2023 XFL Season Preview | Football Outsiders

XFL – Let’s try this again, shall we?

We started an article with that exact phrase in 2020, when we previewed the return of the XFL after two decades in stasis. And you know what? For a month, it was a lot of fun. Though viewership was beginning to trend off by the end of the season, XFL games were quick and exciting, in front of crowds of about 15,000 people, or even 20,000 in Seattle and St. Louis. Social media was fun and buzzy, and we saw a number of players who would go on to make minor impacts in the NFL, including Taylor Heinicke and P.J. Walker. Things were going quite well. We were enjoying it!

And then a global pandemic hit and the world shut down. The XFL was no more. Without games to play, the league quickly went bankrupt. Vince McMahon ended up selling the XFL to a consortium led by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson—got to keep it in the proverbial family, right?—and, after three years, we’re going to give this another shot.

The XFL will kick off its third season this Saturday, February 18, with games being broadcast on ABC, ESPN, FX, and FX2. It will be a 10-week schedule with no bye weeks, culminating in a four-team playoff with the championship on May 13. Probably. I mean, they have it scheduled, so it’s bound to happen this time, surely.

Of course, the spring football world is different than it was in 2020—the XFL is not alone. The USFL is also coming back, with their regular season kicking off on April 15 over on NBC and FOX. We’ll have five weeks of head-to-head competition between the two leagues! The USFL will be broadcasting games at the exact same time as the XFL playoffs, counterprogramming spring football with different spring football.

That’s crazy. We haven’t had two major outdoor leagues play at the same time since 1975, when the World Football League tried to go head-to-head with the NFL. At the very least, we haven’t had two leagues with the backing of major networks trying to occupy the same airwaves since before I was born. It seems highly unlikely that both leagues can thrive as they battle over many of the same players and coaches, not to mention the eyeballs and attention spans of football fans. The most interesting competition this season, then, might not be between the Vipers and Battlehawks or Stallions and Generals, but the league-versus-league clash to get a foothold in the public consciousness.

And we’ll be covering both of them! We’ll be following both leagues over the next 20 weeks, seeing which does a better job establishing itself in the spring football market—and which, if any, ends up surviving.

On the Road Again

One of the biggest criticisms of the USFL last season was the hub model, with all eight teams playing every regular-season game in Birmingham, usually in front of crowds that numbered in the dozens. They’re planning on expanding some in 2023, going to four cities for eight teams, but they still won’t be playing in half of their home markets.

The XFL has a hub as well—every team will be practicing in Arlington, Texas—but they’ll be traveling to all eight home cities for each game, attempting to build a connection in the local communities. The eight teams are:

North Division

  • D.C. Defenders
  • Seattle Sea Dragons (renamed from the Seattle Dragons in 2020)
  • St. Louis Battlehawks
  • Vegas Vipers (relocated from Tampa Bay in 2020)

South Division

  • Arlington Renegades (renamed from the Dallas Renegades in 2020)
  • Houston Roughnecks
  • Orlando Guardians (relocated from New York in 2020)
  • San Antonio Brahmas (replacing the Los Angeles Wildcats from 2020)

There’s obviously no roster continuity from 2020; those players have been sent to the winds, so we’re mostly starting from scratch. Even for the teams remaining in the same place, the uniforms and logos have changed. They have also consolidated somewhat; having three teams in Texas will reduce travel costs and ideally spark some local rivalries. We’ll see if that actually ends up paying off, but the 2020 version of the league was playing to decent-sized crowds. If they can duplicate that in 2023, it should be a more engaging television product than the USFL had to offer.

The XFL and USFL are mostly staying out of each other’s way, geographically, with the XFL having more of a presence out west and the USFL focusing more in the south. The USFL has no teams west of Houston, while the XFL is spread out across the map. But we will see the Houston Roughnecks and the Houston Gamblers both fighting for the same local fanbase. The XFL’s Roughnecks will be playing at the University of Houston, while the USFL’s Gamblers will be in the Memphis hub, so slight advantage XFL there.

Schedule and TV

Each team will play its divisional rivals twice, home-and-away, and one game each against teams from the other division. The scheduling is a little all over the place from a timing perspective—there are occasional Thursday and Friday games in the first half of the season!—so we’ll have to see if they can generate a regular audience. They have, at least, announced all times and channels beforehand, rather than releasing them in batches throughout the season, but it’s not like the NFL where there will be games at set times every week.

Games will be broadcast on a combination of ABC, ESPN, ESPN2, and FX, with all games also streaming on ESPN+. ABC is broadcasting the opener and the championship game, as well five other regular-season contests, but the lion’s share of games will be on FX in the first half of the season and ESPN in the second half. The marquee matchup of the week is the Saturday evening game, with FX covering it through the first six weeks before ESPN and ABC take it the rest of the way. The lack of a consistent time and channel combination could make it a little tough for the league to develop a consistent audience—making your fans work to find your games seems like a poor idea! We’ll track the ratings as they move on.

The schedule for Week 1 is as follows:

Saturday, February 18

  • Vegas Vipers (+2.5) @ Arlington Renegades (3 p.m., ABC)
  • Orlando Guardians (+2.5) @ Houston Roughnecks (8:30 p.m., ESPN/FX)

Sunday, February 19

  • St. Louis Battlehawks (-2.5) @ San Antonio Brahmas (3 p.m., ABC)
  • Seattle Sea Dragons (+1.5) @ D.C. Defenders (8 p.m., ESPN)

Rules Changes

One of the interesting aspects of the 2020 version of the XFL were the new rules they were testing out. Most notable was the modified kickoff, with teams lining up closer to one another to reduce injuries, avoiding having players running at each other full-speed for 30 yards before colliding with one another.

That rule is back, alongside many of the other XFL rule changes:

  • No extra point kicks, with teams instead lining up from the 2-, 5- or 10-yard line to go for one, two, or three points.
  • An overtime shootout of two-point conversions, rather than a sudden-death overtime period
  • Fewer clock stoppages before the two-minute warning, with the clock running on incomplete passes and plays that end out of bounds, followed by a “comeback period” in the final two minutes which sees the clock stop not only on incompletions and out-of-bounds plays, but also on tackles in the field of play.

At the time, we were a huge fan of the kickoff rules and the extra options for conversions; giving more options for coaches to make decisions is always a plus. The timing rules were more of a mixed bag; it made the games go faster without cutting down the number of snaps, but the comeback period was a little confusing, leading to some situations where even the coaches didn’t quite seem to know the rules. We’ll see if that gets smoothed out at all for this season.

There are a few tweaks this year this season:

  • The play clock will now be 35 seconds from the end of the previous play, rather than 25 seconds from spotting the ball.
  • Teams now get three timeouts per half rather than two.
  • There are now three shootout rounds in overtime rather than five. This matches the USFL’s change.
  • Teams now have one coach’s challenge, which can be used on anything they want—no restrictions, unlike the NFL.
  • Instead of an on-site Sky Judge like they had in 2020, the centralized hub will make all replay decisions and correct errors on the field. This matches how the USFL ran things.

The most interesting addition, however, is adding in the onside kick alternative. While XFL teams can still attempt a traditional onside kick, they can also attempt a fourth-and-15 play to try to keep the ball, but only in the fourth quarter. This is a version of what the USFL allows, though they have it set at fourth-and-12. It’ll be interesting to see how the two leagues continue to take each other’s ideas and tweak them.

Roster Battles

Of course, it’s not only ideas the XFL is taking from the USFL—they have also stolen a number of players. Most of the initial USFL contracts ended on December 31, and the XFL took advantage—notable USFL players such as Sal Canella, De’Vante Bausby, Channing Stribling, Kyle Sloter, Luis Perez, Cameron Hunt, Garrett McGhin, Terry Poole, Reggie Corbin, Jared Thomas, Davin Bellamy, Donald Payne, and Will Likely were drafted by the XFL, and a significant chunk of the USFL’s quarterbacks spent at least a little time on XFL rosters, though not all of them survived cutdowns. Ten coaches also made their way from the USFL to the XFL. It’s a full-on talent war!

Why has the XFL managed to pry so many players away? Part of it is a mistake by the USFL; they eventually amended their contracts so players couldn’t immediately join the XFL the next season, but their initial batch had no such proviso. Also: the XFL is paying more! The base salary for a player on the active roster in the XFL is $5,000 per week, compared to $4,500 for the USFL last season. They’re also offering more in health benefits and covering housing and meal expenses, unlike the USFL. The USFL is upping their salary offerings for 2023, up to $5,350 per week, in response to both the XFL’s contracts and the unionization of its players. There’s likely not enough talent to go around to have 16 quality spring-league teams, so seeing which team can not only recruit but retain solid rosters is going to go a long way to seeing which team survives. It’s not quite the old USFL offering bajillions of dollars to Steve Young, Jim Kelly, and Herschel Walker to get them to avoid going to the NFL, but there’s definitely a little intrigue going on here.

Team Previews

The betting favorites as we enter the season are the two teams with the largest fanbases in 2020—the St. Louis Battlehawks and the Seattle Sea Dragons. But with entirely new rosters, there’s a lot of uncertainty here, so it’s hard to call anyone the true favorite. Here’s a quick rundown of all eight teams, including players you may be familiar with.

North Division

St. Louis Battlehawks

The XFL is giving lots of people their first head coaching jobs, and the Battlehawks are no exception. They’ll be led by former tight end Anthony Becht, whose only previous coaching experience was as a tight ends coach with the San Diego Fleet of the old Alliance of American Football. He has some experienced coaches alongside him—Bruce Gradkowski and Donnie Abraham as his coordinators—but it’ll be interesting to see how he does in his first real chance to call shots.

The Battlehawks had a bit of a quarterback controversy in camp, but it looks like A.J. McCarron will be the guy. McCarron has plenty of experience—he started for Alabama and won two BCS championships and even got an NFL playoff start with the Cincinnati Bengals in 2015 when Andy Dalton went down with a thumb injury. I wouldn’t call him the best quarterback in the league by any stretch of the imagination, but no other XFL passer can match his experience. He hasn’t been on a roster anywhere since he tore his ACL in 2021’s preseason; this may be the last chance for the 32-year-old to make an impact somewhere.

McCarron should have plenty of targets to throw to, as the Battlehawks have talent out wide. Darius Shepherd put up good numbers for the New Jersey Generals last season. He’ll be joined by 6-foot-4 Marcell Ateman and the speedy Hakeem Butler, both former NFL draft picks and both big guys—size matters in a league where talent is at a premium, so expect St. Louis to use both in spades around the goal line. I have Jordan Thomas pegged as the league’s best tight end not named Sal Canella; he’s big and athletic, and he could also end up overwhelming smaller slot defenders. Former Duke running back Mataeo Durant likely should have stuck on an NFL roster after clocking in with a sub-4.4s 40; he went undrafted last season because he’s not particularly elusive, but he will provide north-south speed for the Battlehawks.

The real strength for the Battlehawks, however, may be in the trenches, as they drafted the biggest guys they could find on both sides of the ball. That includes former USFLers Juwann Bushell-Beatty and Vadal Alexander on the offensive line, with Freedom Akinmoladun, Shakir Soto, LaCale London, and Taniela Tupou making up one of the better defensive lines in the league. I have got questions in their secondary, especially with Channing Stribling headed back to the USFL, but the Battlehawks look poised to control the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball.

Seattle Sea Dragons

Jim Haslett’s your man calling the shots in Seattle. The ex-Saints head coach has kept busy; he was a linebackers coach with the Bengals and Titans from 2016 to 2021, and he has assembled quite the staff with him. June Jones is his offensive coordinator, so expect Seattle to use the run ‘n’ shoot all day long. Ron Zook is the defensive coordinator, so all three primary coaching positions in Seattle have head-coaching experience. That’s unusual for this league! Furthermore, all three men have worked together at various levels of football, as has director of player personnel Randy Mueller. That means they’re going to be on the same page this season, which might help them get off the blocks quickly.

The Sea Dragons also have Josh Gordon. Perhaps I should have led with that. Gordon may be just as famous for his long pot suspensions as he is for his on-field play, but he was one of the best wide receivers in football in Cleveland. That was a decade ago, now, and it’s entirely possible he ends up looking no better than Juwan Green or Jachour Pearson, his running mates at wideout, but even the slightest chance of seeing Gordon look like Josh Gordon again, even against XFL-caliber competition, should make the Sea Dragons something to watch for. And in a run ‘n’ shoot, there are going to be plenty of balls in the air for Gordon—helped, also, by the fact that the backfield right now is a big shrug. Hey, it’s the run ‘n’ shoot; who cares if it’s T.J. Hammons or Brenden Knox carrying the ball?

Ben DiNucci is the one tasked with actually running Jones’ offense; you may remember him from one start with the Cowboys in 2020 that went badly enough he was immediately demoted below Garrett Gilbert on the depth chart. But DiNucci showed athleticism at James Madison, with talent to extend plays and improvise, which could come in handy here. Watch out for backup Steven Montez, who has some wheels of his own.

Defensively, the Sea Dragons should be led by linebacker Jordan Evans and defensive tackle P.J. Hall, both of whom bring with them extensive NFL experience. All they have to do is keep their opponents moderately contained, because Jones’ offense rips up spring leagues. Remember, he was coach of the Roughnecks in 2020, when his team scored 158 points in five games. The next-highest team in the league? 112. As long as Haslett can coach the defense to be OK, the Sea Dragons are going to win tons of shootouts.

Vegas Vipers

Rod Woodson gets his first head coaching job with the Vipers; he has NFL experience as a cornerbacks coach with the Raiders in multiple stints, but this will be his first time running a team. He’s bringing Cris Dishman in to coach his defense, stealing him from the USFL’s Generals, with Duane Taylor running the offense. With all due respect to Woodson’s Hall of Fame playing career, this may be the least inspiring coaching situation in the league.

They also have a quarterback battle worth noting! Brett Hundley and Luis Perez are their top two signal-callers, and both have arguments to be the guy under center. Hundley has the NFL experience, starting nine games for the 2017 Packers with a DVOA of -28.3%. Hundley has bounced around as a second-stringer since then, but has been a trusted backup option for four different teams, including the Ravens this season. But Perez has the spring league experience, starring for the AAF’s Birmingham Iron, the XFL’s New York Guardians, and the USFL’s New Jersey Generals. His Generals were the top team in the USFL North last year, and Perez finished with the highest QBR in the league, throwing for 1,200 yards while splitting time. It looks like Hundley will get the nod to start the season, but do not be surprised if Perez plays his way back into action yet again.

The big name at the skill positions for the Vipers is ex-Steelers wideout Martavis Bryant, who had a couple of 50-catch seasons in 2015 and 2017, sandwiching a year-long suspension. Geronimo Allison is also a familiar name; he got some run with the Packers. I’m most excited, however, about the potential of Jeff Badet, who ran 4.2s 40 and is a spring league vet. When he turns on the jets, good luck. He has dealt with his fair share of hamstring injuries in recent years, but if he can stay healthy, look out.

The defense has the player with the best pedigree in the league: Vic Beasley, the 2016 first-team All-Pro edge rusher. He has never played anywhere near that level again, but against lesser competition, we could see shades of that 15.5-sack season once more. Outside of him, the Vipers don’t have much to write home about here. I’d take the over in most of their games.

D.C. Defenders

Reggie Barlow takes over as head coach for the Defenders; he has an extensive history of success as head coach of Alabama State (49-42) and Virginia State (34-16). That includes two HBCU national championships, albeit contested ones. It’s minor league college football, but success is success. Gregg Williams, last seen as defensive coordinator with the Jets in 2019 and 2020, will run the defense, and Fred Kaiss is in charge of the offense.

Barlow and Kaiss prefer a run-focused offense, routinely picking up over 200 yards per game in college. They loaded up in the backfield accordingly—Ryquell Armstead, Artarvis Pierce, and RB/WR hybrid Pooka Williams all have NFL experience, and those are the appetizers. Abram Smith is the headliner here, the No. 1 pick in the 2023 XFL Draft and your bell-cow back of choice—take him if you’re playing XFL fantasy. Smith broke the single-season rushing record at Baylor in 2021, and he’s a natural fit in the zone rushing scheme D.C. wants to use. If the Defenders are going to win football games, Smith will need to destroy on the ground, and he has every chance to do just that. At the very least, it seems more promising than leaning on their receivers; the Defenders already lost K.D. Cannon and Jazz Ferguson to injuries in camp, leaving them very thin.

That’s a shame, because with Jordan Ta’amu under center, there was some hope for this passing attack. Ta’amu led the USFL in passing yards, passing touchdowns, and quarterback rushing yards. He is a perfect fit for the Defenders’ RPO plans, but they’ll have to scrape together a passing attack for that to work. Perhaps tight end Briley Moore will end up being a thing. Otherwise, we’re looking at Josh Hammond, Chad Hansen, and Josh Malone, and I’m not in love with that.

I am in love with Davin Bellamy on defense; he had several big, splashy performances with the USFL’s Breakers. Bellamy ended up as the starting defensive end on the All-USFL team, though he trailed off as the season went along and finished with 5.5 sacks, fourth in the league. He looks to be Williams’ top chess piece on defense, in part because of the pass-rush skills he has flashed and in part because the cupboard is a little bare behind him. I enjoyed Niles Scott on the interior line, but he’s hurt too. The Defenders season may be derailed by injuries before it even gets going.

South Division

Arlington Renegades

I am 99% sure the Renegades thought they would still be called “Dallas,” as their logo is clearly a “DR.”

Anyway, the Renegades are the only team bringing their head coach back from 2020, as Bob Stoops is returning to retake the wheel. Stoops clearly does not believe too many cooks spoil the broth, as he has co-offensive coordinators in Jonathan Hayes and Chuck Long, and also co-defensive coordinators in Jay Hayes and Tim Lewis. That’s the majority of the 2020 Battlehawks coaching staff, interestingly.

The reason the Renegades are your South division favorites can be summed up as “Kyle Sloter to Sal Canella,” the Mahomes-to-Kelce of the XFL, at least on paper. Sloter was the All-USFL quarterback last season, though that ended up being more due to respect for fighting through a tough situation rather than eye-popping numbers. Sloter played outstanding to begin the year, and then gritted his way through injuries to help lead the Breakers to the playoffs, ending up throwing for nearly 1,800 yards in the process. His top target? Sal Canella, the all-USFL tight end. The duo combined for over 500 yards of offense for the Breakers. Chemistry can be hard to find in a brand-new league like this; importing a pair of All-USFL players with experience together gives the Renegades the immediate leg up on their division.

Elsewhere on offense, the Renegades may have the biggest boom-or-bust option at running back in Adrian Killins. Killins is a former track star and all-ACC player at UCF. He’s only 164 pounds, so his size is a problem, but he’s fast with great hands; he may be the most explosive player in the league if he can avoid being snapped in two. Arlington picked up some more traditional runners to handle between-the-tackles duties in DeVeon Smith and Keith Ford, but Killins is the one to watch.

The Renegades have some names of note on defense, too—Will Hill and Cre’Von LeBlanc both have significant NFL experience, and they lead a very seasoned defensive unit. Big on the defensive line, rangy at linebacker, and with solid experience in the secondary, this may well end up being the best defense in the league. I expect them to cruise through the South.

San Antonio Brahmas

Boy, I wonder if new league head honcho Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson had anything to do with this team’s name and logo. Brahma Bull name and logo? Check. Black Adam-esque lightning bolts? Check. Well, at least it’s more specific than the generic Wildcats they are replacing.

The Brahmas are led by Hines Ward, who has been working his way up as an assistant and positional coach over the last five years. It’s still a pretty big jump to see him go to head coach right away, but he’ll be helped with experience on both sides of the ball. Jamie Elizondo is a long-time offensive coordinator in the CFL with a Grey Cup championship on his résumé. Defensive coordinator Jim Herrmann spent nearly a decade in the NFL as a linebackers coach. That may give Ward a leg up on the other first-time coaches.

We’ll start with the Brahmas’ bright spot: the running back room. Kalen Ballage, a fourth-round pick in 2018 who had a big career at Arizona State, is the biggest name, but I’d peg former Florida State rusher Jacques Patrick as the most likely lead back in San Antonio. Patrick was the second-highest picked runner in the draft, and he worked with Elizondo in Tampa in the 2020 XFL, where he was one of the more dynamic backs in the league. Either way, both should see plenty of action in what looks to be a run-first offense.

The Brahmas’ quarterback situation is … uninspiring. It’s either Reid Sinnett or Jack Coan, and neither seems to be an ideal option. Sinnett has at least had NFL experience; he spent some time on the Dolphins’ active roster while they were dealing with Tua Tagovailoa’s injuries. Coan didn’t make it out of training camp with the Colts this past season, though he did have success as Notre Dame’s starting quarterback in 2021 as a transfer graduate student. It’s not the worst quarterback situation in the league, but there’s very little to recommend here. They have a target to look for in Jalen Tolliver, who also has experience working with Elizondo in both the XFL and CFL, but the Brahmas are likely going to have to win on the ground if they’re going to succeed.

The Brahmas’ biggest asset is the experience their players have with both coordinators; both Elizondo and Hermann got several players from previous starts on the roster to work with here. That should settle the learning curve down dramatically, so don’t be surprised if the Brahmas get off to a hot start. Of the four teams atop the betting odds, however, I think the Brahmas are the most likely to hit rock-bottom.

Houston Roughnecks

The Roughnecks have lured Wade Phillips out of retirement. One of the best defensive coordinators in NFL history, Phillips has also been a head coach for six different NFL teams and has had multiple stints in Houston with the Texans, Oilers, and Cougars. It’s possible Houston realizes they’re in a head-to-head battle for fans here with the USFL and brought in the biggest name they could find. Phillips is bringing in an old assistant in Brian Stewart as his defensive coordinator, with A.J. Smith running the offense.

Cole McDonald and Brandon Silvers are in line at quarterback here, and it’s a real crapshoot as to which will end up spending more time under center. Silvers has experience in the Air Raid offense in the AAF and Spring League working with A.J. Smith; he performed well with both the Apollos and Dragons and knows the offense. But McDonald has the higher ceiling, with the ex-Hawaii quarterback being one of a long line of players thriving in June Jones’ pass-happy offense. Silvers looks more ready to start right away, but the Roughnecks might be better off if McDonald hits his ceiling.

Houston looks to be pass-heavy, and Cedric Byrd and Deontay Burnett should go early in your XFL fantasy drafts, if such a thing exists. And watch out for Jontre Kirklin, a slot receiver-slash-running back-slash-kick returner-slash-quarterback. I’m watching minor league football for goofy shenanigans, and if I had to pick one player to provide those goofy shenanigans, it would be Kirklin. Give me my gadget, plays, Houston. You know you want to.

I will be very surprised if Phillips doesn’t get a good defense out of his guys, too. Honestly, at +750, the Roughnecks might have the longest odds in the XFL this season, but they may be my best value pick to bring home the championship.

Orlando Guardians

The Guardians are led by Terrell Buckley, who has been a defensive backs coach bouncing around from college team to college team since 2012. He also has been credited as the innovator of the Lambeau Leap by none other than LeRoy Butler, so, you know, bonus points there. He’s bringing in Robert Ford to run the offense; Ford hasn’t been on a staff since 2011 but has a track record as receivers coach stretching back to the 1970s. Tony Carter gets the nod at defensive coordinator. It’s an interesting staff, to say the least.

They also may have the worst defense and worst quarterback situation in the league. That is not a combination that bodes well.

Your passer of choice? Paxton Lynch. I feel that is self-explanatory in and of itself, but we last saw Lynch struggling to hold on to a starting job in the USFL with the Michigan Panthers, though he did have a few flashes here and there. Your alternative? Deondre Francois, who transferred from Florida State to Hampton in college after video of a domestic dispute got him kicked off the team. Since then, he has played for the Glacier Boyz, the TSL Blues, and Bored Ape FC. Yeah. Cover-your-eyes sort of stuff here.

They have talent to throw to, at least—Cody Latimer and Eli Rogers are both here with their NFL experience, and Charleston Rambo (you’ll remember him as the Oklahoma receiver who was not CeeDee Lamb) has a lot of upside. Expect the Guardians to throw a lot, too, as they only have two running backs (Jah-Maine Martin and Devin Darrington) on the roster.

Defensively, Orlando has former first-round pick Matt Elam in the secondary, the former Baltimore bust still lingering around at the fringes of the professional football world. And then they have a lot of chaff—it’s hard to predict spring teams, but on paper, this is the weakest collection of defensive talent in the league, at least in the front seven. The Guardians do not look like they will be a competitive team, which means with my track record making picks, you can pencil them in as your 2023 XFL champions.

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