Eight XFL Talents That Could Land NFL Contracts (On Offense)

PJ Walker ended up as a backup quarterback for the NFL’s Carolina Panthers after his successful XFL stint. Perhaps in 2023, a new batch of players will be able to do the same. 

Written and Edited by Zach Kangieser
March 30, 2023

When it comes to professional football, everyone knows that the NFL is home to the highest caliber of overall play. Every player dreams of being good enough to make it to the National Football League, be it for the money, the fame or the ability to play football for a living. However, only 53 players can be on any NFL team at a given time, meaning that there are many very good players that just miss the cut and can’t stay in the big leagues.

In 2020, the XFL painted itself as a second chance league of sorts, where many of these fringe talents got an opportunity to play “for the love of the game” and to prove themselves as NFL-caliber, hoping that with strong enough performances, an NFL squad would take a risk on them. Although the 2020 season was cut short after just five weeks, plenty of players were signed to NFL squads. There are no examples better than P.J. Walker and Taylor Heinicke, two XFL QBs who played well and got signed to be backups in the NFL. Both Walker and Heinicke got NFL starts and big wins in the 2022 regular season, and in the offseason, both signed contracts with $5 million and $10 million, respectively.

The 2023 season has marked the return of the XFL, and this year they’ve leaned harder into the “second chance” aspect than before; league owner Dwayne Johnson has greenlit a series called Player 54, revolving around players within the league, their stories and their desires to make the most of the chance given to them. Five weeks into the actual season, we’ve seen plenty of talent emerge, talent that may be playing well enough to receive another shot within the NFL. Plenty in particular emerged on the offensive side of the ball, with players on every team performing notably well.

There’s talent on just about every team, regardless of how well they’re performing. And almost seven weeks into the season, plenty of players have broken away from the crowd, showing sparks of real talent week in and week out. So today, we’re highlighting one player on each team’s offense that has produced play worthy of another look from NFL eyes.

DC Defenders: Abram Smith (#4, RB) 

Abram Smith evades a tackler. 2023 Stats so far: 102 carries, 518 rushing yards, 5 rush TDs, 8 catches, 44 receiving yards over 6 games (photo from the official XFL Twitter account) 

Before Week 5, Smith was putting up respectable numbers in a rushing committee composed of himself, fellow RB Darron Armstead, X-Factor D’Eriq King and mobile QB Jordan Ta’amu. It was King that had been the most noticeable player prior to the away game against the Battlehawks, due to his sparse usage and tendency to supercharge the offense when he did come on the field.

But in a span of a day, Smith went from just one part of a committee to the league’s leading rusher, showing why he was the first player at a skill position to go in the XFL Draft. With Ryquell Armstead injured, Smith was the main RB to go through. He responded to that responsibility with a monster game, rushing for over two hundred yards and three scores, averaging nearly ten yards per carry.

But regardless of his one very strong showing, Smith has put up solid numbers, averaging 3.9 YPC in a system that was designed to limit his opportunities with the ball. He’s also caught a few screens, although that’s not really where his talents lie. He’s a pure running back at heart. 

Smith had one brief shot at the NFL before, signing with the New Orleans Saints as an undrafted free agent (or UDFA) in May 2022 before being cut during the preseason. Heading into Week 7 against the Guardians, he will look to capitalize further on the opportunity to be the lead back, proving that he belongs in the big leagues.

Houston Roughnecks: Max Borghi (#22, RB) 

Borghi, left, extends his arm to prevent a tackle. 2023 Stats so far: 52 carries, 180 rushing yards, 5 TDs, 16 catches, 86 receiving yards over 5  games (photo from the Houston Chronicle) 

This spot was originally going to go to Jontre Kirklin, who had the Roughnecks’ most electric playmaker by far. But against the Sea Dragons in Week 5, Kirklin went down early with an injury; after some reviewing, that injury appears to have ended his season, so NFL teams likely won’t be looking at him until he’s recovered, at least.

Behind Kirklin, Houston RB Max Borghi has generated more yards from scrimmage than anyone else. Borghi bounced around three different NFL practice squads in 2022 (the Colts, Broncos and Steelers) but failed to stick with any of them. Perhaps he just never really got the chance to stick around, because in the XFL he’s displayed a lot of versatility against similar competition.

He’s averaged a respectable 3.5 yards per carry over the five games he’s played thus far; however, the Roughnecks offense has been the most pass heavy in the league, meaning Borghi’s bruising, 215 pound frame hasn’t been used conventionally at all, so that statistic isn't entirely accurate. In the one game he was utilized as a true RB1, he had 74 yards on 15 carries for a solid 4.9 yards per rush against a stout San Antonio Brahmas defense.

Instead, Borghi has primarily been utilized on the goal line and as a screen back. His sturdy, 210 pound frame is trusted to punch the ball in from the one, and the bulk of his touches have come when the Roughnecks are a yard or two away from the first down or the endzone. Additionally, Borghi is a frequent screen option, catching multiple passes in every game he’s appeared in thus far. He’s even shown flashes of talent as a returner on special teams, with two kick returns totaling forty-six yards.

Borghi is a contrast to DC’s Abram Smith in that he’s performed well just about wherever he’s asked to be. With that versatility and the talent he’s displayed, he could fit in many spaces on many NFL teams in need of a solid skill position player, and at just 23 years of age, he’s still got plenty of time left to make an impression.

Seattle Sea Dragons: Jahcour Pearson (#3, WR) 

Pearson attempts to shift course against the Defenders. 2023 Stats so far: 40 catches, 448 yards, 1 TD over 6 games (photo from Randy Litzinger via Getty Images)

Pearson has been opposite former NFL All-Pro Josh Gordon, which may have given him some more favorable looks at the ball. But as the season has progressed, it’s become clear that Pearson has been the favorable target for Seattle QB Ben DiNucci. Not only is Pearson the WR1 over Gordon, he’s the WR1 for the whole XFL, leading the league in receptions and receiving yards. What makes his story crazier is that Pearson was seemingly a complete unknown heading into this year, with no pro football experience; all prior data on him came from his collegiate career.

Pearson’s strengths come in his speed and route running ability. At 5’8”, 190 pounds, he’s got a small but bulky frame, and his low center of gravity means he’s got some serious maneuverability. Whereas Gordon has generally been more of a deep threat on the Sea Dragons offense, Pearson has been a consistent pass catcher at all levels of the field.

That consistency has paid off with some highlight reel footage as well. In a Week 2 showing against the Battlehawks, Pearson was able to break away from just about the entire secondary to haul in a deep ball and practically walked into the endzone for a fifty-four yard score. The NFL is a whole different beast, but with Pearson tearing through XFL-caliber secondaries, don’t be shocked if an NFL team comes calling when the Sea Dragons season ends.

St. Louis Battlehawks: Hakeem Butler (#88, WR)

Butler outruns a defender in his week 2 contest. 2023 Stats so far: 35 catches, 372 yards, 4 TDs over 6 games (photo from FanSided) 

Of the names on this list, Butler has arguably the highest profile. He was a fourth round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, selected by the Arizona Cardinals, but a broken hand forced him to miss the 2019 season and he was cut in 2020. He bounced from NFL and CFL practice squads from 2020 to 2022, before being picked in the fifth round of this year’s XFL Draft.

If nothing else, Butler certainly has NFL-caliber physicality. His raw numbers are impressive: 6’5”, 227 pounds, a physical profile comparable to the NFL’s Mike Evans. He has certainly used that size to his advantage; multiple times this year he’s snagged a ball and immediately stiff-armed a defender, and if he gets a full head of steam you’re going to need at least two guys to bring him down.

But size isn’t the only thing that makes Butler dominant at the XFL level. He’s deceptively quick, capable of running the forty yard dash in under 4.5 seconds. He put that speed on display in Week 2 against the Seattle Sea Dragons. On 3rd and 4 from Seattle’s forty-four yard line, Butler caught a pass ten yards downfield and then dusted his (much smaller) defender, who barely gained a step on him the rest of the way.

Butler’s speed and physical gifts have ensured consistent looks from Battlehawks QB A.J. McCarron, as he’s gotten at least six targets in his last four games. They also mean he’s a YAC fiend as well, always getting a few extra yards before he goes down. His overall skill set and level of play have meant that he’s asserted himself as elite at the XFL level and maybe even an NFL-caliber player.

Arlington Renegades: Sal Canella (#80, TE) 

Canella in uniform during the 2022 XFL Season. 2023 Stats so far: 28 catches, 218 yards through 6 games (photo from Vasha Hunt/USA Today Sports)

Canella has consistently produced on a lackluster Arlington offense that has scored the fewest points of any team in the league. And I do mean consistently; thus far into the season, he’s caught no fewer than four passes in any given game. He’s also been a solid run blocker when called upon, and more than willing to get in the trenches, which is important considering Arlington’s offense is very run heavy.

Canella’s got an interesting profile that has proven suitable for the TE position. He spent most of his career at wide receiver before bulking up in college and learning to block at Auburn. As a result, his blocking can be somewhat raw, especially when it comes to passing schemes, but he’s got good power in his 245 pound frame and performs well as a supplemental blocker. He’s very good at catching passes, though, which has often made him the insurance play on shorter passes from Arlington’s quarterbacks.

Canella has come close to NFL experience before; in 2022, he was a member of the All-USFL team (where he was photographed in the picture above), an honor which earned him a temporary contract with the Green Bay Packers as a UDFA. He was cut during the 2022 preseason, but perhaps a few more strong showings for Arlington will get him another shot, especially with a new QB in Luis Perez on the team.

San Antonio Brahmas: Kohl Levao (#61, OL) 

Levao practicing for the University of Hawaii. 2023 Stats so far: 4 starts, roughly 320 snaps played, 71.0 PFF grade, 18.6% blocking win rate over 6 games. (photo from KHON2 News)

San Antonio’s offense hasn’t exactly been explosive, struggling to pick up yards and get into enemy territory. Additionally, the Brahmas are probably the most hurt team in the entire league, losing huge chunks of their starting roster to injuries. With those factors holding the team back, it was difficult to find a player worth spotlighting, but offensive lineman Kohl Levao has performed well enough to earn that title. 

The XFL is the closest Levao’s gotten to the big leagues, with only a brief stint in the Indoor Football League for professional experience, but he’s exceeded all expectations as a Brahmas. A fringe starter when the season kicked off, Levao has been frequently deployed as both a guard and a tackle, rotating around the Brahmas line due to the lack of healthy linemen on the team. It can be tough to grade lineman in just about any league due to their lack of prevalence in film compared to the skill positions, but Levao has put in strong showings everywhere he’s been asked to be, particularly at the tackle positions.

PFF’s 71.0 overall grade (as of Week 5) on Levao is amongst the highest in the league among O-Linemen, and he’s one of only three in the entire league to receive strong grades in both pass blocking and run blocking. Obviously PFF isn’t the end all, be all for judging a player, but even then, Levao has shown value through his versatility. He plays guard well, he plays tackle better, and he was a center in his collegiate years. Any team in need of rotational pieces should look to Levao to provide depth.

Vegas Vipers: Jeff Badet (#13, WR) 

Badet stares into the camera after catching a TD pass. 2023 Stats so far: 28 catches, 375 yards, 5 TDs over 6 games (photo from WSBN Sports) 

Badet has been a playmaker for the Vipers, leading the entire XFL in receiving touchdowns at the season’s midway point. He’s gone for at least eighty yards in four of five games so far and has multiple two-TD games. The 5’11” receiver trails only Jahcour Pearson in receiving yards, and his twenty-four catches are tied for fifth in the entire league. 

Unlike the other two WRs on this list, Badet comes off as somewhat unassuming. He doesn’t necessarily have the speed and agility of Jahcour Pearson or the size and strength of Hakeem Butler. One area that he does excel in is contested catches, however. Multiple times this season Badet has been in close quarters with a defender, only to either break away just enough to snag a pass in close quarters. 

Look no further than Week 1 against the Renegades. In the red zone and looking to score, Badet briefly gets blocked by a defender before shifting right to throw him off and then reversing back around, creating just enough space to snag a TD pass from Luis Perez. He’s been able to create similar plays in the weeks since, against Seattle, DC and Orlando.

Badet’s come so, so close to getting playing time in the NFL before, spending three games as an active member of the Washington Football Team in 2020 but never logging a snap. Since 2018 he’s bounced around practice squads and spring leagues, but his stint with Washington is the highest level he was ever at. At 28 years of age, he’s running out of time, but perhaps his strong showing with Vegas will give him another crack at an active NFL squad.

Orlando Guardians: Charleston Rambo (#14, WR) 

Rambo in uniform at Miami. 2023 Stats so far: 21 catches, 267 yards, 2 TDs over 6 games 

Rambo has been the WR2 of a lackluster Guardians team, but he’s still put up respectable numbers despite being on a struggling offense and being second in the overall passing scheme to TE Cody Latimer, who was a six-year NFL veteran. Still, that’s where Rambo has excelled for most of his career, serving as the WR2 behind Ceedee Lamb at the University of Oklahoma and in a similar role at Miami before he turned pro. 

Rambo has a degree of shiftiness that can make him a threat in man coverage. He can change directions on a dime and does a good job of creating space away from the nearest defender. He’s also got very soft hands and is better than his peers at holding on to the football; his fifteen catches come on nineteen total targets, for a catch rate of 78.9%, among the best in the league.

Those traits have paid dividends in the XFL this season. In Week 4 against the Roughnecks, Rambo broke away from a defender to snag a deep ball from Paxton Lynch before taking it to the house for an eighty-one yard score, the longest in the league to date. He continued to put his hands on the highlight reel in his next game against Vegas, snagging a contested catch for a TD even as the defender blatantly interfered.

In 2022, like a few others on this list, Rambo was picked up as a UDFA; in his case, it was the Carolina Panthers that signed him in May, before eventually cutting him in August. Still, his evasiveness and his hands have painted him as a solid rotational piece for any NFL squad in need of them.