It’s Round 5 of your dynasty draft. Your list of potential rookie targets is almost empty. It’s time to take flyers. But no one stands out. It might be time to look outside the rookie pool.
I irrationally love the XFL and USFL. I am also irrationally too high on these players and the impact they may have. But we have a precedent of guys rising from these other leagues to the NFL. Just last year, USFL MVP KaVontae Turpin was a pro bowl kick returner for the Cowboys. For 2023, there are a group of guys who could make an impact in dynasty and should be targeted as late-round flyers in deeper dynasty leagues.
There will be more well-known names that won’t make my list. Josh Gordon, Martavis Bryant, and Cody Latimer are all having some success in the XFL, but they are all 30 or over. AJ McCarron has an incredible story after giving up a potential NFL contract so that his kids could watch him play and playing like a league MVP, but he is 32. The players most likely to get an opportunity will be productive and relatively young with upside. One of the biggest appeals for NFL teams is the same for dynasty teams. These guys are essentially free, and many will have professional experience but be on rookie contracts.
RB-Abram Smith-DC Defenders
Smith deserves a place in the NFL. He is just 24 after getting a shot with the Saints as an undrafted free agent in 2022 and being released at cutdown. Smith should be an ideal backup in a league that is moving more and more toward rotating running backs. As a Junior at Baylor in 2020, Smith shifted to linebacker and made 48 tackles. He moved back to running back in 2021 and rushed for 1,601 yards and 12 touchdowns. This year, Smith led the XFL with 778 yards (5.0avg) and 7 touchdowns. He has 20 carries of 10 yards or more, a long of 70, and 42 first downs. He’s young, has good size (5’11” 221), has been productive, and is versatile. Perfect for a third or fourth back who is great on special teams and might seize an opportunity. It’s a deep running back draft, but he’s worth a sneaky stash regardless of his landing spot.
TE/WR-Hakeem Butler-St. Louis Battlehawks
Butler might be the ideal XFL developmental player. The former Cardinals fourth rounder bounced to the Panthers and finally to the Eagles in 2020, where he started a shift to tight end. After some time in Canada, he landed with St. Louis in the XFL, and as the focus of the team’s passing attack, he was one of the league’s dominant players. He was second in the league in catches (51), second in yards (599), led the league in receiving touchdowns (8), and tied for first in catches of 20 yards or more (10). Butler will be 27 in May and still has upside at what is both a new position for him and one that traditionally takes time for players to develop. He is listed as a wide receiver but plays more of a move tight end role and should get another chance to be in a rotation next year. He should be in consideration in tight end premium leagues, depending on his designation.
WR-Jahcour Pearson-Seattle Sea Dragons
Pearson didn’t get anything more than a tryout last year after graduating from Ole Miss, but he has been fantastic in the XFL. His best year came at Western Kentucky in 2019, where he caught 76 balls for 804 yards and 7 scores. He reportedly ran a 4.38 40 at his pro day, and it’s evident on the field. The 25-year-old led the XFL with 60 catches and 670 yards. This draft is full of undersized slot receivers; at just 5’9 and 180, he should be another included in the mix.
WR-Jontre Kirklin-Houston Roughnecks
Kirklin-Houston’s season ended with a chest injury in week 5, but he was lighting things up before that. He had 15 catches (11 for 1st downs) for 253 yards and 4 touchdowns. He was a UDFA for the Cardinals last year and was released after a brief stint on the practice squad. His story at LSU is fascinating. He was a high school quarterback. Then he played his first two years at LSU at cornerback before switching to wide receiver. Buried in one of the deepest WR rooms in the country over the next three years, he had just 20 catches for 313 yards, but his versatility was on display when he started a game at quarterback for LSU in 2021. His pro day numbers were great, with a 42-inch vertical and 11’5″ broad jump. Both would have been amongst the best at the combine. The 5’11 185 pounder also ran a 4.52 40. He will turn 25 in October and will likely get another chance at the NFL.
TE-Sal Canella-Arlington Renegades
Canella is another move tight end that could find a role in the NFL even with a great tight end draft class. After a productive year in the USFL in 2022 (34-368-2, 12-154 playoffs), Canella has led his XFL team this year with 41-393. This after a career at Auburn, where he caught a total of 25 balls for 330 yards and 5 scores. Canella, 26, got a chance with the Packers last year but was released before the season started. As a receiving tight end, he could be a free wildcard in tight-end premium leagues.
WR-Darrius Shepherd-St. Louis Battlehawks
Shepard’s professional football tour is long. Undrafted in 2019. He has had time with the Packers, Chiefs, Cardinals, Vikings, Steelers, and Broncos. He is 27 and put up great numbers this year, 48-519-6. At 5’11” and 186, he is a bit bigger than many of the slots on this list and in the draft. Sheppard is reportedly being looked at by several teams as a kick returner and returned 20 kicks for the Packers over the 2019 and 2020 seasons (He caught 6 balls during that time as well). The XFL has a different kick return rule, but he was also successful with a 24.5 average on 37 returns.
RB-Max Borghi-Houston Roughnecks
Borghi is Christian McCaffrey lite. He doesn’t play at that level, but he looks like him, is about the same size, and has the same kind of versatility in his game. At Washington State, he caught 53 balls as a Freshman and 86 as a Sophomore. Borghi signed as a UDFA for the Colts and then bounced around to the Broncos and Steelers before his release prior to the season. The 24-year-old’s versatility has been on display in the XFL, where he rushed for 310 yards and 6 touchdowns and caught 21 balls. While he will face an uphill climb due to a deep running back class, he should get another opportunity in a league that is moving more and more to passing.
WR-Lucky Jackson-DC Defenders
This draft is deep on slots and thin at outside WRs. That bodes well for the 6’1 185 Jackson. Jackson is 25 and ran a 4.36 40 at his pro day. In his final year at Western Kentucky, he caught 94 balls for 1,133 yards and 4 TDS. His line this year in the XFL was 35-573-15.9-5.
RB-Devin Darrington-Orlando Guardians
While Borghi and Smith were on most peoples’ radars last year, Darrington will be a new name for most. He started his collegiate career at Harvard, where he rushed for 12 tds and 1,169 yards in 2018 and 2019, before transferring to Virginia, where he averaged 7.4 yards per carry on just 32 carries in 2021. He had a tryout at KC camp in the summer of 2022 but didn’t latch on. The 24-year-old has rushed for 294 yards (4.4avg) and 4 touchdowns.
QB/WR-D’Eriq King-DC Defenders
King is only playing quarterback in the XFL, but if he makes an impact in the NFL, it will probably be as a slot receiver, gadget/goal line quarterback, and potential punt returner. In the XFL, he has 5 rushing touchdowns to 4 passing touchdowns as he rotates with one of the league leaders in Jordan Ta’amu, often playing in red zone/short yardage situations. Depending on if/where he lands (and if he gets the quarterback designation), he might be worth a stash despite his age (26 when the season starts), especially in super-flex leagues. The projection to wide receiver isn’t out of nowhere. During his first two years at Houston, he played wide receiver (2016-29-228-1 receiving, 2017-29-264-2). He also rushed for over 2000 yards and 32 touchdowns in college.
WR-Deontay Burnett-Houston Roughnecks
Burnett’s last college year was 2017, and he has spent time with the Titans, Jets, 49ers, and Eagles….but he won’t turn 26 until October. He caught just 27 of 61 targets (for 378 yards), but that has gone for a 14avg. He tied for second in the league in receiving touchdowns with 6 and has had 3 catches over 40 yards. As a rookie for the Jets, he started a game and caught 10-143 on the season.
–AJ McCarron, Ben DiNucci, and Jordan Ta’amu are the league’s top 3 quarterbacks and could get some looks as backups in the NFL.
–Morgan Ellison put up good numbers (52-254-4.9-1) before injuries knocked him out of the lineup.
–Brian Hill has looked solid (88-416-1) but has had some fumbling issues.
–Chris Blair has just 26 catches but is averaging 22.8 ypg. He has 5 catches over 40 yards and 3 touchdowns. He is 25.
–Jeff Badet ran a 4.27 40 at his pro day. However, that was in 2018. The 28-year-old caught 34-449-5 this year in the XFL
–Josh Gordon can’t be ignored. He caught 38-540-4. He is 32.
–Juwan Green will be 25 when the NFL season starts. He caught 29-420-6 this year in the XFL and spent previous time with the Falcons, Lions, and Titans.
–Charleston Rambo went undrafted last year out of Oklahoma and signed with the Panthers. He is only 23 and has put up good numbers (35-430-3) after going 79-1172-7 at Miami in 2021.
–Cody Latimer is 30 but has put up great numbers as he shifts to more of a move tight end, 50-593-4.