple players to successfully fill that role. But not the home town STALLIONS. And that is due to the emergence of a former All-American ‘futballer’ from Notre Dame, who decided to make the USFL his first attempt place kicking a football. His name is BRANDON AUBREY, and he was the League’s All*Star Place Kicker. He had a couple of “off” games, but week in and week out he displayed a strong, and accurate leg. There should be some serious interest in him.
Below are some other names of interest possibly for your favorite NFL team.
JONATHAN ADAMS WR BREAKERS Arkansas State 6’3/220 23
RAMIZ AHMED PK MAULERS Nevada 6’1/195 26
CALVIN ASHLEY OT GENERALS Florida A&M 6’6/310 24
DRAVON ASKEW-HENRY SS West Virgina 6’/203 26
DAVIN BELLAMY DE/ER BREAKERS Georgia 6’5/259 27
VICTOR BOLDEN WR/RS STALLIONS Oregon State 5’9/175 27
ANTHONY BUTLER LB BANDITS Liberty 6’1/230
MATT COLBURN RB STARS Wake Forest 5’10/201 24
REGGIE CORBIN RB PANTHERS Illinois 5’9/205 26
DOUG COSTIN DT STALLIONS Miami (O) 6’2/295 24
DeMARCUS GATES LB STALLIONS Ole Miss 6’2/230 26
AVERY GENNESY OG GAMBLERS Texas A&M 6’4/320 28
REGGIE HOWARD DL BREAKERS Toledo 6’3/290 26
CARLO KEMP ER/DE MAULERS Michigan 6’5/240 24
SHALOM LUANI S GENERALS Washington State 6’1/201 27
GARRETT McGHIN OG/T GENERALS East Carolina 6’5/320 27
OSIRUS MITCHELL WR STALLIONS Mississippi State 6’5/210 23
CHEYENNE O’GRADY TE BANDITS Arkansas 6’4/245 25
CHRIS ORR LB GENERALS Wisconsin 6’/227 25
LA’ MICHAEL PETTWAY WR/H-B PANTHERS Iowa State 6’2/219 25
RYAN POPE OT STALLIONS San Diego State 6’7/315 25
TYSHUN RENDER DE/ER GENERALS Middle Tenn State 6’3/255 25
BO SCARBROUGH RB/FB STALLIONS Alabama 6’/235 25
JAMAR SUMMERS DB GAMBLERS UCONN 5’11/190 27
JORDAN TA’AMU QB BANDITS Ole Miss 6’3/220 24
WILLIE YARBARY DT STALLIONS Wake Forest 6’3/295 24
I find to be an interesting little footnote to this prospect list, while I was writing this article the first USFL player has already signed to an NFL contract. Interestingly enough, that player was not going to be on this list anyway. It was BRIAN ALLEN, a S/CB, from the Stallions, who is 28 and has had multiple years on and off NFL rosters. His value to an NFL team is clear… versatility. He can play multiple spots in the secondary and has history of solid Special Teams work.
We are talking about players who may help upgrade the bottom of a 53-man roster. In reality many NFL teams have thumbed their noses at players coming out of these lower leagues like the XFL, previous USFL and even NFL Europe. But to realize how foolish such an elitist attitude can be, all you have to do is look at the SAINTS as an NFL franchise. When the previous USFL folded the SAINTS hired former Philadelphia Stars Head Coach, JIM MORA, Sr. to run their lackluster team. MORA brought along with him double digit ex-STARS players led by undersized ILB SAM MILLS, who had an excellent NFL career. Mora and his ex-USFL stand outs transformed the miserable SAINTS team into an annual play-off contending team, with several play-off appearances.
Here’s hoping that ratings were good enough for FOX/NBC that this product will be back again in 2023. Right now the XFL is scheduled to return next year and I fear two rival, feeder Leagues may be one, if not two, too many.