The XFL took some big swings at quarterback in 2020. In associating the position with overall quality of play in the new league, it signed NFL veterans Landry Jones, Matt McGloin, Cardale Jones and Josh Johnson, among others. Some of them inked contracts that would have been worth nearly $500,000 over a full season, roughly nine times what position players were receiving.
And in the end, the best quarterback to emerge from that pandemic-shortened season was little-known PJ Walker, who led the league in passing and — more significantly — is now starting for the NFL’s Carolina Panthers.
When it relaunches in February, the XFL will be focused more on finding the next PJ Walker than securing the current Landry Jones. Its initial quarterback pool includes only one player — Ben DiNucci — who has appeared in an NFL game. The pool is likely to expand after the NFL season, when quarterbacks on practice squads become available, but name recognition and proven records are not top priorities. A supplementary draft will take place in January.
“If anything, it’s skewing towards guys who are anything from two or three years removed out of college to a maximum of four or five,” said Doug Whaley, the XFL’s senior vice president of personnel. “Looking at the guys that we’ve targeted, there’s not many that are four to five years out of college.”
The XFL will assign the current 13-member quarterback pool to its eight teams on Tuesday during a livestream event starting at 2 pm ET from Las Vegas. A draft for positions will take place Wednesday and Thursday, when teams will begin the process of loading their rosters with 66 players apiece for training camp practices that will start in early 2023.
Let’s take a closer look at the XFL’s approach to its quarterback position, its fit in the crowded space of alternative pro football leagues and more.
Who else is in the quarterback pool?
In addition to DiNucci, who started three games for the Dallas Cowboys in 2020 and was released from training camp this past summer, the list includes:
Dungey, Montez and Silvers are veterans of the XFL’s 2020 season.
That’s definitely a departure from 2020.
It is, and there are several reasons for that.
First, the XFL is under new ownership after Dany Garcia, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and RedBird Capital Partners bought it for $15 million out of bankruptcy from Vince McMahon’s Alpha Entertainment. Whaley was part of the 2020 league’s football operations group, but much of the leadership is new.
Second, many of those veterans washed out early, particularly McGloin and Landry Jones.
Whaley said the XFL is focused on two types of quarterbacks. There are the players who didn’t get an NFL shot coming out of college in 2022 and “have the skill set but for whatever reason haven’t had a chance to show it.” The other type, he said, are signal-callers who have bounced around NFL rosters, are likely currently on practice squads and are at a point where they need to show they can do more than run a scout team in practice.
“It’s somebody who needs to show that they can take a game plan and lead a team for 10 games and put that on tape,” Whaley said, “so the NFL and the powers that be can say, ‘I really liked this guy out of college, but for the last three years all he’s been doing is sitting on a practice squad.’ And maybe that guy can show that he can be a competent quarterback in the NFL like a PJ Walker or a Taylor Heinicke.”
Heinicke, whose Washington Commanders are 2-1 in the games he has started this season, was a backup for the XFL’s St. Louis BattleHawks in 2020.
This isn’t the full roster of XFL quarterbacks for 2023?
No. These 13 players will be distributed Tuesday, but that will leave multiple teams with at least one opening at the position. There will be more to come as the XFL tries to recruit additional quarterbacks. The 2020 version of the XFL was planning a similar focus for 2021, had the league continued play.
How will the draft itself work?
The XFL will announce its draft order on Monday at noon ET, based on a virtual lottery, and the draft itself will be held Tuesday and Wednesday.
Tuesday’s portion of the draft will be divided into four position groups, each of which will have 11 rounds:
Offensive skill (wide receivers, running backs and tight ends)
Defensive front seven (tackles, edge, defensive ends and inside linebackers)
Wednesday will focus on specialists — kickers, punters and long-snappers — followed by several more open rounds for players at any position.
What about the overall player pool?
The XFL has developed a list of 1,700 players who will sacrifice 528 training camp spots. Each team will have 50 players on its regular-season roster, with 45 active for game day, Whaley said.
There are a handful of notable NFL veterans in the pool, including wide receivers Martavis Bryant and Mohamed Sanu. It’s not yet clear if either will be drafted. As Whaley said, the vast majority of the league will be composed of players who are less than five years removed from their final college season.
Here’s how Whaley described the type of player the XFL is focusing on: “They’re guys that are 53 to 75 on an NFL training camp roster. They are guys that are practice squad, that type of level of players, that just need more seasoning or guys that need an opportunity to show that they have that skill set. It’s really those guys that need to determine for themselves, but also for the NFL, are they really just good college players that aren’t good enough to be NFL players Or are they NFL players that just haven’t had … the light shone on them to show that they can make it.
“There’s a tranche of players in there that can play really good football, and we are either going to be a launching pad for NFL careers or a soft landing where people can still live out their dream of playing professional football and then transition to another phase of their lives.”
Is the XFL presenting itself as a development league for the NFL?
No. But it’s well aware that most of its pool will be composed of players who want to play in the NFL. The USFL, for instance, had more than 50 of its players signed to NFL training camp rosters after completing its season this past summer, and 14 were signed to initial practice squads in September.
Speaking of the USFL, how will it affect the XFL’s player search?
The USFL signed many of its players to two-year contracts last spring, effectively blocking them from signing with the XFL. Some players’ contracts will expire Dec. 31, according to Whaley, and those athletes could be signed after that point. XFL executives hosted a virtual roundtable with agents last spring, and Whaley confirmed that the league will be offering more total compensation to its players than the USFL did.
Are there enough higher-end players to go around?
At most positions, yes, especially considering the larger draft pools the NFL has seen in the years following the shortened 2020 college season, which prompted more players to remain in college for another year. But Whaley acknowledged that the quarterback and offensive line positions are difficult to fill in any year, whether the USFL existed or not.
What is the plan at offensive line?
The XFL has hired directors of personnel for each team, and as Whaley said, “We think we have got eyes that can identify guys at that position that we can get in, who for whatever circumstances aren’t on NFL teams now, but they think and we think they have the skill set to play good football and put this league in high standards.”
Some of the inevitable skill gaps can be minimized with the scheme, Whaley said.
“You don’t want to have the seven-step ‘chuck-it-and-duck-it’ type of offense,” he said, “because you’re not going to have guys that can hold for three to four seconds like that. But if you have RPOs mixed in with misdirection, then that helps with not only the development of the player but also the game. That type of offense is actually seeping into the NFL, as well, because they’re running into the same situation.”
What’s next after the draft?
XFL executives and teams will continue to augment the talent pool as more players become available. Players will report to training camp in Arlington, Texas, on Jan. 8 for a week of acclimation, followed by four weeks of practice. The 10-game regular season will open Feb. 18.